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 “shikata ga na.” “Shikata ga nai” means something like “nothing to do about it,” or “it can’t be helped.” This is a ubiquitous Japanese phrase, and not necessarily a Buddhist one. It’s used all the time, in the face of something you don’t want, or something you don’t want to have happen, but which happens anyway. For example: you’re walking to work, it starts raining, and you don’t have an umbrella. Shikata ga nai. You want to get hired at Google, but you don’t. Shikata ga nai.

Shikata ga nai has both positive and negative qualities to it. On the one hand, it can get used to ignore, erase, or move away from unpleasant things that the speaker is too lazy, uninterested, or incapable of dealing with. It’s a kind of complacency, of fatalism. For example: I ran over a dog today in my car. Shikata ga nai. Moral responsibility absolved! It’s in the past. Nothing to do about it. That’s the fatalistic, lazy side to the phrase. But on the other hand: I ran over a dog today in my car. That’s really sad. I feel terrible. But all conditioned things are impermanent, so shikata ga nai. In a certain light, shikata ga nai is just an acknowledgement of the noble truth of suffering. Because there literally is nothing to do about the dog, except say sorry and give it a proper burial. 

But it’s a slippery slope. I’ve started to notice that my teachers in the monastery, both men and women, say the phrase shikata ga nai to explain away behavior that is morally ambiguous but unavoidable— and therefore not so morally ambiguous after all (I will not be sharing the story about a young nun, a lost health insurance card, an immigration bureau, and a completely ridiculous bureaucratic loophole which necessitated lying. But you can imagine it). For example, I remember last year when I was at Nisodo, two younger, male Japanese monks from my teacher’s monastery showed up unannounced to say hello to me. An older nun came and told me that there were two  young men waiting for me in the parking lot.

I went to the parking lot and, low and behold, two of my young monk friends were in the parking lot, dressed in jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers. My jaw dropped. Before I could even greet them properly I said the Japanese equivalent of “What the hell are you wearing?!?” They laughed and said they were driving back home after helping out at the monastery, and wanted to say hello. You know. Just two guys swinging by the local Zen convent to say hello to a young nun. Nothing to see here. 

But what really irritated me was that they were monks and had showed up to a monastery— and not only a monastery, but a strict nun’s monastery— wearing their street clothes and not their robes. It was incredibly disrespectful. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even invite them in for tea, which is an even bigger social taboo, but whatever. I was pissed. Later that week, I called my teacher on the pay phone in the monastery and told him what happened.

“Can you believe they came without wearing kimono and rakusu?” I said.

Shikata ga nai,” he said. “They ended their practice at the monastery already.” The assumption was— they’re adults, they know the proper and improper way to do things, and there’s nothing we can do to make them act a different way. I was surprised he said this, because in five years I’ve never seen my teacher wear anything other than traditional Japanese monastic clothing. It’s kind of his thing. I don’t think he owns anything with a zipper. Like, not even a windbreaker. Not even a backpack. Still, he’s not about to tell two grown men what to wear when they’re not currently enrolled in his monastery. 

He was right, but I hate that. I think Westerners in particular have trouble accepting when “there’s nothing to do.” We want to think that we have agency and free will, that we can control our destiny, that we can become bigger and better human beings all the time, and that what’s more, everyone else should be bigger and better human beings all the time and if they’re not there’s something horribly wrong with them. 

I remember after I ordained, I was required to sit tangaryo for week. Tangaryo is the trial period where you have to sit zazen without moving for a week, except for bathroom breaks, meals, and sleeping. I was really worried before hand. Would I be able to sit without moving? I asked a monk in the monastery what to do if I had to move.

“Don’t move,” he said.

“But what if I really have to move?” I asked again.

“Don’t move.”

“But what if I really, really, really, have to move?”

“Well, then move,” he said. He didn’t say “shikata ga nai,” but he could have. 

This is the attitude I have carried with me since I ordained: I am going to sit for as long as I can without moving, and then I’m going to move, and not beat myself up about it. 

But can we say the same thing for the precepts? Is it enough to say, I am trying my best, but I am a human being, and it’s inevitable that I mess up? Is that just an easy way to get around moral responsibility? I don’t really know. This is the rationality behind drinking and marriage in Japan, as far as I can tell. The reasoning is that we are humans and this kind of stuff is inevitable, so we wake up within delusion. Or something like that.

The more I look into the precept about sexuality in particular, the more I think that “right sexuality” is actually impossible. Show me one sexual relationship in the entire universe without any pain or negative consequences and I will show you a unicorn. With a bachelor's degree. This is why the Buddha recommended celibacy for monks. And yet, here we are. Not celibacy, but “right sexuality,” whatever that means. We’ve reinterpreted this precept and now have to live with the karma. We’re all trying. We try our best to be open and honest, to communicate, to respect ourselves and others, to honor promises that we’ve made. But personally, I know I’m going to mess up. I know because I always mess up, and so does everyone else. The intention is not to harm and I try my best, but I don’t always succeed. I try not to move, but sometimes there really is nothing to do.

Is saying that enough? 


  1. After reading this I hear a unicorn stamp and whinny. Ah, the power of suggestion!

  2. i understand. for example for me it is really easy to hurt others feelings in intimate relationships. so if I will stop try to find a girl there will be no more hurted people. problem solved

  3. I feel a lot of tension wondering where the line is between acceptance and complacency.

    I think there's a natural tension between budddhist practice and social justice in that the whole point of social justice is that the world can be made better than it is and we should do something about it.

    There are times it feels overwhelming.

    I notice the same tension in other areas of my life, with my partner, with my work, with my hobbies, sometimes even with Buddhism as feeling pulled between "I want to accept myself and others as they are and not have expectations of change" and also wanting to see myself be the best I can and encourage others to be their best selves.

    I even feel tension about the tension: Part of me wants to accept it as part of the process and part of me wants to do things to make it go away. Part of me even wants to both at the same time "I''ll accept it and THAT will make it go away."

    I feel I should have some kind of conclusion or lesson or insight to draw or share from all this, but I don't.

  4. Very well written (as usual) As we struggle with yet another infidelity of a Zen abbot (at Zen Mountain Center), I find your thoughts relevant. Oh well, nothing can be done. It's the way it is...etc, etc etc. :(

  5. Another problem with the elusive line between acceptance and rationalization is that too much non-acceptance is counter-productive, too. Beating up ourselves too much about our moral failures make we feel bad, and it's a fact of human beings that when we're depressed, we have even less willpower – and easily fall prey to the same, comforting immoral habits. We end up like The Little Prince's drunkard, who keeps drinking as a way of comforting himself about his guilt about drinking.

    On the other hand, it's also very easy to use this as an excuse to keep doing the same wrong things. The only half-assed solution I can find is to do my best to sincerely think of other people, and always ask: ok, what can we do from now on so that this won't happen again? Kind of like the famous Christian's serenity prayer ("Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.")

    The rest of this post is personal/confessional in tone, I hope that's ok:

    I agree that no sexual relationship is free of pain. But I find pain in celibacy, too, and not just in a "so lonely, so horny" way. Sometimes people hit on me, and they're lonely, and I'm like: should I deny them the touch of my body, even though we both want it? Over potential future pain? If I'm to avoid every kind of hurting, shouldn't I juts kill myself for ultimate nirvana, since my very existence is predicated on the continuous murder of plants, insects, on the consumption of natural resources, the generation of tons of trash, not to mention foreign slave labor, surplus value et cetera? Actual intimate interactions with another human beings, even punctuated by the occasional conflicts, is so much more enriching to my life than resorting to the cheap escape valve of pornography and masturbation. Other people are full of dukkha, they never really do everything as I expect or fantasize, and then I realize that this is a problem of what I expect, not of other people; and they say and do things I could never predict, never fantasize, they're subjects, not toys, and these things they do as subjects make my short time in existence so much deeper and cooler. I guess I'm attached to other people, to the point where I'd be unable to endure monastic life. I'd just end up as Ikkyū, or as one of those famous Japanese gay monks.

  6. I am too worried about embarrassing myself to write any comments here!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down