Monday, May 25, 2015

Zen and Japanese Culture

Japanese meal in a traditional inn
Oryoki meal in a Japanese Zen monastery

Zen and Japanese Culture is a book I have not read, written by D.T Suzuki. D.T Suzuki isn't really my jam, but my Buddhist philosophy teacher at Nisodo (yes, we had a philosophy teacher! Who stood in front of a blackboard!) often brought up this book in class. In the book, D.T Suzuki puts forth the argument that Zen Buddhism helped "shape an aesthetic found throughout Japanese culture." I think he's probably right, though Suzuki's emphasis on the poetical and paradoxical aspects of Zen is a little too romantic for this form-loving Soto Zen gal. The intersection and overlap between Zen and Japanese culture is fascinating to me though, because I think that while they're obviously not the same thing, Zen and Japanese culture have influenced each other in undeniable ways. It's interesting to try to tease out what is "Zen," what is "Japanese culture," and what is a chicken and the egg type situation.

I've heard teachers in Japan say something to the extent of "Zen and Japanese culture are one." When they say "Japanese culture," I think they are referring to a particular kind of traditional Japanese culture, because I'm pretty sure Zen has had very little influence on the aesthetics of manga, anime, maid cafes, soap lands, mojis, tiny, sparkly key chains, iphone covers in the shapes of cakes and pokemon characters, and the rest of contemporary Japanese youth culture which is a kind of hyperactive mix of color, ink, noise, kink, and oblivious, gleeful materialism.

Food is a good window into culture. The other day I was eating at a restaurant with my friend Damien, a twenty-five year old American guy who I took with me for a few days to practice in the monastery. In the restaurant I was eating rice, soup, and dumplings. There was also a side dish of yellow pickles, which I ate pretty early on in the meal. Pickles are a ubiquitous part of Japanese meals because they add a salty taste to balance out what is usually plain, unseasoned rice.

When Damien saw me eat the pickles, he exclaimed in mock horror, "Gesshin! You ate the bowl-cleaning pickles!"

He was referring to the monastery custom of cleaning your bowl with a slice of pickles. You save your pickles to eat until the very end. Tea gets poured into your bowls and you use your chopsticks and a slice of (usually daikon) pickle to get the leftover rice that's stuck to the sides of the bowls. Then you drink the tea and whatever food is left over, mixed together.

I spent years thinking that the obligation to clean my bowl with a slice of pickle was a bizarre, archaic Zen custom. And it is. But a few years into my stay at Nisodo, an older nun informed me that cleaning your bowl with pickles is also just a custom of poor Japanese people who don't have a lot of food to eat and therefore don't want to waste what they have. Using a pickle to make sure you eat every single grain of rice in your bowl has become a practice in Zen monasteries-- Dogen said something to the extent of "not wasting a single grain of rice is called the mind of the way"--, but throughout history it wasn't just monks who did this. It was also most poor people in Japan who were hungry.

As Zen spreads throughout the West, practitioners continue to practice oryoki-- the ceremonial eating practice in monasteries-- but adapt it to their specific needs. My nun friend in France cleans her bowls with bread, not pickles. This makes pretty good sense. There's no need to use Japanese pickles to clean our bowls outside of Japan. The point is not to eat specifically Japanese food, but to eat with others in a ritualized way, express gratitude, and to not waste any food.

The more I do this practice, the more I am starting to wonder how it is possible to practice genuinely and thoroughly if I have lots of money or am living in material comfort. In my experience, the practice of not wasting food can certainly be a practice of concentration and mindfulness, but it naturally arises in me when I don't have a lot of food and am grateful for what I have. To give an example, in the monastery we were instructed to not peel carrots, not throw away the tops of vegetables, and to use rice-washing water on the plants. Now that I'm out of the monastery I am still using the tops of carrots and eggplants and the hard stalks of broccoli (you can peel broccoli stalks, chop them up into small pieces and fry them with fried rice) not because it's required of me or because it's the "Zen thing to do" but because you better believe I am going to use all of this broccoli! It cost me three hundred yen! Vegetables are way more expensive here than meat or eggs.

Oryoki-- the ritual eating practice in Zen monasteries-- is a very Japanese practice. There's rice, soup, two or three side dishes, and pickle (of course!). Separating rice, vegetables, and soup into different bowls is a Japanese custom; in places like China or India, rice and vegetables are more likely to be served on the same plate, or mixed with impunity. But not in Japan, and not in a Zen monastery. Now, as oryoki moves to the West, people are keeping the five (or three) bowl system but using Western food; I had a delightful bowl of apple juice in my oryoki bowl at the San Francisco Zen Center!

What I am getting at is that while gratitude and economical living are pretty universal values, cleaning five bowls with a slice of pickle is not. It would be tempting, then to just get rid of the five bowl eating system as "Japanese culture" except that this particular aspect of Japanese practice-- if we turn it into ceremony-- does a great job at conveying and making explicit the universal values of gratitude and not wasting. Ritual makes explicit and conscious what is implicit and subconscious, and I'm pretty sure that's what ceremonial Zen practice does.

I often wonder what "Zen" would be like without Japanese culture. Sometimes I think they cannot exist without each other. Zazen would still exist, because that's what the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree in India (except let's get real; we don't actually know what specific meditation posture he used). But in terms of the things we are doing off the cushion, I do often think "Zen" is just another word for "traditional Japanese culture" that has been codified and ritualized in a specific way. This is why I usually tell people I'm not interested in "Zen" (which confuses the hell out of everyone).

I don't think the overlap between Zen and Japanese culture is a bad thing. We'll eat oatmeal and drink apple juice out of five Japanese bowls until we figure out a better way to express gratitude and not wasting in a ceremonial way. But when we get rid of Japanese bowls and go straight to gratitude and not-wasting without the chanting and ceremonial forms, I'm pretty sure that's not Zen; that's just being grateful, and not wasting.

Which is lovely, and good! Let's all be grateful for our food, and not waste it. Zen practice or not.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Help Me!

I just finished a semester of Japanese language classes with a wonderful group of people. In addition to American college students, there were people in my class from Taiwan, the Philippines, Spain, Indonesia and Ghana. At least three were Southeast Asian students living in the local Catholic seminary, studying Japanese to do missionary work here.

During a farewell party, a bunch of us performed songs and dances from our home countries. Since I'm me though, I of course sang one of the many Japanese Buddhist song I've learned here. At both monasteries where I trained, we were required to learn goeka, which are Buddhist poems (usually Dogen's) put to music and accompanied by a small hand bell and mallet. Goeka is usually sung at funerals and other Buddhist ceremonies, by both lay people and monks (it's most popular with old, Japanese lay women). The song I chose to sing has my favorite melody, but the words-- a waka by Dogen with two additional Buddha names tacked on at the end for some reason-- sound kind of weird when translated literally into English. Here is the Japanese and English:

草の庵に 寝ても醒めても 申すこと     Kusa no io nette mo samete mo mosu koto
南無釈迦牟尼仏 あわれみたまえ             Namu Shakamuni Butsu     awaremi tamae
南無大恩教主 南無釈迦如来                     Namu Daionkyoushu   Namu Shakanyorai

In a grass hut  
Whether sleeping or waking
I humbly say,
"Namu Shakamuni Butsu
Please show me compassion,
Namu Daionkyoushu
Namu Shakanyorai."

Steven Heine translates Dogen's original waka more poetically as "Each moment waking, sleeping/ In my grass-thatched hut,/ I offer this prayer: Let Shakamuni Buddha's compassion envelope the world." That sounds a lot nicer, but I think literal translations have their own kind of beauty (this week my literature professor remarked that translations are like women: the faithful ones aren't beautiful, and the beautiful ones aren't which I say... maybe we need to get a better library? Anyway.). 

After I performed this song, a Catholic priest in training told me he recognized some of the words from his prayers in Japanese church. This surprised me, because "Namu Shakamuni Butsu" is definitely not in any Catholic mass! The words he recognized were "awaremi tamae" あわれみたまえ which I translated as "please show me compassion." "Aware mi" can also mean "pity" or "mercy."

The reason I said the literal translation of "please show me compassion" or "please have mercy on me" sounds weird is that it brings to mind a kind of Christian rhetoric. When I hear the phrase "please have mercy on me" I think of something like the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner." And interestingly, the word for "mercy" in the Jesus Prayer in Japanese is the same word (awaremi) that Dogen uses in the poem above.

It seems clear that the phrase "awaremi tamae" (please have mercy on me) is not a Christian import, but home-grown right here in Japan. So what does it mean to ask Buddha for compassion or mercy, especially if Buddha isn't a deity? And what does it mean that Dogen (Mr. "Zazen is All I Need") is doing so? I suppose the historically sensitive answer would be that Dogen's unique articulation and expression of Buddhist practice was influenced by the dominant discourses of his time, and that included a lot of recitation of Buddha's name. The Pure Land School of Buddhism is almost entirely faith-based, and it involves reciting Namu Amida Butsu over and over again with hopes of being reborn in the Pure Land. Honen and Shinran, two monks who were instrumental in founding what we consider to be Pure Land Buddhism today, both studied at Mount Hiei before Dogen, so it seems more than likely that Dogen would have been exposed to the flavors of Buddhist practice which involve appealing to Buddha for mercy and compassion.

On the other hand though, I think it might be too easy to attribute "begging Buddha for mercy" on some impure, external strand of Buddhism which infiltrated Dogen's pure shikantaza practice. Asking for help is one of the most basic of our human impulses.

When I think of "Buddha" not as a deity, but as Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, asking Buddha for help seems a lot more palatable. There's a phrase in Japanese, sambo ichinyo, 三宝一如, which means "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are one." To speak of Buddha means to speak about Sangha, and to speak about Sangha means to speak about Dharma. They are interchangeable.

At least for me, without a community of practitioners there can be no life-long, sustained practice. My practice is entirely contingent upon others. Since leaving the monastery I've continued to shave my head, because I still believe it is a crucial signifier of both renunciation in general and Buddhist monasticism in particular. But I would be lying if I said I continue to shave my head out of a purely self-directed, independent motivation. Usually, when I shave my head these days it's because I know I'm going to encounter a Japanese monk or nun, like when I go to Nisodo for the day, or if I meet up with my teacher. I fear their criticism and want to avoid it, so I shave. By the way, I've stopped thinking fear of criticism is a bad motivation to do something. Sangha reminds me of what it means to be a monk or a nun, and in encountering them, I am challenged to continue practicing with them, in that way.

At the monastery, it's a rule that you can't shave your own head yourself. You have to find a partner, and after they shave your head, you shave their head. There's a whole form to it. Even if it might be faster and more convenient to shave alone, you're required to have your own head shaved by someone else, and then return the favor. The implication is, you can't do it alone, and it goes both ways.

And of course, I don't think Sangha just means Buddhist monks and nuns. That's the traditional definition of Sangha, but I personally think that's an outdated concept. Sangha is whoever practices with me, or whoever encourages me to try to be less of a crabby person. In my case, it might also be the guys in Catholic seminary who think singing about Buddha is a cool thing to do (because heaven knows not many people think that), or my college friends who come once a week to sit zazen with me. All of these people help me a lot.

There's power in numbers, and this is true not only in Buddhism. Last week was finals and I studied harder than I ever have in my life, mostly because I parked myself in the midst of a group of other people who were also studying. I realized that if I were alone in my room I would waste time on Facebook and get nothing done, so I made plans to study with other people. In a group, there's energy, and it's harder to waste time or give up. People encourage and support each other just by being there.

I think that is the meaning of "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are one." So when Dogen or anyone else asks Buddha, "Please have compassion," it's an acknowledgement that we can't do this alone. Whether the Buddha he's referring to is a deity, a non-deity, or neither a deity nor a non-deity, it's clear that everyone doing this needs help, and that asking for help-- especially singing it-- feels good. At least it feels good to me.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Beggars Can't Be Choosers

Yudofu, traditionally prepared tofu in Kyoto
Within groups of foreigners who have come to Japan to study the culture or history, I am often called upon as a representative of Zen Buddhism to vouch for the delicious vegetarian cuisine served in Buddhist temples. I've sat through not one but two University lecture classes on Japanese culture in which the very well-meaning professors wanted me to explain to the class about shojin ryori, the specialized vegetarian food served mostly in Kyoto. Shojin ryori is like haute cuisine of traditional Japan; it's roots stem from vegetarian temple cooking but it has since evolved into an incredibly expensive collection of delicacies, using only fresh and seasonal ingredients. It's usually served on a red laquer tray, like a work of art, and there will sometimes be dishes which taste like fish or meat but are made from beans and ground vegetables. Tourists and students of Zen both usually want to try shojin ryori at least once while they're in Japan, and so lots of people ask me about it.

These conversations put me in an awkward situation because a) shojin ryori is expensive food for guests, and that's not at all what we usually eat in the monastery and b) the most delicious pork, as well as the only lobster, and the only scallop on the shell I've eaten has been in a Zen monastery.

Because of the precepts that prohibits killing, it comes as a surprise to most people that Buddhist monks and nuns across traditions and cultures are for the most part not vegetarian. Since monks rely on alms, the Buddha and his followers were careful to accept anything that was given to them, to make no distinctions among the kinds of offerings they received. The Buddha wrote specific guidelines and procedures for how to go about begging for food. The reason monks beg in the morning and don't eat in the evening is because it was considered too great of a tax on the local community to beg twice a day; that's why in Zen monasteries to this day, dinner is an abbreviated meal, usually leftovers. The eating habits of monks evolved out of mutual-cooperation with the community that supported them.

This is true still today for monks in Southeast Asia. I've personally eaten several delicious chicken, lamb and fish curries with Burmese and Thai monks (well, not with them, but in the same room). When I did temporary ordination in the Burmese tradition in India, we would eat a big, donated lunch before noon. The villagers would come and donate lots of different kinds of dishes, and the monks would chant a blessing for the lay people. For dinner we'd drink hot lemon water. It's mostly the same practice in the Thai Wat I sometimes visit.

When Buddhism spread to China, it encountered a culture and climate vastly different from India. Unlike in India, the local population had no tradition of almsgiving, and the climate and geography was not suitable for making begging rounds. Because of this, monks had to find different ways to feed themselves, and developed agriculture, kitchens, and cooking practices like those laid out in the Tenzo Kyokun (much of which is based on an earlier Chinese manual). It was in this environment that the first idea of vegetarianism as a specifically "Buddhist" virtue arose.

The Bonmokyo sutra, also known as the Brahmajala Sutra or Brahma Net Sutra, is a Mahayana text from 5th century China, and it is the earliest text I've read that talks about vegetarianism as an actual rule for monks and nuns. I'm not a historian or a scholar so there may be earlier instances of codified vegetarianism, but I'm not sure. It seems that Buddhist vegetarianism arose within a Chinese, Mahayana context in this period.

When Buddhism went to Japan, though, everything went to hell. Sorry! I shouldn't say that. If I'm trying to be fair and scholarly I should probably say something like, "Specific historical factors and cultural elements caused the foreign importation of Buddhism to blend with the local religions and customs to create a syncretic mix of native and foreign which served the needs of the Japanese people at that particular moment in history etc. etc. etc."

When Dogen Zenji was writing Zuimonki in 13th century Japan, it was still expected that Buddhist monks and nuns remain celibate and avoid eating meat. Dogen writes very explicitly about "pure" and "impure" types of food for monks-- impure food being not only meat, but any food that has been grown within the monastery on a farm or purchased. Across Buddhist sects in Japan, monks and nuns were prohibited by law (meaning the government's law, not just monastery law) from eating meat and getting married. However, this changed in in 1872 when the government ended the mandatory ban on marriage and meat eating (nikujiki saitai). There's an entire book written about this called Neither Monk Nor Layman, which is a very good historical account of the changing government legislation. Most historians agree that the government lifted the ban to reflect what was already an obvious trend of clergy having sex and eating meat, though specific monks I've talked to in Japan believe it was a government conspiracy to weaken the legitimacy of the Buddhist clergy. Probably both reasons are true.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying: I eat meat. So does every teacher I've had in Japan, and now that I think of it, so does every single Japanese monk or nun I've met in my entire life. When meat shows up in a monastery it's usually because it's donated. Eating, like everything else, is a practice and a discipline. When people refused to eat certain things, I often heard senior nuns say, "Taberu mo shugyo desu": eating is a practice, too. It's actually an incredibly transformative practice to eat whatever you are given, with gratitude, without distinguishing. The monks and nuns I've asked to explain the practice of meat eating usually tell me that like the followers of the Buddha, monks and nuns in Japan eat what's been offered to them, no matter what it is. Basically, beggars can't be choosers.

Shojin ryori in Kyoto
So I was surprised by my reaction this week to an invitation I received to go out to dinner at a specific sushi restaurant with my Japanese language class. We're having an end of the semester party at a restaurant where you catch your own fish. When I heard that the restaurant's specialty was "do it yourself killing," I immediately knew I was not comfortable with that.

I've eaten every kind of meat imaginable in a monastery and out, but I draw the line at killing my own food. I suppose you could argue that it's more "morally responsible" to kill your own food than just buy it at the supermarket without knowing where it came from, but at least within the context of Buddhist monasticism, receiving meat is not a violation of the precepts. But killing a live animal definitely is.

I've noticed that in the West, Buddhist centers and monasteries have for the most part adopted practices of vegetarianism. This is probably good, because among other reasons, eating meat is terrible for the environment. I'd like to stop eating so much meat, but at least in Japan, it's incredibly difficult to avoid meat altogether. I think it's important to eat what's there-- especially in a monastic context when that meat is donated, or if you are a guest at someone's home.

I'm not sure what to do about this dinner party. I'm going to call the restaurant and see if they have vegetarian dishes, or failing that, some fish that's... uh... already dead ("Hi. Excuse me, I'm a Zen nun and I'm wondering, do you sell already dead sashimi? K thanks."). A friend suggested that I get somebody to "donate" me their fish, but I wouldn't want to inconvenience my friends in that way especially because the dinner costs about $25. But I do know that I won't be killing any fish. It's a wonderful practice to accept what's being offered, but what I do with my own money and my own hands is my own choice and my own karma.

P.S Speaking of begging, I'm still supported entirely by donations and scholarships, so I encourage you to donate using the paypal button on the side. I paid my summer tuition today; it was scary and a whole lot of money.