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.
“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.