Showing posts from 2015

Love And Falling In Love

I wrote my senior thesis in college about love. Specifically, it was a poetry manuscript about desire, clinging, and romantic love vs. Buddhist notions of compassion. I was wondering how it is possible to "truly" love somebody you desire. After I finished that thesis I thought I would never write about love again, because I had exhausted that subject intellectually. But love is a useful tool, and since the human experience of love is so similar to lots of stuff that comes up in spiritual and religious practice, I'm finding it useful to talk about again.

About a year into my stay at the women's monastery, my mother sent me a book called "Inner Gold: Understanding Psychological Projection," by the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson. He describes how all people have "inner gold," the best parts of ourselves, our wit, intelligence, kindness and talent, but that for most people, carrying this gold ourselves is too hard. It's hard to carry our own…

How I Cope When the World Is Fucked Up

The world seems particularly fucked up this week.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe in a golden age of history. I don't think that the Ancient Greeks or the Native Americans or the Celts had it all figured out until we Moderns came along and ruined everything with iphones and nuclear weapons and global warming and colonialism. Back in the day prepubescent girls were married against their will to strangers, and there was human sacrifice of children. And everyone died at the age of thirty from gum disease. Existence in samsara has always been bloody and painful and traumatic.

And yet this week in particular I've found it hard to be hopeful about humanity and the world. It seems like everyone is killing each other, and I don't know why, or what to do. I also have been feeling something else besides sadness or hopelessness, a kind of low-level panic or fear, and I think it has to do with the way information is disseminated, which is in a way that is simultaneously i…

I Blame All My Problems On Change

I'm sad.

Or, more accurately, I probably have SAD (seasonal affective disorder). This kind of thing is genetic, no? My dad has figured out that he's happier in the winter if he wears one of these stylish visors 30 minutes a day that shines magical spring and summer light into his eyes.

This is my dad getting un-SAD:

I'm not sure whether or not I have SAD, because I'm fine in the winter. It's just the fall that gets me, something about the weather turning colder and the trees losing their leaves. Maybe I'm allergic to change. I grew up in San Francisco where there are no seasons, where it's just one uni-season of cold, bleak fog. Not having seasons teaches you that happiness is forever and nothing ever changes, which is a lie.

But here in Japan, summer is hot and muggy, and fall is cold and breathtakingly beautiful. It's an extreme change. The leaves are bright red and the sky has this chilly, pink light in the evening. It's beautiful, but my subcons…

How You Spend Your Time Is How You Live Your Life

I haven’t updated in a while because I have been completely bogged down with work— specifically, in addition to my regular Japanese classes I’m taking a class on reading newspapers in Japanese, which is difficult even for Japanese people who you know, read and speak the language. Last week I read a newspaper article on collective self-defense and Japan’s new security bill… in Japanese. It took me about eight hours to get through. It was rough. 
I shouldn’t complain though. I mean, complaining is the easy thing to do, but when I peel back the layers of my complaining, I see that underneath is just fear and pride: fear that I will not be able to understand, and pride in myself for working hard and trying to do something really difficult. When I tried complaining to my teacher about this he said, “You signed up for the class though, right? It was your decision…” And it’s true. I’m enrolled in this program to learn Japanese, and particularly to learn how to read Japanese. Why am I surprise…

Taking the Precepts in Gibberish

This week I was chatting with a new Buddhist friend, and I kept making jokes about how I was breaking precepts-- by gossiping, or creating divisions in the sangha, which aren't technically precept violations in the Soto Zen tradition (but are in others!). Over the course of the conversation, I kept adding to the list of my imagined precept violations.

"Sorry," I said finally. "I actually don't know what the precepts are."

"That's because you took the precepts in gibberish," he said.

I've received the precepts four times in gibberish: twice in Japanese and twice in Tibetan (from Tibetan Rinpoches in America and India, when I was in college). I wonder how much difference language makes. Because the precepts are something we work with and evolve, break and renew, ingest and digest on a very personal, individual level, language matters. I think saying the precepts in our own language (or at the very, very least, understanding what we are sayi…

The Human Fulfillment Checklist

I just got back from a week at Green Gulch Farm, part of a covert mission a friendly experiment to infiltrate and destroy American Zen to see if I would enjoy doing residential practice there at some point.

One afternoon after my work was done, I went to the snack area by the kitchen to spy and started talking to a guy I knew from my time at Tassajara. I mentioned that I'm coming back to the United States soon. We were eating peanut butter on toast, and drinking tea. There were apples and bananas on the snack table as well.

"What do you think about American Buddhism so far?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I said.

"It's pretty fun," he smiled. "There are snacks."


Green Gulch is pretty lovely. There's zazen, and then you work really hard and get really tired, so you can fall asleep early. People are nice, things are relatively well-organized, there's enough food, and there are a couple people I respect and could learn from.…

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up

Last month I read an essay in Tricycle Magazine by bell hooks called "Waking Up To Racism." This article was difficult and painful for me to read. bell hooks has been a personal hero of mine since I was in college, living in a primarily African-American dorm dedicated to social justice work on campus. At that time, I read her books obsessively and willingly applied her ideas to my mind like someone might use a pair of pliers, screwing and unscrewing certain nuts and bolts inside of me until the machine was drastically different. Franz Kafka wrote, "We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply... a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," and this is exactly what bell hook's writing has always done to me.

This time around though, it felt particularly personal, like an attack directed at me specifically (good ol' ego! I'm sure bell hooks is sitting in her office, envisioning my face and typing a criticism against me as w…

The Life of the Temple

I’m flying to San Francisco tomorrow! I have been in Japan for only five days, and I’m off again. After the Hossenshiki in Switzerland I traveled to France to visit my friend Jokei-san’s temple. Jokei-san is a French nun in her fifties whom I met at Nisodo. She is incredibly energetic and positive, but tough and no-nonsense in the best possible way. At Nisodo when I would be having some personal problem and thought it was the most important thing in the world, she would glare at me and say, in a thick French accent, “We have a lot of work to do and you are still thinking about yourself.” 
Jokei-san lives alone in what looks like a converted farm house, an hour’s drive away from the nearest train station. The center is small and very French, with stone walls, a big vegetable garden, and these amazing red flowers that stand tall on long stalks, like sunflowers, but more bell-shaped. The zendo has wood floors, no tans, and there is bread at every meal. Jokei-san works hard and seems to al…

Don't Throw Up In My Okesa

I'm in the Italian part of Switzerland, in a town called Ascona! Hold on while I go buy some gelato.

Okay, now I'm back and eating chocolate gelato. This is important to my spiritual development because I'm trying this new thing where I just enjoy the simple things around me and don't make everything so difficult and serious for myself. The Italians already have this figured out. When we checked into our hotel today, the guy behind the counter said, "Technically I'm supposed to give you a single room and make you change to a double tomorrow, but I'm just going to give you the double for the whole time and not charge you extra because otherwise I have to change the reservation, and that means work, and work makes me unhappy."

I'm not sure why Buddhism exists in Europe, because there is limitless gelato, pasta, fine art, and rolling, green hills. The men smoke cigarettes casually and endlessly, scowl and have huge muscles. I'm not sure how these…

Relationships and Cultural Exchange

I've been living in Asia for almost six years now, but I have only recently begun thinking about the idea of "cultural exchange"-- mostly thanks to one of my brilliant student/friends from the study abroad program I worked on this fall who often spoke to me about cultural exchange and its challenges.

"For cultural exchange to work," he said one time to me, "Both sides have to want an actual exchange."

This might seem like an obvious statement, but its implications are important. When my student said this, he was referring to the experience of being a foreigner in Japan studying Japanese culture and religion. Japan was a "closed country" for centuries-- meaning foreigners were not allowed to enter, just as Japanese were not allowed to leave-- and though this changed over a century ago, Japan remains fairly isolated and racially monolithic. Western countries have a fascination with Japan, and there are lots of tourists who come here. But whil…

Politics "As A Buddhist"

My teacher often tells his students, “You can’t hold two things with one hand.” He usually says this kind of thing to rebellious students like me who are trying to divide our time and energy between the monastery and a more worldly, engaged kind of life. This is also his reasoning for why monks shouldn’t get married or have 9-5 jobs.
So I was surprised when I called him this week to bemoan my current state of monastic failure and he was eerily supportive. 
“I’m just a college student now,” I complained.
“Yes, but you’re studying Japanese as a monk.” We were talking in Japanese and he used a grammatical tense I didn’t know, として、which means “to do a role as something.” Ever since then I’ve been wondering what it means to do something as a Buddhist, or as a monk. Maybe it’s better just to be one thing and leave it at that— to not try to be a student as a monk or a politician as a Buddhist, but to just pick one role and do it well. But of course, what if I can’t chose? 
This week I read a fas…


When I graduated from college, my one goal was to get out of the United States. September 11th happened when I was a freshman in high school, and soon after that came a series of-- what I viewed as-- unjust wars, orchestrated by a president I despised. Although I was an Obama supporter, I was never swept away by the tide of Hope and "yes we can" spirit that hit around the year 2007. In my mind at that time, the system of the United States itself was too inherently flawed-- racist, patriarchal, predicated on unfair distribution of wealth and the exploitation of oppressed people, not to mention an electoral system that didn't even really seem to work-- to ever get too optimistic about the future of America.

And then, when I was a senior in college, this happened:

That's the stock market crashing in 2008.  It happened in October, and after that, there were no jobs... anywhere. I was supposed to be graduating in a few months and I couldn't get a job working at Starbu…