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 different than what the people asking me think (actually I have no idea what people mean when they ask me). I think I'm a Japanese monk because I've picked up on a certain way of relating to religion and religious vocation that is (I hate to say it) Japanese, which has to do with how most people in Japan are conditioned to navigate their public and private selves. 

Most books about Japanese culture will mention something about "honne" (true motivation or true self) and "tatamae" (public self). A man will show his tatemae at work with his boss, and may (or may not) express his honne with his wife or a very close friend. There's an understanding, though, that the public self isn't actually any less true than the private self, even though the private self is technically most "real." The public self is true in the sense that it's enacted in relations to others; it's a social role that's performed in a necessary situation, in conjunction with the larger social fabric, and so in that sense it can't be said to be false. It's a self that's co-created with others, as opposed to existing on its own.

Social identity in Japan is very fluid. This is why you have young women dressing up on the weekends like this:

... only to take off their wigs and outfits on Monday to go to school or the office where they work. 

No big deal.

Religious identity is similar. Most people that I talk to here don't identify as Buddhist, even if they've grown up in a house with a butsudan altar, and go to Buddhist funerals with their family. Religious activity is something you can participate in without even believing in it, without having to change some core part of yourself. Religious activity is in many ways "just" a social role. 

Religion in the West seems different. We "convert" to and "join" religions, and this signifies that an essential, core aspect of our true self has been changed by said religion. We're "born again" through religion, born into the identity of an entirely new person. This is not my relationship to Buddhism at all. The phrase "convert Buddhist" seems oxymoronic to me. It weirds me out when people ask me when I "converted" to Buddhism or how I "joined" my monastery... When did I convert? And better yet, when did I join a monastery? (For the record: I just showed up. And I keep showing up.)

It's well known that most monks in Japan get married, eat meat, and drink alcohol. This has caught on in the West now, too, and from the conversations I've had in the States it seems like there is some kind of confusion or identity crisis-- or deep questioning-- about what it means to be a priest. I think it's natural to ask what it means to be a priest (not to mention a "monk") if one is not celibate, and not living in a monastery. But my sense is that in Japan there is less of an existential crisis about what it means to be a priest. Religious identity is taken with a grain of salt. You can be married and a drunk and maybe even think Buddhism is stupid and still be a priest. This doesn't mean you're a particularly good or useful priest, but you're still a priest. Because being a priest can mean showing up on time in your robes with your shaved head and doing the ceremony or job you're supposed to be doing. And then going home. 

What I've learned about being a monk in Japan is that there are many, many forms it can take. You can be married with children, living in a temple and performing memorial services and funerals to make a living; you can be celibate in a monastery; you can be working in a monastery and commuting to your home temple and family a few days a week; you can be a school teacher; you can teach Buddhism academically in a University; you can work for the government; you can be a daughter of a monk who ordains and then wears a wig to her University classes and is dating a male monk who is training at Sojiji (that's my friend, by the way).

I think the fluidity of this social role can be both useful and harmful. Sometimes the fluidity goes to the extreme and manifests as monks who don't really care about Dharma. This is the big critique of Buddhist monks in Japan right now.  Last year I was hired out to serve tea at a branch of Eihei-ji during a big ceremony, and I remember going into one of the guest rooms with my tray of tea. The room was filled with cigarette smoke and there was money all over the ground because the monks were sitting around smoking cigarettes and counting (I guess) all the money they'd gotten or were going to donate. I had to step over piles of money just to find a place to put down my tea, and then everyone was way more interested in me than the actual tea. 

That's the extreme end of what it means to be a "Japanese monk." It means being a monk as a job, and nothing else. 

To be fair, not everyone is like this. I've been fortunate enough to have many, many teachers who are monks and nuns for life, who are poor, follow precepts and care deeply about Dharma, who wear robes and study deeply and try to treat everyone and everything with respect. But they're very rare, because the way they chose to live is very difficult.

I'm probably never going to become a business monk-- first of all, because I'm a chick, and nuns can't get rich off of Buddhism the way male monks do. More importantly, that's not what I'm after. But while you will you never see me in a cigarette-smoke filled room, counting my piles of money while I flirt with the young foreign nun who's come to serve me tea, I most definitely understand how being a monk (or priest) can be a social role, something that can, in a sense, be taken on and off like a layer of clothing. Being a monk in Japan-- or being a "Japanese monk"-- mostly means acting out a particular kind of service position, with Buddhism as the foundation .

Because at its basic, most fundamental level, a Japanese monk is just someone who has shaved their head and taken precepts from a certified teacher. That's it. The choice of what to do with that ordination, what direction to take it-- whether to be poor or rich, married or unmarried, to sit zazen or not--, is mostly up to you.

This is a poem I like, written by a Japanese monk in 1980, from the book "Japanese Temple Buddhism":

I am a priest.
Wearing my robes, my prayer beads in my left hand, I ride my bicycle.
I go from house to parishioner's house and chant sutra.
I am a priest.
I have a wife, I have a child.
I drink sake, I eat meat.
I eat fish, I lie.
And still, I am a priest.
A dirty, too dirty, priest.
When I call upon parishioners and accept their donations,
is that not theft?
Oh, the five precepts that Shakyamuni kept,
I have broken them all.
But yet, I am a bodhisattva.
I travel the path of the bodhisattva.
I have faith in the Dharma, I sit in the palm of the Law.
I live in the Dharma, I live amongst the people.
Within endless life, I practice the way.
Hand in hand with other practitioners, I proceed down
this peaceful path, this path without equal
the path of Truth, the bodhisattva path.
I am filthy, and I have broken all of the five precepts but,
but, because of the Dharma, all will become Buddhas.
That path, that bodhisattva path.
I am standing on that path.


  1. I love your writing. I also love the poem you included at the end.

  2. I continue to appreciate how you think, and then, write about things. You have such a healthy and honest way of looking at your life. I guess I see you as a Zen nun, trained and currently living in Japan. How could it not be that some might call you a Japanese Zen monk?

    There are all kinds of people...everywhere. I think (and pray) that the "holier than thou" image of a priest/nun are on the wane. I've wanted to be a nun since I was a little girl. Growing up in a very strict Irish/catholic family. First, I wanted to be a Franciscan nun, then, the singing nun (like my 2nd grade teacher, Sr. Immaculata).
    My two older brothers talked me out of it, murmuring homophobic fears. Last year, after 20 plus years of Buddhist practice and refuge in the Tibetan lineage, I found Zen in my own backyard, and it has changed my life!

    I took Jukai last spring; taking up the way of the precepts and the bodhisattva vow, and to me, this was the same as: 1) marrying myself to my true inner nature and 2) taking the vows as a lay practitioner. And, in my own mind, I am a Zen priest/nun in street clothing. And, of course, this is a secret (accept that you know now), a commitment I've made to myself and the universe, "for as long as time endures".

    I've discovered and accepted, fairly recently, that I cannot be managed, for I am not a horse. We manage horses. In this discovery, I also accept that my inner authority is where the truth lies. I say this, because I go back and forth with whether I'd like to move in a direction that would include becoming a Zen priest/nun and, at the same time, I understand that, it's my daily intentions and motivations that move me forward on my path.

    You, my friend, are doing beautiful work!

    This is the path.

    In gassho,
    Mary Myotai

  3. I'm not sure I understand the video at the end of the post. What is happening in it?

    1. It's a video of one monk from the monastery formally leaving, with his wife by his side. He's wearing the traditional outfit for when monks leave the monastery (though usually wives don't come to pick their husbands up!).


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