I Spent Four Years in a Monastery and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt
It’s Thanksgiving, and if this were a different blog, and I were a different person, I would write about all the things I’m grateful for, the abundance in my life, or the ways I keep myself from feeling gratitude. But unfortunately, I SPENT FOUR YEARS IN A MONASTERY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT (which I’m not even allowed to wear because I have to wear robes).
I’m not sure what I have to show for this practice, and for my life. That’s how this works, right? That’s why Sawaki Kodo said “Zazen is good for nothing.” There's nothing to be gained. In Japan I learned how to sing goeka, how to sew, how to make tea, and how to cook Japanese food, but I can’t point to any profound realization or accomplishment I’ve had beyond those things.
I’m from Northern California, and expressing gratitude has always been an important part of my Thanksgiving. My parents are both incredible cooks, and they would spend all day basting and cooking this amazing artisan turkey, making mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Before dinner we always go around the table and say something we’re grateful for. Then we hold hands (yes.) and sing a blessing about the beauty of the earth and the glory of the sky and the love which from our birth over and around us lies. I love our Thanksgivings. They are the best.
At the women’s monastery, expressing gratitude was a big part of the practice. There was a special ceremony we performed every month just to honor Ananda, who was responsible for convincing the Buddha to allow women to ordain and join the sangha. Every month we give offerings and chant this melodic verse about how grateful we are to have been given the chance to become nuns. It’s a beautiful ceremony, with lots of bowing.
So I feel like a jerk when I can’t feel gratitude for like… all the abundance the Universe is pouring out or whatever. Gratitude feels nicer than not-gratitude, and I think not feeling gratitude comes from a place of fear and narcissism. But I am not so good at feeling gratitude, even though I have enough to eat I have a roof above my head, and I have friends and family who love me. It’s very easy for me to notice what’s lacking.
While I’d like to feel more gratitude, part of me is also aware that the practice I have been doing for the last several years is not about trying to manufacture a special kind of feeling. Zen practice in Japan is not really about “abundance.” Expressing gratitude in a scripted, pre-rehearsed ceremony? Yes. But actually trying to feel some special kind of gratitude emotion? Well…
For the last several years, Buddhist practice for me has meant giving up most everything in my life— not only my hair, my clothes, those amazing gold-sequined high heeled pumps that I loved, my friends, my boyfriend, and my country, but also my most cherished ideas and beliefs, like the idea that I’m right, that individuality and autonomy are universal values, and that I’m special. Those are actually the hardest things to give up. Also the idea that I have any clue what the fuck is going on.
I am looking around at my life right now and noticing all the things that I have lost. Shukke tokudo, the name for ordaining as a Buddhist monastic, literally means “leaving home” in Japanese. The idea is that you leave home completely and enter the sangha. Actually, on December 5th I have no idea where I will be living, so I am quite literally homeless. I have given up comfort and security in a big way. It’s scary! Quite honestly, it’s sometimes hard to feel gratitude from this place of loss and unknown.
More than abundance or living abundantly, this practice for me has meant giving up everything, again and again. It can feel kind of bleak.
But the reason for renunciation (I certainly hope) is not just to suffer and feel morally superior. It’s actually about widening my perception of what is possible, and what is okay, and what is reality. The flip side of homelessness is that everywhere I go is my home. The flip side of “leaving family life” is that everyone I encounter is my family. There is my biological family who I still love very much, who I will always feel obligation and gratitude towards, but since they are across the ocean right now I have to make my family be wherever I am, and whoever I’m with.
There is a Zen koan which asks, “How can you drink tea from an empty cup?” Essentially, that is the question that life is demanding I answer. Gratitude in the midst of homelessness is my koan. I know that there is some place of paradox where being homeless becomes everywhere being my home, where leaving family life means everyone is my family, and where having very little money means recognizing all the ways I receive support.
My biological family was not with me this Thanksgiving, and there was no turkey. Japan doesn’t really do poultry. I went to an Indian restaurant with three of my students and my new Japanese friend. For the last three months I’ve been working on a study abroad program which brings college students from America to study and practice Buddhism in Japan, and for this time, most of my contact has been with this group of twenty-year olds. They live down the hall from me. We sit zazen together in the morning, eat noodles together, bathe in freezing rivers together, and sometimes go to karaoke together.
They’re my family. I feel like when I’m around them I can’t be so grumpy and cynical, even if that’s what I’m really thinking and feeling. I feel like I have to make an effort to at least try and be positive, to take the time and explain things, and not get stuck in one final conclusion. They make me re-think all the quick and easy assumptions I’ve made about Buddhism, and they make me want to actually be the kind of monk who is doing good things and is a good example for others.
They are literally the reason I get out of bed in the morning because without them I would have no zazen to go to, and nothing to do. Without them there would be no incense to light, no bells to ring. One student once knocked on my door and told me I had to shave my head because my hair was getting too long. In that moment, he was not only my student and my family, but also my teacher.
At dinner we gorged on naan, curry, and rice. We went around the table and shared one thing we’re grateful for, just like we do in the States. I realized the thing I am most grateful for is them. So there's gratitude after all, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it "abundance." Instead of abundance, there's an empty cup that can be filled with anything.