What Is This Practice?

A book entitled
The Practice of Becoming an Adult
Recently I started a new Japanese language summer intensive, and since there's no college credit awarded for this shorter program, my Japanese language teacher suggested I just study the things I'm interested in and not worry about grades. Fantastic advice! So of course I dived in and tried to translate some impossible Buddhist text-- an essay written by the abbess of Nisodo-- because I don't know how to take things slow and review basic grammar like a practical person. Later, I showed my translation to my Japanese teacher who frowned, and warned me that the text was "too difficult." He said that even Japanese high schoolers probably can't understand it. But whatever! Here's the first paragraph, and maybe I can translate the rest in two or three years:

The Practice of Becoming an Adult
By Aoyama Shundo Roshi
Leadership practice-- for example, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children, a master who trains disciples, a teacher who cultivates students, a senior who cultivates juniors-- what is this practice? Among all of the challenges with children, disciples, and juniors, and also the most important I think, is the practice of conceding, of losing, of approving of the other person, of seeing our own faults, and being able to respect those who are below us. In other words, this is like training to overcome ourselves. Because even if we overcome someone else, we will lose to ourselves. The first time we overcome ourselves, we can concede to others, we can lose to others. 
The first sentence in Japanese is:


Anyone who has taken a class called "Special Important Key Zen Words" may recognize the characters 修行 shugyo, which is usually translated as "practice," as in Zen or spiritual practice (and anyone who can read Japanese can see that I've added an extra "practice" after "what is this?"). The first character 修 means discipline, and the second character 行 means thing, go, action or behavior, so there is a connotation of asceticism with this kind of practice.

Japanese people are often at a loss for how to translate "shugyo" into English. When I showed this translation and the original to my Japanese language teacher, he looked at me and said, "What is shugyo?" I remember a senior nun at Nisodo struggling with this question too. "How do you say shugyo in English?" She asked me several times. She seemed incredulous when I told her the word meant "practice."

Part of the problem is that the word "practice" in English translates back into Japanese as 練習 renshu, which is the kind of practice one might do with homework, violin, or a speech you need to give the next day. So if I say the word "practice" in English, in Japanese this brings to mind a kind of repetitive, goal-oriented exercise, which is different than spiritual practice. In other words, (Zen) practice and (violin) practice are homonyms in English, but they're not in Japanese.

To make things more complicated, there is a homonym for shugyo in Japanese (by the way,  homonyms are two words that sound the same but mean different things). "Shugyo" in Japanese can either be the shugyo 修行 above, or shugyo spelled this way: 修業. In the second kind of shugyo, the second character is 業 instead of 行, and though it's pronounced the same and also means training, the nuance is very different.

The difference between the two kind of shugyos was explained to me this way: one shugyo (修業) is the kind of training that ends: for example, a course of study at a University. There's a beginning and an end. The second kind of shugyo (修行), which is the subject of the essay above, is endless. There is no mastery because it is a process that continues indefinitely.

So when Aoyama Roshi writes, 子供を育てる親になる修行, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children, she is in a certain way conflating spiritual practice with parenthood. I suppose another way to translate this might be, "training to be a parent," or "the practice of parenthood," or "training to be a parent who raises children." It's an interesting-- and awkward-- way to phrase it, isn't it? Normally we don't think about parenthood or being a school teacher as a "practice." But she is implicitly arguing that because the roles of parent or teacher involve rearranging habits and behaviors inside ourselves, they too can be considered spiritual practice.

So what is this practice? What does she mean? With the example of parenthood, if we are practicing to become a parent who raises children, does this mean actively trying to become a better parent, or just getting our kids shoes on and feeding them in the morning? Or is that necessarily the same thing? If we are raising children, is this automatically selfless in and of itself? If we sit zazen, do we automatically depart from the ego? Is the practice in just putting our body there, or in making some special kind of effort to change how we see and feel?

Regardless of the questions my overactive brain comes up with, its clear that she is describing a process that never ends, in which the most difficult part is losing. There is a Zen maxim, "Winning is losing," which basically sums up this idea. What this means is that the true victory is departing from our ego. She writes, "even if we overcome someone else, we will lose to ourselves." So actually, the emphasis needs to be on losing to others. She is implying that when we extend ourselves to others, this is losing-- which is of course, winning.

So what is this practice? I ask it again, because it's still a question. She writes  子供を育てる親になる修行, the practice of becoming a parent who raises children. なる means "to become." Perhaps the emphasis is not on becoming a parent, after all, but on becoming itself. The practice of becoming. I'm not sure.

Maybe in a few years I can translate the rest of the essay, but I doubt that will lead to any nice conclusions. When I finish, I'll be sure to post it-- if the internet still exists in two years. But in the mean time, what is this practice, and how can we practice losing to win?


  1. In "Homeless Kodo", Okumura translated "shukyo" as religion. Teaching (kyo) about the ultimate truth (shu). He explains his reasoning a bit more in the book.

    1. It's true that "shukyo" 宗教 means religion, but it's a different word than "shugyo" 修行, which means practice, training, or discipline.

  2. This is an excellent teaching! Thanks so much for bringing it to discussion. As a parent who "learned to parent" I see both. In the one translation there is a beginning and an end.i.e. "we have to go to school and you need to get your shoes on." is an example of this. The other is an unending practice of maturation on all levels. When a baby arrives life is clearly no longer "about me". And it remains so for about 20 years. How to navigate this there are TONS of books about it and it varies in cultures (some more supportive and whole than others) and the discussion could go on for ever.
    I will end by saying that being a parent is like yoga and meditation practice.There is no end to it and it all unfolds and being mindful of this unfolding and learn to listen to wisdom inherent in that space. I learn to be present and show up with deep listening, and continually practice skillful speech, and letting go and letting go and letting go... so this being I have been charged with to raise can be the fullest, supported, beautiful, intelligent, unique being manifesting his/her fullest potential to be "free" and to be of service however they would like. I have no opinion about it. Now, THAT is practice!

  3. 'As Minae Mizumura accurately (if somewhat ungraciously) observes in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, “Foreigners, even those who teach Japanese literature at a university, cannot read novels written in Japanese with any ease”.'


  4. Eh -- I know plenty of people who started learning Japanese as adults and now read novels (and more) with ease. (I am one of them.) Stay positive, Gesshin!

    Re your actual question -- "X ni naru shugyo," read as regular Japanese, really means something more like "training to become X" -- more of a one-time thing with a specific goal, and once you reach the goal you no longer perform the shugyo. It's really a whole different meaning from "shugyo" as in Zen practice (and not even directly derived -- I think the intermediary would be "shugyo" as in "the practice of traveling around with a begging bowl"). They would be separate numbered definitions in the dictionary, for example.

    That said, it seems really likely given the title of the book and the author's background that the multiple meanings of "shugyo" will be played with throughout the text -- particularly, secular training to develop a particular skill vs open-ended Zen "practice." Kind of like if you wrote a book in English called "How to practice being a parent" and your rhetoric made use of the duality there (which is really very similar) - "practice" like practicing your serve with the goal of perfecting it, and "practice" in the Zen sense. (Actually I think I have read a few articles in English using this trick...)

    I hope this helps some!

    1. Matt- thank you! And practicing the piano is the same as playing it, technically. Good to hear about Japanese. I do get discouraged sometimes and have to remind myself to stay positive. :-)


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