Like Water

 I haven't updated in a while because I've been feeling uninspired and somewhat discouraged. I even went so far as to tell several of my friends and family members that I was "done with Buddhism." I was getting to this place where I recognized how much I've projected my hopes and dreams onto this tradition, and felt very keenly that Buddhism isn't actually so different from any other religion. There are groups doing the same, prescribed activity together, there's belief, there's a practice based around the hope of future salvation or happiness, there's an ethical and social code. There are leaders who are enlightened/ authorized/ mature on one end of the spectrum, and people who are hapless/ unenlightened/ immature on the other, and who thus depend on the former category of leaders to substantiate and legitimize their spiritual growth. 

Gross. Give me my projections back.

I've been jogging a lot lately, and it makes me feel incredible. So I got to thinking: if I have vigorous exercise that makes me feel great, zazen, and a pretty good personal ethical system, do I really need this whole Buddhism thing? What's the use of "Buddhism" if I can be happy without it? I expected this to be a liberating question, but instead, it made me profoundly depressed, because the last ten years of my life-- and especially the last five-- have been utterly devoted to this practice.

But then this morning, in between sleeping and really waking up, I remembered the promise I made to myself when I ordained. The precepts for monastic ordination in Soto Zen Buddhism are the same as the equivalent ceremony for lay people, so there are no specific rules or vows for monks and nuns. However, what that ceremony personally meant to me, what I promised to myself when I shaved my head, was that Buddhism was going to be the focal point of my life.

I didn't vow to wear monastic robes. I didn't vow to shave my head my whole life. I didn't vow to be celibate or live in Japan or be poor or obedient. I didn't even vow to leave home. What I did do was receive the Sixteen Precepts and promise to make dharma practice the center of my life.

As soon as I remembered that, I felt as if something hard inside me had melted. It was an incredible relief, to feel space open up inside of me where before was a kind of closed, hard finality. Recognizing that my promise was about personal commitment-- and not about being perfect, good, or wearing, believing, or thinking anything specific-- gives me incredible freedom to continue practicing. When my promise to myself is about commitment, and not about perfection or a certain type of thinking, then the practice can be alive. It can move, change shape, and grow. It can continue.

When I was at Nisodo, I worked in the kitchen five months out of the year, every summer. The summer Ango is the most difficult Ango because it's the longest, and temperatures in the kitchen can rise to 35 degrees. There are no fans, air conditioning, and the kitchen crew works all day long on their feet. It's grueling, and since you're sleeping in a room with the same five women you work with, personality clashes are inevitable. The second summer I worked in the kitchen, I got in some really horrible, awful, screaming arguments with another nun.

It got so bad that I almost considered leaving, so I went to Aoyama Roshi for advice. She told me that I needed to become "like water." Then she asked a Japanese nun to translate one of her essays on the subject, called "Like Water, Like Air," into English. I helped edit the translation and typed it up on my computer. This is an excerpt:

The most important thing in Zen practice is to practice “no self.” Dogen Zenji said, “Even if you sit zazen until the floor breaks, if your zazen is from the ego then all your effort will be in vain.” 
I’d like to use the following metaphor of water and ice. Water and ice are the same material, but ice is solid, and if water freezes in a cup you cannot put it into another container. If you try by force, both the cup and the ice will break. But water can be poured into any cup; it can flow through any tiny space. Water does no damage to its container. If you are using water to wash the floor, water becomes dirty in order to make the floor clean. 
If you are like ice, then you can make other people turn to ice. Flowers and fish will freeze, too. But if you are like water, fish can live, people can swim, and boats can sail by...
Since we are all imperfect people, we often collide with others. On such occasions, we usually blame the opposite side. But think about it: if one side is like water, there is no conflict at all. If any trouble happens, it’s clear both sides are being like ice. So we can say that if seeing another person’s “ice” makes you realize you are also like ice, you can bow to that other person’s ice as Buddha. 
If you do not realize that your selfish “ice” is harder and bigger than someone else’s, I think you cannot learn, or follow the Buddha’s wisdom, and your ice cannot be melted.  

At the time, I thought "becoming like water" meant not taking myself so seriously and learning to not be "right" all the time. And of course, this is part of the teaching. But now I see that being "like water" is about much more than just avoiding conflict and arguments.

The word for "Zen trainee" in Japanese is unsui, which means "clouds and water." In the olden days, monks would travel from monastery to monastery with no fixed abode, and so they were thought to be like clouds and water, constantly in flux. "Clouds and water" is about physical transience, but also a kind of mental flexibility. This is the mind I want to have: a mind that keeps moving, that flows.

The mind that gives us space and flexibility to change our shape is a mind like water, and that's the mind I want to have. I don't want to be stuck in one way of being or viewing the world. I want to be in the position that is always moving. When I thought I was "done with Buddhism," the sad and painful part wasn't that I thought Buddhism was insufficient; the pain came from deciding, and knowing with certainty, that I was "done."

I do still want to take back my projections. I don't want to depend on external approval for my sense of self-worth. I want to stand on my own two feet. But I also want to be like water. I need to be like water, because it's too painful to be hard like ice. Can I "listen to myself" and "stand on my own feet" while still being selfless like water?

Actually, I think I can. I can "listen to myself" and still flow like water in the same way that I can hear the sound of a mountain stream. Just because it's flowing and constantly changing doesn't mean it's not there, and that I can't listen to it. And just because it's there doesn't mean it can't keep flowing and flowing and flowing.


  1. Without a fixed self, what is commitment? Who took precepts 10 years ago and wants to stick with it today? The same self?

    Who is really committing, and what is the direction of the commitment?

  2. A crisis of faith, as it were, can provoke a valuable reset for us. May the experience strengthen your practice.

  3. your practice is maturing!!! you are a fantastic spirit! keep trusting!!

  4. Great Faith - Great Doubt - Great Determination!

  5. Hi Gesshin,

    I agree so much with what was said about a "crisis of faith". It is a chance to come through a be stronger. I experienced it many times in the early years (not now). It is not unlike a marriage, in which anyone sometimes may think of heading for the door. But if one can get through, appreciate, see things in a new light ... the result is a often a bond so much stronger.

    Don't walk away too easily.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

  6. “…But I, by this severe austerity, do not reach states of further-men, the excellent knowledge and vision befitting the ariyans. Could there be another way to awakening?

    This, Aggivessana, occurred to me: ‘I know that while my father, the Sakyan, was ploughing and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, aloof from pleasures of the senses, aloof from unskilled states of mind, entering on the first meditation, which is accompanied by initial thought and discursive thought, is born of aloofness, and is rapturous and joyful, and while abiding therein, I thought: “Now could this be a way to awakening?”‘ Then, following on my mindfulness, Aggivessana, there was the consciousness: This is itself the Way to awakening. This occurred to me, Aggivessana: ‘Now, am I afraid of that happiness which is happiness apart from the sense-pleasures, apart from unskilled states of mind?’ This occurred to me, Aggivessana: ‘I am not afraid of that happiness which is happiness apart from sense-pleasures, apart from unskilled states of mind.’”

    (MN I 246-247, Pali Text Society MN I pg 301).

    This passage has reassured me for years; I offer it to you.


  7. Water is pretty powerful. It can exert tremendous pressure and go its own way even as it fills what channels or containers it encounters.

    Hang in there! Whatever "hang" and "there" is...


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