I’m writing this in a Starbucks as I wait to take a train to Narita airport and then fly home to San Francisco for the holidays. I just spent three weeks at Nisodo, figuring out my housing situation, packing my belongings, and then doing the necessary farewell ceremonies that involve bowing to everybody in the Zendo.
For about a year now I’ve been trying and failing to sufficiently write about the experience of practicing as a Zen nun in Japan. It’s difficult to convey the most unique and important aspects of women’s monastic training to a Western reader in a way that doesn’t make it seem either boring, unfair, or unnecessarily painful (which it can be… but there’s more to it than that! Hence the difficulty in writing about it).
After my most recent stay, though, the piece I feel is most important to share about women’s monastic practice in Japan is that, in my experience at least, there is no such thing as women’s practice or women’s Zen. What I mean is that while the exterior form of practice for women is slightly different from men’s practice (we spend more time making and talking about tea, probably, and we all have an obsessive interest in cats and snacks), it is the same dharma practice. Or, as the second abbot of Eiheji wrote, “Even though there are limitless forms of Buddha Dharma shown by buddhas and ancestors, they all are this one color of Buddha Dharma.”
I spent the first year or two thinking that the practice at Nisodo was women’s practice. There’s a lot of attention paid to flowers, for example, and we’re all required to study sewing and tea ceremony. In contrast to the male monastery where I practiced before, there was a lot less emphasis on perfecting Dogen Zenji’s monastic forms, and more emphasis on making beauty in our immediate surroundings. This led me to believe that there was some special way that women were practicing.
But I don’t think this any more, and I’m skeptical of any claims to a special, singular women’s spirituality (just as I’m skeptical of a singular “women’s” anything- including bathrooms. Whenever someone says “womanhood” to me I want to ask, “Which women are you talking about?”). If I am arranging flowers with my whole body and mind, without any idea of “woman” or even of “flowers,” can this really be a called a woman’s activity? I have to believe that the mind being developed in this practice is the same mind that has been transmitted from the historical Buddha— that there is real congruency with the past. This is what Dogen Zenji meant when he wrote, “Pay no attention to male or female”— not that men and women don’t exist, or that men and women are the same, but that practice and attainment is the same for everyone.
There’s a narrative of women’s Buddhism in some books I’ve read that women’s highest spiritual potential is in the realm of relationships with family and children. Our biology is our destiny. While it’s true that most women don’t practice in a cave (though some do), and most women do practice by engaging with the world, it’s also true that the vast majority of Japanese Zen nuns (and for that matter, most Buddhist nuns in Asia) engage with the world by remaining celibate and singularly concentrating on Zen practice in a temple. I don’t think a life devoted to religious practice in community makes someone less of a woman.
A few people in America I’ve met expressed surprise when I told them that the women’s monastery was a lot harder than the coed monastery where I trained. I guess they assumed that women practicing together would be more light and friendly or something. But for me, practicing with other nuns was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve met the strongest and least emotionally fragile women you can possibly imagine. There’s a level of seriousness and concentration that I’ve yet to witness anywhere else, and most of the nuns have a very Japanese way of relating to emotional issues that makes me rethink all of my assumptions about women naturally being more emotional than men.
When I got to Nisodo this month, I kept thinking about the maxim “Die standing,” and how it perfectly encapsulates this attitude I’m talking about. This is an excerpt from the book Women Living Zen, by Paula Arai, which was written about the community of nuns I lived with. The story was related to the author:
Kuriki, who is currently the head nun of Seikan-ji, arrived under Nogami’s tutelage at the age of eight. With a sense of awe, respect, and a hint of trepidation, Kuriki remembers how Nogami raised her on the classical Zen dictum, Zedatsu ryubo (“Die sitting, die standing”). This is the way of a monastic.
Dogen used this classical Zen dictum in a widely chanted and studied text, Fukan zazengi, to stress that practice means to do all activities with steady attention to reality here and now… in Zen, although no one can verify how many people have actually succeeded in this, sitting and standing death postures are considered absolute proof of enlightenment.
Nogami Senryu repeated this like a mantra as she strove to live each moment with pure and relentless concentration. On a crisp afternoon, the 17th of November, 1980, Nogami’s adamantine voice pierced the silence: “It’s time for zadatsu ryubo!” Not knowing what to expect, Kuriki rushed to the dim hallway where she saw Nogami slowly walking toward the bronze sculpture of Sakyamuni Buddha sitting full-lotus posture on the altar in the Worship Hall. Arriving in time to witness the stout ninety-seven-year-old nun in simple black robes take a final step to perfect her stance, Kuriki pealed, “Congratulations!” as Nogami died standing.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the nuns I’ve met die standing, or in the zazen posture. It’s how they live their life, and it’s how I want to live mine, too— fearlessly, and by fully engaging with each moment, with “steady attention to reality here and now.” Whether or not I marry and have children, live with a family or in spiritual community, I want to do it on my own two feet. This is what “zadatusu ryubo” means to me— not a morbid fixation with death, but full commitment to all circumstances and moments, including death.
The first month I was at Nisodo a senior nun told me, “People say the abbess is a man because she’s strong, professional and doesn’t show her emotions. But remember that she’s not a man. She’s her own woman.” I think it’s important to share representations of spiritual women who are their “own women.” There are many ways of being a woman, but I want to tell the stories of women who die standing.