Today I was waking up from a nap, dozing in that in-between state between sleeping and waking, while Beyonce’s song “Halo” was dripping through my consciousness. I think I watched the youtube video of that song in the morning, and like any catchy pop song, it stayed in my brain most of the day, even through my nap. As I was waking up and thinking of this song, I had a memory of being in Kyoto this fall, when I was a teaching assistant on a Buddhist study abroad program. The memory was of a particular dinner with some of the students, who were all about twenty-years old, when one guy led me on a crash-course review of what I’d “missed” in the last three and a half years while I was in the monastery.
He told me about ISIS, and about Beyonce releasing her “visual album” without advanced notice, and how the shock and awe of the Beyonce-mania overloaded Twitter, causing it to temporarily crash. Lots of other things happened in three years that had nothing to do with Beyonce, but this is what I remember my student thinking was important to tell me about.
When “Halo” popped into my mind, I realized that there was a time not so long ago, and by “a time” I mean several years worth of time, that I didn’t know or care about youtube videos, or Beyonce, or crazy marauding torturing squads in the Middle East burning people alive in cages. The Boston City bombing happened while I was at Nisodo and I had no idea about it until almost a year later, when I bought a “Times Year in Review” magazine at the Nagoya train station. The March 11 tsunami also happened when I had just first entered my teacher’s monastery, and even though I was in Japan at the time, I never saw any of those horrifying videos of rising water and destroyed houses until much later, because there was no television and no access to the internet.
When I left Nisodo in August, what followed was a slow re-education (or de-education? Not sure) process. I’m not sure what direction the progress or learning or unlearning has happened, but suffice it to say, I am definitely not in a monastery anymore. I’m basically a normal college student, although one with really really really short hair, who sometimes wears funny black clothes.
I have been throwing myself into language study. The Japanese language is incredibly demanding, and I spend most of my time now alone, studying kanji, or at the gym, or trying to work my way through gnarly grammar worksheets. I go out with my friends on the weekends. Sometimes I actually forget that most of my twenties have been spent either doing physical labor or staring at a wall. But then other times I do remember, and I am overwhelmed by the strangeness of it, and a bizarre sadness and nostalgia, even as I don’t regret for a single day having left, and moving on, and trying to forge a life for myself where I make my own choices and stand on my own two feet.
It’s a strange feeling, missing something you are glad to have left. William Faulkner wrote that the “human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about. I wish I knew how to articulate how something could be both awful, difficult, weird, good and meaningful, all at the same time, and I don’t know how to explain how missing the monastery comes in waves, in tiny bursts, catching me off guard when I am waking up from a nap, singing a Beyonce song— of all things— to myself.
While I was in the monastery, my assumption was that, because practice = enlightenment, monastery practice should be for life. And if you are not in a monastery, then you should at least be practicing like you were in a monastery, because the focus of Dogen’s writing is about living and working with others.
Now, of course, I can’t think that. Not just because that would mean I’ve failed— and I don’t believe in failure in spiritual practice— but I don’t think Dogen was saying that we should , or must, do anything necessarily. His writing points towards questions as much as towards answers. The Buddha definitely laid out the Eightfold Noble Path as a guideline of how to go through life, but the things he is talking about are mostly qualities of the mind and not exactly behavioral limitations and forms.
But I don’t know. I really don’t. The question I kept asking myself when I left the monastery and startle to mingle again with society was, “What if what the Buddha said was literally true?”
And now what I’m asking myself is, “What if it’s not?”
But despite all the doubt and mixed emotions, I do know that I need practice. I don’t know what practice is, not really, but I know, with certainty, that I need it— the way people know they need water.
When I did my head monk ceremony at Nisodo, the koan I picked to debate was “Joshu Washes His Bowl.” The case is this:
A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then go wash your bowl.”
I chose this koan because I thought it was a good summary of monastery life. I liked that it was simple and direct, pointing to the mundane activity of living. But Aoyama Roshi pointed out to me that the meaning of this koan is much deeper than just an admonition to clean up after ourselves.
She explained to me that human beings naturally know to eat when hungry and drink when thirsty, but it’s more difficult to know how to nourish our hearts and minds. This is why we practice. And like eating and drinking, practice is something that continues until we die. So no matter our level of understanding, realization, or interest, we still wash our bowls; we still practice.
The Japanese way, at least, is to practice first physically, without focusing on understanding. If practice and enlightenment are like the relationship between legs and the torso, then practicing with the body is taking a step forward; enlightenment follows after, but isn’t entirely separate. First comes taking the actual step with your leg. You don’t have to worry about the body following or not, you don’t have to worry about enlightenment or not; you just go, you just walk. And then you keep walking; that’s washing your bowl. Even though you thought you were done, practice is still there, wanting to be practiced.
It’s bizarre to not know what practice is, but to know that I need it. What I mean when I say “I don’t know what practice is” is that I still don’t know what the difference is between working in a garden in a monastery, and working on a “normal” farm, or washing dishes at home verses washing dishes in a “practice situation.” Washing dishes is the same physical action whether you are a monk or a housewife, so why is one Zen practice and one domestic work? I’m still unclear. But despite being unclear about practice, I’m pretty sure I need it— the way I need water without knowing why, or how exactly it works. Like Pablo Neruda when he wrote, "I love you without knowing how, or when, or where from."