Sunday, March 29, 2015

Japanese Is Backwards

In the years I've spent practicing in Japan, I've always assumed that what I am learning here is applicable in the West, because, as they say, the Way has no North or Southern ancestors. But recently I've been wondering, what if the cultures are just too different? Even if dharma is ultimately the same everywhere, what if I'm dealing with two, mutually exclusive cultures and spiritual practices?

I'm taking a class on translation right now, and while studying for a test this week, I was struck by the profound difference between the two languages. In Japanese the verb is at the end, and unlike English, the modifier precedes what is being modified (so adjectives and things are at the beginning of the sentence usually). Japanese is backwards. Or, English is backwards, depending on your point of view.

Take for example the opening of the famous novel Snow Country:

国境の長いトンネルを抜けると雪国であった。

A literal translation might read: National border's long tunnel (object marker) come out (conjunction that indicates consequence) snow country (mystery particle... someone teach me about で) was.

It takes some brain acrobatics to unscramble the Japanese to get a translation that people can actually understand: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country." Ahhh. Much better. 

But looking at the original Japanese and the English translation, it's clear to me- as it is to anyone who can read the Japanese- that this English translation is just one option. There is actually no one, correct translation. I suppose you could say this about any language and any translation; the translator always has some poetic license. But in romance languages, the difference is less pronounced, because the syntax is so similar. For example, the first line of one my favorite poems by Pablo Neruda is:

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente.

In Spanish, the order of words is basically the same as in English: "I like it when you are quiet, because it is like you are not there." Subject (I). Verb (like). Object (when you are quiet). "Callas" could be "silent," "quiet," or "still," and the phrase "estás como ausente" could be translated as "it is as though you are absent," depending on your poetic inclination, but basically, the sentence in English is going to follow pretty closely to what Pablo Neruda meant. 

Not so in Japanese, unfortunately, which is basically backwards compared to English. I started off talking about sentence structure, but I think this is true about Japanese and Western culture and Buddhism as well. Because language shapes and creates meaning, I think it's possible that these two cultures put forth two opposing ways of understanding what things are, what they mean, and the best way to relate to the world around us, in no small part because of the language that structures them.

When I compare my experience training in Japanese Zen monasteries to the norm in Western practice settings, I can't help but think that the two cultures are doing the opposite things, or at least, the same things in the opposite order. The following are just a few examples, and I acknowledge they are kind of (okay, very) simplistic and over-generalizing:
  • In the West, people practice for several years before ordaining.
  • In Japan, people ordain and then train for several years before usually moving into a temple where they will live and practice the rest of their lives. 
  • In the West, transmission is viewed as the marker of a certain level of maturity or understanding.
  • In Japan, transmission is usually viewed as the beginning of a lifelong process. Sometimes people will get transmission before they even start training. Receiving transmission does not necessarily mean someone is qualified to teach. 
  • In the West, the emphasis is on understanding and/or personal, subjective experience.
  • In Japan, the emphasis is on enacting form with your body. You do things with your body first, and then later you might understand something.
  • My experience practicing in the West is that there is some concept of personal growth, development, or self-actualization which is elevated and frequently talked about.
  • My experience in Japan is that "self-actualization" (in the monastic setting at least) cannot be understood outside of one's relationship to the group. One's maturity and level of understanding is measured by how one works with and participates in group life. 
  • A Western response to "To study the self is to forget the self" might mean: "In order to forget the self, we have to first spend a lot of time reflecting on how our limited, relative self manifests in the world, and figure out ways to deal with and manifest our relative self better."
  • The Japanese response to 'To study the self is to forget the self" usually manifests as ignoring/ overriding the limited, relative self in hopes that it will kind of... go away eventually. 
Okay, I'm done making sweeping, vaguely offensive generalizations now. Not all Japanese teachers give transmission to beginners, and some do withhold ordination. There is always an exception to any stereotype or generalization. But culture is real, and practicing in both Western and Japanese contexts, it's hard for me to ignore the huge cultural differences. For me, the difference in the two ways of practicing has to do with two contrasting cultural views of the self, and two ways of understanding the self's highest potential. From my viewpoint at least, Japanese and Western culture do not really share a common understanding of what the self is or what to do with it.

So what is there to do? Should I think that a) Japanese (Buddhism and language) is backwards, and it's my job to turn it right-side in, to restore Buddhism to its original nature? Or b) Western culture is backwards, and really Japan's got it right? Or c) there should be some kind of cross-cultural communication, a middle way, some sort of meeting point between cultures, a third language? Or d) recognize that any expression of the dharma, any transmission between cultures or between master and disciple is inevitably act of translation?

And does any of this matter? If dharma is everywhere, if waking up takes place in the present moment wherever we are, maybe it's not even necessary to study ancient traditions. Maybe we don't need to try and translate Asian Buddhism into a Western context at all. Maybe we can just create something new and be done with it.

It's tempting to think this, but actually, I am still an optimist about intercultural exchange. I do think these two cultures can enrich each other; Japanese culture has much to teach us about humility, respect, and embodied understanding, and I also believe that Western culture's emphasis on civil rights, self-reflection, innovation, and creativity is much needed in traditional Japanese training environments.

The literary theorist Judith Butler wrote, "Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something." When I encounter a foreign culture, language, or even another human being and try to understand them on their own terms, this knocks me out of my normal, conditioned ways of seeing the world.

And since this stepping outside of myself and seeing the bigger picture is so crucial to Buddhist practice, I do think it's worth the time to try and study a methodology in which everything is "inside out." Not necessarily so that I can turn it right-side in again, not so that I can make a perfect, literal translation, but at least so that I can know my own language-- my own way of organizing and creating meaning-- is not the only one in the world. It's useful to know that in some part of the world, "National border's long tunnel come out snow country was" makes perfect sense.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Loving the Mountains

We get into the van, Dojo Roshi in front, Shugetsu-san driving. D. is next to me and two monks are in the back. I'm wearing samue and my robes are folded up in a cloth in the trunk, along with my sutra book and The Tale of Genji, which I should be reading for school. We pull away from the monastery and drive down the narrow road out the gate, past the huge, plateauing vegetable patch filled with rows of Chinese cabbage.

"Gesshin," I hear Dojo Roshi say my name in the front seat, no honorific "san" needed for me, as usual. I lean forward so I can hear him better. "Ohisashiburi obosan shinai, neh." he murmurs. It's been a long time since you've acted like a monk, hasn't it.

"Actually, I'm a monk for my whole life," I retort, annoyed. He's commenting on how now I'm in school, living a student lifestyle. In his mind this makes me no longer a monk; I'm only a monk in a temple with my head shaved. His comment stings. We drive in silence through the town, past the low, brown shops with their tiled roofs and wooden fronts. We keep driving up through the mountains until there are no more stores but only rice paddies, fruit trees, bamboo, and the occasional tiny farm house.

In the silence, I seethe. The expectation is unrealistic. Maybe everyone is right when they say all this Japanese stuff is useless, patriarchal, backwards, dead. Maybe I should go back to America, get married and grow my hair. These three things always go together in my brain: America, marriage, hair. Because if the only way to be a true monk means being celibate in a monastery, if the only role models I have are elderly Japanese monks and nuns who were themselves raised in temples, if the model of what's acceptable is so, so narrow, how am I supposed to exist in that environment and not suffocate? And not sacrifice all of myself? How is this actually possible? And if it's actually impossible, if Japanese Buddhism is just empty cultural forms, what else is there to do but ditch it all, throw away the costumes, the language, the ceremony, all of it?

We stop at a convenience store and he gives us three thousand yen. We buy bread, eggs, cheese, butter, and I buy chocolate croissants for everyone to snack on. We keep going and drive up the road I've driven so many times, into the thick of the mountain forest.

We get to his temple and it's just like I remember it, just like it's been for fifty, one hundred, two hundred years-- the dragon gate shining in the sun, the courtyard filled with pebbles raked into neat rows, the walls made of charred, black wood strips to protect from fire. I still think it's the most beautiful place on earth.

It's O-Higan, or the Spring Equinox, the time in Japan where families traditionally return to their homes to venerate ancestors. Buddhist monks like us go from house to house, lighting incense at family altars and chanting. It's time consuming and the houses are spread out all across the mountain. During festivals like this, abbots usually call in help from their sons, but because there are no children or wives in this particular Buddhist temple, we are the help.

We barge into the temple with bags, groceries, robes wrapped up in fukusa. Yuko-san is in the kitchen, preparing a food offering for the main altar. She's arranged the food beautifully into four laquer bowls on a red tray. I put the groceries down triumphantly on the counter.

"We brought bread!"

"Bread?"

"For sandwiches."

"So it's decided?" She irritated about the bread because she's already prepared Japanese food for the altars, and enough left over for all of us.

The men gather around the kotatsu- the low, wooden table covered with a blanket- next to the kitchen, and Shugetsu-san and I make coffee. Not because we're women or because it's expected that we make coffee; we want to avoid the men and their maps, their battle plans. It's like this every year, the male monks drawing elaborate maps of the countryside, assigning who will go to each house with a robust, military zeal. Eventually we bring them coffee which no one touches anyway. We relent and sit down beside them, listening to the plans.

"Gesshin, you can go here?" I'm assigned four houses, all in a cluster.

"I have no idea where these are," I say, grumpy from the car ride, and the fact that no one is drinking the coffee I made.

"Don't worry, I'll point them out to you."

We change into white kimono, black koromo, and rakusus, and we're back in the van again. Someone points out to me the roof of the first house where I'm supposed to go to. I get out of the car, watch it pull away, and head up the hill. I'm wearing traditional wooden geta sandals and the hill is steep, so walking is difficult. I pass a garage with half a dozen old, Japanese men sitting around a table. They stare at me as I walk past.

For some reason, when we go for chanting we always enter through the side door, not the front. I knock on the sliding glass door and call out, "Shitsurei-shimasu?" A guy from the group of men in the garage runs up the hill to let me in; it's his house. I take off my shoes on the big stepping stone and go inside. The family altar is made of wood, about three feet wide, and takes up the entire space between the floor and the ceiling. It holds an incense bowl, two candles, photographs of deceased relatives, and wooden memorial tablets with their Buddhist names written out in ink. There are flowers in a jar and offerings of rice and cakes.

Kneeling in front of the family altar, I light candles and three sticks of incense. Then I chant two sutras and read a dedication of merit for his family. I feel good in front of the family altars, chanting. There was a time when this made me nervous as hell, barging into strange Japanese houses by myself to chant sutras in Sino-sanskrit, but not anymore. It feels satisfying to light incense and chant, to perform this small, prescribed act for someone else.

When I'm finished, the man offers me a tray of tea and cake. "You probably have a lot of houses to go to and a lot of tea to drink," he says. I nod, but I eat it anyway. We chat about the weather and I ask about the guys in the garage.

"What are you doing in there?"

"We're planning a big cleanup of the street for Higan," he says. "And also, today we're making udon."

"Udon?"

"Yes, everyone on this street, we're getting together to make udon."

"You mean with your feet?" I ask. Hand-made udon is actually made by stomping on the dough with your feet.

"Of course," he says.

"That's great."

"Yes. The men are making the udon, and the woman are making the broth and tempura."

I say thank you for the tea, bow, and I'm back outside with the map in my hands. The man shows me where the next house is and I'm off, like a scavenger hunt or some kind of perverse- tricker treating.

At the next house, an old woman greets me. Her face lights up when she sees me for some reason, and she sits beside me chanting along with me the whole time. When I'm done she brings out more cake and tea. By the time I get to the third cake I feel a little nauseated, but I muster all my Zen endurance and eat it. She tells me she's visited the monastery before, and remarks on how big it is.

She tells me when she visited she donated umeboshi, the sour, pickled plum we eat every morning with our rice porridge. "I'm not sure I made them very well," she says with typical Japanese deference.  "They're very salty." It turns out this morning I ate the plums she donated.

"Do you have a plum tree?" I ask.

"Yes," she says. "It's blooming right now outside." Because I've been studying Japanese I can finally recognize that the grammatical tense she's using to talk about the plum blossoms is the tense of gratitude and humility. She's saying something like, "My plum blossoms are humbly blossoming in the yard." Or would it be "My humble plum trees are blossoming?" It's a tense I only hear used in Japanese class, or from the mouths of old, polite Japanese women. I wonder what it means-- is she humble about her plum trees, or are they modest themselves?

Back out in the countryside, I walk down the hill to the last house. I'm surrounded on all sides by farms, flower gardens and green, rolling, mountains. I wish I knew the names of the flowers growing up between the rocks, and the fields of tall, yellow grass that look like wheat but aren't wheat. It's hot, the sky is bright blue and the sun is straight above me. I realize that if no one comes to pick me up I'm completely lost, no cell phone, nothing, in the Japanese mountains.

As I walk I can hear the sound of a nearby stream. Other than the sound of the mountain stream and my feet on the dirt road, it's completely silent. I feel the same way I did four, five years ago: unhinged by the beauty of the countryside and the mountains. I remember years ago in the monastery, before I ordained, after everything was cleaned up from lunch I would go walking through town. The valley was so quiet it felt like it belonged to me. The roads were empty, and I would look around at the mountains encircling me, and watch the bamboo lining the hills bend in unison in the wind. I would walk pass irrigation ponds, rice paddies, yellow grass and shining, tile roofs. There were tiny flower gardens, gigantic, terrifying insects, and one, white heron who would always come to the irrigation pond and sit beside it. The green mountains seemed to melt into the valley and also hold everything in silence.

When I'm finished, I wait and wait by the side of the road. Finally Shugetsu-san picks me up in the car and we drive back to the temple. When we arrive there's sandwiches after all: melted cheese on bread, egg salad and brocolli sandwiches, potato salad, orange and apple juice. We eat and eat and eat, and we're still hungry so we eat the leftovers from the altar offerings: thick tofu stewed in soy sauce broth, carrots, and beans. Then the Japanese guys and Yuko-san roll homemade mochi into balls, coat it in sweet bean paste and there's-- unbelievably-- more tea and sweets. At two-thirty we pile in the vans again, and head home.



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What a Horrible Institution!

I'm going to my monastery today for the next week. My head's shaved and I've got on my black samue and I'm looking forward to being back in the monastery (however, I'm also eating caramel popcorn and listening to Pink. My friend made me an empowering dance music play list called "i'm walkin here fuckboy"... so... that's happening, too). 

The first time I ever went to the monastery was with my then-boyfriend, who'd lived there for a year in college. He was my introduction. Over the years, I've introduced several people to the monastery; I brought my mom and dad when I ordained, and they've come back several times since. When I was working on the study abroad program this fall, too, I brought the students there for a week. At this point, the monastery is like my family. This is kind of weird and problematic, especially since I'm supposed to have "left home," but I really feel like the monastery is my family, with all the same weird dynamics and button-pushing that family does. Whenever I introduce someone knew, I feel kind of nervous. What if they don't like each other? 

Because the monastery is like my family, I'm also very protective of it. I feel like I can personally say anything I want about it, but woe on the person who insults my family.

This time around I'm bringing my friend D. He's my new friend from school, and he's twenty-five years old. He's never sat zazen before, but he's very interested in Buddhism. He's also been through basic training in the army, spent a few nights sleeping outside on concrete, and read all the Dogen I gave him, so I feel this is qualification enough.

The other day when we were at the grocery store, I turned to him and said, "You know, I'm not sure you're ready for the serious, monastic me." 

"Will I be able to see you when we're there?"

"Yes, of course."

"Can I still holler at you?" 

"Holler? Not in the morning. It's silent until breakfast." 

"Well then, can I throw paper airplanes at you in zazen?"

"No, because lay people sit outside the Zendo. You won't be allowed in the room where I do zazen."

"Wait, what?" 

"Sorry, yeah. I forgot to tell you that. Lay people have to sit at the bottom of the table, and aren't allowed in the Zendo."

He frowned. "What a horrible institution!"

This is the logical, liberal American reaction to an institution that segregates people by arbitrary social status. And honestly, whenever I bring family or friends, I feel a little embarrassed by the mandatory hierarchy which places my mom and dad (for example) at the bottom of the table, below me. I tried explaining to D. that the word for "monastery" in Japanese is "Sodo" (僧堂 ), which literally means "a place for monks," and so lay people are almost like guests. He wasn't convinced, and the "what a horrible institution" look stayed on his face. 


Americans in particular seem to have a problem with the separation (segregation?) of monks and lay people. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities are "inherently unequal." But in the Japanese mentality, this isn't a problem. Japan isn't so good with social justice, admittedly-- there's never been a feminist or civil rights movement-- but part of the rational, at least in the monastery, is that difference exists and is okay, and it's okay that different people do different things and occupy different social roles. 

In Japan, the precepts for lay people and monks are the same, but the actual ceremony is very, very different. The monk or priest is being trained to become a ritual expert to be able to facilitate funerals and memorial services. Lay people are welcomed to come to the monastery to sit zazen, do work practice, and chant sutras alongside monks, but they don't help run the ceremonies in any way. The understanding is not that monks are better or more serious, just that their role is different within the context of monastic training. (I think it's important to mention that the monastery where I ordained is the only one in Japan which accepts men and women. The implication is that while the role of monks and lay people are different, the role of men and women are NOT).

There’s hierarchy within all-monk spaces, too. Hierarchy is determined by the date you entered the monastery, and this determines things like where you sit at the table and where you put your shoes. In a strict place like Nisodo, were residents do a lot of work in the day within organized work groups, the person in charge is always the most “senior” nun. It’s not an elected position. It doesn’t matter if she’s nice, mean, smart, dumb, old or young. The only thing that matters is that she’s been in the monastery longer than you.

Seniority-based hierarchy can cause problems, obviously. You can get people at the top of the hierarchy who don’t know how to run things smoothly, who aren’t actually qualified, and only have that position because they’ve waited the longest. I remember complaining one time about a particularly bad boss I had (maybe that’s not right speech. Bad boss? But I’m sorry, she was… bad). I was trying to explain to my older nun friend how bad this other nun was at leading our work group and why I felt her ineptitude warranted me not listening to her or obeying her, and my friend looked at me and said, “But you have to respect the merit of her ordination.” 

My friend’s point was that, even if this nun was inept, she had ordained before me, and so respecting this nun really meant respecting the act of shaving the head. Within Japanese culture at least, there’s a belief that ordaining creates merit. This nun had more merit than me because she ordained earlier; her status was in acknowledgement of her ordination, not anything to do with her as an individual person. And the “merit” she received wasn’t her own merit. The merit was the merit of the okesa.

So on my good days, this is where I am with Japanese monastic hierarchy: it’s not about how good or important people are. It’s about treating the okesa as a living symbol that deserves respect.

And on my bad days? I’m not sure that’s good enough. I’m not sure if the okesa is a good enough symbol to warrant splitting everyone up. If we take merit out of the picture, I’m also not sure what exactly the okesa “does” that’s different than not wearing the okesa (can we even talk that way?). It makes me uncomfortable that my friends and family have to sit at the bottom of the table while I’m up at the top. I don’t want to participate or believe in a kind of Buddhism that would make “true practice” available to certain people; that would be a horrible institution, indeed! 

But I also don't know what "equality" means any more. Equal in what way? Does being equal (in terms of where you sit or stand) even matter so much? Does it really matter if I have to put my shoes below someone else's shoes? Does the world end? What is gained or lost when I willingly lower myself? When people lower themselves to me? Because as a woman and a foreigner I've been at both the very, very bottom, and more very recently, kind of up towards the top, and I have to say the practice is in fact, the same. 

Maybe true practice is available to everyone, and the okesa is good, and different, and that's okay. Maybe all of those things can be true. 


Monday, March 16, 2015

Death and Taxes

Yesterday I paid my taxes for the first time. Hurray for me!

I didn't really need to pay my taxes. My income last year hovered right at the poverty line, and I used most of it to pay for college tuition. Since I'm poor, I am a prime candidate for Not Having to Pay Taxes, but-- you know what? This is the first time in my life I've even earned money that is taxable! So for me it's kind of a thrill. I decided to pay taxes just for fun.

Okay, by "fun" I mean "a valuable and worthwhile experience that might aid in my maturation into adulthood." For some reason, that sounds like fun to me.

I'm making light of this because this month I've been drowning in bureaucratic forms. I'm renewing my passport, changing visa statuses, changing my registered place of residence, applying for a scholarship, applying for next semester at school, and two or three other things that are too boring to even write down. There have been a lot of forms. This month, a friend of mine read Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki for the first time, and after reading it he asked me, “Dogen says we should avoid worldly affairs. What is the meaning of 'worldly affairs?'" My immediate thought was, “renewing my passport.” 

However, an unfortunate fact about adult life is the ubiquitousness of paperwork and forms; my passport expires and I have to renew it. As an immigrant or student living in a foreign country, this is even more true, because your status has to be at all times registered and monitored by the government. When Dogen was in China, he was a foreigner too, and I doubt he was free from registration forms. He had to have his ordination status registered, and historians do know that he was so displeased with being placed at the bottom of the monastery hierarchy that he even petitioned the emperor to get his Japanese ordination status recognized. When he got back to Japan, he somehow fundraised enough money to build and construct Eihei-ji, so there must have been some organization and planning happening in his brain. 

One of the things I was impressed to notice while serving as the assistant to two different Zen masters in Japan was that they were both absolute pros at bureaucratic forms. They were pros because they respected these forms. They did not fuck around with forms. There was not a single bone in their bodies that was like “I’m a Zen monk so SCREW IT! Ima toss this form and go to sit zazen all day!” All the monks in the monasteries needed to be registered; the head monk ceremonies needed to be documented the right way, and dues needed to be paid on time. Both of the abbots I assisted spent most if not all of their “spare” time filling out forms and writing letters. 

I came to see that organization, paperwork, and bureaucratic hoops are a practice, too. This fall, when I went to ask Aoyama Roshi for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship, she did it immediately. She didn’t procrastinate. First, she took out a piece of scrap paper, and wrote a rough draft. Then she got out nicer paper, the thin, beautiful hand-made Japanese paper (because she can’t type), and wrote out the body of the letter with ink. When it was time to put her official stamp on it, she practiced stamping a few times on a separate sheet of paper. I watched her stamp the letter, and she took a full minute adjusting the paper, getting the angle just right, before she put her ink on it. 

That form was a work of art. It wasn't just a hassle to get out of the way. It was her work, and her art, because that's what was in front of her. 

One of the reasons I left the monastery was because I began to suspect that there was a way in which I couldn’t become a full adult while living there. I never really had to make any decisions for myself; as long as I followed the schedule, I was given three meals a day and a place to sleep. I know “being an adult” must mean more than making money and paying taxes— there’s also something about being humble, knowing how to apologize, not blaming other people for your problems, and a lot of other emotional maturity stuff I haven’t worked out yet— but money and responsibility is a big part, too. I wanted the experience of taking care of myself, without relying on my teacher, my parents, or even my community to act as a safety net. So for the first time in my life I’m attempting financial independence, and I’m doing all this nasty paperwork by myself.

Honestly though, forms suck, and I hate them. I procrastinate and stress. The experience makes me want to run away to the mountains, wear paper clothing and eat only lotus leaves. In a few days I’m going to my monastery for a week. There’s nothing I want to do more at this point than shave off all my hair, put on some long, shapeless black clothing, and go to a place where I spend hours staring at a wall, where I’ll be so tired and overworked that I won’t be able to think, let alone angst or stress, about my grades and my visa status. 

I hope one day for me, even forms and taxes can become an art and a spiritual practice. But that's not where I'm at. I still see the world in terms of "world renouncing" and "not," in terms of "worldly affairs" and "spiritual practice." I know this mentality isn't going to get me very far, because everywhere you go, there the bureaucratic forms are. I keep yearning for the monastery and I know this "monastery" is just an imaginary monastery I’ve invented, some ideal place of tranquility and peace that doesn’t actually exist in the real world. And yet even if that ideal place of Perfect Zen Peace and Enlightenment doesn’t exist, even if the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even if it’s bureaucratic forms and petty arguments all the way down, I can still dream. 

Maybe I'm stupid and naive, but I still want unconditional freedom. I trust that yearning because it’s enduring, and it's the thing in me which feels the most true. 



Sunday, March 8, 2015

What Attainments?

Kito Sensei, circa... a long time ago
Aoyama Roshi once said in a dharma talk that true selflessness is unaware of itself. True selflessness, she said, is like a person in a house up in the mountains lighting a lamp in their room; a traveler wandering through the valley below, who is lost and frightened in the dark, looks up and sees that light and feels comforted. The person lighting the lamp doesn't know someone else can see the light, doesn't know anyone feels comforted by it. That, she said, is true selflessness.

Two days ago I had dinner with a nun named Kito Sensei, whom I met when I was practicing at Nisodo. Kito Sensei is ninety years old and lives alone in a small temple in Nagoya. Kito Sensei was the muse for Paula Arai's book Women Living Zen, the only book I know on the subject of nun's practice in Japan. She features prominently in Arai's writings, including her second book, Bringing Zen Home. But beyond being mentioned in writing by a single academic, Kito Sensei is unknown outside of the small circle of women practicing Zen in Aichi prefecture.

Kito Sensei doesn't speak English and has never written a book. She doesn't have an advanced degree in Buddhist philosophy (I'm actually not sure whether or not she went to college), and though she's incredibly respected and has had transmission for decades, she doesn't even really give dharma talks. When she comes to Nisodo, she gives small, intimate lectures about the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, but these classes usually take place in the dining hall, not the zendo or the formal classroom, often culminating with tea or a snack she's brought.

The first time I met Kito Sensei was the first month or so I was practicing at Nisodo. As I've written about before, I was having lots of problems with my ankles due to a sprain the previous summer that hadn't properly healed. At Nisodo, everyone sits seiza for meals and lectures, and after a few weeks of this I ended up in the hospital (later I would see several Japanese women also end up in the hospital-- so it's not just Westerners who have problems with daily seiza!). When I got back from the hospital I still had to work, and I was pretty distraught about being made to work with an injured foot. No one offered me a chair or any kind of emotional support. It was pretty bleak.

I met Kito Sensei a few days after coming back from the hospital, when I was helping her run a sutra-copying class in the Buddha Hall.  At that time I couldn't walk properly, and sitting on the floor was quite painful, if not impossible. I must have looked physically uncomfortable, because within thirty seconds of being introduced to her, Kito Sensei asked me, "How are your legs?"

"They hurt," I said quite honestly. "I sprained my ankle a few months ago, and now they really hurt."

Kito Sensei was running the reception desk for the sutra-copying class, but she stood up immediately and walked straight out of the Buddha Hall. She came back in five minutes, carrying some medicinal patches, the kind where you peel of the plastic and stick the patch to your skin.

"Here," she said. "Put these on your foot. It's for pain. And don't worry about sitting seiza. You can sit however you like here."

Over the years, Kito Sensei's interactions with me were often like this. When I came to her room to say hello, she would slip me candy or even money, smile, then put one finger to her lips and go "Sssshhh!!"

But I wasn't special. I watched her interact with all of the training nuns and she was the same way with all of them. Even the nuns who I thought were arrogant or mean, she treated them the same way, as if they were worthy and good, and the only people in the entire universe who mattered.

Two days ago we had dinner. It was quite a funny experience scheduling a dinner date with a ninety year old Japanese nun, but we made it happen eventually, despite language barriers and both our ineptitudes with cellphones and sticking to plans. She picked me up in a cab and drove me to a restaurant she likes, and then treated me to one of those lavish dinners I only experience in Japan when some incredibly generous benefactor is picking up the tab.

Kito Sensei asked me lots of questions about school-- about my classes, my roommates, even what I eat for breakfast every day. I tried to ask her questions about Buddhism, but she seemed way more interested in talking to me about how delicious our noodles were, about what my roommates and I do on the weekends, and how "great" my Japanese has gotten. The one time I tried to bring up Dogen she either didn't understand or was too disinterested to respond.

Come to think about it, I've never heard Kito Sensei talk about koans, Dogen, or anything distinctly "Zen." I'm not even really sure that she sits zazen in her temple. I bet she still does morning chanting service, but I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't do that anymore either. I think most of how she spends her time is chanting in people's houses, and then sitting down with them and having a conversation, where she looks them in the face and smiles, and is really present with them.

But don't be fooled. Her whole life is Dharma, inside and out. It's just not something she really wants to talk to me about when we're eating awesome tempura, I guess.

When I hear people lament how Buddhist women in Asia "don't show their attainments," I always feel a little conflicted. On the one hand, it's true that social inequality and discrimination exist in a very real way in Japan, and men are probably more likely to stand up proudly and claim their rightful place on the pulpit (or whatever). But on the other hand, I'm not sure what Kito Sensei "showing her attainments" would even look like. I'm pretty sure she is the attainment in and of itself; she is showing her attainment twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in every action she does, and so anyone can learn from her at any time. To ask her to "show her attainment" would be redundant.

Maybe it's that you can't ask a Buddha about "Buddhism." Maybe you can't ask a tree to describe wood, just like you can't expect a person lighting a lamp in their room, high up in the mountains, to know exactly who's watching down below in the valley, or to understand what how the traveler in the valley, looking at that light, feels comforted and encouraged.

Is anything attained or not?





Tuesday, March 3, 2015

(I Hope) Practice is Forever

Today I was waking up from a nap, dozing in that in-between state between sleeping and waking, while Beyonce’s song “Halo” was dripping through my consciousness. I think I watched the youtube video of that song in the morning, and like any catchy pop song, it stayed in my brain most of the day, even through my nap. As I was waking up and thinking of this song, I had a memory of being in Kyoto this fall, when I was a teaching assistant on a Buddhist study abroad program. The memory was of a particular dinner with some of the students, who were all about twenty-years old, when one guy led me on a crash-course review of what I’d “missed” in the last three and a half years while I was in the monastery. 

He told me about ISIS, and about Beyonce releasing her “visual album” without advanced notice, and how the shock and awe of the Beyonce-mania overloaded Twitter, causing it to temporarily crash. Lots of other things happened in three years that had nothing to do with Beyonce, but this is what I remember my student thinking was important to tell me about. 

When “Halo” popped into my mind, I realized that there was a time not so long ago, and by “a time” I mean several years worth of time, that I didn’t know or care about youtube videos, or Beyonce, or crazy marauding torturing squads in the Middle East burning people alive in cages. The Boston City bombing happened while I was at Nisodo and I had no idea about it until almost a year later, when I bought a “Times Year in Review” magazine at the Nagoya train station. The March 11 tsunami also happened when I had just first entered my teacher’s monastery, and even though I was in Japan at the time, I never saw any of those horrifying videos of rising water and destroyed houses until much later, because there was no television and no access to the internet.

When I left Nisodo in August, what followed was a slow re-education (or de-education? Not sure) process. I’m not sure what direction the progress or learning or unlearning has happened, but suffice it to say, I am definitely not in a monastery anymore. I’m basically a normal college student, although one with really really really short hair, who sometimes wears funny black clothes.

I have been throwing myself into language study. The Japanese language is incredibly demanding, and I spend most of my time now alone, studying kanji, or at the gym, or trying to work my way through gnarly grammar worksheets. I go out with my friends on the weekends. Sometimes I actually forget that most of my twenties have been spent either doing physical labor or staring at a wall. But then other times I do remember, and I am overwhelmed by the strangeness of it, and a bizarre sadness and nostalgia, even as I don’t regret for a single day having left, and moving on, and trying to forge a life for myself where I make my own choices and stand on my own two feet. 

It’s a strange feeling, missing something you are glad to have left. William Faulkner wrote that the “human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about. I wish I knew how to articulate how something could be both awful, difficult, weird, good and meaningful, all at the same time, and I don’t know how to explain how missing the monastery comes in waves, in tiny bursts, catching me off guard when I am waking up from a nap, singing a Beyonce song— of all things— to myself. 

While I was in the monastery, my assumption was that, because practice = enlightenment, monastery practice should be for life. And if you are not in a monastery, then you should at least be practicing like you were in a monastery, because the focus of Dogen’s writing is about living and working with others.

Now, of course, I can’t think that. Not just because that would mean I’ve failed— and I don’t believe in failure in spiritual practice— but I don’t think Dogen was saying that we should , or must, do anything necessarily. His writing points towards questions as much as towards answers. The Buddha definitely laid out the Eightfold Noble Path as a guideline of how to go through life, but the things he is talking about are mostly qualities of the mind and not exactly behavioral limitations and forms.

But I don’t know. I really don’t. The question I kept asking myself when I left the monastery and startle to mingle again with society was, “What if what the Buddha said was literally true?”

And now what I’m asking myself is, “What if it’s not?” 

But despite all the doubt and mixed emotions, I do know that I need practice. I don’t know what practice is, not really, but I know, with certainty, that I need it— the way people know they need water. 

When I did my head monk ceremony at Nisodo, the koan I picked to debate was “Joshu Washes His Bowl.” The case is this:

A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”
The monk replied: “I have eaten.”
Joshu said: “Then go wash your bowl.”

I chose this koan because I thought it was a good summary of monastery life. I liked that it was simple and direct, pointing to the mundane activity of living. But Aoyama Roshi pointed out to me that the meaning of this koan is much deeper than just an admonition to clean up after ourselves.

She explained to me that human beings naturally know to eat when hungry and drink when thirsty, but it’s more difficult to know how to nourish our hearts and minds. This is why we practice. And like eating and drinking, practice is something that continues until we die. So no matter our level of understanding, realization, or interest, we still wash our bowls; we still practice. 

The Japanese way, at least, is to practice first physically, without focusing on understanding. If practice and enlightenment are like the relationship between legs and the torso, then practicing with the body is taking a step forward; enlightenment follows after, but isn’t entirely separate. First comes taking the actual step with your leg. You don’t have to worry about the body following or not, you don’t have to worry about enlightenment or not; you just go, you just walk. And then you keep walking; that’s washing your bowl. Even though you thought you were done, practice is still there, wanting to be practiced. 


It’s bizarre to not know what practice is, but to know that I need it. What I mean when I say “I don’t know what practice is” is that I still don’t know what the difference is between working in a garden in a monastery, and working on a “normal” farm, or washing dishes at home verses washing dishes in a “practice situation.” Washing dishes is the same physical action whether you are a monk or a housewife, so why is one Zen practice and one domestic work? I’m still unclear. But despite being unclear about practice, I’m pretty sure I need it— the way I need water without knowing why, or how exactly it works. Like Pablo Neruda when he wrote, "I love you without knowing how, or when, or where from."