Convert Buddhists: What's in a Name?

Tonight I spent a long time making a worksheet for my undergraduate students about clichés in writing. This is my second year teaching and grading essays, and it's taken me a long time to articulate why clichés bother me. The reason is because they are phrases that have been repeated so many times as to obscure meaning. More than just being a kind of grammar snob, I like to think I'm in the business of getting people to think and understand more, not less.

For several years I have been reading the term "convert Buddhism" in print media, and hearing it used casually in conversation. I will spend this post discussing why I think the phrase should go away. I would like to urge people to stop using the phrase, or at least think about alternate ways of articulating what this phrase signifies. The reason I think the phrase "convert Buddhist" is problematic is twofold: 1) it is an unspecific term that obscures more than it illuminates and 2) it is arguable whether…

The Suffering Around Us

This morning I woke up on my own at 7:30am. Instinctually I reached for my phone (nasty habit) and saw a bunch of new work emails. I groaned, turned off my phone, and closed my eyes again. My husband was still sleeping. I could hear the dog crying in the crate next to our bed where she sleeps; she likes the crate, but by the morning she's lonely. When my alarm went off ten minutes later, my husband put his arms around me. "I love you," he murmured sleepily, "And the dog loves you. She knows you're awake now, and she wants to see you."

We lay entangled in each other for a few more minutes. "Mondays are evil," he groaned. I agreed.

Eventually we both tore ourselves from the bed and got ready-- he, for work, and me, for the Downtown Women's Shelter where I volunteer on Mondays. I complained about not wanting to go; I've been volunteering there for about 6 months and enjoy it, but actually leaving the house is hard. I think if we could have i…

The Dharma of Pie

Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice. Some say the essence of Zen practice is awakening. Some say Zen and tea are one. But I, I think the project of Zen is pie-making.

Tomorrow we are having the first proto-board meeting for the bizarre, implausible, wondrous Zen temple thing James Ford and company and I are dreaming up. It will be followed by a precept renewal ceremony and potluck. Because one of my husband's favorite foods is pie, I decided to make pie for the potluck. After struggling to make pie crust, I have determined that the essence of Zen is pie. These are the reasons.

1) Pie is transmitted from pie master to pie master

From generation to generation, women have transmitted the wondrous, unfathomable, ineffable dharma of pie. If women did not arise in the world, there would be no pie. This is the marvelous truth of pie.

2) Pie is a tradition beyond words and phrases

The Great Way of pie crust is wondrous, subtle, and cannot be conceived through the mind. I ha…

Like Water, Like Air (by Aoyama Roshi)

I just remembered that I have this translated essay sitting around on my computer. A Japanese nun at Nisodo translated this and I helped edit and make it sound more like English. Aoyama Roshi wrote many short essays like this, for general readers. It sounds almost like poetry.

Like Water, Like Air:Practicing with “No Self” By Aoyama Shundo Roshi

Part 1: Respect Other People’s “Ice” as Buddha
All through the rocks, through the roots of trees Water comes pouring down Smoothly, without complaining -Kai Kazuko
I wish I were like water, or like air, and I often say this to my disciples. However, I know I’m still far away from realizing this wish. The most important thing in Zen practice is to practice “no self.” Dogen Zenji has told us, “Even if you sit zazen until the floor breaks, if your zazen is from the ego then all your effort will be in vain.” I’d like to use the following metaphor of water and ice. Water and ice are the same material, but ice is solid, and if water freezes in a cup you …

Trust No One

This week was hugely disappointing. A meditation teacher I've admired for nearly a decade came tumbling down off the pedestal I'd put him on. I raged. I cried. And as I tried to stop being so upset about it I kept saying to myself, "Why did I let this happen again?" I have a habit of admiring Buddhist teachers, and expecting that they will be better than average humans at interpersonal relationships. Then I inevitably realize they are human beings, and thus prone to human failings.

Really I was angry that I had "let" myself trust someone. It's a very stupid thing to trust.

And yet we need to trust. We need to trust that the floorboards will not fall out from underneath us, that our lungs will keep working, that people will obey traffic laws, that our stomach will digest food, that our partners will not leave us, that the water from the tap is clean enough to drink. If we didn't have trust we would be in constant panic and suspicion.

Pure Land Buddh…

What do Sōtō Zen teachers do?

Sōtō Zen is not Dōgen's way. Dōgen despised the idea of sects. It is not really a school at all. It is not a building, or a tree with branching trunks, a stream, or a person. Because it is not a person it cannot move, or feel, or have beliefs about something. Like any religion, it is made by people, and specifically, by peoples' actions.

Since the time I started writing this blog, people now and then have written and asked me to be their teacher. I always said "no," and referred them to the nearest Zen center. Brad Warner has written quite well about how weird it is to have a stranger write to you asking to be your student. And I think James Ford also has some good guidelines about how to chose a teacher. I have always said "no" to people because I had nothing to offer; I didn't have transmission when I started writing this blog, and I didn't really have sangha either, which is important, because you need a building to sit zazen in. But now that I a…

Through the Eye of a Needle

Before I start-- a few exciting things about my book(s). My first book--halfway between a memoir and dharma book-- will be called Bow First, Ask Questions Later: Ordination, Love, and Zen in Japan. It's due to come out May 2018. And, I'm not quite ready to announce the publisher yet, but I will be signing this month for my second book, a Japanese cookbook and meditation on the philosophy of "just enough." That should be out in the fall of 2019, if all goes to plan. 
As I struggled this week through book deals, contracts, part-time jobs, and watched the train wreck that is our political system take a bizarre and unexpectedly pleasant detour into "don't fuck with female senators" land (while still being, by all objective accounts, a train wreck), I found myself thinking about Jesus. Odd, really, because I've never believed in the God of Abraham and was never all that interested in what Jesus has said, even the good and noble things. But as I watched …