I haven’t updated in a while because I have been completely bogged down with work— specifically, in addition to my regular Japanese classes I’m taking a class on reading newspapers in Japanese, which is difficult even for Japanese people who you know, read and speak the language. Last week I read a newspaper article on collective self-defense and Japan’s new security bill… in Japanese. It took me about eight hours to get through. It was rough.
I shouldn’t complain though. I mean, complaining is the easy thing to do, but when I peel back the layers of my complaining, I see that underneath is just fear and pride: fear that I will not be able to understand, and pride in myself for working hard and trying to do something really difficult. When I tried complaining to my teacher about this he said, “You signed up for the class though, right? It was your decision…” And it’s true. I’m enrolled in this program to learn Japanese, and particularly to learn how to read Japanese. Why am I surprised when I am given a lot of reading in Japanese?
Aoyama Roshi often spoke about choice. She would say, “How you spend your time is how you live your life.” The implication is that the choices we make create our lives, and so everything that happens in our life is the result of our choices. This is a re-wording of karma, but it goes beyond karma, because it makes us responsible for even the things we have no control over. Floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis (and the metaphorical floods, earthquakes and tsunamis of life) probably aren’t the result of karma (don’t ask me to explain karma, okay? I don’t know! It’s simultaneously an invented Indian concept to keep oppressed lower-caste people in their place, and also an incredibly important foundation of Buddhist practice… does that help?), but how we respond to those upheavals is our choice.
I’ve listened to countless dharma talks of hers over the years, and I rarely understand them. But I remember one day in sesshin, dozing through an incomprehensible dharma talk, when suddenly I clearly understood what she was saying. “Erabu erabu erabu.” She said. Three words, over and over. “Erabu erabu erabu.”
Choose and choose and choose.
It’s very easy to think that the requirements of religious or spiritual practice, cultural norms, and social obligations are beyond our control, but there are very few things in life that we really have no choice over. I got into a funny miscommunication with the office people at my school last month while trying to get an excused absence. I’m sewing a new okesa, and wanted (needed?) to go to Nisodo for a sewing class, so I filled out forms for an excused absence from class for “religious reasons,” an option on the form. When I turned in the form, the woman behind the counter informed me that I needed some kind of “proof” of the religious event.
“Do you have a flier or invitation?” She asked.
“No. There are no fliers.”
“Then how do you know about the event?”
“Because I lived there for three years…?”
We went back and forth like this for a while. She eventually explained that the proof needed to show that the religious event was obligatory.
“But it’s my choice,” I tried to argue, unaware that this was exactly the wrong moment to be engaging in a philosophical debate. “Everything is my choice.”
She did not buy my brilliant ontological argument. She just wanted the correct form. So I called my teacher and had him write a letter with an official red stamp saying how I needed to go to Nisodo for sewing class. The office approved the absence.
It seems almost disingenuous though to claim that sewing an okesa is an obligation, even if it’s something that’s been asked of me. That exchange brought to light for me the tendency we all have to view spiritual or religious practice as something outside of our control. It’s easier to view our lives in terms of “I have to” (or “my teacher told me to”) because this shifts the responsibility away from ourselves. During the hardest times practicing in the monastery, Aoyama Roshi would always remind me that I was choosing to be there.
On a certain level, living in a monastery robs you of all choice. There’s no choice about when to wake up, what clothes to wear, what or when you eat, the work you do or the words you chant. Everything is decided for you. And yet, when I asked a senior nun what the difference between us and a Japanese salaryman is, the nun responded, “free will.” This is something we chose.
A common critique or observation about Western Buddhists is that, in contrast to Buddhism in Asia, this is a spiritual practice we choose for ourselves, instead of inheriting it from our parents. Westerners choose Buddhism, the narrative goes, whereas Asian Buddhists are born into Buddhism and thus have no choice. I don’t really buy this, and I think it’s actually kind of insulting to assume that someone born into a Buddhist culture doesn’t choose to actively engage Buddhism when they do it. Going to a temple, making offerings, or ordaining is always a decision. Maybe in the beginning we can't see it as a choice, but waking up to our choices-- and all decisions unfolding in the present moment, indefinitely-- is revolutionary and liberating. This is why it freaks me out when people in religious institutions try to limit choice, as in the case of anti-abortion legislation. Abortion may or may not be immoral, depending on your view of life, non-harming, karma or whatever, but I think far more important than prohibiting someone from doing something you think is wrong is encouraging people to take responsibility for their own ethical choices. Religion shouldn't be about keeping or forcing people from doing "wrong" but encouraging people to take control of their own lives and ethical choices, which is why framing the debate in terms of "choice" is so important.
In my experience, the happiest and most positive representatives of Buddhism in Asia are people who like Buddhism and choose to do it. Last week I had dinner with Kito Sensei, who I’ve written about before. She is ninety years old and a beautiful, inspiring example of a life of monastic practice. When I asked her why she ordained, at age fourteen she said, “I did it naturally. A lot of people suffer and have lots of problems so they ordain because of this. But for me it was an easy decision. I liked living in temple. I became a nun because I wanted to.”
Choose and choose and choose.