|From the Shobogenzo: "Peaceful Face, Loving Words"|
There were some confusing announcements on the internet this week that Thich Nhat Hanh was sick and possibly close to dying. I’m not sure what the situation is, but it reminded me how much I appreciate his books and his message in general. “Being Peace” was the first book on Buddhism that I read. When I was a freshman in college I was pretty unhappy, and I remember having a conversation with one of my housemates about how sad I was. She told me, “Suffering is not enough,” which is the title of the first chapter of that book, and then lent it to me to read. “Suffering is not enough” is a really simple statement which I had never even thought about. At that time, suffering was everything for me. But he’s right, suffering isn’t enough.
A lot of people I encounter in the Zen world don’t like Thich Nhat Hanh. The criticism I generally hear is that he’s light and fluffy, and that smiling and enjoying the world doesn’t have anything to do with real Zen, which is about pain and difficulty and clarifying the great matter of life and death and being so badass that smiling is not necessary.
There’s something that can be said for this, I guess. In my experience, Zen practice is pretty damn hard, and Japanese institutions in particular have a really strict way of organizing things. When I entered the woman’s monastery, I was still recovering from a sprained ankle. I’d injured myself the year before trying to be badass and sitting full lotus even when my body didn’t want to stretch that way. I would sit in full lotus, crying silently, tears streaming down my face from the pain, for practically the entire 40 minutes.
After about two weeks of this, I sprained my ankle walking over some stepping stones. It took me about two years before I could sit cross-legged again— not even half lotus, but just Burmese style. When I came to the woman’s monastery, I had recovered enough to sit seiza on the ground a little bit, but not enough to sit zazen properly. Although I’d kind of recovered, the experience was physically taxing; meals, classes, and morning service all happen in seiza, and there were no chairs. There was no option to sit in a chair, even in my own room. Within a few weeks of practicing there, I re-injured my ankle.
After I re-injured myself I could barely walk. I went to the hospital and it didn’t really help anything. The nun in charge of me wouldn’t let me use a chair, and told me I still had to work. I went to a senior teacher to complain, and it turned out that it was this teacher who’d given the order that I had to work in the first place. I asked her how I was supposed to be able to do cleaning if I couldn’t walk, and she suggested that I crawl.
“I hurt my foot a few years ago, too, and so I cleaned on my hands and knees,” she said.
When I heard that, at first I was incredulous. But I didn’t really have a choice (or I felt like I didn’t), so that’s what I did. It didn’t kill me. Eventually I recovered. After a really, really long time, I’m finally able to sit half lotus again.
So I get it. Zen is hard, and life is hard. For the record, I don’t recommend that anyone tries to sit full lotus when their body isn’t ready. If I ever have a Zen center, people will be allowed to sit in chairs or rest if they’re injured. But I do think there’s something valuable about seeing what my own limitations are, going through them, and then realizing those limitations were actually in my mind. The only difference between me and the kind of extreme way it can get played out in Japanese monasteries is that I think this limit-pushing has to be a choice that each person makes for themselves. I would never want to impose that kind of endurance on someone else.
In “Being Peace,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough.” It’s pretty easy for me to suffer, to see injustice and cruelty. There’s a lot of fucked up shit. That nun who forced me to work with a sprained ankle was really cruel. There’s no denying it. But there’s beautiful things about the monastery too, about life, and even about that nun. How to be in touch with all of this? I see my practice now as encountering everything that arises, paying attention, and then giving space to that which needs space.
The first summer at the women’s monastery was probably the low point in my life. It was like all of my negative karma ripened at once, and I had no choice but to sit back and watch it explode all over everything. During the summer I worked in the kitchen, which is infamously the most hard work at the temple, because you’re on your feet all day and the kitchen is about 35 degrees. I was sharing a room with five other women who I had to also work with every day in that 35 degree kitchen. Two of the women were abuse survivors— one from childhood, and one from a violent marriage— and neither of them knew how to control their anger. They would yell at me all the time. One other nun had severe mental problems and at one point trashed the desk of another nun, throwing her okesa on the ground and scattering her books around (lest anyone forget; nuns are people too!).
It was a tough month, and I had trouble keeping it together. I was also really tired and over-worked myself. Eventually I went to the abbess in kind of hysterics, crying. Her advice to me was to smile.
“Smiling is a gift you give to others,” she reminded me. “And if you smile, you’ll feel happier.”
At first I thought this was stupid advice. There’s mentally ill people in my room screaming at each other, and at me, and you want me to smile? How does that help? But smiling, especially in that kind of situation, is a radical act of consciousness and choice. I think her point was that no matter the situation, it’s my responsibility to own myself and my actions, to deal with my emotions and not impose them on others. Ultimately, I’m responsible for creating my own experience and my own life. This is why Thich Nhat Han writes, “A smile makes you master of yourself.”
Dogen Zenji also wrote about smiling. Dogen was a badass stoic and wanted his monks to starve rather than get a job and buy food, but he thought we should be smiling while we starve. He was a fan of “loving speech,” and has a whole section devoted to “loving speech” in the Bodaisatta-Shishobo chapter of the Shobogenzo. In the final sentence of Shishobo, Dogen writes, “We should simply face all beings with a gentle expression.” Another translation I’ve read is, “We should always meet the world with gentle faces.” The Japanese he’s using is “wagan” (和願), which literally means “peaceful face.” At Aoyama Roshi’s home temple in Nagano, she has a calligraphy which reads, 和願愛語, or “Peaceful Face, Loving Words.” This is also what she wrote on my rakusu case.
What does Dogen mean by “we should always meet the world with gentle faces?” Dogen strikes me as a kind of grumpy guy, and I don’t think he was always smiling. His instruction to smile comes at the end of a section in the Shishobo chapter about identifying your own self with others. He talks about the ocean, how it never rejects water but just absorbs water within itself, and he encourages us to be like that too. So I think for him, smiling is recognition of this identification, an acceptance of all phenomena as extensions of ourselves. Smiling at someone else means recognizing they’re not so different than you. This identification with others seems to be at the heart of what Dogen is urging us to do; “to be realized by the myriad dharmas is to let the body-mind of oneself and others drop away.”
Smiling is still hard for me. My face naturally falls in kind of a scowl. But I want to be responsible for my own bad moods, and not impose them on other people. Even when things are going badly, I have to believe I always have a choice about how I respond to it. So I try to smile and breathe. Suffering is not enough.