Showing posts from October, 2014

What is Practice?

Yesterday I had a Skype video chat with a friend in which I spent the entire conversation lying on my side, on my futon on the tatami floor, with a blanket wrapped around me and a black beanie pulled over my eyes. It was one of those days. One of those not-enough-energy-to-sit-up-during-skype days. 
After we said goodbye, I walked out and bought toothpaste and a brownie. It’s fall now in Kyoto and the evenings are cold. The leaves are changing colors and it’s only a few days away from that time when all the trees turn bright red. It was nice to be out on the streets in Kyoto, in the fall, but buying things is anxiety inducing. Because I can’t afford both, I have to make decisions like “do I buy toothpaste or milk this week?” and then ruin it by buying a brownie instead. 
Dogen Zenji wrote, “Being poor is being intimate with The Way.” All the religious folks speak so highly about poverty, so I wonder why it doesn’t feel better. I guess that’s the whole point. The difficulty is the point.…

Great Doubt

Today my program went to Mt. Hiei, the Tendai headquarters where Dogen trained as a teenager. Tendai Buddhism put forth the doctrine of inherent enlightenment, and it was practicing at Mt. Hiei that Dogen first articulated the question that would eventually drive him to go to China: if all humans posses inherent enlightenment, why is it necessary for Buddhas to practice and make effort? No one could answer his question, so he felt compelled to seek answers in other places. Walking among the same temples where Dogen trained as a young monk, and where he first asked these questions, I felt compelled to honor Dogen with some questions of my own, in the form of an open letter.
Dear Old Time Religion, First, I want you to know that I think you’re beautiful. I really do. There’s nothing quite so beautiful to me as an old, quiet room, filled with the smell of incense. I think the old wood is beautiful, and the stone pathways are beautiful, and the high mountains where you build your churches a…

Can Nuns Get Married (academically)?

A lot of people have been asking me these days if nuns can get married. When people ask me this, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the question is academic, and sometimes it’s personal. The academic version wants to know something like, “What are the precepts for monastics in Japan? Are they different for men and women? What is the societal expectation? What is the history?” But then there are other people who are asking if I personally want to get married. I’m going to try my best to answer this question the “objective” or “academic” way, because I don’t really feel comfortable discussing the other one openly on the internet. Another related question I get a lot these days is “Are nuns celibate?” which is… uh… usually NOT an academic question. It’s usually men asking. And so I will tell you that the answer to that question is the same as the koan “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” 
But the marriage question I will try my best to actually answer. Let’s start with terminology. The word…

Wanting Things... (and giving them up)

Today I shaved my head. It’d been over a week since I’d shaved— the longest I’ve let it grow since I ordained. In the monastery we shaved on days that end in 4 or 9 except during sesshin, so it never got as long as this.
I didn’t want to shave today. I’d gotten used to looking like a kind-of-sort-of-normal person. When I left the monastery, I wanted to keep wearing monastic clothing, and I do usually. I wear robes every day to zazen and samue work clothes during the day, but a few weeks ago I bought a pair of black jeans and started wearing them sometimes, usually with a black shirt. So with centimeter-long hair and black jeans I kind of almost look like a normal-weird woman from San Francisco, and I like that. I’m actually not that super confident in myself, and I miss the anonymity of looking like a normal-weird person instead of being the most noticeable person within a mile radius. And… I like looking beautiful. I think it’s hard for anyone who’s not a woman to understand what it f…

The Thing Itself

When I was around five or six years old, I started asking my parents if things were "true" or "real." In my five-year-old brain, these were separate categories, and I needed them to make sense of things that effected my emotional reality but which had dubious existence in the physical, material world-- things like fairy tales (true but not real), Santa Clause (true but not real), Western medicine (real but not necessarily true) and giant, winged, metal machines that allow you to fly through the sky (real, but unbelievable).
It's clear to me that I am still asking these same questions. What is the most real? When I first came to Japan I wanted to know about reality, but I was more enthralled with a dream of Zen, a dream of enlightenment. What I saw reaffirmed and encouraged my dream: bamboo trees, bells tolling in the evening, snowy mountains, and monks with shaved heads. I sat for hours and hours unmoving in a cold zendo, trying to understand "What is Buddh…

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ducks

Every time I pick up a Buddhist magazine or book on Buddhism in the West, there seems to be some discussion about whether or not Buddhism is a religion. These discussions are kind of strange to me, because in Japan, Buddhism is definitely a religion. There is no debate. Buddhism is also definitely a religion for the estimated five hundred million people who practice Buddhism throughout the world. At the monastery where I lived every morning we chanted for at least an hour and a half in front of a big altar. We’d offer tea, cakes, and sweet water to the statues. When the service was done we’d go to another altar and chant there. Then we’d split up and get assigned work we didn’t have a choice about. I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?” Yeah. For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely, 100% a duck. I mean, religion. It’s a religion!
When …

Why's Everything That's Supposed To Be Bad Make Me Feel So Good?

Last week I awoke at 2am with an acute sense of panic manifesting as a physical pain in my chest. I was awake for about an hour after that, not being able to sleep, filled with anxiety about this blog. That’s right. I couldn’t sleep because of this very blog. I kept thinking, “Who the hell am I to write about Buddhism?” I really don’t want to misrepresent something as big and old Buddhism, or claim that I know what I’m talking about. As I’ve said before, I’m not a teacher. I don’t have transmission. I’ve been ordained for… uh… not even four years. And I’m a twenty-eight year old person. I’m the same age as Lisa Dunham, who wrote the TV show “Girls,” about four broke friends in Brooklyn. I’m also the same age as the creators of “Broad City,” which is also a show about two female friends getting stoned and being broke in New York. I’m getting the message from my culture that I’m supposed to be writing about being broke, doing drugs, and living in NYC, but only one of those things applie…