Taking Up a Green Vegetable and Turning It Into the Best Party Ever

The study abroad program I work on ends on Friday, and tonight we had a farewell dinner with our “Japanese Buddies,” the Japanese students who had signed up to be our friends and partners in intercultural exchange for the semester. I didn’t want to go to this party because a) I was never assigned a buddy since I am the teaching assistant and b) I am well aware how awkward Japanese parties are, especially the mandatory, organized-by-somebody-whose-job-it-is-to-organize-a-mandatory-party-above-the-cafeteria kind. There is something about the way social interaction in Japan happens that seems simultaneously forced, formal, and too private; it’s usually a huge room with lots of food, an exclusive group of people, organized games/speeches, and a group photo at the end. This is never a good recipe for making connection. But my boss made me go, so I went with the other students. 

When we arrived in the assigned room, we were immediately disheartened to see that the room was indeed made up to look like a middle school dance. There were perhaps fifty chairs arranged in a huge circle for maybe twenty participants, and three tables filled with way more food than anyone could possibly eat. There was a tiny, white stereo in the corner playing Aretha Franklin VERY quietly.

Students looking generally unhappy
After a mandatory, organized group toast (of orange juice), the students and I filled our plates with french fries, fried chicken, and sandwiches. We sat down in a few of the fifty million empty chairs, and started eating. The woman in charge of the event immediately walked over and told us, “Don’t forget to mingle with your Japanese buddies!!!” in a bizarrely aggressive tone. Some of the kids were already complaining about how “awkward” this party was, and how difficult it is to speak Japanese “when you’re really really socially uncomfortable.” 

I couldn’t blame them, since I was thinking the same thing. But then some flip switched in my brain. Without even trying, I tapped into a magical skill I have developed over the years in the monastery to make meaning and enjoyment in even the most dire situations, like the characters in William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! who “had been walking backward slow for a year now so all they had left was not the will but just the ability, the grooved habit to endure.” 

(I like that phrase: "grooved habit to endure.")

What I have discovered through practicing Zen in Japan is that the best way to confront an unavoidable, difficult, and seemingly meaningless task is to get REALLY REALLY REALLY INTO IT. This means, in both monastery and awkward party scenarios, that it works well to TAKE EVERYTHING SERIOUSLY and GET COMPETITIVE ABOUT ALL THE GAMES. This makes everything fun. 

In Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji wrote, “In the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing one practice is practicing completely.” Other translations I’ve read is “to get one dharma is to penetrate one dharma, and to meet one act is to perform one act.” Actually, this is one instance where I really think the literal Japanese is best. 

This literally means “encounter one thing, practice one thing” or “encounter one practice, practice one practice.” This is what's written on my rakusu case.

When you sweep the ground, sweep the ground. When you chop carrots, chop carrots. When you are at a party with unlimited buffet food, EAT TO WIN. When you are required to play “Find somebody who” (that game where you have to walk around and “find somebody who likes economics, or has an iPod 6, etc.), get WAY TOO COMPETITIVE about it even though it’s not a competition and no one but you is actually writing names down. When you have to play two truths and a lie and you are incredibly bad at lying because you are honest to a fault, MAKE THE BEST TRUTH/LIE COMBINATIONS POSSIBLE. Such as:

1) When I was in middle school, I broke my leg on a trampoline
2) I have an older half sister
3) I am a hippopotamus 

I really do think meaning can be found in all situations. This is why when people who have never been to the women’s monastery ask me, “Do you have much time for actual practice or is it mostly just physical work and Japanese cultural stuff?” I look at them like they are speaking Greek.

On Friday, this program ends and I’ll be going back to the monastery for a few weeks. I’m actually not looking forward to it. For starters, my body won’t be used to it. I’ve spent the last three months with the cushiest existence— waking up at a luxurious 7:00am, eating the food I want, and sitting in chairs while I do it. I know when I go back, I’ll be waking up at 4, sitting in traditional seiza during classes, meals, and morning service, and working non-stop. I’ll have no control over my own time. It’s going to be a rough adjustment. 

I’ll also be the only Westerner there. It’s hard being the only one of your ethnicity in any situation, and I think “foreignness” is especially pronounced in traditional settings which revolve around preserving and transmitting Japanese culture. There won’t be any English, and no one is going to translate for me. 

I know the only way I’m going to survive is to get really into it. This is the magic skill I’m starting to develop— to view everything, every “unimportant” task, every moment, as an opportunity for learning. And if not learning, than at least concentration and effort. Or at the very, VERY least, material for a blog post. I’m pretty sure this is what Dogen was talking about in Instructions to the Cook when he wrote, “This is the way to turn things while being turned by things. .. Taking up a green vegetable, turn it into a sixteen-foot golden body; take a sixteen-foot golden body and turn it into a green vegetable leaf. This is a miraculous transformation—a work of Buddha that benefits sentient beings.”

I don't want to sound like I'm selling these teachings short, because it's obviously a lot more profound than this. Did I really just compare Zen monastic training to making an awkward party fun? Well, maybe I did. When I'm in the monastery, sometimes I want to run screaming for the hills. But sometimes it's the best party ever. Either way, it's up to me. 

In the whole world nothing is hidden! 

I’ll see you all in a few weeks. 


  1. When I read your closing words… "When I'm in the monastery, sometimes I want to run screaming for the hills. But sometimes it's the best party ever. Either way, it's up to me." it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Milton… "The mind is its own place, and in it self. Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! I really enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Thanks for making me laugh and feel hopeful again!


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