Bowing to the Snowman

When I was in fourth grade, my best friend Doug went to Jamaica and brought me back a big cup shaped as a “laughing Buddha,” with a hole in the belly button for the straw. A few years later, in high school, my new best friend David and I found it in the back of the cupboard, took it outside, and built a 5-foot high version in the snow. The way I remember it, it turned out really well. When my mom got home later that afternoon, we asked her to get out the camera and take a picture of us prostrating before our newly-built snow idol. But she refused. My mom just couldn’t endorse that, even as a joke–we were worshipping false idols, and the last thing we needed was a photographic record of the crime. I tried to argue, but since this was long before everyone had a digital camera in their pocket at all times, there was nothing I could do. She had the camera, so she held all the cards. Our beautiful snow buddha was a big lump by the next day.

I could not have known then that I would, as part of my chosen vocation, go on to do a lot of prostrations in front of a lot of Buddhas. In my 3-year-old son’s mind, that’s my whole job–he knows I do priest-related work and translation work, so the question every day is, “Did you do your gasshō job or your ABC job?” It’s an oversimplification, but there are a lot worse ways to describe what I do. He likes to do gasshō, so he knows I have a pretty great job.

I think back to my mom’s reaction, and I see a fear that has since come to feel familiar. She identified strongly as a Catholic, so if you’d asked her way back then if she was actually afraid of the consequences of mockingly bowing before the snowman, I think she would have said, yes, a little. I don’t think she had any illusions about that. But many, many people who don’t identify with any particular religion come to investigate Zen practice and see the bowing and hear the chanting and feel a similar fear, one they probably have a difficult time defining, or even recognizing for what it is.

It’s not uncommon, even in American Zen Centers, to chant Daihishin Darani as part of the morning liturgy (at centers that chant at all, that is). A darani is basically a mantra–the power of it, if there’s any, is not in the meaning but in the vocalization of the sounds. In the case of Daihishin Darani, it’s a transliteration into Japanese from Chinese from Sanskrit, maybe something else too, a lost source. The general belief is that it’s untranslatable (though we know it serves as a kind of cheer for Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion). It has a good, steady rhythm, so it’s easy for anyone to read. You can really put yourself into it. But it gets under a lot of people’s skins. And it seems that when I explain its origins, that discomfort only deepens. People will rarely express it this simply or this clearly, but what comes out of those conversations is something like this: “Just because we don’t know what it means doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean anything, and I’m not comfortable saying something out loud if I don’t know what it is.”

On the surface, this seems fairly reasonable, but is it? What would be the consequences of saying something out loud that we don’t actually agree with or approve of? What if the original message of Daihishin Darani is that it’s fun to do bad things to good people? Here on my desk, I have a book of poems by Pablo Neruda, in Spanish. I don’t understand Spanish, but I get a lot of joy from reading these poems out loud. Even in my comically terrible accent, they’re beautiful to me.

Over the centuries, the basic shape of most Zen ceremonies has become something like this: (1) bow; (2) read a sutra; (3) read a “dedication of merit,” offering the merit of having read that sutra to a particular person, or to a category of people, or even to all beings; (4) bow. Sometimes there are additional steps, but that’s the standard outline. Bowing, for many, is a sticky issue, even more so when there’s a Buddha statue in the room. Especially if you were raised in an Abrahamic religion, bowing can feel problematic. Then there are the sutras–there are lots that we understand linguistically, but even then, does it mean that we understand them, really? I have an understanding, but it changes with time; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I really get any of them. What is enough understanding to make something feel safe to chant? And then, on top of it all, there’s this idea of transferring something called “merit” to another person, like sending flowers (if you like something concrete) or maybe just a good vibe (if you think it’s a completely flaky proposition from the start). In that short ceremony, there’s just no safe ground to stand on.

For the record, if you think the transference of merit sounds like magic, I agree with you. I don’t believe in it at all. In Buddhism, when in doubt, it’s always good to remember fundamental principles, and for me, the idea of transferring merit from me to you flies in the face of a much more basic idea–namely, that there is no distinct, separate “me” and “you” from the start. It’s very strange that this practice has become so central.

But I want to advocate for doing it. All of it. This ceremonial form has been part of our teachers’ teachers’ understanding of Zen and Buddhism for centuries now. I can’t profess to know how people 600 years ago framed the liturgy in their minds; I don’t know how they would try to sell it. But here’s my clumsy pitch:

My argument for chanting sutras is simple: when we read something out loud, those words temporarily become our own. We become the speaker. When we read the Buddha’s words, then just for that moment, we are speaking as Buddha. We are Buddha, teaching the world. Understanding is secondary, or maybe a fiction from the start. By reading these teachings over and over again, they get into our heads, they become part of the language of our own minds. We digest them in ways we cannot see or ever fully appreciate. In my silly way, I pick up a book and become the voice and the body of Pablo Neruda. Zen offers lots of these opportunities for enactment; we should embrace them.

As for something like a darani, it’s a perfect playground for learning to invest ourselves in what we are doing. To read nonsense with full-throated conviction may seem silly, but conviction is conviction; it’s also rare. Most of our lives are spent doing things of no great inherent import, yet this tradition insists that we throw ourselves, body and mind, into each action in each moment. Chanting a darani with everything you’ve got is like committing fully to tying your shoes: on one hand, maybe there’s nothing there, but on the other hand, while you’re doing it, that’s really all there is.

Transferring merit is offering–it’s offering everything we have. There’s a very real level of this practice at which we give away every little thing that we do. I’ve been taught that nothing in Zen is symbolic. Nothing means anything other than what it is. If I vow to save all beings, then I make that vow literally–if I tell myself from the start that it’s impossible, but that it’s a nice symbolic gesture, then (a) I’m a liar, and (b) I’m wasting my time. I have to mean it. If I vow to save all beings, that doesn’t mean I’ll get in trouble if I somehow fail. That outcome is a whole other conversation. Success in making a vow is in doing it totally, with complete conviction. I offer myself up, even if I don’t know what that really means. It’s the same with offering merit. I don’t know if this merit exists, and I don’t know if it’s mine to offer. And in my case, I don’t believe it’s transferable, at least not in any personal, transactional way. But in offering it up, I offer up everything–what is mine, what isn’t mine, and what could never be anyone’s. I offer it on the off chance that I can. Nothing is withheld.

What is there, in any of this, to be afraid of?

When we bow to the snowman, who do we think might be watching?

In our heart of hearts, what do we think we might be at risk?


There are stories about people who come to Buddhist practice through contact with the robe, or kesa (袈裟, Skt. kasaya)–they take just one look at it, and something about it awakens the will to investigate the truth. One ancient story tells of a prostitute who puts on the robe as a joke, saying, “Look at me, I’m a monk!” She’s trying to make fun of it, but by touching it, by putting it over her shoulder, something inside of her shifts, and she turns toward practice. It’s all very magical.

But I’ve actually met people like this. I sometimes attend fukudenkai (gatherings of people sewing robes), and I meet person after person who, though they were born into a Buddhist culture, did not find any point of contact with Buddhism until stumbling upon the tradition of the robe (in particular, the nyohō-e, or traditional handmade robe). I can’t explain why; I doubt they can either. There’s just something about it. I have theories, but for now, I’ll just say that I think it taps into our intuitive feeling for what is authentic. And we like that.

There’s a lot to say about the nyohō-e–it is, in many ways, the face of the nyohō tradition. I’ll write more about it, but those details can wait. Right now, I want to investigate this in more basic terms.

If we entertain, just for fun, the idea that an article of clothing can be an invitation to practice compassion, or wisdom, or just commitment to this moment–if we imagine that it is possible to dress for that purpose, then how might we dress? What does that look like?

Or, to scale it back a little, imagine that there is an atmosphere that can have such an effect (perhaps easier to believe), and that our clothing can be one small component of that atmosphere. What would you wear? And if you knew about that effect, would you choose to dress in that way?

For simplicity, let’s reduce this to pants (as I’m writing this, I know it might sound silly, but please humor me). I think it’s asking too much of a pair of pants to expect them to inspire some sort of spiritual aspiration on their own. But again, if we see this pair of pants as part of a space, part of an environment, it doesn’t seem too crazy. After all, it’s easy to picture a pair of pants so gaudy, so ill fitting, or just so visually overwhelming (for good or bad) that they dominate the room. So pants can have a kind of power. We just need to ask them to do something more subtle.

What do these pants look like? The nyohō tradition provides some hints, some things to look for:

  • Natural materials.
  • Broken, subdued color. “Broken” means that it’s not too perfect, that it has variations and texture. We see broken color in cloth that has been rubbed thin over time, or washed over and over. We see it in lots of weaves that, on close inspection, are actually made of threads of different colors (though it looks, at a glance, like a single color). Cloth that is perfectly red, perfectly black, etc. doesn’t have this effect. And it’s no accident that a lot of synthetic materials are less likely than natural ones to take on that broken look. “Subdued” just means not glaring, not too bright. If someone wears a hot pink shirt, you can’t help but think, at least for a second, “Wow, that’s really pink.” And that’s not the point.
  • Simplicity of design. If the pants call attention to themselves, that’s probably not it. Likewise, if they’re covered with pockets that have no function, or zippers that have no function, or whatever it is, that’s also not what we’re talking about. Nyohō is practicality, at heart.
  • Fit appropriate to your body. Not too baggy, not too tight. Just right for you, so that you can have a natural, undistracted relationship with your own environment, with your own actions.
  • The absence of intense or distracting patterns (or text).

(I’ll add that we also need, in this age, to consider how/where/by whom the pants were made. This was not such an issue 1000 years ago, but it is today, and it’s a line of inquiry that fits with the tradition.)

Most of this is just a way of saying that the pants would be (a) comfortable for the wearer, and (b) not distracting for someone else. The value of being comfortable for the wearer is that the wearer, then, is allowed to be natural in his or her movements, to place attention on what is right there, in that moment. That naturalness is an invitation–an opportunity–for anyone around to have that same experience. If you’re bothered by how tight your pants are, that will affect everything–subtly, but surely–about how you interact with others. The issue of distraction is simply that, even though I keep talking about pants, this is not about pants. It’s about pants not being in the way of something else. One of my teachers is fond of saying that “if it’s not about you, it’s probably nyohō.” So if these pants are serving a function, it’s a secret one, an invisible one.

There’s talk in the nyohō world of “not arousing desire.” When we hear talk of desire, I think we naturally assume there’s some puritanical agenda at work, but we have to remember that in Buddhism, desire means any kind of desire, any sense that something is lacking. It’s the basic source of dissatisfaction. So, no, really sexy pants might not work in this context, but it’s not because of some notion of sin–it’s because wanting something we don’t have takes us out of the fullness of where we already are. Pants with a fancy designer label present exactly the same difficulties. We are not responsible for other people’s desires–that’s a burden that no one needs or deserves, and imagining otherwise is a dangerous road, in lots of ways. But for the purposes of this conversation, we’re trying to establish a certain kind of atmosphere, a possibility for a particular type of encounter. It’s like interior design; we’re just some of the furniture.

I’m describing this as if it’s all very calculated, but I think that the reason this teaching has resonated with so many people through history is that the list of criteria above is actually a recipe for things that people naturally like. We might go our whole lives without ever defining for ourselves how we feel about simple blue jeans–what is there to question? They’re practical, we think. What else is there? But in this world of space-age fibers and multi-function designs and nifty little secret compartments and quick-dry, instant washability, the fact is, there are lots of pants out there more practical than jeans. Lots. Jeans can’t compete. But we keep buying them. Why?

I think that jeans (I’m not limiting this to jeans, but I think it’s the easiest example), like the traditional robes, feel authentic. They feel honest. There’s probably a better word, but I can’t find it. We can say that’s because they match everything on that little list, or we can say it’s something less definable than that, something just felt. But in them, we can relax, and not just physically. We can also let go of our own stories a little, of our ideas of who we are and how we need to express that to others. And when we can let go in that way, the people around us can sense that, and they can do it too. It’s all invisible–I’m not thinking about the jeans I’m wearing, and neither are you. And that’s the point. It’s something that’s just out of the way.

There’s more to this. And it’s not all quite as simple or effortless as putting on a pair of jeans. There are occasions when jeans are the right expression; there are other times when wearing jeans has the opposite effect. Jeans might say, “Look at me!” Context can be complicated. If a Zen priest chooses to wear jeans, that can be a way of hiding from one’s public role, of withholding something important. In that case, even if the clothes meet the criteria, they still don’t fit the bill. We have to look carefully, with each step.

Is there a way to dress that creates a space of possibility for others? A way to walk? A way to sit? Are there foods that are more or less conducive to that atmosphere, that way of being? Is there a way of speaking that opens up the moment to those around us?

When we go to the store and pick out a shirt, is it reasonable to imagine that we’re not really shopping for ourselves, but for everyone else?

If any of this is even a possibility, then what could be more interesting to explore?

Zen and Surpassing Stradivari

A few years ago in Kyoto, my wife Tracy and I sat in a hotel room and watched a documentary about a Japanese man who had gone to Italy to learn to make violins. It has stuck with me all this time.  I didn’t write his name down at the time, but I searched around, and I think it was Kōshi Kikuda (his website is here).

I don’t remember many of the details of the story, but here is the basic sketch: Kikuda’s goal was not just to learn the basics of violin making–he wanted to make the best violins in the world. He thought to himself, Until now, the best violins were made by Antonio Stradivari–to be the best, it has to be better than a Stradivarius. This was his idea from the beginning.  This was the bar he set for himself. That level of aspiration–that determination to go beyond–is critical to this story.

But what makes Kikuda interesting is his next thought: In order to surpass Stradivari, I must completely immerse myself in his process. I must do what he did.  So he moved to Italy, learned Italian, and set out to make a Stradivarius violin. He got Stradivari’s old journals and drawings. He found out exactly where Stradivari got his materials–this grove of trees for this resin, this grove for the wood for the neck, and so on–and he went to those places and gathered those materials. He used tools exactly like the ones Stradivari used, nothing modern. To the extent possible, he performed every step of the process precisely as Stradivari did. He did this for years and years. And today, Kikuda is considered one of the greatest violin makers in the world (and he occasionally wins contests which suggest that he might indeed be the very best).

Sometimes, in speaking of lineage, we use the word intimacy. This is intimacy.

In the documentary, he’s very humble about this, and very serious. To him, it seems like an obvious process–to be the best, you have to walk in the shoes of the standard bearer. It’s a clear and simple expression of what transcendence really entails. True transcendence doesn’t simply jettison whatever it went beyond–it includes it, then goes one step forward. At the time the documentary was filmed, Kikuda wasn’t ready to say that he had succeeded even in making a Stradivarius violin, much less surpassing one. But he had also reached a point in his work where that question no longer seemed to matter. I don’t know if he still makes violins in that strict way. I suspect his process has evolved, perhaps without him really noticing.

His approach, to our modern way of doing things, is a radical one. After all, if you really want to know what makes a Stradivarius violin so special, we have technology for that. We can use computers and lasers and what-have-you to analyze it a thousand ways, to locate its technical strengths and weaknesses, and to improve on them. We can draw on research and researchers from multiple fields–not just hard science, but also psychology or anthropology. We can come up with infinite theories, not just of why those violins sound so good, but of why we think they sound so good.  We have so many possibilities.

I suspect that almost every test that can be conducted on a Stradivarius violin without destroying it has been done, probably multiple times. Yet here is Kōshi Kikuda, in his little shop in Italy, making the best violins in the world in a way that’s basically unchanged from 350 years ago. What are we to do with this?

I don’t know about other Buddhist schools, but in the Zen world, it is not uncommon to hear that the student is supposed to surpass the teacher. In the West, I think some have taken that as a call to cultivate a wider set of skills than those who came before. There is an expectation, at least in the US, that a Zen priest will be a teacher, a therapist, an organizer of non-profits, a performer, a scholar, a family counselor, a childhood development expert, and maybe a yoga instructor. There is a feeling that to surpass one’s teacher, one must be something different from one’s teacher, one must carve out a new path on new ground. That intention to be all things to all people is a compassionate one, but how far can it go? Already, there is a pressure for a Zen priests to be an amateur at all these different things, but a professional in none of them. We fall into this without necessarily defining what it means–separate from all these new half-roles–to just be a priest in this particular tradition.

Kikuda studied under various teachers along the way; it seems fairly clear that he has surpassed them all. But because of the depth of his experience, because he threw himself body and mind into the process in the way that he did, it is not an exaggeration to say that he also studied under Stradivari himself. He is the holder of that transmission. If you, like Kikuda, have the aspiration to understand Stradivari–if you are that rare person who wants to dive all the way to the bottom–then the person you need to talk to is Kikuda himself. He is that particular grove of trees. Who else is there?

Dogen (the founder of the Soto school) was not a perfect person, I’m sure. And there’s much that he could not possibly have understood about the world we live in today, the context in which we try to keep this practice alive. But he is a standard bearer, and for good reason. We take as a given, from his writings and from what he built in his lifetime, that he was extraordinary, an exemplum of how to express the Dharma moment to moment. In the Soto Zen world, he’s both Stradivari (the maker) and Stradivarius (the product).

If we want to surpass Dogen (a good starting goal, I think), how do we go about doing that? How do we study directly under Dogen? How do we immerse ourselves in that experience?

Where do we find that particular grove of trees?

What do we leave behind so that others might find the way?