Keeping It Real

Entering a traditional Zen monastery is a strange thing.  Let’s say you enter on a Tuesday.  You arrive at the gate in your full robes, arranged for traveling — skirts slightly hiked up for mobility, sleeves tied back, white covers on your shins and forearms.  On your head, a wide bamboo hat that nearly obscures your face; on your feet, rough, straw sandals that (if you’re not used to them, and few people are) cut into your skin.

On this Tuesday, you stand at the gate and wait.  And wait.  After a while, a monk comes out to greet you.  He bows and asks what you want.  You say something obvious, something sincere, but you can see on his face that it’s not the right thing. This scene repeats, and you’re finally let in after an hour, or two, or ten.  And from that moment forward, you are a monk, living the schedule of a monk, meditation morning and night, chanting, eating in the same ritualized way that monks have for centuries, wearing these clothes, using these bowls, saying these words, walking just so.  Standing just so.  Sitting just so.

But on Monday, this was not your life.  You ate what you wanted for breakfast, maybe while watching TV, or talking with a friend on the phone.  You went where you wanted, when you wanted, and when you walked, you didn’t give it much thought.  The thought “How should I stand?” didn’t cross your mind.  Maybe you spent the day in pajamas.

So it’s natural that many monks, even after training for weeks or months, can wonder if perhaps they’re just play-acting.  After all, so much of monastic life is choreographed — in ceremonies, this bell signals this person to enter, which then becomes the signal for another person to follow, and so on.  There are even rehearsals.  Monks — many, in my experience — will speak of a moment (or moments) of looking around at everyone so earnestly putting on the show, and thinking, “Really?  Aren’t we just pretending to be something that no longer really exists?”  I asked myself this question, more than once.

I’ve heard from many people who knew him that Miyazaki-zenji, former abbot of Eiheiji (until his death a few years ago, at age 106), had an easy solution for those monks doubting their own authenticity:  fake it.  Don’t worry about being the real thing — instead, imitate a “real” monk.  Stand like a real monk stands.  Walk like a real monk walks.  Do zazen just like a real monk.  And repeat.

Forever.

“Imitate, imitate, imitate—imitate for your whole life.”  That’s the real thing.  It might at first sound like a flip response to a sincere question, but actually, this is a radical and direct explanation of Zen practice, a face of it which is easily misunderstood.

As one of my teachers is fond of asking, “How does one imitate a thief?”  By stealing.  What defines a thief?  That very same act.

It reveals our most basic concerns as human beings that even when immersed in the world of Buddhism — a body of teachings which unequivocally rejects the idea of a substantial, lasting, unchanging self — we become trapped by this question of authenticity.  “Yes, I’m bowing just as I was told to, but am I not just pretending?”  On one level, perhaps, sure.  But in that case, what you’re calling “pretend” has exactly the same ingredients as what is “real.”  One might even argue that what makes your actions inauthentic, if they are inauthentic, is this need to define their quality, this insistence on trying to view and evaluate them from a distance.

We all know someone who baldly separates what they do from their understanding of who they are.  Someone who plays piano every day might insist, “I’m not a pianist.”  Why?  Perhaps in that person’s definition of pianist, some particular skill level is required.  Or maybe public performances make a true pianist, or formal training, or a certain number of years of experience.  But when that person’s fingers press down on the keys, that’s piano playing.  Whether that’s a pianist or an imitation of a pianist is a question designed to take us out of that action into dissociation, where our actions are not defined by themselves, but by what we think of them.  “Pianist” is a story; “playing piano” is real.

Looking from another angle, it is not difficult to find someone who, in spite of being consistently unkind, insists that he’s a very kind person.

Who I think I am is not much more than a dream I keep having. If I am any one thing, it is this one thing that I am doing right now. If I give in this moment, I don’t have to worry about whether I am a generous person or not. If I trust in this moment, then the question of whether or not I am a trusting person is absurd. I am only my story to the extent that my story is limiting my ability to genuinely act.

And this is not just about how we view ourselves. We are also quick to judge others, to call them “false” or “two-faced” when they act in a way that we know does not come naturally for them. We say they’re posers. Traditionally, the world of Zen is a profoundly formal one, one in which a very refined etiquette dictates almost any encounter. That kind of interaction comes naturally to exactly no one — it’s something we choose, something we make real because we feel it has value, because it has the taste of generosity. It’s an attempt to offer a gift, to cultivate an atmosphere which we feel offers benefit. But when we see someone making an effort to be polite at that level, we too easily label it as a performance, a deception. We say they’re putting on airs. We miss what is right in front of us, which is that the person who is acting polite is also simply being polite.

What is it to be honest in one’s actions? If I act in a particular way to get something from you, or if I put on a particular persona specifically to deceive you, that’s dishonest. That seems clear. But what if I’m just trying to change the way I touch the world?

I used to walk with my toes pointed out at an angle — my mom told me I walked like a duck. It drove her crazy. She tried for years to get me to change my walk, to fix me, but I said, No, this is who I am. This, I thought, is the honest me. Then, in fifth or sixth grade, I checked out a book from my school library called How to Be an Indian. By any modern standard, it was a horrible, racially misguided book. It even included recipes for face paint — not for decorative face paint, but for paint to make your face the color of a Native American. I can’t find any trace of it online, and that’s good. But for all its failings, at least to a ten-year-old, the book depicted Native Americans as noble, skillful, resourceful people, people one might like to emulate. One page was about how to walk — it said that “Indians are so quiet in the forest” because they walk with their toes straight forward, not at an angle. I liked that. I wanted to be like that. So I started trying to walk that way. It took conscious effort at the start, and I’d often forget. But over time it became natural, and now, thirty years later, that’s still how I walk. Am I pretending to be something I’m not? Was I even pretending then? Or was I simply making a choice about how I want to move in the world? Was it ever a lie? If so, I can’t see it.

People value honesty. I do too. But in order to understand what honesty is, we need to clear our eyes a little and look very carefully at what constitutes a lie. I have to let go of who “I” am. I need to let go of who “you” are — I need to give you permission not only to embrace who you want to be, but also to be clumsy and unskillful in getting there. I need, at the least, to imitate someone with that kind of generosity. That’s enough.

16 comments on “Keeping It Real

  1. Stephen says:

    This post arrives at a time of concern over one of the precepts. I’ve felt as though I’m pretending to behave as the precept prescribes. And I’ve been critiquing “the story of who I am” in that context. Your words free me of all that now and I bow deeply in gratitude.

    • Koun says:

      Stephen–

      Our relationship to the precepts is a great, great example. We’re told, at least in the Soto world, that the precepts are not a prescription for how to act, but instead, they are a description of how a bodhisattva acts naturally. It can be hard, at first, to wrap our heads around that — it was for me. But we can take from this that a bodhisattva is self-defining. Precepts mean bodhisattva; bodhisattva means precepts. We can focus on action and let our story about who we are or are not fall to the side.

      Thank you.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  2. myomonchoro says:

    Thank you very much for this post, which totally hits home for this person, and is a very helpful perspective to keep when encountering ‘others’.

  3. Aaron Caruso says:

    Hey. I was hooked by your description of the entry into monastic practice. “Sign me up!” I say. Let’s get to it! I don’t know why, but as a Zen Buddhist, husband, father of 2, exceptional over 40 year old softball player…you get the idea, I default to wanting hard core practice. Dosho described his teacher as young monk, sitting zazen until he passed out, crashing his head into the wall. Only then to be dragged out and tossed into the snow to be revived by older monks. I want that!

    So I try to be mindful of these gripping thoughts, not sink too deep, and in time I desire something else. Maybe chocolate or a good rain for the garden. In very little time I’m reminded of the kindness of my daily life practice, good teachers, good family and friends, cat barf and litter boxes too.

    During a retreat once, I told my teacher that I was experiencing a lot of uncontainable joy. He told me it was OK to be a fountain of joy. Something like, “don’t hold back.” At another retreat, I expressed my frustation for not being selected for the dokusan line. He said I should fully manifest frustration in my sitting. Maybe something like, “what does frustration look like?” This advise was helpful for me and I feel it relates to your comments about “faking it.” When confronted with desires to fake it, go for it and really fake it. 100% faking it!

    Thanks,
    Aaron

    • Koun says:

      Aaron–

      I think what you’re describing is so much of it–just go for it. In the monastery, guys with good, strong voices got a lot of credit when they did the role of ino, announcing sutras and reading the declarations of merit. Sometimes it was really beautiful, the way they did it. But when it was really moving was when one of the guys who didn’t have a great voice (or the confidence that goes with it) took his turn and just went for it, no holding back. It’s inspiring, and it’s honest in a way that we probably don’t see often enough.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  4. This is a great post on an issue which I think is important. As an example, I teach meditation. The meditation I teach is not the meditation I generally practice (shikantaza), I teach anapanasati and other forms of meditation practiced in the Thai tradition I was ordained in. These practices are, I believe, more useful for most people new to meditation. One of the practices I teach is mettabhavana (skrt. maitribhavana), the cultivation of goodwill or “lovingkindness”. This involves deliberately evoking feelings of good will and love towards other people in one’s own imagination. A common doubt students feel is, “But isn’t this artificial? And how can I apply this in real life? Are you saying that the next time someone pisses me off I should just generate inauthentic thoughts of love?”

    I usually try to explain that thoughts of love are thoughts of love, and the feelings of anger or hostility which people identify with are in fact much more arbitrary and inauthentic then they might think. I try to explain that the mind is made of habits. As Kierkegaard said, “The self is repetition.” Once they except that the anger is just a habit, and an irrational one at that, they are usually, at least in theory, willing to begin deliberately cultivating the habit of good will.

    A Buddhist teaching from the Abhidhamma (skrt. Abhidharma) is helpful in understanding what we are discussing more deeply. In the Theravadin Abhidhamma there is a distinction between a cultivated mental state and a spontaneously arising mental state (it’s been awhile since I read the Abhidhammathasangaha and I can’t recall the Pali). The former is a chosen mental state, the latter arises without effort. The point of the distinction is that the fomer mental state is practiced and the latter type of mental state arises as a result of practice. A spontaneous feeling of greedlessness, for example, is a result of practice, a high level wholesome state of mind that results from having cultivated greedlessness, or the causes of greedlessness, at some point in the past. What most of us don’t realize is that most of our mental states in fact arise as a result of practice. The difference is that this “practice” is normally unconscious, undirected, inconsistent, and suffused with delusion. The idea that these habits arise from an “I” which is a discrete, identifiable entity is, as you point out in your post, one of the root delusions Buddhist practice attempts to heal in us.

    Upon investigation we can ask where these preferences came from. Where did your habit of walking like a duck come from? As a Yoga teacher I can tell you: you have flexible external rotators in your hips. Flexible external hip rotators are a genetic trait, and a fairly random and meaningless one at that. The example of your child’s mind latching on to that trait as self is a good one. What is really more “you”, if we choose to speak in those terms? What is yours by random genetic allotment or the karma from other lives, or what you yourself choose and repeat and repeat again? Learning to walk with straight feet is a good idea; feet that turn outwards that way imbalance the knees and can lead to a cascade of musculoskeletal imbalances. So which is more “you’, the hips you were born with or the walk that you chose?

    When we take up Buddhist practice we begin deliberately practicing new habits. We do this regardless of whether this states are “natural” to us or not. Why should we value what is natural to us? Greed hatred and delusion are deeply natural to us, which is why we were born in the first place (at least speaking for myself). Of course on a deeper level it is also true that Buddha nature is natural to us, that generosity, love and wisdom are natural to us. So in practicing these things we are simply strengthening one set of natural potentials over another. The resistance seems to me to come from concern not over what our nature is, or our potentials are, but rather concern over what our personality is. In other words, the concern comes from the ego and its addictions and obsessions.

    The Abhidhamma is discussing the cultivation of mental states through meditation practices- through mind training, which is often the majority of practice in Theravada as it is in Tibetan Buddhism. In modern Soto Zen I believe that the heart is the ultimate object of training, but the training you describe trains the heart through the body. It is the enactment of Buddha activities and the cultivation of mindfulness, precision, self-sacrifice, discernment, grace, etc. which train the person. These actions and attitudes are imitated at first as a matter of course. If we were already mindful, flexible, precise, self-emptying, etc., why would we need to practice?

    The monastic training you describe, and lay training in Zen forms, is a deep transmission of attitudes and sensitivities through the medium of the body. These somatic, kinesthetic, and ultimately moral and intellectual habits, are created by practice. To repeat Kierkegaard’s insight again, what self we have is what we chose to repeat. Although the habits of Zen will ultimately sound a different music in each person, blended with their own wisdom and their own idiosyncracies, they create self in a truer way than the random biases, neurosis, delights and aversions of the natural personality.

    • Koun says:

      Matthew–

      Thank you, again. I want to rewrite the post, this time quoting heavily from your comment about it.

      I think the distinction between cultivated and spontaneous mental states (and behaviors) is important to our understanding of all sorts of aspects of practice. In zazen, in particular, we’re often given instructions that focus on the feeling of it, the naturalness of it, the “gateway of ease and joy” part of it. That kind of talk is misleading and also just frustrating–zazen, especially in the beginning, can be a painful, clumsy affair. But when we do it to the best of our ability, it’s fully zazen, whether it feels like we want it to or not.

      The Abhidhamma is discussing the cultivation of mental states through meditation practices- through mind training, which is often the majority of practice in Theravada as it is in Tibetan Buddhism. In modern Soto Zen I believe that the heart is the ultimate object of training, but the training you describe trains the heart through the body. It is the enactment of Buddha activities and the cultivation of mindfulness, precision, self-sacrifice, discernment, grace, etc. which train the person. These actions and attitudes are imitated at first as a matter of course. If we were already mindful, flexible, precise, self-emptying, etc., why would we need to practice?

      The monastic training you describe, and lay training in Zen forms, is a deep transmission of attitudes and sensitivities through the medium of the body. These somatic, kinesthetic, and ultimately moral and intellectual habits, are created by practice. To repeat Kierkegaard’s insight again, what self we have is what we chose to repeat. Although the habits of Zen will ultimately sound a different music in each person, blended with their own wisdom and their own idiosyncracies, they create self in a truer way than the random biases, neurosis, delights and aversions of the natural personality.

      I should get this printed on a t-shirt. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  5. Dave Laser says:

    Koun-
    You remind me of an old country adage: ‘ The tongues in your shoes don’t lie.’
    Thank you.
    Dave

  6. wow, beautiful thoughtful post… and lovely blog. I’ll be back for more. Thankyou!

  7. Al Coleman says:

    Koun,

    These posts are incredibly informative to my practice even though I’m not a monastic, which raises the question, “What forms from the monastic tradition are most useful for a lay person to practice?”.

    As I read it elsewhere, the standard instruction is to use the rituals of daily life as practice, but for those of us who need to throw ourselves into forms that make no sense to us, what is recommended for the lay person? My teacher’s description of his thoughts on the use of monastic ritual are written here:http://www.dragonchantzencenter.org/about/ . I’ve never been able to discuss this with him, but I’ve never been taught to do much else other than zazen.

    I just finished reading Zen Ritual, so it is quite ironic that I have chanced upon these posts.

    Regards,

    Al

    • Koun says:

      Al–

      Thank you, and thank you for the link. Your teacher and I trained in the same places — I’m glad to see what he’s doing.

      You asked, “What forms from the monastic tradition are most useful for a lay person to practice?” The answer to that is probably book length, but my short answer is this: I don’t think it’s about any particular monastic form. In fact, trying to bring specific monastic forms into a lay life might be artificial in such a way that at least partially negates their value. But form itself is important, and our relationship to form is one of trying to mold ourselves to it, not the reverse. Designing “my” practice is always dangerous. I think it’s important for anyone, lay or not, to take on certain activities in ways that have been prescribed, be it by a teacher or a book or the historical tradition itself. We need to be able to throw ourselves into something completely, and to do it, it needs to be something we haven’t adjusted to fit our circumstances. It has to be something that requires some rigor from us. Monastic forms are the basic reference for us, at least in this tradition. But with the right intention and a clear view, they could be replaced by nearly anything. I hope that’s at least somewhat useful.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  8. John March says:

    As I sit more and more, having sat Mahayana, zen and most recently Theravadan, I am struck by an evolving sense of uncertainty and my willingness to allow for that. I see practice more and more as way for me to become familiar with and comfortable with impermanence. As a lay practitioner I am deeply interested in integrated practice that lies outside the form and structure of the monastery. As I am getting older my sensitivity to the Dukkha of impermanence and loss, separation from what I love, changes in life and health, etc…is increasing, and I see meditation as an opportunity and a means to develop equanimity with the ebb and flow of cause and effect and phenomena arising and dissipating. I see my intellect perpetually interceding and interfering with the truth of my experience and the suffering that causes. I cannot carry or possess my authenticity any more then I can carry my worries of inauthenticity. I can only effort to return over and over again. I often wonder if attachment to form and convention is another way to distract myself. I remember the first 25 years of my practice thinking the third Noble truth meant that if I just did the “right thing” or sat the ‘right way” that this was a path that eventually would lead to the cessation of suffering. That was a rude awakening because my attachment to path and goal kept me from relaxing as I was constantly assessing my progress and frustrations. I remember when I finally let go and the relief I had for a few weeks and my teacher at the time responding with “be like a leaf on the river” and how, at the time that felt really condescending and dismissive. Now I am just slightly understanding it all feels like leaves on the river. I am not certain if it as much a “pretending” as it is a “willingness” to allow the insights and guidelines the Buddha points to, to help me see how I relate to causality and suffer in relationship. Liberation is in changing that relationship and modeling my actions after those with cultivated equanimity seems like a good starting point! Thank you for the insights and clear language and also for speaking from the heart.

    • Koun says:

      John–

      Thank you. What comes to mind as I read your comment is the difficulty around the word “right.” I think we all wrestle with it, in various ways — perhaps the most difficult thing is separating that rightness from our ideas about morality and judgment. I find that more and more, I replace the word “right” in my mind with “skillful.” It’s an interesting place to be, if one doesn’t feel skillful, to try to imitate skillfulness.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  9. Chris Amirault says:

    “It’s an interesting place to be, if one doesn’t feel skillful, to try to imitate skillfulness.”

    A terrific coda to another terrific piece, this time referencing, of all things, the very (and very racist) book that I, too, read as a boy. Indeed, when I walk in the kinhin line, I am very aware that my feet point forward “just like an Indian.”

    Goodness. Gassho!

    Chris

    • Koun says:

      Chris–

      I’m so happy to find someone who read that book! I must have read it a hundred times — as I remember it, it was basically a cub scout manual dressed up in horribly misguided ideas about the magic of being Native American (and also the idea that “Indians” are all basically the same). How to walk, how to do something very similar to blackface, how to dig a latrine, I think even how to make a sweat lodge…. Valuable stuff for a little boy. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  10. Raj says:

    Great blog. One way of making an action authentic is to do it with awareness. And being aware of the beginning of it.the whole motivations behind it and being aware of the residues it leaves in the
    mind. Imitation, could be an unsure way to a good end and one may be fooled by one’s story. Thank you.

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