Thursday, October 29, 2015

I Blame All My Problems On Change

I'm sad.

Or, more accurately, I probably have SAD (seasonal affective disorder). This kind of thing is genetic, no? My dad has figured out that he's happier in the winter if he wears one of these stylish visors 30 minutes a day that shines magical spring and summer light into his eyes.

This is my dad getting un-SAD:
Didn't think I had this kind of photo lying around my computer, DID you!

I'm not sure whether or not I have SAD, because I'm fine in the winter. It's just the fall that gets me, something about the weather turning colder and the trees losing their leaves. Maybe I'm allergic to change. I grew up in San Francisco where there are no seasons, where it's just one uni-season of cold, bleak fog. Not having seasons teaches you that happiness is forever and nothing ever changes, which is a lie.

But here in Japan, summer is hot and muggy, and fall is cold and breathtakingly beautiful. It's an extreme change. The leaves are bright red and the sky has this chilly, pink light in the evening. It's beautiful, but my subconscious can't handle the fact that summer inevitably turns into fall. This was the first week I wore a coat to bed, and it seems like I haven't stopped crying since. It's really bizarre. Sometimes I wonder if I'm dying. I mean, I know everyone is dying all the time, but... am I coming apart at the edges? When I walk down the road to my college and pass a line of bright-red trees I start crying. While doing homework and I start crying. Walking to the subway I start crying. Listening to Drake I start crying. Yes. To Drake. Weeping. Not to "Hotline Bling" but to his emo songs like "From Time" (do I have any readers under the age of 30? Anyone? Bueller?).

I'm also crying because I'm leaving Japan in January. After almost six years living here, I'm moving back to the Bay Area, where I haven't lived since I was eighteen. I'm leaving a culture and a monastic community that's defined me for years. It's going to be a huge change, and I'm saying goodbye to two teachers who have had tremendous impact on my life. In many ways, they created my adult life. How can I describe what these people mean to me? How can I talk about myself without also talking about them, how they fed and clothed me for years without asking for anything back? How when all I wanted to do was practice and practice and practice, they let me in and gave me a space in the Zendo, books, and teachings? How they were the only ones to speak up for me when others wanted me to leave because I was a woman and a foreigner? How they waited for me to grow up and stand on my two feet? How they trusted that I would? I love them in ways I cannot explain. 

The only way this makes sense for me is if I don't think of it as leaving, if I don't think of it as goodbye, if I think of it just as a continuation. They say "Bodhidharma didn't come to China." What does that mean? It means myself.

In the Genjo-koan, Dogen writes, "Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. For instance, this is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer." This passage always intrigued me, because of course we say that winter becomes spring. Why doesn't anyone ever call Dogen on his shit? 

But okay, what he's saying is that from the ultimate, enlightened point of view, we can't say that winter becomes spring or that spring becomes summer, because "spring" and "summer" are concepts, just like "Japan" and "America" are concepts. From the ultimate point of view, there's no summer or fall because it's always San Francisco, one dharma-position, one season of fog. Or as Uchiyama Roshi wrote in "Opening the Hand of Thought," "When you look at things from the perspective of letting go of all your ideas and anxieties, what it comes down to is there is no America to leave or return to." Bodhidharma didn't come to China. 

But my subconscious doesn't care. That subterranean pool of emotions doesn't care that "Japan" and "America" and "leaving" and "going" are just concepts. My subterranean pool of emotions wants to cry because everything is changing, everything is falling apart. 

Dogen wrote in Tenzo Kyokun, "Do not get carried away by the sounds of spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall." Don't let external circumstances determine who you are and how to be in the world. Again and again in his poems he uses seasons to describe change, showing us that things are just as they are, that change is just the nature of reality. 

But I sometimes wonder if Dogen was really just giving pep-talks to himself. Because he also says this:

For so long here without worldly attachments,
I have renounced literature and writing;

I may be a monk in a mountain temple,

Yet still moved in seeing gorgeous blossoms
Scattered by the spring breeze,
And hearing the warbler's lovely song—
Let others judge my meager efforts.





Saturday, October 10, 2015

How You Spend Your Time Is How You Live Your Life

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.