American True Training

Well, here I am. In America. I started a three month long work practice apprenticeship at Green Gulch Farm, in Northern California. The first time I came to Green Gulch, about three or so years ago, I said it felt like meeting my birth mother for the first time, after being put up for adoption and raised by a different parent (that would be the Japanese monastic system). In encountering American Zen, especially in Northern California where I was born and raised, there is a feeling of immediate connection, of familiarity, of desperately wanting to be loved and understood, alongside a bittersweet understanding that I am already grown up, and it's too late for my birth mother to be a real mother to me. She was not around in my difficult formative years, and I'm basically grown now. So I do feel very bittersweet about it.

Many people this week have asked me how Japanese Zen training is different than American Zen. It's the most common question people ask me. I'm getting better and better at answering this question, although my experience of "American Zen" at this point is limited to the San Francisco Zen Center empire. My first impulse is always either to say "It's completely different" or "It's exactly the same." Of course, the real answer is it's both the same and completely different. Or something Zen like that. Ugh. I really hate the word "Zen." Why do we say "Zen" when we really mean "true?" From here on out I want to instate a ban on the word Zen, replacing it with the word "True," as in "Japanese True training" versus "American True training." Or, "Have you read that great blog called 'That's so True'?"

From the ultimate perspective, True practice is all the same practice. There's zazen in the morning, work, zazen and then sleep. Throughout zazen and work and sleep there's always your mind, your thoughts and opinions and emotions drifting by like clouds. There's your attitude and attention, which is the only thing you can really control: how you relate to people, how you chop vegetables, the quality of your interaction with the world around you. There are doubts and fears and then letting go of those doubts, and continuing with practice. The water is clear right down to the bottom, and fish swim like fish. That is a constant in both Japan and America, and that is what I always have to come back to.

From another perspective, everything is completely different. Right now I share a room with a lay person, for example. In Japan, True monastic training is mostly for monks and nuns. If lay people come to practice, they have separate rooms. At Toshoji, where I ordained, lay people are not allowed in the Zendo. They sit outside in what's called the Gaitan. This is not because lay people are worse or lesser somehow but that monastic training is understood to be, by definition, for monks, sort of like how a training hospital is by definition for training nurses and doctors. Men and women are also separated in a much more delineated way. Romantic relationships are forbidden while training. The food is completely different. In Japan, you eat rice two to three meals a day. Breakfast is always rice porridge with sesame, pickled plum, and pickles. You can never choose what to eat. There is no gluten free or garlic free or dairy free option. I haven't practiced everywhere in Japan, but none of the places I practiced had a snack area where you could just make toast on your breaks and walk around with your toast. You sit on the floor all the time, even to eat or during lecture, so this puts a particular strain on the body. Things are more hierarchical. Where you sit during meals and tea and where you put your shoes is completely determined by hierarchy, i.e the order in which you entered the monastery. There's less of an idea of "free time" or "private time" or "days off." Conformity is a big deal. Because of Japanese culture, people think it's embarrassing to share personal thoughts or emotions, so no one talks about their emotional growth or challenges with practice.

American True practice seems alive and creative in a way Japanese True practice does not. People bring their love and hopes front and center; you can see the optimism and sincerity in how people move and speak. This has a lot to do with American culture, how Americans are taught to show and express our emotions. It brings a rawness and tenderness to practice. Forms are a little different. Chanting is different. In America, people seem to chant in very high tones, from their nose, whereas in Japan I was trained to chant from my lower abdomen, which naturally lowers the pitch. There is more discussion about the meaning and significance of things. Work and oryoki practice are explained as "mindfulness training opportunities," because "apple" can mean "banana" and "koala bear" means "iphone." In America, there's a strange, mystical beast called "dokusan," which I think is some kind white, hoofed animal which only appears on the full moon. I'm not really sure.

In Japan, there is a lot more emphasis on form. "Emphasis" in the sense that there are more explicit directions and they are enforced more strictly. I practiced in two different monasteries, and in the more strict of the two, there was a precise form for how to put away your futon when you woke up, how to wash your face and brush your teeth, how to stand and sit. Basically all movements throughout the day have a form that should be followed. This is all the more true for ceremonies.

It's a great irony that I've lived this long in the monastic container, because I resent rules and break them constantly. Yet now that I'm in America, in a more loosely structured environment, I appreciate form and rules more. I can see their function, which is to give you something concrete to do. I think if I were a beginner in this situation, I would be completely lost.

I think about the difference between Japanese and American practice as the difference between ballet and modern dance. Ultimately, all dance is dance, yet there are different methods, and ballet came first. Ballet is what all dancers should learn before they can move on to modern dance. I say "ballet" but really I mean all of the basic, fundamental positions you learn at the barre, all the muscle training and repetition that goes into becoming a ballet dancer, a million and a half hours in first, second and third position, standing straight, moving your arm exactly right. Ballet is a lot like Japanese True practice. Personally, I like watching and doing modern dance more. It's fun and creative and sexy. It feels relevant, whereas ballet can be boring, rigid, and obsessed with repetition and form. However, while it's very easy to transition into modern dance with a background in ballet, it's very hard to be a ballet dancer with only training in modern dance. This is because ballet stresses the fundamentals, and fundamentals can be applied anywhere.

So in this bizarre transitional period I find myself in, where everything is new and I feel like I am in constant free fall, I'm grateful for my muscles, for my training in first, second and third position. And I look forward to dancing a new dance.


  1. Welcome back. The smell of eucalyptus can be nice.

  2. I do enjoy reading your posts, I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping someday you'll write a book.

    I dance on Saturday nights, at the Mel-O-Dee El Cerrito's karioke offering; does that count?

    Thanks, Gesshin, and good luck with your stay at Green Gulch.

  3. you seem subdued

    kogen spent two years at green gulch, 2013 2014

    worth reading his blog entries, a short cut to the politics etc

    just avoid joint injuries, that's what finishes people !

  4. my favorite american "True" teacher is Norman Fischer...profound, deep, funny, writer.

  5. Great idea to say True instead of Zen. I also don§t like to use the word Zen. Maybe Buddhism or Buddhist could do, too. Anyway, your blog is like a thrilling novel. Where is this going to unfold, I am sure it will be a great book one day.

  6. Gesshin,
    So glad you are back. I'm now noticing all those True ways occurring in different contexts after reading this.


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