Shit's Impossible; Let's Keep Doing It!
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable
I vow to realize it
Moving is good sometimes. And yet, staying in one place is good too. Continuing is important. Recently, I was asked to give a speech about studying Japanese for the 40th anniversary of my Japanese language program. Since I often feel overwhelmed and discouraged (not only with studying Japanese, but with everything), I spoke about the Four Bodhisattva Vows. For anyone who needs a refresher, the four vows are:
Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.Reading Japanese at a basic level requires knowledge of about 3,000 kanji, but there are more than 5,000 kanji in current usage. I've spent the last five months or so studying Japanese intensively. Classes are every day from 9:20am- 12:35, and there are several hours of homework every day. Studying every day at this rate I have a reading knowledge of about... 400 kanji? Maybe? If I'm being optimistic? And those 400 kanji were hard-won. All this means that I am still pretty useless when it comes to reading Japanese. If I have to fill out forms at the doctor's office, I can only understand the place where I'm supposed to write my name and address. It can be really, really disheartening. Kanji are numberless!
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma Gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha-Way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.
The Westerners I know who are fluent in Japanese always give me the same advice-- and this advice is, strangely, the same advice my Buddhist teachers give me about practice. The advice (or observation) is that mastering something takes literally forever. Kanji are numberless; I vow to memorize them. One bilingual friend of mine told me, "Eventually, you'll know lots of things that Japanese people don't know about their own language. And you'll still not be anywhere near as good at it as they are." Another bilingual friend, when I asked him how he "learned" Japanese said, "I don't see it as a matter of learning Japanese, but of constantly finding ways to improve."
This is a pretty similar sentiment to the Four Bodhisattva Vows. The Buddha-Way is unsurpassable, yet we vow to realize it. In studying Japanese, as in practicing Buddhism, I've personally found it useful to focus just on what's in front of me right now. What is the homework today? Not: holy shit there are 3,000 kanji and I only know 400 and can't even remember how to write 仕事, which is like, the easiest kanji ever! This leads to feeling like everything is impossible and I should quit. It's very helpful when people remind me, "You've only been studying officially for five month, remember?"
I'm very young, and if the Buddha-Way is endless, the most important thing is to just keep going. When I compare myself, at age twenty-eight, to the Buddha-Way, which is infinite, how small am I and how much farther do I have to go? An infinitely long way. So actually, there's no need to feel like a failure if I just keep going.
When I feel the most disheartened and discouraged, when I really want to quit something, it's usually because I have some kind of unrealistic expectation of myself or others. For example, I have an expectation of myself that since I've been studying for five months I should be fluent in Japanese by now (hah!), or that since I'm a monk and spent all that time in a monastery I should never be unhappy, or have any doubts (hah!). Or I have unrealistic expectations of other people. I want them to satisfy or stimulate me in a specific way, and when they don't or can't, I label that relationship a failure. I have an expectation of how I want people to make me feel, and if it doesn't end up looking like that, I want to quit.
But what if there were no expectations? What if we take "mastery" or "success" off the table? What if it was just me and my desk, me and my homework, what if it were just me and my zafu with my best effort? My most single-minded concentration? This and only this breath?
It would be nice to have "no expectations," wouldn't it? To be like those blissfully dying characters in Rent, singing "There is no future, there is no past, thank god this moments not my last! There's only us, there's only this, forget regret, your life is yours to live!" But unfortunately, we're not really like that, are we? As the poet Marie Howe wrote, "We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss-- we want more and more and then more of it." As the title of the poem suggests, it's "what the living do." We want more and more and then more of it.
We want things from practice, from our jobs, our partners, from study and effort. We want results, mastery, success. I'm not sure it's impossible to get rid of expectations. But as long as I know I am doomed to fail in a certain way-- if I can view disappointment as an inevitability-- then it might be possible to continue doing my best in this moment, regardless of the outcome. Continuing is important.
So I'm going to go study some kanji now.
This is a note Aoyama Roshi wrote for me once when I was working as her assistant. It sums up everything I am trying to say in this post:
Don't give up.
Don't let up.
Even Dogen Zenji took 14 years.