Don't Move

A few months ago in the monastery where I ordained I approached my dharma sister, a forty year old Australian nun who, like me, has lived in Japanese monasteries for several years. I forget what exactly we were doing-- I remember we were wearing robes--, and what prompted my question, but in any event I walked up to her and asked, “Would you say that 95 percent of your practice here is endurance?”

She looked at me, expressionless, and said with her stoic, deadpan Australian accent, “99 percent.” 

Endurance-- or patience, if I'm being optimistic-- has always been a big part of my practice in Japan. I think it is for people practicing Zen anywhere. We sit with the instruction not to move, and we do this with varying degrees of success through pain, stiffness, itchiness, boredom, restlessness, heat, cold, nihilism... oh, and the list goes on! We feel bored and keep sitting anyway. Our legs hurt and we keep sitting. Uchiyama Roshi wrote that if we cannot sit zazen, simply waiting is a good enough substitute. Because when you think about it, a lot of zazen is just sitting and waiting for the bell to ring! (God, that sounds horrible. Am I doing this all wrong?)

So I do think that waiting and patience is a big part of Zen practice for anybody. Yet I also know that there’s a particular kind of endurance reserved for foreign women within Japanese monastic institutions; this is because the people we interact with in the monastery on a daily basis will inevitably treat us like servants, at worst, and at best treat us like daughters or hapless yet lovable younger sisters. 

There's no winning this. This isn't San Francisco. There's not going to be a feminist or social justice movement that will penetrate the innermost sanctuaries of Japanese Soto Zen. Ever. I'm not going to change anybody's mind. Ever. I used to think I could change people's minds by being the best, most hardworking, most badass foreigner around, but I don't think this any more. And what's more, "changing people's prejudices" is a pretty terrible motivation to practice.

Sawaki Kodo Roshi wrote, "Religion is not for changing the external world. It is for transforming our eyes and ears, our habitual ways of perceiving and thinking." One of the most fundamentally empowering developments I've had over the last years here is the realization-- not merely intellectually, but actually embodied on a daily basis-- that my own individual effort and work is what is most important. Whether or not anyone else thinks I am lazy or spoiled or incompetent or too American or too emotional or whatever other insult people can think of, what matters most is my own work and my own practice. No one else can practice or live for me, so looking outside and critiquing other people-- from very real social injustices to personality flaws-- doesn't really help me so much.  A better use of my time is to focus on learning, studying, and embodying the things I have capacity to learn, study and embody. It has been wonderful to develop practice that doesn't really depend on what's going around outside. 

And yet of course, it can get exhausting. I do get exhausted.

I get exhausted when there are no avenues to register complaints about real imbalances of power; when I am denied work I am just as qualified or more qualified to do than others; when only the men are allowed to sleep in the Zendo while women sleep in normal rooms; when people tell me Japanese have different internal organs than Americans. The list goes on. For the most part, I take these tiny microagressions and try to let them slide. I try to focus on my own breathing, on my own work, on sweeping and drying dishes and weeding. I try to not look up or around. 

I believe there is liberation in that. Sometimes there's a moment when I have been enraged and exhausted for so long, and then a spaciousness develops and I can let whatever is happening go. I feel light and free. I can go back to weeding. I can just weed or sweep and that's enough. And sometimes I am only exhausted and enraged. Both experiences happen. 

At most Zen monasteries in Japan and in the West now too, before new monks and nuns are allowed to enter a practice period, they are required to sit a trial period known as tangaryo. In tangaryo, you sit zazen all day without moving for a week, breaking only for meals and the bathroom. Since half or full lotus can be uncomfortable enough for a forty-five minute period, doing this for a week straight can be agonizing.

After I ordained, before I was going to start my tangaryo at the monastery, I asked my teacher, "What do I do if I have to move?" A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture. 

"You can't move," he said.

"But what if I really have to move?"

"Don't move," he reiterated. 

"But what if I really, really have to move?"

"Well, then you move." 

It sounds so simply when it's laid out like that, doesn't it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don't move, and don't move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment-- a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can't anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it's the only thing left to do. 


  1. I appreciate the entire paragraph about winning and changing peoples minds....anyone's except for our own. No judge. No authority. Not really.
    Thank you for this! (actually, I appreciate the post in its entirety!)

  2. When did the Dharma gate of joy & ease turn into 99% endurance?
    I've been sitting for 40 years and endurance is not the attribute I want my practice to cultivate. Dogen insisted zazen is not a means to an end; endurance has this grindstone -like connotation of endlessly wearing down (if not wearing out) the "self" towards what end, which we arrive at when? Maybe great if one is running a monastery like a military academy to build character in feckless youth -but for middle aged grown-ups? Where & when do we make the transition to acceptance ---not to mention joy & ease?

    1. This emphasis on pain and endurance might have something to do with Westerners forcing ourselves to sit crosslegged on the floor after not growing up with that posture. Aging has brought me to sitting on a chair, and that seemed to lighten up my sitting quite a bit.

  3. I know Shunryu Suzuki said he was one who uses the bathroom frequently, and that worked in his favor during tangaryo.

    One of the two co-abbots of the Redwood Valley Abhayagira monastery and Bill Kwong at Sonoma Mountain both related incidents where they sat for four hours straight, the co-abbot on a concrete floor in the morning in Thailand, Bill Kwong during the all-night sitting at the close of Rohatsu sesshin. Rev. Kwong said he's never done it since.

    I'm always looking for the happiness apart from sense pleasures, apart from unskilled states of mind that Gautama reported he could find, for an entire day, or for an entire week. I did find myself comprehending the long and short of inhalation and exhalation the other day, which surprised me very much; I wrote a short piece about it, as a way to remind myself of the experience:

    Best of luck with your American conscience about the justice of gender equality and your desire to prove yourself at Zen in Japan on Japanese terms.

  4. I like your quote from Sawaki Roshi. Religion is not fundamentally about trying to change the world. Anyone who thinks they could would most likely be acting out of ego. And yet we see things in our socially engaged western Buddhism that makes me scratch my head sometimes. The Buddha didn't leave his wife and child and luxurious lifestyle and immediately go and start a soup kitchen; rather he did six years of grueling spiritual practice before he even contemplated the idea of teaching anyone. Truly, all work begins with work on oneself and I think this fundamental Buddhist idea is being diluted by a western Buddhism that needs materialistic tangible results so as to appear useful and authentic to society. I honestly believe that if you think you can change this world and make it a better place then you still have a lot of work to do and you should probably get back on the cushion.

  5. Gesshin Greewood,
    Just want to say thank you for your insights. Find them interesting and providing a flavor of life in Zen.
    Best wishes and blessings of light.
    Bruce from Oklahoma

  6. Thank you for your insights. Find then very interesting providing a flavor of life in Zen.
    Blessings of light.


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