You Have to Pay

Recently I've been thinking a lot about money because... well, I don't have so much of it. I've been living in a monastery for years, not making money, and now I make a very, very teeny-tiny amount of money. In the monastery I was provided with three meals a day. I never really felt poor, even though the life was incredibly simple. But now that I'm out "in the world," I have to buy food and handle money everyday. I've noticed that just handling money so much makes me feel more poor- even though I'm actually making money now! I'm nervous and fearful about money in a way I never was when I didn't have to deal with it, when I was completely dependent on others.

I grew up in a pretty wealthy family. My dad was a doctor and I went to private schools, so there was never a feeling growing up of not having enough. I was instilled with a belief that I am entitled to material comfort, and I probably still carry that entitlement with me. When I was in college, just getting interested in Buddhism, I made this silly promise to myself that I would "never pay for Dharma." I felt pretty righteous about this. The Dharma is like the sun, shining openly for everyone! It's priceless! No one should ever charge me! I managed to attend lots and lots of meditation retreats without paying anything, basically running on this sense of entitlement and righteousness.

When I arrived at the first monastery I lived at in Japan, my beliefs were validated. Monasteries in Japan are free, provide meals, and the monks actually receive a small stipend every month for medicine and shaving materials. Early in my stay I wrote this (bad) haiku:

No where else to go
And monasteries are free
Peaceful green mountain

I realize now that this is exactly the wrong attitude to have about Dharma practice. A monastery is not a place to come and eat their food and have a positive growth experience and then leave. It’s actually a place where you have to give all of your self, all the time. When I eventually moved to the women's monastery, I was shocked to discover that they actually charged a small fee per month. They are the only official training monastery in Japan to do this, to my knowledge. I was incensed. How dare they! Didn't they know I'm a homeless mendicant? Didn't they know the Dharma is like the sun, shining openly for everyone? I ranted and raved to my friend, a French nun named Jokei-san who had been a nun for ten years before finishing her training in Japan. Jokei-san is about fifty years old and was usually very kind and patient with me, but she had her streaks of tough-love.

She listened to me rant and then narrowed her eyes. "Gesshin," she said. "In life, you have to pay. We are obosan," she said using the Japanese word for monastic person. "It's about what we give." Jokei-san has a thick French accent so when she spoke crossly to me, the point really came across. This conversation has stayed with me, and I remember the cadence and strength of her voice even now. 

Little by little I'm coming to realize that Jokei-san is right. Even though monastics are technically homeless mendicants, it's really easy for me to get stuck in a mindset of entitlement, that the Universe owes me. Like, "Because I am a Buddhist monastic, everyone should pay me and support me." I have to make a constant effort to flip this on its head-- a better mindset, I've found, is to try to live by the Zen saying "Winning is losing." This means that when you're poor and giving up your stuff, or when you lose an argument or don't get a lot of attention paid to you, you're actually richer, you're actually better off. It's a weird, tricky paradox, but it's a paradox that I want to live in.

Since I don’t have much money right now, I’ve been thinking about ways I can contribute and give which don’t cost anything. The first thing that comes to mind is work. In Japanese, the word for “work” is 仕事. The first character means “service,” and the second means “thing.” I like this understanding of work, which implies that at its basic level, work is service for others. Dogen wrote a chapter called “Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations” in which he talks about many different ways of giving. He writes, “When we learn giving well, both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving. Earning a living and doing productive work are originally nothing other than free giving.”

Early into my stay at Nisodo, I went to Aoyama Roshi crying because I was having lots of trouble with a woman in my room. We were fighting all the time. I was expecting some profound, Zen advice from the abbess, but she just told me to smile. She said that when you smile, the muscles send signals to your brain, which then understands that you’re happy. So you can actually change your mood if you smile. 

Most people are aware that in Japan there is an idea of “tatemae,” the outside exterior, and “honne,” the inner feelings. I retorted to Aoyama Roshi that since I wasn’t Japanese, I wasn’t able to ignore my inner feelings and display a false exterior. 

“The Buddha spoke of smiling as something you can always give for free,” she said. “Your face is a gift you can always give to other people.” 

I would like to think that there is something I can always give, or contribute, in each moment, even when I don't feel like it. Like now, for example. I am not feeling too inspiring. I'm actually kind of grumpy. If I had my way, I would just stay in my room drinking coffee and reading novels all day. I would never leave my bed. Angels would alight and bring me dim sum. It would just be beds, and novels, and coffee drinking and dim sum on a continuous loop. But I suspect that’s not what life wants from me. Life demands that I show up, and work, and smile. Life demands that I pay something.

"Wagan: Gentle Face, Wise Words"- a common Japanese calligraphy


  1. ".....Earning a living and doing productive work are originally nothing other than free giving.” gassho :)


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