Carrying the Teacher's Bags

This July, I am going to Europe with my teacher, my dharma sister, and a representative from the Soto Zen headquarters. There's a hossenshiki taking place and they want it to be officially registered with the Soto Sect in Japan, so my teacher is being called in to be the official guy in the fancy robes and hat who makes everything official (I think this is called "officiating"?). My dharma sister has been asked to give a class on goeka, the devotional Buddhist singing that we learn in the monastery. And I... well, I'm not really sure what I'm going to be doing.

When I asked my teacher what my role would in Europe, he told me, "You can be my Jisha."

"What exactly will that mean?" I asked.

He clarified, "You can carry my bags."

Being the Abbot's Jisha (personal assistant) is a sought- after position in most Zen monasteries. It's seen as an opportunity to observe close-up how someone with a lot of experience and expertise in Zen practice goes about his or her daily life. There's an assumption that through daily contact and observation, some learning, some kind of Zen osmosis takes place. The exact activity of personal assistants vary from monastery to monastery, but it usually entails carrying incense in the ceremonies, making tea, dealing with appointments, arranging transportation, carrying bags, etc. In Japan at least, not only the Abbot has a Jisha, but most people in high positions have at least one younger trainee assisting them.

When I first stated living in the monastery, being the Jisha was something I also sought after. I relished the opportunity to make tea, run errands, carry bags, carry umbrellas, and open and close car doors for older teachers. But now I'm not so in to carrying men's bags. There is obvious power difference between men and women, and so when I am carrying a man's bags or running to open the car door for him, I am complicit in that power dynamic which posits women in positions of service and silence. These days, I also get frustrated when I am asked to make tea or carry bags for men within the monastery context because it mirrors the frustration I have with men outside of the monastery context (I have an honor's degree in literature, am a published writer, lived in a Zen monastery for five years... and the most intriguing thing about me are my "eyes?!?" Sigh.)

So I feel profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to be Jisha in an all-female context as well-- to do the exact same menial service positions for women, and to see that women teachers in Japan expect their assistants to carry their bags and make tea, too.

Being Jisha is a skill and an art. Another word like "Jisha" that gets used in the monastery sometimes is "Anja," 行者, which combines the characters for "to go" and "person." The Anja is the running person, because that's literally what it means. She's the person who moves when a job needs to be done.

At Nisodo, there are four different ryos, or work groups, which nuns stay in for one Ango at a time, before rotating to a different group. Ideally, trainees experience all four ryos, multiple times, before leaving the monastery. One group was called "Anja Ryo," which trained people how to take care of teachers. I was in Anja Ryo three different practice periods, and I learned how to answer phones using polite Japanese, how to greet guests, how to make and serve tea and sweets in a beautiful way, and generally how to be pleasant and useful, which is something that doesn't come second nature for me. Every teacher in the monastery had a different schedule or set of things we needed to do for them (some liked green tea, some liked coffee, some needed help setting up their futons, some didn't...) and it was our job to remember these details and perform them perfectly when the teachers came.

At Nisodo, I was taught how to be Anja with a very proscribed form, or script. When I was assisting the abbess, for example, I would wait outside her door, already dressed, before the wakeup bell sounded at 4am. When the bell rang I would knock, open the door, bow, and say in the most polite Japanese, "May I be allowed to opportunity to put away your futon?" I would put away her bedding, and then help her put on her okesa. If she needed to bring incense or anything special to the ceremony I would bring that. In the Zendo, I'd sit behind or beside her, and put her shoes away. All of these actions were prescribed and detailed before hand, down to a point. After morning service, she would come back to her room, light three sticks of incense (always three, and I would put them on the altar the night before) and chant the heart sutra. Then we would bow to each other and say good morning. I would help her take off her okesa, fold it, and then serve otto, which is a tea made with pickled plum, honey, and hot water. During breakfast I would sit next to her and pour tea for her. After breakfast I would make matcha. It was the exact same thing, every single day.

Over the years, being Anja became easier, and more natural. It became less a set of rules and procedures I needed to follow, and more a natural way of being polite and respectful with older people. Yet having that form to follow was crucial so that it never became about me, or about the person I was "serving." It was mostly about fidelity to the form, which in turn had the benefit of aiding the person I was assisting, and also allowing me to have the opportunity to learn things I never would have otherwise, like how to make matcha, what an honest-to-god-inka stamp looks like, how to fold an okesa perfectly, etc.

These kinds of assistant jobs work better when they are not personal, when it's not about being someone's favorite, or being special, or having some kind of emotional connection. At Nisodo the job rotation was very rational and systematic. Every position, even the abbess' personal assistant, rotated three times a year, so there was no way to point fingers and claim that anyone was the abbess' favorite.

And yet, of course, there are times when the "personal" breaks through the cracks in monastic form. Because at the end of the day, it's always human beings trying to get through their day together, trying to practice together, trying to interact in the most skilled way we can. The form is there to help us relate skillfully, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Recently, I had dinner with one of the teachers at Nisodo, a ninety-year old nun named Kito Sensei who I've written about before. When I was with her, I instinctually went to carry her bags and open the taxi door for her. Since we were outside the confines of the monastery, she was embarrassed, and apologized that I had "become her Jisha." I got the sense that she didn't want me to be talking to her in the most polite Japanese, that she wanted me to be more casual and intimate, like a friend. But I couldn't do it, even though I wanted to. She's ninety years old, I respect her too much, and it's too engrained in me now to open the door for her and carry her bags. Any other way of behaving to her would feel kind of vulgar.

I admire Kito Sensei greatly, but I'd rather respect her. Admiration makes people want to move closer to each other, but respect makes us want distance. And although I like intimacy, although distance can feel forced and cold, more and more it feels to me like the right thing to do.

Respect for me is in and of itself a challenge. So when I'm in Europe my practice will just be carrying an older man's bags. I'm not sure if it's degrading, or a "good practice opportunity," or just an obligation, or none of the above. But as in zazen, the burden is on me, not on anyone else. This practice requires over and over again letting go of the idea that I need to force things to be any other way than what they already are right in front of me. How I deal with that unsatisfying reality is up to me.

I hate that. I wish it were a different way, but I don't think it is.

And if worst comes to worst, at least there will be beautiful mountains, and Swiss chocolate, and gelato. And maybe cheese. I hope there's good cheese.


  1. I think I can understand the aversion to personal relationships outside of the form with those whom you consider teachers, but because my legs so far have not carried me into a practice period or a week-long sesshin, I've never had a relationship with a Zen teacher that was anything but informal. That's just me, I guess, supposing that I need to teach myself until the day I can follow the kind of form they offer in Japan. I think you're very talented, to have been able to follow that form for five years. I think I'm kind of slow, to still be teaching myself so many years after I first started. I hope your talent serves you well in Europe. I hope my legs teach me something I didn't already know!

  2. I'm sure there are lessons to be learned from all events and situations.

  3. There is a lot of really good cheese over there!

  4. I REALLY like your thoughts trying to sort out women and Buddhism no matter the lineage! Thank you for even mentioning it. And, here's an article you and your followers may like! I am looking forward to hearing how it goes!!!


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