The Hardest Thing About Practice

I haven’t posted anything in a while. I was packing up to move out of my apartment, and then I was at Toshoji for about six weeks, deep in the woods of austere, cold winter practice. There was limited internet access, and I never had time to write anything, even though there were a lot of thoughts and ideas swirling around. I’m not sure I really want to keep writing here, because I am shifting my attention to what it would mean for me to live and practice in America, and this blog seems very much like an exploration of Japanese Buddhism. Soon I will be (hopefully) attending grad school and working on other writing projects, so if there are no more posts after this for a while, that’s why. 

During my stay in Okayama, I was invited to give a small talk at an intercultural event, along with the other foreign nuns from the monastery. In the question and answer session, someone asked, “What is the hardest thing about practice for you?” One nun responded that she finds the cold the hardest part. Indeed, an old monastery in February is pretty damn cold. It was minus degrees during morning chanting, my hands sticking to the metal bells. 

But when it came time for me to answer, I found myself saying that the hardest part about practice for me is just showing up for everything. The hardest part about practice for me is just continuing with practice. Whenever I go to a monastery or center, for the first few days or week I am in a kind of dharma-bliss where everything is wonderful. No worries! I don’t have to think about men (or… women?) or money or my future or anything extraneous! I can just sweep the floor silently and let my thoughts roll off my like sloughing off dead skin. It’s great. 

But eventually the glow wears of and I start skipping events. That 3am zazen session? I’m going to be sleeping through it anyway, so why not just sleep in my bed where I can be horizontal and fully utilize that sleeping time? It’s the logical thing to do! Pretty soon I stop going to noon service, because… well, putting on my kimono is a drag, and my work isn’t finished. Etc. etc. I spend an unnecessary amount of time in my room, just avoiding others, avoiding practice. 

Practicing in a monastic or residential environment always shows me how selfish I am. It can be kind of awkward and embarrassing, seeing myself this clearly. But I think this is the point of practice, to show us who we really are, not just how we imagine ourselves to be. When we first start to understand who we are it is unpleasant, like listening to a recording of our own voice. We think, “Is this what I really sound like?” But the recorder isn’t lying; it’s we who are ignorant. The other day I watched a news segment in which I was interviewed about how to do zazen. It was painfully embarrassing to watch myself on television. Why didn’t anyone tell me I slouch when I sit? Practicing with others is exactly like this, like watching an awkward video of ourselves. Practice shows us who we are. It's especially important to practice with others, because alone, we can't see ourselves. So I am very grateful to community for showing me who I am. Maybe the hardest thing about practice is seeing myself, which is the whole of practice. 

I spent my last night in Japan like all great masters before me, like Dogen before he left China, lying in the dark in my room crying, listening to Lauryn Hill and eating peanut M&M’s. Then I went to my teacher’s room and spent an hour crying while he shoved envelopes of money and boxes of incense into my hands. 

That seemed like a good time to bring up Genjo-koan. This autumn, as I was facing down moving back to America I have been thinking a lot about Dogen’s writings on transformation and change. In Genjo-koan he writes, 

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.

I asked my teacher, “You know that part in Genjo-koan about firewood becoming ash? Is that about moving? Does it mean I am not really going to America?” I was thinking about how Uchiyama Roshi wrote, “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." So maybe I am not leaving after all. Maybe America and Japan, going and coming, are just ideas. 

“No,” he said. “You are going to America.” We both laughed. Then he added, “But you are you.”

And here I am. 

Entering Nisodo, 2011


  1. great post and safe travels! i hope you continue this blog, i really enjoy it!

  2. Excellent post. I really enjoy and benefit from reading what you write. I look forward to reading about how your practice evolves and adapts back in the west

  3. safe re-entry back into the extreme world of the USA; and thank you for your posts these past years. i will miss reading them but will look forward to reading one of your books when it gets published or coming to hear you teach. be well and travel safe.

  4. Holy shit! Fulfill your biological function; then do whatever your pretty heart desires. If you had children, please accept sincere apologies. Took me 32 years.^^

  5. If I don't read you again, thank you, good luck, bye!

  6. What a great style of writting. So fluid!

  7. Hii really enjoy reading your blog. It is a great inspiration to my practice and I would be really grateful if you continue writing in it. I've read all your posts, and they mean a lot to me. Thank you so much for this blog!

  8. Going back home will open doors for that you likely didn't realize were there. The changes will be strange and make you aware of things you never noticed before. You'll be wiser for it.

  9. Thanks for all of the great blog posts! Really authentic and wonderful insights!

  10. Thanks <3
    Once avain, your post was exactly what I needed to hear (see) exactly when needed.

    Safe travels.


  11. Gesshin,

    To my mind, you have mastered the rigors of the Japanese Zen monastery; bravo! That's a great translation of Genjo Koan that you excerpt, thank you. That passage, still puzzles me.

    I continue to try to teach myself, in spite of my selfishness and my slouch, because no one else seems to be able to teach me:

    Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha's "Pleasant Way of Living"

    Lord knows they've tried!



  12. You said practicing with others shows what we are. I agree, it shows, but it shows our true, buddha, self, not just our weak self. Skipping zazen or not, the skippy girl may be a brilliant buddha. A diligent practitioner may be too narrow to fit into the vast, unlimited body of buddhas.

  13. Japan is in the US too, you know. In a literal chiming-along with your teacher. It's a city bus trip away.

    The monk and office lady at Bush St temple are good people. Lonely. Feel unused. It's literally supposed to be an outreach temple, no one shows up. Go say hi. 8am-6pm. Lady talked me through a super-depressing, potentially life-threatening situation. Monk is my age, also a Pisces, got out of training like a year ago. We have that innocently, wants to save the world, from our safe utopian-imaginary bubble, quality to us, you know.

    Go say hiiiii.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down