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. 

Antioch Buddhist Studies program love
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. I didn’t grow up poor, so I guess you could say I have the privilege to be poor. I could be having my parents pay my way through graduate school like most of my friends, but instead I’m living in Japan, across from a construction site, in a seven tatami room that smells like old coffee and banana peels (mine, I admit). I hang out with twenty-year olds for my job and try to get them interested in Japanese Buddhism, although mostly I just end up playing card games with them, and then stressing about how I can’t afford milk. Knowing that I “choose” this kind of life doesn’t make it any easier (for the record, the students on this program are the best part. They’re from different colleges in America and came to Japan to study Buddhism for a semester, and they’re all a wonderful mix of curious, open, sincere, and caring. When I’m getting down on myself for being a bad monk, they tell me encouraging things like, “You’re not a role model, you’re my hero. Heroes don't have to be role models." Thanks Solomon/ Peter!).

Basically, ever since I left the monastery I’ve been trying this weird experiment wherein I take “home leaving” and “poverty” as the foundation of my practice. These are the two things Dogen mentions again and again as essential components of studying The Way. Since I’m not following a monastic schedule anymore, I’m making these the foundation of my practice, along with shaving my head and wearing monastic clothing as much as possible. I sit every morning with the students on my program, and in the evenings we sit again and chant the heart sutra. I dedicate the merit in Japanese. In between those two zazen periods I go to class and study Japanese.

It's hard, because my entire understanding of "Zen practice" is based on a communal model. I've only practiced Zen in a monastery setting, so it’s hard to know what to do on my own. There’s a saying, "Buddha, dharma and sangha are one,” which makes a lot of sense to me now. Without sangha, it’s hard to be supported and stay motivated.

This weekend somebody asked me, “What is shugyo?” Shugyo (修行) is the Japanese word that gets translated as “practice,” and I didn’t know how to answer. In a monastery, understanding what is “practice” is relatively easy. You wake up the same time as everyone else, and sit zazen together. You go to morning service, and then if you have a position like Ino or Doan, you try your best to do a good job and not mess up. Otherwise, you concentrate on just chanting. Throughout the day, various jobs and situations get presented to you, and you just focus on doing those those activities single-mindedly, not putting too much of your own opinions and preferences into it. There’s always a correct way, a form, of how to do things, so you can just concentrate on embodying that form correctly. And then of course there’s the inevitable times when you get sad or mad or bored, and you can notice what’s coming up, and move on. 

There’s a phrase in Japanese, “igi soku buppo nari”(威儀即仏法), which means “dignified behavior is the entirety of the Buddha-dharma.” This phrase gets used a lot to talk about the importance of behaving correctly, and wearing robes. The idea is that being a Buddha, or studying Buddha-dharma is not something you believe or think or identify with, but something you do, and do repeatedly, moment by moment. Buddha-dharma is performed, not just understood intellectually. This is probably why before I ordained, when I asked my teacher what the main difference between a monk and a lay person is, he told me that “A monk is someone who wears monk clothing.” If you dress like a monk, you’ll act like a monk. If you act like a monk, that’s buddha-dharma. I remember having breakfast with my brother in San Francisco, and we were having a debate about whether or not people in Buddhism should “show their attainments.” He was arguing yes. I voted no, and then added, “I think my only attainments are my clothes.”

I still feel that way, sometimes. This is all I have to show for myself, and for my practice. Just these clothes. Six months ago in the monastery, if you’d asked me “What is shugyo?” I probably would have answered something like “igi soku buppo nari.” But now I’m not so sure. I don’t know if clothes are enough. If practice is ritual enactment, what happens when I stop performing? What happens when I take off my clothes (I mean this both metaphorically and literally)? What is practice when I’m just a nobody, walking around Kyoto, looking for the cheapest toothpaste and milk? I also have a hard time believing that practice is everything, and everywhere. People sometimes say that practice is “single-mindedly doing what’s right in front of you” or “just being aware.” This implies that it doesn't really matter what you're doing, but how you do it. But if there’s nothing I should or shouldn’t be doing, then why talk about training at all? Where is the Buddhism? 

The one thing I can say for certain about “shugyo” is that it is never-ending. In Japanese there are two different words that get pronounced “shugyo.” One shugyo, 修業, refers to learning or training in something like a musical instrument. This kind of training is bound by temporality. It has a beginning and end. The other kind of shugyo, 修行, is understood to mean religious or spiritual training. This kind of training has no end. It started before I was born, and will continue after I die. Viewing practice as something never-ending is encouraging to me. It means that there is no real way to fail at practice. I can always renew intention, renew vows, start again. I can learn what kinds of situations make me happy, and what kinds lead to suffering. I can re-learn again and again that precepts are actually there to help me.

Within this view of practice as something never-ending, the most difficult and important part becomes renewing intention. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “Our spiritual way is not so idealistic. In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread.” The practice just keeps going forever. This is why I do like “clothes” as a good definition of practice. Since I have to put clothes on every morning, they are a way to renew intention. I put them on and remember, “This is what I’m doing.” I wear them into the world and then people respond to me in a certain way, and I have to respond back. 

I know this isn’t enough. Clothing isn’t a good enough definition of practice. If monastic clothing is practice, what does that mean for lay people practicing in America? What does that mean when I’m in the shower? I really don’t know. But that’s all I got. Today, my only attainments are my clothes, and if practice and enlightenment are really the same, I guess that means my practice is putting on clothes, too.


  1. *prescription for happiness
    being overlooked
    and ordinary is hard
    but the only way

  2. *reminder
    the roshi has said
    being just ordinary
    is the hardest thing

  3. First words each morning
    Great robe of liberation
    A formless field of merit
    Wearing the tatagata's teaching
    We free all beings

  4. "There is a certain Buddhist calm in knowing that you have money in the bank" - JP Morgan

  5. For a monk being a monk is practice. For a lay-person being a lay-person is practice. I learn't from a Monk who for me discouraged me from becoming "A Buddhist" or a Monk, just to do the practice. Now I seem to spend my life telling Monks. "It's OK to be a Monk" whilst I continue to be not-a-monk. Confuses the hell out of me too at times :)

  6. Refreshing. Most of the monks I know in America are rich or retired. The younger people I know who are monks or soon-to-be monks come from well-to-do families and are free from student loans. It's a helping profession that you have to be rich enough to afford. I am inspired by the simple humility of your practice.

  7. I’ve known a Trappist monk who was hermit (meaning he lived on the monastery grounds but separately). The abbot only allowed him to do this as he had been a monk for many years. A friend who was a Benedictine monk left the monastery as his job in the monastery allowed him to become too involved with the outside world (both examples are severely abbreviated for space reasons). To be separate from your community places a unique burden on you. Your path is “difficult”. My prayers are with you.


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