The "Real Monastery" is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery

A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend who was trying to decide whether or not to do a practice period at Tassajara. He asked me, “Do you think you would want to do that?” I didn’t have to pause to think before I said, “No.” Then I added, “Maybe sometime in the future, but not right now. Now I don’t want that at all.” 

I spent about five years in monasteries in Japan, and I wouldn’t take that back or change that experience for anything. I feel like I am an adult now in a way I was not at age 22, when I first arrived in Japan. Part of this is literally growing older (I’m 28 now- ancient!), but I think practicing so intensely made me grow up in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed in America, worked at a job, had a boyfriend, applied to grad school, etc.

But despite this, I don’t want to go back, and I don’t want to do a practice period somewhere else. It kind of feels like that point in a relationship when you know, as clear as you know anything else, that you’re not in love with the other person any more, and you would only be staying with them out of obligation. That doesn’t mean you don’t still respect them and care about them. You’re just done. 

When my nun friends ask me if I’m coming back to the temple, I usually make a joke using a phrase from tea ceremony. In a formal tea ceremony, after you’ve drunk your bowl of tea and returned the bowl to the host, there’s a moment when the host will fill the dirty bowl with hot water and then move to dump it out. This moment is the cue for the guest to say, おいしくちょだいいたしました、どうぞおしまいください, which translates to something like “I humbly received and drank your very delicious tea, please go ahead and close the ceremony,” implying that you do not need a second helping of tea because the first was so delicious and now you’re completely satisfied. So this is what I say to my nun friends when they ask why I want to leave the monastery, and it always gets a laugh. 

Not to say that I’m completely satisfied, of course. There’s a lot more I want to learn, and a lot more work I need to do, and sometimes I think I’m not really ready to stand on my own feet. But at the same time, there are things I feel I need to do for myself that I just can’t do in a monastery: study Japanese and Buddhist history, have meaningful intimate relationships, sit zazen. Maybe these seem like common Japanese monastery activities, but actually, there’s rarely time for any of that. It’s mostly working really really really hard with other nuns. We would cook and clean until 9pm, and then at that point I would be so tired I couldn’t even study if I tried. It’s also very difficult to develop true friendship in a Japanese monastery because it’s so strictly hierarchical; it’s impossible to be really friends with someone “above” or “below” you. So right now in my life, study and deep friendship is what I want and need the most. And zazen. Zazen is nice. 

When I speak about my desire to reconnect with friends and family and develop new intimate relationships, people will sometimes say things like, “Ah yes, because the real monastery is in your family.” I always react kind of negatively to this, because I’m pretty sure the real monastery is just a monastery. Saying “the real monastery is in your family” is like saying, the real kitchen is in the living room. I'm pretty sure a kitchen is a kitchen, and a living room is a living room. That's why they... uh.. are in different places in the house. I mean, maybe you can eat in the living room, but that doesn’t make it a kitchen. And I guess you could bring a lot of pots and pans and a burner into the kitchen, but why would you want to do that? That living room would not be a relaxing place to sit or read a book. 

I think part of the issue for me is semantics. When people say the word "monastery" I think of the Japanese word "sodo" 僧堂. Sodo is comprised of the character for "monk" and "place." So in Japanese, "monastery" literally means a place for monks. This is the word that gets used to describe the places where I trained ("Nisodo" means "place for female monks"), and it's a little different than say, broader words like "temple" (お寺), or even "dojo" (道場), which is used in both martial arts and Zen and means "place of the way." When I hear "the real monastery is in your family," my brain re-translates this to mean, "the real place for monks is a place without monks" and this makes no sense at all. I blame the Japanese language.

For me monastic training is something distinct from family life, or from the realm of intimate relationships. This doesn't mean that Buddhist practice is distinct from family life, or that Buddhist practice cannot happen in a family, because Buddhist practice is not analogous with monastic practice. There can be practice everywhere. But I think it's okay for monastic practice to exist as a unique thing.

When people say things like “The real monastery is in your family,” I’m wondering what assumptions are being made. Is the assumption that “monastery” is analogous with “challenge” or “growth opportunity”?” Does the person really mean, “The most valuable challenge and growth opportunity is in your family?” That might be true, but there are many kinds of challenges, and many kinds of growth. Running a marathon is a challenge. Being in the army is a challenge. Being in a beauty pageant is a challenge. Getting a PhD is a challenge. Visiting your in-laws is a challenge. They’re all different kinds of challenges, and will inspire different kind of growth. Neither one is more or less of an experience. So I don’t think it’s fair to say “the real growth happens outside a monastery,” just as it’s not fair to say “real life is outside of a monastery.” When is it not real life?

Monastic training does not occur without conflict and with no interactions with others. If anything, in a monastery there is more interaction with others than I can usually take without getting batty. I shared a room with five women for three years. The rooms were so small that when we laid our futons on the ground to sleep, the futons would overlap at the edges. Bathing was communal, and the other nuns would always know if I’d lost or gained weight, and they’d comment on that. There were absolutely no secrets. We all knew who was secretly throwing away food, or who was listening to her ipod after lights out. There was no hiding, and all my anger and sadness and arrogance and insecurity was on display, all the time, for everyone to see. So it was an incredibly intimate environment. Sometimes I joke that if I wrote a book, it would be titled, I’ve Been Awake Since 4am, It’s 35 Degrees, No One Speaks the Same Language, and Everyone Is PMSing or in Menopause.

There was a lay woman who kept showing up at Nisodo when I was there, asking to be ordained. She had some mental problems, came from a well-off family which took care of her, and didn't know what she wanted out of life. She’d never had a job and was pretty unhappy so she decided to become a nun. Aoyama Roshi would always turn her down, saying that she had to figure out what her life was first. She would tell this woman, “Go live your life, and then come back.” 

Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed in America and lived my life— stayed with my partner, worked at a job, done the “real” work of living a “normal” life. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t do that, and didn’t. I chose to go to a monastery. I chose to go to a monastery because a monastery is a distinct kind of practice that is different than the kind of practice within a family structure or romantic relationship. Not because it is better or more intense, but because it is just different. I don’t regret one day of the practice I did in the monastery. I’m grateful for it in a way almost beyond words. I think it saved my life. 

And now I need something else. 


  1. The reason why I would agree that places like Antaiji (where I live) or other training places that we Westerners use to call "monasteries" are not real monasteries, is that - unlike Christian monasteries - you do not make a life time commitment to stay there. You might practice there for five or ten years, but you usually do not end your life there.
    That is why it can be indeed said that the world itself (or family life) is the "real monastery". Not because secular life is also challenging, but because it is a life time affair, unlike Japanese monastic training.

    1. You're probably right. I don't know what I'm doing!

    2. Dear Gesshin,

      probably it is not so much about being wrong or right.
      I generally agree with your emphasis on monastic practice.
      In the past, I wrote some articles that make similar points (maybe):
      On the other hand, I also am one of those who think that practice should not be confined to the (non-existant) monastery walls, and that familiy life is some sense even more "monastic" than Japanese sodo life, because sodo is temporary, while family life is a 24/7, life time affair:

      Best wishes

  2. A monastery is a monastery. It is a highly structured life.

    No-one wakes me at 3am to do Zazen. If they did they might not be invited to stay again.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down