What Attainments?

Kito Sensei, circa... a long time ago
Aoyama Roshi once said in a dharma talk that true selflessness is unaware of itself. True selflessness, she said, is like a person in a house up in the mountains lighting a lamp in their room; a traveler wandering through the valley below, who is lost and frightened in the dark, looks up and sees that light and feels comforted. The person lighting the lamp doesn't know someone else can see the light, doesn't know anyone feels comforted by it. That, she said, is true selflessness.

Two days ago I had dinner with a nun named Kito Sensei, whom I met when I was practicing at Nisodo. Kito Sensei is ninety years old and lives alone in a small temple in Nagoya. Kito Sensei was the muse for Paula Arai's book Women Living Zen, the only book I know on the subject of nun's practice in Japan. She features prominently in Arai's writings, including her second book, Bringing Zen Home. But beyond being mentioned in writing by a single academic, Kito Sensei is unknown outside of the small circle of women practicing Zen in Aichi prefecture.

Kito Sensei doesn't speak English and has never written a book. She doesn't have an advanced degree in Buddhist philosophy (I'm actually not sure whether or not she went to college), and though she's incredibly respected and has had transmission for decades, she doesn't even really give dharma talks. When she comes to Nisodo, she gives small, intimate lectures about the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, but these classes usually take place in the dining hall, not the zendo or the formal classroom, often culminating with tea or a snack she's brought.

The first time I met Kito Sensei was the first month or so I was practicing at Nisodo. As I've written about before, I was having lots of problems with my ankles due to a sprain the previous summer that hadn't properly healed. At Nisodo, everyone sits seiza for meals and lectures, and after a few weeks of this I ended up in the hospital (later I would see several Japanese women also end up in the hospital-- so it's not just Westerners who have problems with daily seiza!). When I got back from the hospital I still had to work, and I was pretty distraught about being made to work with an injured foot. No one offered me a chair or any kind of emotional support. It was pretty bleak.

I met Kito Sensei a few days after coming back from the hospital, when I was helping her run a sutra-copying class in the Buddha Hall.  At that time I couldn't walk properly, and sitting on the floor was quite painful, if not impossible. I must have looked physically uncomfortable, because within thirty seconds of being introduced to her, Kito Sensei asked me, "How are your legs?"

"They hurt," I said quite honestly. "I sprained my ankle a few months ago, and now they really hurt."

Kito Sensei was running the reception desk for the sutra-copying class, but she stood up immediately and walked straight out of the Buddha Hall. She came back in five minutes, carrying some medicinal patches, the kind where you peel of the plastic and stick the patch to your skin.

"Here," she said. "Put these on your foot. It's for pain. And don't worry about sitting seiza. You can sit however you like here."

Over the years, Kito Sensei's interactions with me were often like this. When I came to her room to say hello, she would slip me candy or even money, smile, then put one finger to her lips and go "Sssshhh!!"

But I wasn't special. I watched her interact with all of the training nuns and she was the same way with all of them. Even the nuns who I thought were arrogant or mean, she treated them the same way, as if they were worthy and good, and the only people in the entire universe who mattered.

Two days ago we had dinner. It was quite a funny experience scheduling a dinner date with a ninety year old Japanese nun, but we made it happen eventually, despite language barriers and both our ineptitudes with cellphones and sticking to plans. She picked me up in a cab and drove me to a restaurant she likes, and then treated me to one of those lavish dinners I only experience in Japan when some incredibly generous benefactor is picking up the tab.

Kito Sensei asked me lots of questions about school-- about my classes, my roommates, even what I eat for breakfast every day. I tried to ask her questions about Buddhism, but she seemed way more interested in talking to me about how delicious our noodles were, about what my roommates and I do on the weekends, and how "great" my Japanese has gotten. The one time I tried to bring up Dogen she either didn't understand or was too disinterested to respond.

Come to think about it, I've never heard Kito Sensei talk about koans, Dogen, or anything distinctly "Zen." I'm not even really sure that she sits zazen in her temple. I bet she still does morning chanting service, but I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't do that anymore either. I think most of how she spends her time is chanting in people's houses, and then sitting down with them and having a conversation, where she looks them in the face and smiles, and is really present with them.

But don't be fooled. Her whole life is Dharma, inside and out. It's just not something she really wants to talk to me about when we're eating awesome tempura, I guess.

When I hear people lament how Buddhist women in Asia "don't show their attainments," I always feel a little conflicted. On the one hand, it's true that social inequality and discrimination exist in a very real way in Japan, and men are probably more likely to stand up proudly and claim their rightful place on the pulpit (or whatever). But on the other hand, I'm not sure what Kito Sensei "showing her attainments" would even look like. I'm pretty sure she is the attainment in and of itself; she is showing her attainment twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in every action she does, and so anyone can learn from her at any time. To ask her to "show her attainment" would be redundant.

Maybe it's that you can't ask a Buddha about "Buddhism." Maybe you can't ask a tree to describe wood, just like you can't expect a person lighting a lamp in their room, high up in the mountains, to know exactly who's watching down below in the valley, or to understand what how the traveler in the valley, looking at that light, feels comforted and encouraged.

Is anything attained or not?


  1. Beautiful, I met an old monk like that in Hiroshima about twenty years ago; delightful. Thank you Gesshin for for sharing.
    gassho, Shikai

  2. "true selflessness is unaware of itself" I love the story of the light shining down from the mountain. Thank you.

  3. I love your Kito Sensei! Thank you so much for sharing her! I get the strong sense from your writings that it's not always easy...what your doing...studying the dharma in Japan...being a Buddhist nun in Japan and yet, I can feel the depth and richness of what you're experiencing. I feel your appreciation for whatever is placed in front of you. Thank you for sharing these tender and often intimate moments with your readers!

  4. Great post. This woman is a true Buddha. Thank you so much.

  5. .....simply beautiful. Thank you.

  6. I think my comment was eaten by blogger.

    I can see why you would make such an effort, and persevere through a broken ankle, on the chance that you might meet someone like Kito Sensei. That's a summary of the comment that disappeared.

    And my question to you: is there life after Japan, or not? ;)

  7. Thank you for sharing. Enjoyed the read. She seems like a joyful person.

    -Rob (bookofhaiku.blogspot.com)

  8. Reading this beautiful post about Kito Sensei is very encouraging. I came late to Zen and have practiced regularly for the past 5 years. I also work full-time-- often more than 40 hours per week-- and now I ask, "what is my purpose?" with a little more possibility than I used to allow when I asked this question. I'm 60 years old already, so I'm on the downhill slope of my life. Kito Sensei brings joy to people in the seemingly simplest of ways, yet reading about her brought tears to my eyes. Your description reveals exactly what you said: "But don't be fooled. Her whole life is Dharma, inside and out." You both have a fan in Austin, TX.

  9. I think it is a bit unfair or biased to point out wisdom of poeple who don't speak about Buddhism although they have practiced Buddhism all their lives. From that point of view, master Dogen was crazy and lacked wisdom as he was / as it seems, obsessed with writing about and teaching Buddhism. I think somebody has to do this dirty work and write and talk and explain Buddhism. The problem is when somebody puts their ego first and then talks. Kodo Sawaki probably sounded very confident and even arrogant, but he only served Buddha Dharma, not his own ego. On the other hand, I love your articles, their purpose is showing sincerely your Japanese Buddhist monk experience / selflessly / and they would definitely make a great book a nd probably will.


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