Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's "Authentic" About Japanese Zen?

The most common question I ask myself, almost on a daily basis, is “What am I doing in Japan?” The emphasis of this question shifts around, depending on my mood. Sometimes, the emphasis is on the “what” of “What am I doing?” Other times it’s on the “I” or on the “doing.” But the most common emphasis is on “Japan.” What am I doing in Japan?!

I never had a special interest in Japan. Some Americans grow up loving anime and pokemon, and for them, Japan is a paradise of J-pop and Godzilla. Other people are attracted to the aesthetics of traditional Japanese culture and arts— to haiku, empty spaces, bamboo, paradoxical phrases, tea ceremony, martial arts. And while I do enjoy a clean, empty tatami room or a bamboo forest as much as the next gal, that’s not why I came here. I came because, like most young people, I was in search of answers. I heard there was a good teacher in a monastery here, and so I came. Of course, I didn’t find answers. I just found more and more questions and doubts. But that’s okay; I think that’s good. 

I want to write about the word “authenticity,” about how much I hear this word and how confused I am by it, and also why I can’t help myself from wanting to use it. I’ve heard a couple Westerners tell me that they come to Japan to practice Zen “at the source,” the implication being that Japan is the source of Zen, and so practicing in Japan, by proximity or osmosis, puts them closer to “true Zen” or “true Buddhism.” I imagine this kind of attitude may have been more prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s, when Westerners were first getting in to Zen and had absolutely no idea about the realities of Zen practice in Japan. Maybe people are a bit more informed these days. There is some understanding about the economic realities Japanese priests face and the decisions they have to make about their livelihoods and families. When I was at Tassajara this summer, quite a few students I talked to mentioned how “the only thing monks do in Japan these days is own funeral parlors,” which is a kind of funny distortion of the facts; I don’t know a single monk who owns a funeral parlor.  Funeral parlors are privately owned businesses. Families pay a fee to the funeral parlor and also to the priest they hire, who is not necessarily connected with the funeral parlor. But I digress. The point is that, as more and more first-hand accounts and literature about Buddhist history becomes available, people are starting to doubt whether Japan is the “source” of Zen they always dreamed it was. 

Students on our Buddhist Studies program listen to a lecture. I'm pouring tea.
Yet despite some explicit cynicism and criticism by Westerners about Japanese practice, it seems that at the core of this cynicism is a deep longing for “authenticity,” both for an “authentic” Buddhist practice and authenticity with themselves. I can’t blame anyone for this. I want “true” Buddhism or “true” Dharma practice as much as the next person. Yet over the years I’ve stopped being able to ignore exoticism and unfounded idealism when it manifests in myself and when I see it manifesting in others. This could be coming up for me now because I am working with a group of twenty-year olds who are in Japan for the first time, bringing with them their dreams and hopes about Buddhism. I am a huge cheerleader for Japanese Zen, but I want them to see Japanese Buddhism for what it is, not for what they want it to be.

I started to see the exoticism and idealism in myself when I began practicing at Nisodo. At the time, there were two other Westerners and more then twenty Japanese nuns. Nisodo is extremely hierarchical, and you are expected to be obedient to your seniors at all times. So for the first few months, that’s everyone. You have to obey everyone. When Japanese nuns would give me an instruction or even a harsh criticism, I would jump to obey or correct myself. But when one of the two Westerners corrected me, a thought would flash through my mind like “What do you know?” or “Who are you to be correcting me?” I didn’t trust that they knew about monastery life or about Buddhism, because they weren’t Japanese. Several years later, when I started to be in a position of seniority, I quickly learned that it was useless to try to instruct Westerners when they first arrived. For the most part, the Westerners who came to Nisodo didn’t want to listen to corrections from other Westerners. They wanted to learn from Japanese people. And again, I can’t really criticize this because I do it too. Why come all the way to Japan just to have some French nun tell me how to bow? The underlying assumption, or bias, or dream, is that Japanese people naturally are more in tune with Buddhism. They are more “authentic.”

Scholars and academics have basically done away with the notion of cultural “authenticity.” Cultural authenticity implies the existence of an essential, monolithic culture which doesn’t change, and of course, cultures and people are always changing. The same is true, I think, of Dharma practice. In recent years, scholars have rejected the notion that a “Golden Age” of “Pure Chan” existed in China, where monks single-mindedly pursed koans under the guidance of an inscrutable master, untouched by involvements in economics, politics, ritual, and magic. People have also recently begun to question the alleged “purity” of the Dogen's Zen. We don’t know so much about Dogen, actually. But we know he had donors and supporters. He had to have eaten something. He bought the wood for Eiheji somehow. Probably with money. I’m not sure we can say that Dogen’s Zen was “pure” in the sense that it was entirely unmixed with worldly desires. Desires are numberless. He was a human. So I don't think the word "pure" is very useful.

Still, if there is no such thing as “authenticity” or “purity,” what keeps me here? What am I doing in Japan? I’m pretty sure that now it’s more than romantic, idealistic notions about the authenticity of Japanese Buddhism. But then why? Why not just practice in America, where I could eat bread, sleep in a real bed, and have a boyfriend in the process? Do I practice in Japan because I feel it wouldn’t be “real practice” if I had these things? Am I defining “real practice” to myself as the absence of comfort and independence? Do I really need to be in Japan for that? My question actually isn’t a new one. “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” is probably a similar one. Why go anywhere at all?

It’s clear to me that there is something unique about the experience of practicing Zen in Japan. I don’t know what that thing is yet. I really don’t. Part of it might be that because Buddhism is so old and deeply engrained in Japanese culture, it’s easier for monastics to be supported here. It could be that as Buddhism becomes more rooted in Western culture, as we develop more Buddhist Universities, wealthy Buddhist patrons and large, established monasteries, it will render Asian Buddhism unnecessary. But I don’t know. I don't think we’re not at that point yet. I keep coming back to Japan, and I don’t know why. 

P.S The students on my program have all found this blog. Hi guys! Sorry I used your photo for my own selfish purposes. Did you finish your reading?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview with a Vampire: Brad Warner

I posted a link to these videos on my facebook but I'm reposting them here for people who don't have access to facebook.

In August I visited America for a month, and my second favorite discovery there was Brad Warner. My favorite discovery in America was this underground salsa club in the Mission with no sign that only opens after 2:00am, which I promised I would never blog about on the internet. Oops.

Brad is a Zen teacher and writer. I'd never heard of him. You can google him and find out how "controversial" he is and whatever. I have a lot of respect for him, for two reasons. One is that he sits zazen every day, religiously, in the morning and evening, without anyone telling him to, and has for more than twenty years. Also, he can sit full lotus, which I can't. At a basic, fundamental level, he is a good person trying to do things in a good way.

The other reason I respect him is that he doesn't act like a teacher. I imagine some people might have a problem with this quality; they might want him to embody- or at least perform- responsibility and authority in a certain kind of way. In Japan, there is a proverb, "Miso that smells like miso isn't good miso." I've heard Aoyama Roshi use this proverb to describe teachers who are too showy and obvious with themselves, who just exude Great Zen Teacher. This is bad miso, and bad teaching, because it's too smelly. When I first met Brad, he didn't act like anything in particular. He doesn't smell like anything, and that's why I like him and respect him. I mean "smelly" metaphorically, of course. In real life he probably smells like falafel. 

We decided to have a recorded conversation about some things like monasticism, institutional Buddhism, and tradition, because our experience and points of view about these things are so opposed. Enjoy! These videos were originally posted on Brad's blog, http://hardcorezen.info/ 







Monday, September 22, 2014

Zazen: Or, No One's Going to Help You

This morning we had our first zazen of the program. We'll be sitting every morning at 7am, and every evening, with academic classes in the middle. Before we started, I gave very, very basic zazen instructions. I think basic instructions are best. Back straight, full or half lotus if you can, eyes open and looking down, hands in cosmic mudra. Take out any idea of Buddha or Enlightenment and just do the posture. That's basically all the instruction I ever got, so that's all I said. I've tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was really frustrated with this for years. What the hell am I supposed to be "doing with my mind?" Actually, I still think that sometimes. I'm still a baby when it comes to zazen practice.

After zazen, one of the students asked me a question about not being able to concentrate and having lots of thoughts. Is it okay to count breaths? I think this must be the #1 most popular question about zazen of all time, and it's a question I've had also. My understanding of zazen is that at the fundamental level you are just sitting there, embodying being a Buddha. You're not doing anything other than sitting there. Of course when we come to zazen we want all these things like peace of mind, concentration, tranquility, etc. And then the asshole teacher just tells you to sit with your back straight and get rid of any hope of enlightenment. Lame! I totally understand this student's confusion.

I'm not a teacher, by the way, and I'm not at all qualified to give people real advice, so all I could tell him was stuff other people have told me, kind of like a game of zazen telephone. I told him some teachers will say that if you're really, really, really scatterbrained, then it's okay to count breaths or focus on your breathing for the first few minutes, but that Dogen was pretty adamant that you shouldn't count breaths. In fact Dogen said it's better to have the "mind of a wily fox" then to count breaths. I told the student he could chose who he wanted to listen to. The exact quote from Dogen is this:

In our zazen, it is of primary importance to sit in the correct posture. Then, regulate the breathing and calm down. In Hinayana, there are two elementary ways (of beginner's practice): one is to count the breaths, and the other is to contemplate the impurity (of the body). In other words, a practitioner of Hinayana regulates his breathing by counting the breaths. The practice of the Buddha-ancestors, however, is completely different from the way of Hinayana. An ancestral teacher has said, “It is better to have the mind of a wily fox than to follow the way of Hinayana self-control."

If this were a book I would have to have a footnote about the term "Hinayana" and what it meant historically and how all paths are valid and not greater or lesser, as the name Hinayana implies. But personally, I think you just have to ignore when Dogen says offensive things like this and move on, kind of like when your teenage daughter says "I hate you,” or "I HAVE TO buy a pair of $200 designer jeans because EVERYONE ELSE has one!!!” You just gotta be like, "Sweetie, I love you, but no." And then you move on. You still love your bratty teenage daughter, but you just don't take everything she says so seriously, because you acknowledge she’s going through some hormonal things and probably insecure about her acne. That's how I relate to Dogen's when he gets into a "Hinayana scum" rant. Like, “You're still my favorite Zen patriarch, but I’m just gonna forget you said that, because clearly you’re just grumpy and insecure that not enough people are signing up for the One True Correct Buddha Way that you spent all that time and effort mastering in China.”

If you can get past the "Hinayana scum" feeling of this passage, what Dogen is getting at is that the zazen posture itself is perfect- there's no need to add our own ideas, techniques, etc. He brings up counting breaths not to just insult "Hinayana" Buddhism but to emphasize the utter completeness of physical posture. In my mind, it takes a lot of faith or hope in the unity of body and mind to just show up and sit without any expectation of enlightenment or even peace of mind, but that's exactly what Dogen is inviting us to do.

After this student asked me the question about counting breaths, I got to thinking about how much time I've spent worrying about not knowing what to do in zazen, and thinking I am not doing it "right." I think everyone must go through this. My relationship with zazen has of course changed over the years, and I don't worry any more about doing it "wrong" or "right," as long as I'm doing it. So when I was talking to this student I was very aware that nothing I could say or do was going to help him. I've had the same questions as him, and nothing anyone told me helped at all. The only thing that helped was sitting more zazen. The only good advice I ever got about zazen or Zen practice in general is "It takes time." I never wanted to believe this, but I think it's the only advice that anyone gives which is actually true. You just have to sit for a long time, for many years, and then something develops. There's no wise words that are going to help you, because there is no substitute for doing it yourself. There's no teacher who can say anything that will be a substitute for your own time and effort. I believe this based on the very few years I have actually spent sitting zazen, because even in a few years my relationship to zazen has changed so much. I can only imagine what it will be like 30 years down the road.

I think the only useful thing a teacher can do is to show someone that their life is their own life and their karma is their own karma. I’ve never had a teacher “help” me in any other way than that. The most common thing that Aoyama Roshi tells me when I go to her for advice about some problem is “It’s your life.” At first I took this as a really dismissive thing to say—it’s your problem, not mine, deal with it yourself. In a way, that’s what she’s saying, but there’s more. Another part of this teaching is that we receive life from the universe. Usually we think that we are in charge of our breathing and digestion, but this is actually happening without our consciousness. We receive our life, we borrow this life, and an infinite number of organisms support us in living. Once we notice this embeddedness we feel compelled to act and face the world from a place of gratitude and responsibility—to work and study deeply, to practice in every moment, to smile, to own our own anger and jealousy, to not waste time. No one else can do this for us, and there is no time to do it but the present moment. That’s a very powerful place to stand in. It’s a paradox; we receive life from the universe so it’s not only our life, but it’s our life because no one else can be responsible for it but us.

Kodo Sawaki infamously said, “You can’t even share a fart with the next guy.” I realize now that he’s talking about zazen. It’s your beautiful zazen practice, not anyone else's. No one can sit cross-legged for you, or breathe for you. A teacher can keep the space, though. That's a big thing, and I don't want to undercut that. They can be a good example. They can invite you to practice. They can show up in their robes every day, on time, light incense, and ring the bell three times. But that's about it. At the end of the day, it’s just you staring at that wall, trying to decide if you want to count your breaths or not.

Dogen votes “not,” by the way. 



Sunday, September 21, 2014

You Have to Pay

Recently I've been thinking a lot about money because... well, I don't have so much of it. I've been living in a monastery for years, not making money, and now I make a very, very teeny-tiny amount of money. In the monastery I was provided with three meals a day. I never really felt poor, even though the life was incredibly simple. But now that I'm out "in the world," I have to buy food and handle money everyday. I've noticed that just handling money so much makes me feel more poor- even though I'm actually making money now! I'm nervous and fearful about money in a way I never was when I didn't have to deal with it, when I was completely dependent on others.

I grew up in a pretty wealthy family. My dad was a doctor and I went to private schools, so there was never a feeling growing up of not having enough. I was instilled with a belief that I am entitled to material comfort, and I probably still carry that entitlement with me. When I was in college, just getting interested in Buddhism, I made this silly promise to myself that I would "never pay for Dharma." I felt pretty righteous about this. The Dharma is like the sun, shining openly for everyone! It's priceless! No one should ever charge me! I managed to attend lots and lots of meditation retreats without paying anything, basically running on this sense of entitlement and righteousness.

When I arrived at the first monastery I lived at in Japan, my beliefs were validated. Monasteries in Japan are free, provide meals, and the monks actually receive a small stipend every month for medicine and shaving materials. Early in my stay I wrote this (bad) haiku:

No where else to go
And monasteries are free
Peaceful green mountain

I realize now that this is exactly the wrong attitude to have about Dharma practice. A monastery is not a place to come and eat their food and have a positive growth experience and then leave. It’s actually a place where you have to give all of your self, all the time. When I eventually moved to the women's monastery, I was shocked to discover that they actually charged a small fee per month. They are the only official training monastery in Japan to do this, to my knowledge. I was incensed. How dare they! Didn't they know I'm a homeless mendicant? Didn't they know the Dharma is like the sun, shining openly for everyone? I ranted and raved to my friend, a French nun named Jokei-san who had been a nun for ten years before finishing her training in Japan. Jokei-san is about fifty years old and was usually very kind and patient with me, but she had her streaks of tough-love.

She listened to me rant and then narrowed her eyes. "Gesshin," she said. "In life, you have to pay. We are obosan," she said using the Japanese word for monastic person. "It's about what we give." Jokei-san has a thick French accent so when she spoke crossly to me, the point really came across. This conversation has stayed with me, and I remember the cadence and strength of her voice even now. 

Little by little I'm coming to realize that Jokei-san is right. Even though monastics are technically homeless mendicants, it's really easy for me to get stuck in a mindset of entitlement, that the Universe owes me. Like, "Because I am a Buddhist monastic, everyone should pay me and support me." I have to make a constant effort to flip this on its head-- a better mindset, I've found, is to try to live by the Zen saying "Winning is losing." This means that when you're poor and giving up your stuff, or when you lose an argument or don't get a lot of attention paid to you, you're actually richer, you're actually better off. It's a weird, tricky paradox, but it's a paradox that I want to live in.

Since I don’t have much money right now, I’ve been thinking about ways I can contribute and give which don’t cost anything. The first thing that comes to mind is work. In Japanese, the word for “work” is 仕事. The first character means “service,” and the second means “thing.” I like this understanding of work, which implies that at its basic level, work is service for others. Dogen wrote a chapter called “Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations” in which he talks about many different ways of giving. He writes, “When we learn giving well, both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving. Earning a living and doing productive work are originally nothing other than free giving.”

Early into my stay at Nisodo, I went to Aoyama Roshi crying because I was having lots of trouble with a woman in my room. We were fighting all the time. I was expecting some profound, Zen advice from the abbess, but she just told me to smile. She said that when you smile, the muscles send signals to your brain, which then understands that you’re happy. So you can actually change your mood if you smile. 

Most people are aware that in Japan there is an idea of “tatemae,” the outside exterior, and “honne,” the inner feelings. I retorted to Aoyama Roshi that since I wasn’t Japanese, I wasn’t able to ignore my inner feelings and display a false exterior. 

“The Buddha spoke of smiling as something you can always give for free,” she said. “Your face is a gift you can always give to other people.” 


I would like to think that there is something I can always give, or contribute, in each moment, even when I don't feel like it. Like now, for example. I am not feeling too inspiring. I'm actually kind of grumpy. If I had my way, I would just stay in my room drinking coffee and reading novels all day. I would never leave my bed. Angels would alight and bring me dim sum. It would just be beds, and novels, and coffee drinking and dim sum on a continuous loop. But I suspect that’s not what life wants from me. Life demands that I show up, and work, and smile. Life demands that I pay something.


"Wagan: Gentle Face, Wise Words"- a common Japanese calligraphy

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cutting Off Love

I remember one day driving in the car through the Japanese countryside. I was in the backseat, someone else was driving, and the abbot of my monastery was in the front. I think we were probably driving between the main monastery and the abbot's home temple in the mountains. I leaned forward and asked the abbot, who would eventually become my teacher, "What's your favorite part about being a monk?"

That's a stupid question, by the way. I think that's kind of like asking someone, "What's your favorite part about being in the Army?" What are they supposed to say? The smell of napalm in the morning? Actually, that's kind of the answer he ended up giving me. His answer was, "Cutting off love."

"What?!" I asked, surprised.

"Shaving your head means cutting off love. So monk means cutting off love." He was smiling and looked genuinely happy when he said this. For the record, this is the exact moment in time when I should have made a 180-degree turn and run in the opposite direction. But I didn't. I kept walking straight into Dogen-Zenji's bizarre kingdom.

In English, the word "love" is kind of vague, and can mean all sorts of things. Especially in a religious or Buddhist context, saying love can invoke ideas of compassion, kindness, and empathy, as well as the more attached kinds of love. But in Japanese, there is no ambiguity about 愛 ("ai"), which means attached love or affection. Ai can be love for your children, your husband, or your pet, but it's a different kind of love than say, Buddha's feelings for all sentient beings, which would be 慈悲 ("jihi"). Jihi translates as something closer to compassion or mercy. At Nisodo, the women's monastery where I ended up training, I only heard the word ai used in a negative way in dharma talks. This kind of love is associated with attachment, obsession, and clinging, all of which the Buddha said cause suffering.

For many years I resisted this uncompromising party line of traditional Buddhist monasticism, the belief that 愛 should be done away with if we are to find relief from suffering. When I first started meditating, I was convinced that my experiences in meditation of seeing into the fluid nature of self was not dissimilar from my experience of falling in love. When I was in love, I saw the parts of myself I always believed were "mine" quickly fall away- my boundaries, my ideas, even my ego, seemed to not be solid at all. And of course, the joyful falling-in-love feeling felt something like a religious experience. So couldn't dharma practice be the same as love? And even if they weren't exactly the same thing, couldn't they at least share space and make room for each other?

Unfortunately, the deeper I went into Asian traditions the more I saw that, at least for monks and nuns, love is always viewed as a hindrance. I really didn't want to acknowledge this for a long time, kind of like how no one really believes they are going to die ("That's not about me, right? That's about some other guy!"). Japan, of course, is a weird anomaly, since most of the Buddhist clergy marry. Many historians trace the roots of this practice to Shinran (1173-1263), who founded the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Shinran not only married a woman but claimed this was a virtue, and claimed that he was "neither monk nor layman."

Dogen lived around the same time as Shinran, and went in a different direction. I've scoured Dogen's writings for any positive view of love, and there's nothing. It's a desert. The most damning passage I've found about love (and there are a lot) in the Shobogenzo is from the Gyoji chapter. This passage keeps coming back to haunt me (this is from the Nishijima translation):
However we treasure the factors and circumstances [that we see] as self and others, they are impossible to hold onto; therefore, if we do not abandon loved ones, it may happen, in word and in deed, that loved ones abandon us. If we have compassion for loved ones, we should be compassionate to loved ones. To be compassionate to loved ones means to abandon loved ones.
What do we do with this? To be compassionate to loved ones means to abandon loved ones? Really?! Sometimes it seems incredible to me that we actually formed a religion around what this guy said. And yet, here we are.

Yesterday, one of the woman on my program asked me, "What about joy? What about love?" This is a question I get a lot these days about my time in the convent. I don't want to give the impression that Zen practice is cold, bleak, and heartless, but on the other hand, joy and love were not big parts of my experience at Nisodo. I told this woman that in the monastery I cultivated strength and spaciousness with my own negative emotions, and from that place of space and strength I can love and work better.

"I love love," I told her. "But there is not really a space for love in Zen practice. Whatever love I have is... kind of a hobby." This got a laugh out of her. But it's true. I've started to view Buddhist practice as the foundation of a house, from which everything else in my life extends. So there are rooms and maybe even whole stories which are about love, but they're extending upward from a foundation of practice. They're not the foundation of the house itself (actually, I should be honest with you. For me, love isn't it's own floor. It's more like a tiny, exquisite, beautifully cared-for altar or cabinet in the second story guest room).

When I think long enough about the problem of "cutting off love," it seems clear to me that the problem is not solved simply by believing that Dogen or Buddha was "right" about this. There seems to be a bigger issue of how to relate to dharma practice itself. The issue is the choice of what do I do with our imperfect selves in the present moment. Do we actually have to change ourselves? Is it enough to notice, or understand, or "be with" our experience? Is it enough to allow everything to exist as it is? Can we go about business as usual and just bring in a special kind of attention, mindset, or attitude? Or is Buddhism actually demanding that we cut off large chunks of our identities and experience? Are there tenets and beliefs that we actually have to follow? Essentially, are we adding or subtracting from ourselves?

I clearly don't have answers to these questions, but a lot hangs on how we answer them. Carl Bielefeldt wrote an essay called "Living with Dogen" in which he compared the unattractive parts of Dogen to the warts on the face of someone we're living with. How do we go about loving someone with warts? Some people chose to ignore the warts and focus on the lovely bits, some chose to love their partner warts and all. Dogen's admonition to "cut off love" and "abandon loved ones" is a pretty big, smelly, oozing wart. But I'm looking at it. If I'm supposed to live with this creature, then I at least owe it to myself to know what I'm dealing with, to be honest, to look this thing straight in the face.

Friday, September 12, 2014

great realization

Dogen wrote in Gakudo Yojinshu [Points to Watch in Practicing the Way], "The Buddha-way is right under your feet." Ikko Narasaki Roshi elaborated on this, writing, "The Buddha-way is not some special kind of way. It is simply the way in which you live completely."

My teacher credits most of his understanding of Buddhism to Ikko Roshi. I never got to meet him before he died, but I feel like he is my spiritual grandfather. And like my biological grandfather, who has also passed away, I often suspect that he is disappointed in me from his place in heaven or wherever.

Ikko Roshi stressed the importance of living in a monastery and following the Eihei Shingi, Dogen's standards for monastics. I'm not living in a monastery any more. It's kind of weird, especially since all of my Zen practice has been in a monastery. I have no experience with Zen as a lay practice or as a daily zazen practice. For me, Zen practice is just being in a monastery. I've started working on this Buddhist studies program in Kyoto for American college students, and while it is definitely a Buddhist thing, it's also definitely NOT being in a monastery. So I'm having to re-define what Zen practice means to me. I think it has something to do with the Buddha-way being under me feet, meaning that I create it as I go along. Something like that. It's scary, and I'm kind of worried I'm going to crash and burn, but it's also exciting.

There are some good things. I have my own room! We are staying at an inn for Pure Land pilgrims, and it is pretty bare bones. My room is six tatami, the bathroom and shower are downstairs, and there is no kitchen or way to cook food, but I'm in heaven. For the last three years, I've shared a room with five other women. Five women in a room this same size. You can only imagine what that's like when we're all PMSing at the same time. Now I have my own room with wireless internet and an air conditioner. Luxury!

Yesterday in the orientation to the program, we got to talking about "enlightenment." Everyone was really interested in talking about that. Is enlightenment culturally conditioned? Is it the absence of something or the attainment of something? Do enlightened beings act the same? Questions like that. I don't really care about this kind of enlightenment. I'm way more interested in my room and my awesome coffee that I made this morning, with the ground coffee and funnel and cup I bought. 

Dogen backs me up on this one. In the Gyoji chapter of Shobogenzo, he wrote "Do not aspire to great realization. The great realization is everyday tea and meals." That's pretty clear, I think. Dogen never experienced coffee, but I think if he had, he would have included it in the "great realization" category. 

I bought my breakfast yesterday at a convenience store and kept it until today. It's a banana, a hard-boiled egg, and a rice roll stuffed with fermented soy beans. Isn't that cool that you can buy a hard-boiled egg at a convenience store? I'm pretty happy about it. And I made the coffee myself with hot water and ground coffee and a filter. Also pretty neat. Then I opened the window that looks out onto this ugly construction site, ate my Japanese salaryman breakfast, and experienced profound tranquility.


Okay, that's all the great realization I've got for you today. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On remembering and forgetting

September 11th is a difficult day. In addition to being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001, September 11th is tough for me because it’s also the birthday of my friend David Harris, who died in August of 2008. He would have been twenty-eight years old.

Dave was my friend in college. We bonded over our shared interest in Buddhism and social justice work, which is a tricky and unusual overlap. My junior year of college, we both went to India on the same study abroad program, a Buddhist studies program which brings students to Bodh Gaya for four months. We grew close in India. After he graduated from college, I flew out to visit him in Portland and stayed over at his house.

A few days after I visiting him, Dave quit his job and embarked on a solo hiking trip in the forests near Portland. He had left me a phone message thanking me for coming. I didn’t call him back. While he was hiking, a falling tree branch hit him and broke his neck, killing him instantly. I found out that he’d died through Facebook, which is the worst possible way to find out your friend has died in the history of… ever. I’d never met his family, so they didn’t call me with the news. And since I didn’t know his family, I wasn’t invited to the funeral. I flew out to New York for the big, public memorial service that was held, but I never felt like I had anything near closure. 

My grandfather died around the same time, and I cried then, but this was different. My grandfather was old, and his death made sense. But Dave’s death made no sense. Grief is always terrible, but senselessness creates its own kind of shock. It’s hard for me to describe my emotional state after Dave died. How is it possible to feel closure about a death that is so random? It’s been years since Dave died and I have never “made sense” of his death. When other people bring up karma, reincarnation, souls or spirits in relation to Dave dying, I think that’s all bullshit. 

Recently I read an article in the New Yorker about the new September 11th memorial in New York City. It seems like the memorial isn’t doing a good job of helping people to hold or process their emotions. Part of the problem might be that the museum and memorial are trying to impose or instigate a specific, pre-approved kind of remembering. We are allowed and encouraged to remember the deaths of 9/11, but only in a certain way. Only in an American way.

It’s clear to me that remembering people who have died is a basic human impulse, and I really appreciate how Japanese culture deals with death. When someone dies, the family calls a priest (that’s me and my teacher) to come and chant beside the body. The whole family gathers while the priest lights incense and chants the last instructions of the Buddha before he died. The next day is the funeral. A week after the funeral the family gathers again to hold a “Seven Day memorial.” A priest chants, and then everyone gathers together for a meal. The same kind of memorial service takes place after 49 days, a year, two years, and so on until seven years after the death.

People don’t usually cry at Japanese memorials. There is no public sharing of stories about the person who’s died. I was surprised by this in the beginning. But now I understand that the real purpose of these memorials is not to express emotion but to remember and commemorate someone who has died collectively, in a ritualized way that everyone is familiar with and everyone recognizes as being appropriate. I feel grateful that I can participate in these kinds of ceremonies. We don’t have this same tradition of ritualized remembering in America, and I think it’s a shame. Japanese Zen gets a lot of bad press for being “funerary Zen,” but there’s clearly value in helping people process loss. 

I often wonder why we feel compelled to remember those who have died. What is it about remembering? Do the dead “want” to be remembered? Or is it just us, the living ones, who want to hold on and not let go?

Remembering goes hand and hand with forgetting. Sometimes remembering is a compulsion we can’t control, and sometimes it is active defiance against forgetting. Dogen famously wrote in Genjo-koan, “To study the Buddha-way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by myriad things.” For Dogen, forgetting the self is obviously a good thing, but I can’t even begin to understand what it would mean to forget myself. At least within Japanese culture, forgetting the self implies detaching from our ego and thinking of others. That’s part of it, clearly. But not all of it. How do we forget anything? If we forget something, does it stop existing? Where does it go? I can’t will myself to forget myself. I think my ego wants to be remembered, just like the dead want to be remembered, and just like we want to remember them.

It’s been almost seven years since Dave died, which is about the time when the dead stop needing memorial services in Japan. They rejoin the cosmic whatever and become ancestors. It’s an appropriate time marker I think. Seven years is also the amount of time it takes for all the cells in the body to die and regenerate. So maybe seven years is the amount of time it takes to create a new body that doesn’t miss someone so much.

About a year after Dave died, I ran into his best friend Michael on campus. Michael was handling the whole thing a lot better than me. “You know,” he said, “I think if Dave could talk to us, he would probably say, ‘It’s okay.’” 

After Dave died, I remember someone telling me that I had to be strong, “Because Dave would have wanted us to be strong.” I remember at the time thinking this was utter nonsense. Dave was strong, but he was also into tenderness and vulnerability. He often talked to me about how he was tired of the tough-guy misogyny in the hip-hop community. He loved hip-hop though, and he loved the black community. He also loved meditating, and he loved love. I remember once in India, him telling me a story about how “Jesus Christ lost himself in love.” He was 100% sincere when he told this story. And then he got super drunk and lit a bunch of illegal fireworks in the street. That was Dave. He could freestyle rap or play bass in a jazz band, and then step off stage and say the corniest New-age shit you could imagine.


I don’t think Dave would have wanted, or expected me to be strong. But of all the people I’ve ever met, Dave would have had a good handle on his own death. If Dave saw his death coming, I think he would have said something like, “It’s okay.” Not me, though. I’m a mess, and I still don't understand what it means to forget.


Friday, September 5, 2014

"Hi, my name is..."

Dear Readers,
This is my first post on this blog, and I spent my entire morning zazen period composing it. I could have attained satori in those forty minutes on my cushion, but instead I thought about what to write on my new blog. So I hope it's good. This is my Bodhisatva vow in the 21st centry: postponing my own enlightenment for the sake of an internet blog.

This last month when I was visiting San Francisco, I met lots of new people, both in monasteries and Zen centers, but also in every day social situations. When you meet new people, the usual questions are "What is your name?" and "Where do you live?" These are tricky questions for me right now. It makes introductions kind of awkward.

I have two names. The name my parents gave me is "Claire." It's the name on my birth certificate, driver's license, credit cards, high school and college diplomas. It's the name my friends and family use, the name my bank teller and doctor use, and if I ever meet you at a cocktail party in Manhattan, I will introduce myself to you as "Claire." Claire is a nice name. I like it. I want to keep using it in certain situations.

My other name is "Gesshin." Gesshin is a Japanese name which combines the characters for "moon" and "mind." This is the name my first teacher gave me when he shaved my head and ordained me. I'm tempted to call Gesshin my "Buddhist name" or "ordination name" because I use it whenever I go to a monastery or Zen Center in America, but in a lot of ways it's also just my Japanese name. Remember in Spanish class when everyone got "Spanish names" to help them get in the mood to learn Spanish (or was this just my school)? Gesshin is like that. It's what Japanese people call me. I'm "Gesshin" everywhere I go in Japan, even if I'm meeting people in a "secular" situation, like the grocery store. And since I've lived in Japan for over four and a half years now, I feel like this is my name.

So my names are both equally "Claire" and "Gesshin." I like both of them and don't really care which one you use. Please feel free to think of me and call me by either names, depending on your mood and/or spiritual inclinations, EXCEPT in these non-negotiable situations:

  • Cocktail party in Manhattan when I am wearing some sort of dress/outfit that took energy, time and thought about what looks nice on the female body: my name is Claire.
  • Japanese Monastery: my name is Gesshin.


Great. Moving on.

The next problem is the question, "Where do you live?" I don't really understand what this question means anymore. This is probably because I am a Buddhist monk (or nun, or priest, or obosan) and I have taken up "homelessness" as a kind of spiritual virtue, or at least as a kind of goal. Dogen Zenji, who lived in the 13th century and is credited with founding Soto Zen, the kind of Zen I practice, wrote a chapter in the Shobogenzo called "The Merits of Leaving Family Life." In this chapter he speaks about the importance of leaving home. The word for "home-leaving" in Japanese is "Shukke," which is comprised of the characters  "exit" and 家 "home." Dogen means home-leaving literally and figuratively. The literal part of home-leaving is literally leaving your home and family. I put that in bold because the literal part is important, and usually people ignore it in favor or the fun, sexy, figurative part, which is leaving behind all your old ideas, delusions, bad habits, conditioning, etc. It seems to me that for Dogen, the benefit of leaving family life is practical, not ethical or moral.

He writes, "Both lay people and monastics can reach the Other Shore, but even so, each way has its difficult and its easy aspects. Those in lay life have all manner of duties and occupations. If they should wish to concentrate on pursuing wholeheartedly the Path to full awakening, then their family duties will fall by the wayside, and if they should wholeheartedly fulfill the responsibilities of family life, then matters that pertain to pursuit of the Way will be abandoned... when we leave home we are like, for instance, someone who has departed to reside somewhere where the lands are empty and there is no one else about. In that way, our heart is as one, being beyond intentions and beyond fear."

My interpretation of this is that Dogen is telling us to be honest, serious, and committed about what we are doing, because it's impossible to do two things at the same time. This is what he means when he says "our heart is as one." You can't have your cake and eat it too. And Dogen affirms everyone's cake. For some people, cake is practicing the Way. For others, cake is family, love, and children. Is that kind of a messed up thing to say? Children=cake? But I think you get my point. All cakes are valid. These days, a lot of people try to say that your cake can be both family and practice, some sort of cosmic family/practice cake, but I think for Dogen, family and practicing the Buddha-way were two completely different cakes. He's also implying that if you want to eat both the practice and the family/children cake, they're gonna become smaller cakes, like two cupcakes as opposed to one, big, delicious chocolate cake.

Okay, and to distract from the fact that I may have just pissed of 98% of Zen priests in the world, here is a picture of cake.




This is a long way of saying that I'm choosing not to have a permanent home, at least for now, while I'm young and uncommitted. But this doesn't help the poor people who are just trying to small talk with me about where I live.

An easy answer to the question "Where do you live?" would be: Japan. I have a bank account and health insurance in Japan, most of my friends are in Japan, and I have a fancy, hologramed card issued by the Japanese government with my photo on it that says "Residence card." It means I am a resident of Japan. Not a citizen, mind you, but a resident. I am still a citizen of the U.S.

Things get more complicated when people ask me, "Where in Japan do you live?" I have noticed that when people ask this they are really asking, "Where do you keep your stuff? Where do you store your clothes and shoes and books?" I lived at Aichi Nisodo, the women's monastery in Nagoya, for three years. I had an incredible three years of practice there, and now that I feel strong and confident enough to follow precepts, work, and study outside of a monastery, I've said my goodbyes and thank you's to the nuns there I've started a new chapter in my life. But most of my clothes and books are still at Nisodo, in boxes in the basement. I don't know where else to put them. I don't have a permanent home. I also have some clothes and books at my teacher's monastery in Okayama, where I ordained four years ago. This fall I will be working on a Buddhist studies program for college students in Kyoto, and I hope to bring books and clothes there, too. So I have books and clothes all over the place! Not very monastic of me, is it?

I'm bringing up homelessness in terms of monasticism, but really we are all homeless all the time. None of us have a permanent home, if we are defining home as "where we keep our stuff." Our stuff's gonna break. Our house is gonna break. It's all going to break eventually. Maybe we could say "home is where the heart is," implying that home is where the people we love live, but love isn't constant or permanent. People change and die, or both, and our relationships and loves are always changing. So when I say "I'm homeless" I don't literally mean that I have no house to stay in. I mean that I cannot find a single place in this material universe that will give me permanent, everlasting comfort, and neither can anyone else. And I want the truth of that to be my home.

One word for a training monk in Japanese is "雲水" or unsui, which combines the characters "cloud" and "water." One translator of Dogen, Shohaku Okamura, often uses the phrase "cloud and water monks" instead of unsui, to talk about novice monks. I think unsui is a beautiful word, because it implies constant motion. Clouds and water are always moving, they have no fixed abode. This is the idea, at least ideally, behind being a monk in Japan. In days gone by, unsui would travel from monastery to monastery, seeking out the best teachers and teachings. When they entered a new monastery, they called it "hanging up their hat and staff" (see what I mean about "where we put our stuff?!?).

So on my best days I think to myself, "You are an unsui. You are like clouds and water. You have no fixed abode. Your only permanent home is the truth." On my worst days I think, "You are an irresponsible, unemployed 28-year old leaving a trail of unclaimed books, clothes and shoes in your wake."

I think both can be true. Yesterday I had lunch with my good friend Kate, whom I've known since I was a child and love very much. Over lunch, I made some comment about having two different opposing emotions at the same time, and then I immediately back-pedaled and tried to explain myself. She cut me off.

"You get to be complicated," she said.

As Buddhism grows in America, we're starting to realize that we're facing a whole slew of problems and realities that Dogen and the Buddha never imagined, and it's compelling us to relate to our lives and to Buddhist practice in an (arguably) new way. I'm referring to things like civil rights, the internet, ease of international travel, and the dominance of psychological discourse, just to name a couple.

I don't have an answer about how to practice Buddhism authentically in the face of all these modern realities that the Buddha never imagined. It's complicated. But I think we get to be complicated.