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 Buddha?" I begged for food in the snow, and wrote poems about plum blossoms. The other day I found not one but three videos on my old camera of rain falling in the monastery courtyard. I was dreaming a beautiful dream about Zen, but eventually I woke up. Now there's no special "Zen rain" to me. There's just rain.

I remember a turning point I had about Zen and enlightenment. I was in my teacher's room, and he was preparing to go to an important funeral at another temple. He asked me to iron one of his okesas, which was a bright gold color. It must have been early in my stay because I still didn't understand what transmission was or what the different colors of okesas meant. When I picked up his okesa I asked him the meaning of the gold color, and he told me that it meant he'd received transmission from his teacher. I then inquired about the other monks I'd seen who wore gold okesas. He told me that they, too had all received transmission. 

At that time I'd been getting bullied by one of the Japanese monks in the monastery. I didn't understand about Japanese culture or monastery life yet, and so he was always yelling at me. At one point he'd actually picked me up by the collar of my shirt and screamed at me because I hadn't closed a door when someone asked me to. I managed to run away to my room and shut the door, where I sat in a chair kind of hyperventilating. The women lived in a separate building and men weren't allowed to enter, but he actually followed me, opened the door to my room, and continued yelling at me until some other monks came around and restrained him. 

I was still reeling from this event when I had the conversation with my teacher about transmission. The monk who’d picked me up and screamed into my face wore a gold okesa, meaning he also had transmission. When I listened to my teacher’s explanation and everything finally clicked in my head, I started to cry. Yeah. That's right. I shed tears over my teacher's gold okesa because it didn't mean anything anymore. Or, maybe it still meant something, but not what I wanted it to mean. Not what I'd hoped and dreamt about. 

According to a 1987 survey, more than 80% of Buddhist clergy in Japan are married and “80% of clerics inherited their temples from a family member.” This means that the vast majority of Buddhist clergy receive transmission from their fathers. It’s easy to see why people would look at this sort of situation and write off transmission in Japanese Zen as “not real.”. There are definitely Zen teachers who want to “make transmission real again.” Apparently Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was like this. Part of why he wanted to work with Westerners was he felt that Japanese Buddhism was corrupt and he wanted to revitalize it and make transmission “mean something real.” Even Otani Tesuo, the president of the Soto Zen University called Komozawa wrote in an essay,

We in the Soto school need to seriously reflect on the appropriateness of the contemporary state of Dharma transmission in Japan. Reflecting on both Dogen's own understanding of Dharma transmission as well as the Edo-period commentators, we must take a hard look at the reality of the situation today and ask ourselves whether the custom of familial inheritance of temples is really appropriate…it is a perfect opportunity for us to reflect on the real meaning of what it means to transmit the Dharma ("To Transmit Dogen Zenji's Dharma" from Dogen Zen and It's Relevance for Our Time).

But I have to ask the same thing I’ve been asking since I was five: what do you mean when you say “real”? How is getting transmission from your father any less real than receiving it from a non-relative you’ve practiced with for several years and you call your teacher? Where is our idea of “real” coming from? Is it based on some idea about attaining realization? Or understanding? If so, understanding what? If the Buddha-way is unsurpassable, how can we say at any point that we have sufficient “understanding”? How is basing transmission on “understanding” any more real than basing it on family inheritance? 

How is basing transmission on “understanding” any more “real” than basing it on nothing?

It’s interesting to me that people these days are talking about revitalizing Buddhism and returning it to its roots, because it seems people have been wanting to do this for as long as there’s been Buddhism. When Eisai, who is credited with founding Rinzai Zen, went to China, he was looking to rejuvenate Buddhism and bring it back to a pure state. That was in the 12th century. I read a critique of the denigration the Shusso Hossenshiki, or dharma combat, written all the way back in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). The anonymous author lambasts Soto Zen monks for staging dharma combats instead of answering questions spontaneously. This criticism of overemphasis on form is still going on today. “Real” dharma combats are supposed to be spontaneous, but in Japan, everyone memorizes the questions beforehand. 

At the women’s monastery, nuns would sometimes talk about “in theory” versus “in reality.” For example, in theory, the head monk is a senior trainee who is a good example for others. In actuality, there are only about 31 training monasteries in Japan, and thousands and thousands of monks who need to be head monk to qualify to own a temple, so there just isn’t enough space for everyone to fulfill this role in that way. They have to create special opportunities for monks and nuns to be head monk during shorter, special practice periods. In theory, the head monk would be as mature as a teacher and answer spontaneous questions about the dharma, but in reality, the dharma combats are performed by young priests and are rehearsed. 

My own experience of being head monk was that, even though I was not the most senior monk, and even though my dharma combat was mostly scripted (“not real”), it still was very meaningful. It just wasn’t meaningful in the way I wanted or expected it to be. The meaning for me was not about me showing how mature and advanced I am as a practitioner. It was actually the opposite. For me, the meaning was about realizing that I am a very, very small part in a much larger tradition, and that at all times I depend on dozens of other people to help, teach, support, and encourage me.

So which is more real, the theory or the fact? Is a beautiful dream about Dogen’s Zen and authentic dharma practice more real then what is actually happening? Or is the dream more real because it’s Dogen’s dream that he’s inviting us to dream with him?

Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive. Maybe I can be in touch with the dream but still be awake to reality, but I don’t really know how to do that any more. I do think spiritual authority should be based on understanding, but for myself, I don’t feel comfortable encouraging myself to pursue a special kind of understanding. In my experience, seeking special understanding is privileging a dream. So even though I want to practice “real dharma practice,” do a “real” head monk ceremony and receive “real transmission,” I can’t help but think there’s nothing more “real” than what’s really going on. 

Recently, as I walk through temples in Japan, a line from an Adrienne Rich poem keeps floating through my head:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth


  1. "So which is more real, the theory or the fact? Is a beautiful dream about Dogen’s Zen and authentic dharma practice more real then what is actually happening? Or is the dream more real because it’s Dogen’s dream that he’s inviting us to dream with him?"

    Dogen is dead. His Zen and his Dream died with him.

    You have to live Gesshin's dream and Gesshin's Zen. I have to live with my as yet nameless dream and as yet nameless Zen.

    Your Zen is real because you are living it. No one else can live it for you.

    You, Claire/Gesshin live a different life from the monks who inherit temples. Do not judge your Zen by their standard. Do not judge their Zen by your standard.

    The only truth is in the life you live. The only reality is the one you live.

    Many dip their cups in the same stream, but you must drink from the cup you dip and no other. The stream is real, the stream is true.

    What you take from the stream is real and true if you live it so.

  2. What if there is no elephant? What if there is just a rope, a pillar and a wall? What if some see an elephant when really there is just a rope, a pillar and a wall. Can you still act freely on what you see?

  3. Gesshin, thank you for this article. It's very sincere and true. I'd like to write you an email, but can't find your email address. It's not about prasing you or giving you instructions, just a few questions, maybe suggestions. I went through something very similar, maybe identical when I was young. So if you are not really against me writing you personally, let me know. Thank you. Roman

  4. Ironically I'm sat here with it raining outside and watching your video of rain on the computer

  5. As T.S. Eliot wrote "between the idea and the reality falls the shadow." Good post! It was, shall we say, enlightening to hear about the foibles of institutional Japanese Buddhism presented in a way that is not harshly critical.

  6. Lovely to read. I had a similar experience in Japan, when I introduced myself to the son of a monk I had trained with. I was expecting a shout of joy, or something. Instead, he became enraged, and began to regale me with tales of his father's abuse. That was the end of my Zen dream. I won't say it was the beginning of my practice, since I'd been sitting with commitment and sincerity for years and had ordained some years earlier - but I will say it took a long time to understand what had happened to me and how it could be meaningful in the longer trajectory of my own path. The Buddhist pre-occupation with Enlightenment reminds me of the deification of Christ in my Catholic girlhood - it holds the promise of the end of suffering, and it's a promise that can't be kept.

  7. It's raining here as well. "Real" and "true" are tricky words; they imply permanence.
    I vow to embody it.

  8. the law of cause and effect is real

  9. Thank you for your posts Gesshin. They are so simple, which has helped me with my own practice.

  10. Hello, I am really impressed by your words that Buddhism is the only thing you do and care about. You do things the same as your words. I don't think myself can get well with the hard traing and practice in Aitisenmon-nisodo. You studied there for three years!!!.
    But reading your blog I am understanding how difficult it is for people in Western culture to have a good study and training of Buddhism in Japan.
    You could learn a lot in nisodo. However that was not the very thing you were looking for.
    Aoyama Roshi is a very good teacher and she can show you the character and life that has been refined accoding to Zen philosophy in old Japanese tradition. But I don't think it is satisfactory for modern people.
    Do modern people create a new Buddhism with reference of traditional Buddhism?

    I am certain that Buddhism is the wonderful top treasure that human wisdom could achieved.

    You question true or real. People believed many true and real things. In my youth many people believed that communism is the ultimate truth and reality. But it has passed. Truth and reality is often an illusion. Shakyamuni began by asking truth and reality.

    I am impressed by your big effort. I wonder if your answer exists in traditional Buddhism. But it is surely exists in Buddhism.
    ( My English is Japanese English)


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