Showing posts from January, 2015

Being a Japanese Monk

More than once someone in Japan has asked me if I'm "a Japanese monk." The first time was at Starbucks. I was minding my own business, drinking my latte and studying kanji, and I must have been wearing my Zen uniform because a female (foreign) student came up to me and breathlessly asked, "Are you a Japanese monk??"

The same thing happened again, yesterday, with a guy on my Japanese language program. "Wait. So are you like, a Japanese monk?" he asked.
"Do you mean... am I a Japanese person?" I tried to clarify. "Do you mean am I a Japanese citizen?" I was being difficult, but the question is really bizarre. Finally I relented. "I was ordained in Japan, yes."
"Okay," he said. "So you're a Japanese monk." 
This is a really weird question to me, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that in many ways, yes, I am a Japanese monk! But what I mean by "Japanese monk" is probably diffe…

Nothing To Do About It

I was sitting in my Japanese Foreign Policy class yesterday and had an epiphany (for the people reading this who don’t know, I’m enrolled in a university in Nagoya taking intensive Japanese language in the morning and regular academic classes in the afternoon). In the back of my mind were many conversations, essays I’ve read, and thoughts I’ve had about the nature of precepts in Zen Buddhism, and the unique way that Zen Buddhism accounts for, rationalizes, practices with, and does away with the precepts of celibacy, drinking alcohol, and even waging war. Sometimes I have to wonder: what’s wrong with us? As I listened to the professor lecture about the raise of Japanese nationalism in the early 20th century, and thought about Zen monk’s involvement in the war, it occurred to me that there might be a specific quality of Japanese culture that— in combination with universal human frailty— accounts for a lot of this moral ambiguity. 
The specific Japanese phrase that came to mind was “shika…

Being Poor On Purpose

I am going to try and write this blog post like I am not a privileged white person from an upper-middle class background (which I am) talking about how renouncing wealth is super noble and great and everyone should do it and be just like me. Because I recognize that some people are just trying to get by, trying to pay the bills, whereas I’ve had the great privilege of being able to choose whether or not I participate in the job market at all. Some people might not wanna hear me talk about this, but since simplicity and renunciation are such huge parts of Buddhist philosophy and practice, I feel the need to try anyway.
When I reflect on the history of Buddhism, it seems to me that the most famous Buddhist masters have been Asian men from wealthy backgrounds who chose to give up their socioeconomic status in order to pursue truth. To my reckoning, the history of Buddhism is primarily a history of formerly wealthy Asian men, and we’ve inherited that legacy, for better or for worse. As mor…

Religion, Violence, and Submission

This week, a female Zen practitioner in the States emailed me to thank me for my writing and to inquire about Nisodo, specifically if I thought it was a "healthy training environment."
I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. The health benefits of practicing in a women’s monastery are great! We eat brown rice porridge with a vegetables for breakfast, rice, soup and vegetables for lunch, and noodles and vegetables for dinner. There’s very little fat or meat in the diet. I sleep the best sleep of my life when I’m at Nisodo because I wake up at 4am and am constantly working throughout the day. 
But this isn’t what she meant. She was asking about psychological health, which is something I am simultaneously unqualified and VERY VERY qualified to talk about. I’m unqualified to talk about this because I’m not a doctor or psychotherapist, but I think I am qualified because I struggled with depression in high school and college, and now I don’t. I know how depression feels when it’s the…

If It's Not Fun I Don't Want To Do It

I'm writing this from the airport, getting ready to get on my flight back to Japan. I just spent two weeks in California visiting my family and friends, and now I'm going back to start Japanese language school and continue with that whole... you know... Zen thing. I hope it will still have me.
America was really fun! There was that coffee shop with animal heads on the wall and not one but two different coffee stations, one for fancy coffee and the other for really really fancy coffee. The British guy pouring hot water over the coffee had a timer in one hand, making sure to pour at correctly timed intervals. There was the deep dish pizza with sausage. There were tacos. There was L.A, and palm trees, and long streets filled with stores selling beautiful, expensive clothes. There was a movie. I was in a movie! I can’t act, but I was in a movie in L.A (it was filming in the living room where I was staying. It was not a porno. Really). 
I love America. I really do. It’s why I keep co…

No Precepts Observed, No Broken Precepts

I’m out of the monastery! And I’m in America! The land of vice and fun, apparently, especially if you are in your twenties. America’s a very easy place to have fun. I’m starting to remember why I went to a monastery in the first place. 
In Japanese, the a word for monastery that gets used sometimes is “sourin” (僧林)which combines the character for “monk” with the character for “forest.” The implication is that a monastery is a place where everyone lives closely together and helps each other grow up straight, like trees in a forest. Like trees packed together, there’s nowhere really to go except up (morally and spiritually). My experience in the monastery— and I’m sure I’m not unique— is that it’s very, very easy to observe all the precepts in that kind of environment. If you’re actually following the schedule and doing what you’re told, it’s basically impossible to break precepts, because bad behavior is impossible: there’s no sex (because everyone’s too tired, and/or another nun, and s…