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|