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 feels like to give up looking conventionally pretty. So much of our identity is tied up in being perceived as beautiful in a certain way, especially when you’re in your twenties.
It was also a relief to shave my head today. Even though part of me didn’t want to do it, another part of me needed it. It felt like I was getting clean, like sloughing off dead skin in the bath. In the past two months, sitting zazen and shaving my head are the only monastery customs that I’ve maintained on my own, and I think that goes to show how important those two things are. Both habits are driven by something in me that is completely separate from wanting or not wanting to do them.
I’ve only recently become consciously aware of this impulse in myself that lies beneath— or untouched by— like or dislike. I think I’ve always had it, and all people have this, but I don’t know what to call it. In me it’s related somehow to renunciation, or devotion, or surrender, but I don’t know if these are the right words.
I practiced Buddhism for years in the United States but I always wanted more out of it. It was never enough. I didn’t put roots down spiritually until I came to Japan, I think because monastic practice here demands so much of me. My sense is that Japanese monastic training demands sacrifice one a level that can’t really exist in the West because of our values of autonomy and individualism, and I needed the intensity.
There were so many times in the monastery when I felt too much was being asked of me. Too much work, too many difficult people, not enough freedom, not enough sleep, not enough privacy, not speaking the language, not being able to chose my clothes or food or how I spent my time. And I was asked, or demanded, or expected to, drop my opinions and anger about other people again and again, even when the things they did or said were downright mean.
But it was actually these sacrifices that kept me. I stayed because I was amazed and encouraged to see how my ideas about myself fell away with only a little— okay, maybe a lot of— pressure. Every time I managed to let go of some idea about myself, it felt like getting clean. Like sloughing off dead skin in the bath. Dogen Zenji’s famous phrase “dropping off body and mind” is sometimes translated as “sloughing off body and mind,” and I’m starting to think this is what he’s talking about.
This week I had a conversation with someone about devotion and surrender, and it occurred to me that not everyone agrees on what these things are, or even if they are important. To me, devotion necessarily means surrender, and surrendering large parts of myself. It also means giving all of myself. But how big are the parts of myself that I can give up? When is too much? In a religious or spiritual context, can we give up too much? This is a tricky and sensitive area when East meets West. In Western psychology, we have an idea of a true self that needs and deserves certain things, an enduring part of ourself that should be honored and cared for. A few weeks ago I wrote facetiously that I was going to keep drinking coffee and writing forever because they are enduring parts of my personality. But is this true? I’ve gone without coffee, and I’ve gone without writing, and I’m still me.
Whenever I talk about renunciation with people, a word that inevitably comes up is “human nature” or “natural.” I personally don’t like to use the word “natural,” but for many people the idea of human nature is a compelling one. There’s some assumption that there are tendencies about humans which we simply cannot, or should not, try to change. There’s a limit to how much we should give up, and how far we should push ourselves. In Buddhist practice at least, I think clinging to an idea of “human nature” brings up problems. What’s the point of doing any of this if we’re always and forever going to be bound by human nature?
In the last two months since I left the monastery, I’ve experienced so many things I did without for years. I ate a hamburger with a fried egg on top of it. I watched an entire half-season of “Orange is the New Black” in two sittings. I went to an incredibly elegant bar in Kyoto owned by a Pure Land priest, with singing bowls on the tables, and I drank a $15 cocktail named “The Endless Ocean of Desires.” It was a good cocktail. Kind of like a Manhattan, I think. So it’s been fun, but I’m seeing now that the price I pay for being able to choose so many pleasurable things is feeling more desire— which is uh, what the Buddha was saying. That’s why the cocktail is named “The Endless Ocean of Desires” and not “Complete Satisfaction Forever.”
It’s funny to me that in discussions about Zen and precepts, people usually point to the fact that Zen is Mahayana, which “doesn’t emphasize precepts,” or something like that. The precepts shouldn’t be clung to. Actually, I don’t really understand the argument. Some people will say that desire isn’t the problem; it’s attachment that’s the problem. Or other people will say that attachment isn’t the problem; it’s obsession is the problem. To me they kind of all feel the same. I don’t know that I can feel desire without attachment. For me they go together.
Even though Zen is Mahayana Buddhism, the monastic container is set up in such a way that there is no way to fulfill your immediate desires. When you have no choice about what you eat, what you wear, when or how long you sleep, or even what you say, this whittles desire down to a fine point. And though I of course never fully gave up desire in the monastery, which would be impossible, there was no way I could get carried and pulled along by it because I had absolutely no outlet. Because I had to deal every day with not getting what I wanted, I think I stopped wanting things so much.
The price I pay for experiencing pleasurable things is wanting them more. The Buddha compared attachment to sucking honey off a razor's edge, and I don’t know what to do about this yet. I don’t think you can say “good” or “bad” about these things, and the Buddha didn’t either. He didn’t say hamburgers are bad, or television is bad, or sex is bad. He just said: here is suffering, here is the cause of suffering, here is the way out. You can chose.