Death and Taxes

Yesterday I paid my taxes for the first time. Hurray for me!

I didn't really need to pay my taxes. My income last year hovered right at the poverty line, and I used most of it to pay for college tuition. Since I'm poor, I am a prime candidate for Not Having to Pay Taxes, but-- you know what? This is the first time in my life I've even earned money that is taxable! So for me it's kind of a thrill. I decided to pay taxes just for fun.

Okay, by "fun" I mean "a valuable and worthwhile experience that might aid in my maturation into adulthood." For some reason, that sounds like fun to me.

I'm making light of this because this month I've been drowning in bureaucratic forms. I'm renewing my passport, changing visa statuses, changing my registered place of residence, applying for a scholarship, applying for next semester at school, and two or three other things that are too boring to even write down. There have been a lot of forms. This month, a friend of mine read Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki for the first time, and after reading it he asked me, “Dogen says we should avoid worldly affairs. What is the meaning of 'worldly affairs?'" My immediate thought was, “renewing my passport.” 

However, an unfortunate fact about adult life is the ubiquitousness of paperwork and forms; my passport expires and I have to renew it. As an immigrant or student living in a foreign country, this is even more true, because your status has to be at all times registered and monitored by the government. When Dogen was in China, he was a foreigner too, and I doubt he was free from registration forms. He had to have his ordination status registered, and historians do know that he was so displeased with being placed at the bottom of the monastery hierarchy that he even petitioned the emperor to get his Japanese ordination status recognized. When he got back to Japan, he somehow fundraised enough money to build and construct Eihei-ji, so there must have been some organization and planning happening in his brain. 

One of the things I was impressed to notice while serving as the assistant to two different Zen masters in Japan was that they were both absolute pros at bureaucratic forms. They were pros because they respected these forms. They did not fuck around with forms. There was not a single bone in their bodies that was like “I’m a Zen monk so SCREW IT! Ima toss this form and go to sit zazen all day!” All the monks in the monasteries needed to be registered; the head monk ceremonies needed to be documented the right way, and dues needed to be paid on time. Both of the abbots I assisted spent most if not all of their “spare” time filling out forms and writing letters. 

I came to see that organization, paperwork, and bureaucratic hoops are a practice, too. This fall, when I went to ask Aoyama Roshi for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship, she did it immediately. She didn’t procrastinate. First, she took out a piece of scrap paper, and wrote a rough draft. Then she got out nicer paper, the thin, beautiful hand-made Japanese paper (because she can’t type), and wrote out the body of the letter with ink. When it was time to put her official stamp on it, she practiced stamping a few times on a separate sheet of paper. I watched her stamp the letter, and she took a full minute adjusting the paper, getting the angle just right, before she put her ink on it. 

That form was a work of art. It wasn't just a hassle to get out of the way. It was her work, and her art, because that's what was in front of her. 

One of the reasons I left the monastery was because I began to suspect that there was a way in which I couldn’t become a full adult while living there. I never really had to make any decisions for myself; as long as I followed the schedule, I was given three meals a day and a place to sleep. I know “being an adult” must mean more than making money and paying taxes— there’s also something about being humble, knowing how to apologize, not blaming other people for your problems, and a lot of other emotional maturity stuff I haven’t worked out yet— but money and responsibility is a big part, too. I wanted the experience of taking care of myself, without relying on my teacher, my parents, or even my community to act as a safety net. So for the first time in my life I’m attempting financial independence, and I’m doing all this nasty paperwork by myself.

Honestly though, forms suck, and I hate them. I procrastinate and stress. The experience makes me want to run away to the mountains, wear paper clothing and eat only lotus leaves. In a few days I’m going to my monastery for a week. There’s nothing I want to do more at this point than shave off all my hair, put on some long, shapeless black clothing, and go to a place where I spend hours staring at a wall, where I’ll be so tired and overworked that I won’t be able to think, let alone angst or stress, about my grades and my visa status. 

I hope one day for me, even forms and taxes can become an art and a spiritual practice. But that's not where I'm at. I still see the world in terms of "world renouncing" and "not," in terms of "worldly affairs" and "spiritual practice." I know this mentality isn't going to get me very far, because everywhere you go, there the bureaucratic forms are. I keep yearning for the monastery and I know this "monastery" is just an imaginary monastery I’ve invented, some ideal place of tranquility and peace that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. And yet even if that ideal place of Perfect Zen Peace and Enlightenment doesn’t exist, even if the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even if it’s bureaucratic forms and petty arguments all the way down, I can still dream. 

Maybe I'm stupid and naive, but I still want unconditional freedom. I trust that yearning because it’s enduring, and it's the thing in me which feels the most true. 


  1. Thank you so much for this inspiration. I'm so touched by your blogs/posts. I'm in the middle of moving back to SF Zen Center to live and work. But in the meantime, I have to uproot myself out of the UK back to the US with all the related paperwork, etc. Your post came at the right time. Sending bows to you, and I look forward to being back in the zendo and staring at the wall, Rita xx

  2. Can you write more about what unconditional freedom means to you, and how it's connected to practice?

    For me, there is some connection between necessity and happiness, and practice brings that relationship forward.

    If I clean my bowl, can I have an American dessert?

  3. I love the basic honesty that imbues your writing. Don't worry about growing up; it'll happen before you know it.

  4. What forms do the hermits in China's Zhongnan mountains have to fill out?
    Just because your experience with zen was within a large bureaucracy doesn't mean that creating a bunch of paperwork is somehow a virtuous spiritual practice.

    "Growing up" is not about unquestioningly going along with the worldly flow. If you encounter a bureaucratic quagmire, you can question it. Maybe you ought to question it.

    1. Dave,
      A look at the history of China and Japan reveals that Chan/Zen Buddhism was never entirely separate from the institutions (government, religious, etc) which surrounded it, but rather, interacted with and supported those institutions. Take, for example, the article "Ritual in Japanese Zen Buddhism" by T. Griffith Foulk. He writes, "Modern Japanese scholars have imagined a 'pure Zen' relatively free of Buddhist rituals for dealing with spirits and meeting the religious needs of lay patrons, which existed in the 'golden age' of the Tang dynasty, especially in the Hongzhou school and his disciple Baizhang Huaihai... This view of the Chan tradition in the "golden age" of the Tang, however, is difficult to square with the well-documented circumstances of the Chan school and the Soun Yuan dynasties. A large and complex body of the 'rules of purity' for Chan monasteries survives from those periods, and the text are inconsistent with the image of the 'pure Zen' monastery that modern historians think existed in the Tang." Although Dogen Zenji respected and revered mountain hermits, he was careful to advocate solitary hermitage only for incredibly advanced practitioners, which I am not.
      Besides, if I don't renew my Visa, I get deported.


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