Hello my name is

Dōgen admonished his monks not to go back to their hometowns. “The old women,” he told them, “will call you by your childhood name.” In a week, I’ll visit my hometown for the first time in three and a half years, so this advice has been on my mind.

Dharma names are a tricky part of Zen. In my experience, most people are very excited to receive one, and once they do, they have no idea what to do with it. That uncertainty might be the whole point.

I received the name Kōun (幸雲) as part of my ordination ceremony. My teacher handed me a folded piece of paper, and I, kneeling before him, opened it, read it, and tried not to look disappointed. First, it means “happy cloud” — lots of people get names like “iron dragon,” or “compassion dragon,” or, well, anything with “dragon.” Happy Cloud is not exactly a power name. Second, I knew immediately that no one would be able to pronounce it. I get called a lot of things in the US, even by people to whom I’ve introduced myself: Koan is probably the favorite, followed by a more-than-occasional Koon. The best description I’ve found, over the years, is to say it’s like the “cone” in “ice cream cone,” but you have to stretch it out a little, like you’re from Mississippi.

In my case, my teacher didn’t put a lot of thought into the meaning of it. He took the kō from his own name, Kōsoku, and the un from the full name of his temple, Kiunzan Ganzōji. There’s a lot of talk about how a dharma name contains qualities to which you should aspire, or sometimes it’s a description of where you are, or maybe it’s a kind of personal koan. But my teacher’s approach was more like branding a cow. Koun means, “This is my boy.” That’s a fairly traditional way of doing it, though I think teachers tend to be a bit more poetic about it outside Japan. It’s not at all uncommon for teachers to take one character from their own name and include it in the names of all their disciples. Some people think that seems arrogant; others don’t give it a second thought. I think my teacher’s main reason for choosing the particular combination of characters he did — don’t get me started on how many cool names could have been made between his name and the temple name — was that 幸雲 is a perfect homonym for 幸運, which is a common word for “good fortune.” And that just seemed nice.

Kōun is not my first Dharma name. Twenty years ago, a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage named me “Source of Strength.” A few years after that, I received the precepts in Japan for the first time and was named Tōshin (透眞, penetrating truth). I never gave either much thought, and to my memory, no one ever asked me about them. They were invisible footnotes in my story. (I’m sometimes asked if it’s acceptable to receive the precepts more than once, or from different teachers. Yes, absolutely yes. If we’re really following the tradition, we renew the precepts monthly; and receiving the precepts from a teacher is a great way to establish a connection with him or her. Most teachers, if they know you already have a Dharma name, will not try to give you a new one, but most will also grant you a new one if that’s your wish.)

Even after being ordained, I couldn’t find it in myself to introduce myself as Kōun. I shaved my head from that point on, but I had no idea what I had done or what it all meant. I was a priest, but only on paper, only to a few people who knew. In the year following the ceremony, I sat with a group in Seattle, and no one ever knew I was ordained. I actually told a few of them, but I could see they didn’t think I understood what I was saying — they probably assumed I’d received lay ordination and was calling it “ordination,” that I had an inflated sense of it. I saw that reaction, but I wasn’t about to press the point. What would it have meant for me, with no outward signs (but one) of the priesthood, to insist to someone, “No, I really am a priest.” I wasn’t at all sure that I was one myself.

It wasn’t until I entered the monastery that I embraced being Kōun. While in training, of course, there was no choice — in that context, your Dharma name is your only name. But more importantly, in that context, there is only the function of being a monk. I knew, by the time I left the monastery, that part of becoming that function was adopting those outward signs. I had my name legally changed after I got to Alaska. …There are pages to be written about the various nuances of “ordained” and “lay,” but I think that distinction might come down to this: the priesthood is a public role. Spiritual responsibility of ordained and lay are the same; the vows are the same; zazen is the same. But the decision to ordain as a priest is an agreement to let the world watch you stumble through the practice, to keep those windows open all the time. It’s also an agreement to work, in that public role, to create a space of practice for others. And part of that space is a priest who does not apologize for being a priest, even if he thinks he’s a complete failure at it.

It’s difficult to tell, from this distance, how Dharma names are used in the US. I know of some priests who publicly go by their Dharma names, but I don’t know what they call themselves around friends and family. It seems that the most common approach is to use both one’s given name and the Dharma name together, as in Bob “Tetsuryu” Jones. And then there are priests who don’t use their Dharma name at all. That, to me, is unfortunate.

I encourage laypeople to go by their Dharma names in practice spaces (at the Zen center, or at sesshin), and to go by their given names everywhere else; I encourage priests to go by Dharma names all the time. Names confound us in ways that perfectly suit this practice.

When we get a new name, we think “Oh boy!” and we cling to it, whether we use it around others or not. We contract around it. We imagine that we got something special, and we obsess over the meaning and why that particular name was chosen for us by this particular person. It all seems so personal. But it’s not.

It’s not that you get a new name — it’s that the rug is pulled out from your old one. Nothing has been replaced, only lost. A name is a powerful thing. If your name is Susan, you’re probably always been Susan. That name is one of the first words you heard, one of the first words you learned to identify with a signifier. You most likely cannot imagine not being Susan. You know where Susan went to high school, who her best friends are, what she likes and what she avoids. You know Susan’s favorite color. You know how she walks, what flavor ice cream she always chooses. There’s a good chance that you know what Susan wants.

But if Susan is given the name Daiji, and if she uses it, suddenly there’s a disconnect. It’s jarring to be called by another name, especially when that name is attached to a particular practice, a specific way of being. Susan might always get mint chocolate chip, but Daiji doesn’t know what to order. Daiji and Susan are not really from the same place; they have a shared history, but Daiji’s is very short, very fresh in comparison (some priests celebrate their ordination day as their birthday — by that system, I’m a much younger man, with a much broader future). Daiji is all possibility. Specifically, Susan does not know how to live the precepts, how to fulfill vow. But that’s OK, because Daiji is the one who took on that responsibility, who was entrusted with saving all beings and cutting through all delusion. Daiji, if we’re lucky, might just see a way.

Again — Daiji did not replace Susan. But trying to authentically be Daiji makes it clear that Susan is not just Susan. Susan, too, is a story. This is transcendence — being Susan and Daiji, but also both, and neither. It doesn’t matter what “Daiji” means, not really. More often than not, that meaning is just an excuse to limit this new identity, to decide ahead of time what this new person is really all about. This is not about becoming your best self — that’s a fallacy. Nor is it about embodying a concept (like “great compassion”) that someone else has assigned to you (trying to be a happy cloud, for me, is not a useful exercise). It’s about moving beyond being this person or that person, about expanding beyond what any one individual can aspire to.

Offering yourself can only be a truly generous act if you first let go of your limited idea of that self. If you can’t do that — if you can only offer up who you think you know you are — then it’s a very small gift indeed.

This tradition offers up all sorts of opportunities for this. We first receive a new name when we receive the precepts; in some cases, it might happen again under a different preceptor. At ordination, we once again can receive a new name (though not all do). Some receive two names at ordination (functioning like a first and last name), but in many lineages, the second name (the last name) is not given to the student until the time of transmission. I see a lot of people in the US publicly using both names, but that isn’t a traditional approach. That second name, historically, is used only on very specific documents, mostly having to do with transmission of one kind or another. It’s almost a secret name. I love this because it means that at these critical moments when the teacher really needs to be fully present, to really empty her cup, she has this support, this other name that she uses so infrequently that she will probably never really get comfortable with it in her lifetime. It’s a way to pull the rug out from oneself when that is most needed.

Dōgen knew how much we need that fresh start, how valuable it is to simultaneously reinvent and deconstruct yourself in the name of serving others. He also knew that it was hard.  It’s basic human behavior to regress a little around our parents, no matter how old we or they are. It’s natural, walking the streets of one’s hometown after a long absence, to fall into the thought patterns of your high school self. These are the forces that define us, that defined us. So he warned his monks, and he was right. When I go home, it’s all too easy to slip into that skin, to inhabit the mind of the person I used to think I knew so well. The old women shout out my name, and I hear it as if I’ve never responded to anything else. It’s a reunion with my story about myself–“Wow,” I think, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

I will have the honor of sitting with the Open Circle Sangha in Helena, MT, on August 12, 19, and 26, 8:30-10am; I’ve generously been invited to speak on each of those days. I don’t know if any readers of this blog live in the area, but all are very welcome to attend. It would be a pleasure to meet you.

Staying Human

In the last post, I referred to the Six Realms of Existence; this time, I thought I might try to expand on that a little.

My take on this teaching is far from the most orthodox version, but I doubt there’s anything original about it. There are certainly schools which envision these as literal realms into which one can actually be born. But the interpretations which make the teaching most relevant, at least for me, view these realms instead as conditions or states which we all experience at different times in our lives, or even at different times of day. It’s highly conceptual — no one has to say even one word to convince me that this particular kind of exploration is not central to actual Buddhist practice. But as a construct, I find it compelling and useful. I find that I actually think about these six realms a lot.

  1. Deva Realm (or Realm of Heavenly Beings). Devas, to use a very recent term, are the 1 percent. A lot of people come to mind as examples, but for today, let’s use Kim Kardashian. I don’t know her — she may be a very kind and generous person. I hope so. But it’s clear that her life is quite different from that of what we might call an average person. She receives unthinkable paychecks for simply being who she is — at some point, surely, she has become accustomed to this. She is adored by many, and she has the means to avoid spending time with those who would not flatter her. She is given opportunities that most could never imagine. Does she suffer? Yes, as everyone does. But she also has the resources to distract herself from her suffering. Not everyone does. Tourists who stay at luxury resorts and treat the staff badly just because they can are trying — in the ugliest way — to taste this realm, to dress up as devas.
  2. Asura Realm. Asuras are beings in a constant state of struggle, ceaselessly competing and fighting. And what they’re fighting for is to be devas. They are consumed with winning, with getting what they think others have or what they think is owed to them. “Asura” is sometimes translated as “demigod,” but that sounds too comfortable. Asuras, like everyone else, experience dissatisfaction. But unlike many others, asuras embrace that dissatisfaction as a kind of call to arms. There is no need to point out one famous one — society encourages us all to dwell in this realm. The story of the American Dream is that if you want it badly enough, you can join the 1 percent, be whatever you want to be, live however you want. Asuras do want it badly enough, but they never get it. They probably couldn’t recognize it even if they did.
  3. Human Realm. We’ll get back to this one.
  4. Animal Realm. Those inhabiting this realm live according to instinct. I’ve heard one interpretation that animals live in a constant state of fear; another is that animals live only to satisfy base needs, without apology. Those two ideas, to me, are not very dissimilar. Animals, for the purpose of this model, define their wants as needs — that misunderstanding is their cage. If you’ve ever thought, “I don’t need to be kind/generous/articulate until I’ve had my first cup of coffee,” you’ve fallen into an animal state of mind. Teenage boys fully inhabit the animal realm, aggressively hunting for sex — real and imagined — like sharks that can never stop swimming, single-mindedly feeding and feeding. Both asuras and animals are consumed by desires, but of very different kinds.
  5. Preta Realm (or Realm of Hungry Ghosts). Hungry ghosts are a popular subject of Buddhist art. They are typically grotesque, with huge, bloated bellies and impossibly long, thin necks, making it impossible for them to ever be satisfied. I mentioned them once in a university class, and a student with some experience in these things said matter-of-factly, “Oh, they’re the addicts.” I’ve never heard that anywhere else, but it’s a perfect way of understanding this condition. An asura is not addicted to success — she’s never had it, or at least not her own definition of it. And a teenage boy is not addicted to sex — he just can’t see that there’s anything else. But an addict is different. An addict gets the fix, but it’s never enough; he knows there’s more, but he also knows he can’t have it. It’s a very specific kind of suffering. If you’ve ever been in an intensely dysfunctional romantic relationship, you probably know something about this realm.
  6. Hell Realm (or, to be parallel, the Hell-Being Realm). Hell, for this purpose, is a circumstance so overwhelming or painful that one cannot even imagine a world beyond it. Those who live in abject poverty live in the hell realm. Those who suffer from incurable, debilitating, degenerative diseases might find themselves here, so fully occupied with the pain of this moment and the next and the next that nothing else seems real, or possible. I’ve spoken with victims of sexual abuse who insisted that the world they live in — where one is assaulted and violated by close family members as part of the weekly routine — is the world everyone lives in, that there is no other world, that to insist otherwise is naive. “Hell” is a dangerous word, and we have to be careful. In this model, people are not put in hell to suffer; their suffering is what defines hell. It’s a place with no windows and no doors, no clear exit.

I’ve heard over and over that the deva realm is the most dangerous — someone in that realm is the least likely to arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, the mind of practice. There are just too many soft distractions from our true condition, and from the true condition of others. It’s critical to the story of the Buddha story that he lived the first few decades of his life in the deva realm, sheltered from the pain of the world. From a Buddhist perspective, the thing society tells us we should want most is precisely the thing we need least. In contrast, though no one wants to be in the hell realm (or would even wish it on another person), being sheltered from suffering is not a problem there–pain is all there is. In hell, if anything, the problem is that we’re sheltered from joy, to such a degree that we might stop believing it can be real.

As I understand it, this teaching is about choices. Each realm is a description of a particular personal narrative, a self-limiting story about who we are, what is possible, and what we need or deserve. A deva has no compelling reason to seek a different way of being. An asura has the same problem — you can’t convince an asura that what he’s seeking is not in his best interest. An animal’s story is all about me and my and mine. A hungry ghost is trapped in her own story of powerlessness and insatiability. And a hell being is so enveloped by the flames of this moment that she imagines that the whole world is on fire and that it will never, ever rain.

Which brings us to the human realm. Humans, in this teaching, are just as messed up and unskillful as we know them to be outside of this teaching. They want what the asuras want; they can be as self-serving as animals; they can be tethered by a single destructive desire, just like hungry ghosts. And when the conditions are there, they can fall into the self-serving mind of the deva or the angry sense of victimhood of a hell being. It’s all there. What makes “human” its own realm, however, is the recognition of complexity. Understood literally or metaphorically, traditions agree that the human realm is the only one where there is a possibility of enlightenment. In literal-interpretation circles, there is a lot of talk about valuing this “precious human birth” — to be born into this middle realm is the ultimate opportunity, not to be wasted. Especially if we’re taking a “you might be reborn as a frog” view of karma, this idea makes a lot of sense. After all, if you are a frog, and if you live out that life according to instinct, what might you do during that lifetime to affect a change in birth the next time around? If a frog just does frog stuff, then there’s a strong chance of just getting stuck in a loop, being born as a frog over and over, with few realistic opportunities to go beyond that mindset.

But humans are designed to get out of that loop, to upset their patterns. We don’t need to take that conservative view of karma for this to make sense. I can be a human being, but inhabit the asura realm, slowly killing myself by working too much at a job where success is measured only in terms of profits and losses, winning and losing. I can be completely immersed in that competitive world. And then, for no good reason, I can be startled by the beauty of a flower growing outside my office window, or I can bump into a friend from a time when I saw my life differently, or someone close to me can pass away, and just for a moment, I can recognize that there is more to my life, and to life itself, than the life I have made. I can see that reality is bigger than what I usually imagine; I can see, even if just for a fraction of an instant, that I have choices. I could turn left instead of right. I could express something more, or something else.

In that moment, I step into the human realm. It may be for just a second, but maybe not — maybe I’ll linger there, breathing it in, smelling the possibility. When we talk about being free from karma, in essence, we’re talking about this — recognizing our patterns and biases and addictions for what they are, and making real choices rather than just doing what we always do, or thinking what we always think, or saying what we always say. It doesn’t mean we’ll make good choices — as I said, humans are messed up. But the human realm is that place of not knowing. It’s being awake and unskillfully floundering around instead of being asleep and complacent. It’s turning off automatic pilot and taking the controls for ourselves, even when we have no idea how to fly.

It’s the only place to be.


Update June 13, 2013: A French translation of this post can be found here, on Éric Rommeluère’s blog J’ai deux kôans à vous dire… I am always so grateful to find things like this.

I Am a Small Man

Our boy is three years old. It’s a big deal to him. A couple months before his birthday, we started hyping it to him, planting all sorts of ideas in his head about what a three-year-old boy might be capable of. The big one (I still can’t believe we pulled this off) was convincing him that after his birthday, he would do away with diapers once and for all and forevermore be a toilet guy. He made the switch on his birthday, on his own. Unbelievable.

So from where I’m standing, it’s all about what he can do. He can do amazing things. He can ride his balance bike in all sorts of crazy ways and somehow, miraculously, not fall down. He uses the toilet by himself. He dances, he sings, he tells us weird, weird, made-up stories with a hundred characters and no ending. And none of what we see at home compares to what he does at daycare, which is run with military precision — there, he is a model of putting-away-the-toys, quietly-listening-to-the-story, waiting-in-line-for-the-toilet behavior. He can drive me crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always bursting with pride.

But there are these little moments when it’s clear that for him, it’s a different story. He’s proud of what he can do, and he’s happy to rub it all in the face of our little girl, who is just now starting to walk and still thinks meals are all about dropping things from great heights. But he’s painfully aware, in everything he does, that he can’t yet do everything he wants to do.

There are lots of times when he talks to us and we just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s because it’s a mix of Japanese and English; sometimes, if it’s a word we haven’t heard him use before, we’re not even sure which language he’s using. In the strange little narrative he keeps of his own life, the orange collar on the dog we saw three weeks ago at the park is vitally important, and relevant, and immediate, so he references it the way I might reference something like “the car.” But it can take forever to figure out how we got there, and the frustration he feels in those moments is palpable, even when it doesn’t lead to a total breakdown (which it sometimes does). He knows enough to know that this whole language thing should be a lot easier than it is, but he can’t yet make it so. All the frustration and isolation I felt when I first came to Japan and tried to speak to shopkeepers, he feels when he speaks to his own parents.

With his body, too, there’s just so much that doesn’t yet come naturally. Big buttons are OK, but little ones taunt him. He gets trapped taking off his own shirt. And it keeps happening–Why, his eyes say, does this keep happening? He tears paper he doesn’t mean to tear, drops things he doesn’t mean to drop. He fully inhabits his body, but his body is not yet entirely his.

We see these things, and we feel for him, but we forget, over and over, to try to see it through his eyes. It’s cute when he gets trapped in his shirt. And we have the privilege of knowing that it will all get better — six months from now will be another world, again.

A couple months ago, we got him a little paddle toy — two big foam paddles with duck faces on them, and a sponge ball to knock back and forth. For a while, he used the paddles kind of like golf clubs, just pushing the ball around on the floor. He’d ask me to play, and I’d lob him the ball with the paddle, and he’d get angry and throw the paddle and walk away. It happened a few times. Then one morning, after lobbing it to him again, his eyes filled up with tears, and his face went red, and he shouted at me, “Papa, I’m a small man!” And through the sobs, with some little gestures and a combination of two languages that really don’t fit together at all, he explained that he can’t do what I do, dropping the ball on the paddle and hitting it underhand like that. It’s just beyond him right now. He’s tried and tried, but for today, it’s a no-go. But when I do it (it’s such an unconscious way of handling a ball and paddle, I hadn’t even given it a second thought), it just crushes him. It’s too much.

So much of teaching is putting oneself in the place of the student, anticipating that person’s difficulties and addressing them. That’s the start of skillful means, and it’s hard to remember it sometimes, much less to get it right. For some reason, I have the hardest time standing in my little guy’s shoes. I’m so busy celebrating for him (and congratulating myself) that I lose sight of what he sees, which is a world made of high walls, impossible dexterity tests, and cruel oral exams.

A Tibetan teacher startled me once with her simple description of animals (I still think about this every time I see a cat or dog). Buddhism sometimes includes talk of six realms, which we can imagine stacked vertically, from top to bottom: heavenly beings, asuras, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings. Perhaps I’ll try to describe the purpose behind all of that in a different post — the important point here is that animals are listed below humans, a point that always bothered me a little. I, like many people, tended to think of animals in very romantic terms. A deer, for example, has such dignity, such apparent clarity of purpose, such a beautiful quiet expression. It’s easy to think, “I want to be that.” But the Tibetan teacher had a very clear reason why one should not want to be in the animal realm: animals live in constant fear. They are always on the lookout, even when seemingly at rest. Humans can transcend their fears, but other animals cannot. Now it seems obvious, but the lens I carried made me unable to see it.

One day my little boy couldn’t hop on one foot; the next day, he could. I watched him eat ice cream for the first time, saw how his face practically gave off light. Who wouldn’t like to eat ice cream again for the first time? It’s beautiful, his life. But right now, at three years old, he has no way of really seeing that. Most adults I know don’t see the beauty of their own lives — what chance does a preschooler have?  I’m grateful to be a witness to his life, to see it with my eyes, to be able to tell his story. But, as with each one of us and each person we know, that story is just a story. What I see as an unending photo opportunity is, for him, a sea of confusion; he is the embodiment of dukkha (dissatisfaction). He suffers, and the fact that he’s three doesn’t make that any less true.

I need to remind myself of this constantly. I need to learn to see with those eyes, to run with those legs, to crawl inside the mind of the Small Man.

Nurturing Intention

I started practicing karate when I was a teenager, and soon after, I began to notice a phenomenon that now seems, to me, ordinary. A new person would come to the dōjō, love it, and declare that he was going to dedicate his life to the martial arts. And then he’d disappear. It seemed, in many cases, that a person’s longevity was inversely proportionate to his or her enthusiasm. I understood that not everyone follows through on everything, but the predictability of this always seemed strange.

By the time I started to see this in the Zen world, it just seemed sad and familiar. During my time in Alaska, two young people came and spoke with me very seriously about the prospect of ordaining as a priest.  They had never come to sit with the AZC; in fact, they’d never sat anywhere, with anyone, ever. In both cases, I suggested that before they change their names, put on robes, and enter a monastery, perhaps they should just come and sit with us, but the response was that they wanted the “real thing,” not this sit-in-the-morning-in-someone’s-living-room, play-acting version of Zen. I encouraged them to come; they didn’t come. That was the end of it.

Another young man wanted to travel with me to Japan one summer to train at a monastery, but he didn’t want to come sit with the AZC there in his own town. He told me without any irony how serious he was, how committed. It’s easy, after a string of these encounters, to just dismiss someone like this, but I do believe that as he made his case to me, he did feel that serious — he did believe that he was that committed, even though he had no idea either of what he was asking for or what he was rejecting. He was, in his way, sincere.

I suspect that this same scene is played out at Zen centers around the world, all the time. In Anchorage, someone would come and sit for the first time and stay talking with me in the doorway for half an hour afterwards, thanking me and saying she’s finally found her true home. And I’d never see her again. It’s recognizable even mid-conversation — you feel, with some certainty, that this exuberant hello is really goodbye.

Since I started this blog, a couple of people have written to ask for help in getting into a monastery in Japan. These are people with no teacher and no experience, just an idea that they know exactly what they need to do: become a Zen monk and train in Japan. I asked if they could sit with a local group, maybe cultivate a relationship with the guiding teacher there. In both cases, there was a nearby group, but in both cases, attending was out of the question. They wanted the “real thing.” Sitting with a bunch of ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts is fine for some, but not if you really want to solve the great matter of life and death.

I struggle sometimes to understand what this is all about, and how best to address it. Some people are just flaky, or flighty. That’s true anywhere. Most have created a narrative about the practice, or themselves, or both. If it’s the practice, it’s often connected to the idea that it’s all or nothing, that one either ordains and trains like Dōgen or stays home (unfortunately, this often brings with it the idea that the people actually attending the Zen center are fooling themselves); if it’s about themselves, then perhaps it’s that they see, in that first encounter with Zen, a vehicle for becoming the person they want to be, disciplined and compassionate and wise, and special.

Both of those narratives are mistaken. If we want to say that Zen is all or nothing, that’s not wrong, but “all” doesn’t mean what we think it does (nor does “nothing,” for that matter). However, we can just as easily say that it’s neither all nor nothing, that it’s just this. It just is what it is. If it’s sitting once a week on Sundays, that’s what it is; if it’s sitting six hours a day in robes in a 600-year-old building, then it’s that too. What it isn’t, in any case, is the version of it that you can’t have right now. And as for Zen making us who we want to be, that just isn’t the case. It doesn’t even do the Hallmark-card reverse: making us want to be who we are. Zen is about letting go of who we are. It’s radically not special. Along the way, as we navigate what that all means, it can even be a little depressing.

And yet, underneath all these misunderstandings and misguided intentions, there is what’s called hosshin (発心), the awakening of the mind to practice. Hosshin is the original wake-up call, the one that lets us know — even though we probably can’t articulate why or what it means — that this is important. Teachings tell us that this hosshin is what leads us to shugyō (修行), actual practice. Shugyō leads us to bodai (菩提), or letting go of the self. Bodai leads us to nehan (涅槃), letting go of letting go. And in the Zen tradition, we say that nehan then brings us back to hosshin, where we start the cycle over again. (One of my teachers describes this like turning a screw — if you look from the top, it seems you’re just going in circles, but if you look from the side, you see that you’re constantly going deeper and deeper.)

In short, hosshin is important. But by definition, when that mind is first aroused, it will bring with it all sorts of delusions and misunderstandings and immature views of what it all means. Someone looking at Zen from the perspective of hosshin cannot know what the practice really is, nor can they even begin to guess what it might produce. It’s just this feeling, this recognition. It’s what gets us through the door. Without it, nothing happens.

So when we see it, we see something precious, something to be nurtured and encouraged and supported, like a child. But often it also brings with it a childish view, one that is impatient and self-centered and unforgiving.

I feel a lot of love for these young (they’re usually young) people who come to the practice as if they’re on fire. I was like that — every wrong idea I’ve ever heard about the practice is one that I’ve had myself. When I was about twenty, I wrote a long letter to a teacher I’d met (a student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s) announcing that I recognized her as my true teacher, that I wished to formally be her student and dedicate myself wholly to her teachings and to the Dharma. She was the only teacher I’d ever met, but I just knew. It wasn’t that I knew about her, though I respected her deeply — it was that I felt, in my bones, that there had to be more to the practice than what I was doing, and that I had to be special for knowing that. I told her I was awaiting her orders, ready to jump and do whatever she needed me to do. I was ready.

She never wrote back. I waited and waited, but that letter didn’t come. When I think of it now, I’m embarrassed for what I wrote — not for the feeling behind it, but because I sense that she saw, in that letter, what I have come to recognize in people who appear from nowhere and say they want to move to Japan and train in a monastery. I was that guy. But I also feel grateful. She wasn’t my true teacher. I wasn’t her true student. Her silence — whatever her reasons — freed me to find my way to where I am today, to my teachers, to this tradition.

Mostly, when I think of that letter, I feel unsure about skillful means. That teacher saw a choice to either feed my intention or starve my delusion — she chose to starve the delusion, and from where I stand, that was exactly the right thing to do. And yet, and yet– When someone comes to me with great delusional dreams of jumping in head first, bald and bigger than life and engulfed in flames, of course I see the delusion, but my heart wants to feed the intention, to try to find a way to the mind that just now recognized, for the first time, something so huge and doesn’t know what to do with it, or even what it is.

When I talk with other teachers about ordained disciples, they’ll sometimes talk about the one or two that “got away” as if completely losing at least a few people in that way is a foregone conclusion, a predictable outcome. There’s an assumption that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the balance just won’t be right.

I, for one, have not figured it out. How to applaud with one hand while wielding a sword in the other? I don’t know.

I really don’t.

A French translation of this post can be found here.

Monasteries and the Real World

When I was a teenager, one of my teachers told us about his list of “required” experiences. These were experiences that he felt were prerequisites to being a fully alive, aware person. I remember nothing of that list except one: spend a night in jail. I asked him if he’d ever spent a night in jail. He had. (I have not.)

Twenty-five years later, I wonder how much of his list I’ve covered, and how much it’s changed. If I were to meet him and tell him about my life, would he feel that my life is on track, or would he only see gaps in experience? What about things I’ve done that he has not? Would he find them threatening? Would he dismiss them as distractions?

I’m aware, both in the Zen community and in myself, of our tendency to define what is real and what is not according our own experiences. It’s natural. Anyone who has kids (this is especially true of new parents) probably has the experience of talking to a childless friend and thinking, “This guy doesn’t know anything about the real world. He has no idea.” And many young people have the opposite experience — talking to a friend whose life revolves around her children and thinking, “Wow, she’s completely lost in her narrow little world.” When we are among the initiated, we imagine that it couldn’t possibly be any other way; when we are outsiders, we mock the people on the inside for their self-importance.

So it’s natural that in the Zen community, we tend to advocate a kind of training similar to what we ourselves have experienced. There are only a few Zen teachers in the US who are products of a traditional monastic system, and as a result, there are only a few who feel strongly about passing that system on. There are some on the extreme other side who feel monastic practice is a complete waste of time, then a majority in the middle who feel that it’s OK for people who are into that sort of thing, or who feel it might have value in small, manageable chunks. But, at least for the moment, there is very little energy behind establishing monastic training opportunities for the current and future generations of Soto Zen priests.

That’s how I see it, based on conversations with other priests, attendance at national meetings, and perusal of what’s written on various Zen center websites. A few teachers may still hold up “the monastery” as a kind of abstract, romantic ideal, but much more often, the language we hear is “outside the monastery,” or “beyond the monastery” (if the monastery is mentioned at all). Many, many teachers reference the monastery not as an ideal, but as something that is fundamentally at odds with modern living. It’s the problem with Zen. And when I read such statements, I always wonder, “Who is the audience here?” If American Zen teachers are already not actively advocating monastic training, then against whom are we arguing? At this moment in the history of Zen, abandoning monastic practice is hardly a revolutionary move.

I think there are legitimate and constructive conversations to be had about this: What is monastic training? What’s it about? If there is a goal, what is it? What does it produce? How has it justified its existence up to now, and do those justifications hold up in a modern, Western context? If yes, then what causes our cultural resistance to such practice? And if not, why not? What aspects of the monastic tradition in Japan can find traction in the US? Which require modification? Which don’t stand a chance from the start? And how do we determine such things? If we attempt to establish an “American” monastic model, what is our inspiration? Modern Japanese monasteries? The monastic guidelines (shingi) left behind by Dogen? By Keizan? Do we go back further, to the shingi from China? Do we go back to the beginning, to the birth of the monastic sangha in Buddha’s time and take our cues from that original structure? American culture hates rules, but it also has a deep puritanical streak that connects to the tradition of the vinaya (browse almost any Buddhist blog’s comments section to find people insisting that any monk who is not celibate and poor is a scam artist, a sexual-predator-to-be who’s just in it for the money).  How can we fund monasteries in the US, knowing that the Asian models of patronage just won’t work?

At the center of all of it: What is a priest?

These are really interesting questions. These are among the most compelling questions I’ve ever encountered.

But before we can address any of them, we need to move beyond the popular idea that the monastery is somehow different from the “real world.” This idea is everywhere. I hear over and over again that we don’t need monastics, because monastics can’t possibly understand the challenges of ordinary people. People refer to monastic life as something sheltered, a way of hiding from “real life.” They say, “Get a job.” This could only make sense to someone who is looking at monasteries from the outside.

One night in the monastery, I slept in a closet to hide from a monk who had gone down to the local village, gotten drunk, and decided upon his return that this was his night to kill me and the monk in charge. I just stayed where he couldn’t find me, and the next day we found our mutual ways back into the normal routine. I watched a monk trying to break a sleeping monk’s face with a kyosaku (but missed, luckily – it was dark). One evening after dinner, after hearing the next day’s job assignments, a monk who felt he spent too much time in the kitchen jumped completely over a table and tried to strangle the shuso (chief novice). I watched a fistfight break out over how much or how little monks should be involved in politics. A monk went crazy one day and basically destroyed a room, like a wild animal trapped indoors. We all waited in the hallway for it to end, then went in and silently cleaned it up.

For a time, the head monk, hell-bent on saving money, tried to force us to eat rotten pickles every day – so rotten that they had turned from yellow to a deep blue. One afternoon, I just went into the woods, dug a hole, and buried them.

In winter, when the head monk had to suddenly leave for medical reasons, some of the junior monks holed up in a room for three weeks. They were free, and their version of embracing freedom was to close the door and keep their little kerosene stove burning constantly, with the windows closed, essentially gassing themselves into a constant toxic sleep. They’d stumble out from time to time, looking intoxicated and confused, then wobble down the hall to raid the kitchen. During that whole period, I don’t think I ever heard any of them actually speak.

A monastery is not some romantic place where people spend their days serving each other tea and thinking about saving all beings. When we look beyond the schedule of ceremonies and zazen, what we find in monasteries is an experiment in intimacy. It’s an intimacy with others — more than once, I’ve heard it likened to a pot full of potatoes, rubbing against each other until they’re all skinned and shiny white. It’s also an intimacy with yourself. If you sit six hours of zazen a day, every once in a while, zazen will slip away and you’ll find yourself thinking about things — a recurring theme, guaranteed, will be, “What the hell am I doing here?” You have time in a monastery to go over every mistake you’ve ever made, to dissect every regret, to luxuriate in self-doubt.

More than anything, it’s an experiment in saying yes. We say yes to the bell, to the schedule, to the demands of being, in many ways, glorified custodians (if you go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 3am, that’s not just an 18-hour day, it’s 16-18 hours of actually working). We say yes to seniors, putting personal issues aside. We say yes to the tradition, to the 24-hour ritual enactment of the life of Buddha, eating this way, standing this way, sleeping this way, sitting this way. And under all of it is the fundamental yes, the one where we decide not to leave, to stay where we are. We agree to move in concert with these crazy people.

In this way, we start to understand what it is to move beyond preferences. A mantra in the monastery is suki kirai kankei nai (好き嫌い関係ない) — essentially, like and dislike are irrelevant. If you’re like me, then in the beginning, you hear this to mean, “Don’t whine.” But it’s much more than that. It’s at the center. When my daughter just bumped her head and my son is tantrum-screaming as if he’s on fire, but it’s something about which cup I gave him, I have lots of preferences about how I would like things to be. And none of them matter.

When we default to the idea that the monastery is another world, we both demonize and romanticize it — we insist that its differences make it irrelevant, and in doing so, we imply that it really is a magical world where bodhisattvas stroll around, unencumbered by human problems. The most basic stance of Buddhism, from its first day, is that human experience is universal — we all see the world through the lens of our own narrative, and in doing so, we all create criteria by which we judge (and thereby distance ourselves from) this moment. We all separate the world before us into “like” and “dislike.” We all believe, consciously or unconsciously, that some things are more “real” than others. We all, I suspect, have a hierarchy of experience.

And if pressed, I’d bet that most of us believe, deep down, that there is some place a person can go to “get away from it all,” a place for retreat.  There is no such place.

There is only this place. In a monastery, too, there is only this place. When this is all there is, how can this be unreal?

When this is all there is, how can there be someplace else to go?

I, Roshi

When I was a pimply-faced high school kid, I used to go to a dermatologist I’ll call Dr. Selmer. I disliked him intensely. He was always strongly recommending acne remedies that had, in his own words, “basically the same side effects as chemotherapy.” That seemed insane, even sinister. I never did this to his face, but my way of showing my family how little I respected this man was by refusing to refer to him as a doctor — I called him “Mr. Selmer.”  I remember seeing how much power that had, how wrong it sounded, how it made my parents cringe just a little every time.

Titles, at least in Soto Zen, are tricky. When other priests in Japan send me correspondence, they usually append shūshi (宗師, “religious teacher”) to my name; occasionally, they’ll even write rōshi (老師, “old teacher”) — no one uses the term to my face (I’m 39!), but in writing, those kinds of exaggerated honorific titles are just a way of showing respect. It doesn’t mean much. Most people here call me Koun-san, with the san meaning absolutely nothing, but people who know something about Zen might call me oshō-san (和尚, harmony + esteem, often translated as “preceptor”), or maybe Koun-oshō-san (if you hear ossan, that’s just oshō-san getting contracted, usually to convey something a little bit casual). Our neighbors have taken to calling me sensei recently. Sensei is most often translated as “teacher,” but that doesn’t do it justice — it’s used for teachers, but also for doctors, or for the school nurse, or for artists of a particular standing, or for older musicians, and on and on. Sensei is what you call someone when you recognize that their standing or category probably merits its own term, but you don’t know what that term is. It’s handy that way. Literally it just means “one who is ahead,” so it’s a recognition that a person clearly has something to offer. It’s very possible that the neighbors call me sensei because my wife is a university professor, and it’s just more comfortable to give us the same status.

All these titles (and there are many more) share one thing in common: they are never, never used by the person in question. That is, the neighbor can call me Koun-sensei, but I cannot call myself Koun-sensei. Even just to say that I’m a teacher, I have to use a neutral term like kyōshi (教師) — sensei is a term of respect, and here, culturally, it’s understood that one does not do that when referring to oneself. Ever.

So it’s always jarring for me to see Western teachers sign their email with “Roshi” or “Sensei.” The practice is not universal — in fact, the majority of priests in the US don’t do this (a high percentage don’t even use their Dharma names). But nor is it uncommon. I see it all the time. And what I’m mostly seeing is correspondence among colleagues, where, regardless of one’s vocation, it might be a little strange to refer to oneself by title, given that most of your colleagues are basically the same rank. I suspect the self-use of honorific titles is much more common when priests are dealing with laypeople. I realize that for many priests and centers, it’s probably too late to be addressing this; I also know I’m hardly the first to bring it up. But still, I’d like to appeal to those who don’t use these titles publicly, especially young priests at the start of their careers, to not go down that road. I can’t see the benefit of it.

Part of the confusion –among priests and laypeople alike — is that rōshi means something different in the Rinzai world. My understanding is that in much of the Rinzai world, rōshi is a real title, something one graduates to. There is an actual moment when someone becomes a rōshi. Even then, in Japan, that person would not use the word to describe him or herself — there are no real exceptions to that. But at least it’s something measurable. If you ask a Rinzai teacher, “Are you a rōshi?” my sense is that in many cases she could answer definitively “yes” or “no.”

There is no such graduation moment for a Soto priest. If you live long enough, and if the people around you feel either respect or affection for you, you might find one day that you are a rōshi. That’s all. Maybe it will never happen. It’s not really something to aspire to, largely because it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone involved. One priest in his sixties told me that the first time he was called rōshi in a conversation, his response was to go to the washroom and look in the mirror to see if he’d suddenly aged. Many priests are never called rōshi, regardless of how long they live. (There is one exception to this, which is that the central monastic office titles of dōchō, seidō, godō, and tantō often, as a custom, get rōshi appended to them, but even that is not true in every monastery).

But at least in the Soto world of the US, rōshi is often used to signify a specific rank. Some people insist on it the way that an insecure college professor might trip up every introduction by always saying, “Actually, it’s Dr. Smithson.” I think most people find that kind of insistence off-putting, but to be fair, at least “Dr.” is a technical title, one earned in clear and measurable ways.  Rōshi and sensei cannot be earned — they can only be given. I’ve met novices who spoke openly of their goal to be a Zen teacher. That’s a serious mistake. That’s something that comes to us, not something we seek.

There’s another phenomenon in the West in which students refer to their teacher not as “Smith-roshi” or “Jones-roshi,” but simply as “Roshi,” with a capital ‘R.’ I can see how that might become a default in a given community, among common disciples of the same person (though it rings very strange in my ear, even then). But to refer to your teacher as “Roshi” when speaking to someone outside of the group reveals a kind of arrogance, a worldview in which only one person in the world deserves such a title.

I want to advocate for us, as westerners, treating these titles as people in Japan do. But I want to be clear: the Japanese approach to this issue is not superior because it’s Japanese, or even because it’s traditional. It’s superior because it’s more respectful — of priests, of the relationships we have with priests, of the relationships we priests have with others, of the living dynamic that is always in play between teacher and student, guest and host.

We say in this tradition that the student makes the teacher; we even go so far as to say that when the teacher confers transmission on the student, the student simultaneously confers transmission on the teacher. We are mutually self-actualizing. A teacher does not exist in a vacuum; a teacher appears at the moment that a student does. I became a father when my son was born, not before. That seems so obvious, yet we have people with no students calling themselves Zen teachers, or even Zen masters. The complement to “teacher” is “student”; the complement to “master” is “disciple.” Whatever language you use, if you don’t have both, you have neither. Zen master, then, is a technical term, nothing more — perfectly appropriate for someone who has disciples, and embarrassing for someone who does not.

Rōshi and sensei are not technical terms, but like teacher or master, their power comes from a relationship with someone else. If someone calls me sensei, that person is taking a step forward, asking me to be that role. When I address an older priest as rōshi, it’s the same thing — it’s me consciously conveying, “I want to relate to you as someone who is learning.” In Soto Zen, so much of the burden is on the student; this is just one simple example.

So these terms are useful, even important. I would like some teachers to stop using them to describe themselves, but I would also like to encourage those teachers who shy away from such terms to stop resisting, to allow the people around them to take that brave step. Making that space for others, regardless of your own discomfort, is a profoundly generous act.

In my experience of this tradition, generally speaking, priests default to humility. When a priest writes a letter, the smallest print on the page is his own name; it’s the same on the return address. When priests introduce themselves, they mention either their teacher’s temple or their own, but they do not say that the temple is big or small, nor do they refer to their own rank in the institution of Soto-shu. They don’t say how many disciples they have, and the more famous and respected their teacher is, the less likely they are to actually refer to that teacher by name. If these things have any relevance, they reveal themselves naturally. If not, then who cares?

At the same time, when someone comes to me as a priest, I understand that I am being asked to serve in a particular function, to stand in that position (I wrote about this a few months ago over at Wild Fox Zen).  In that circumstance, in that kind of relationship, Koun is not the point — the role is the point. In a very real way, the robe is the point. And though they’re not separate, they’re also not one and the same. (My karate teacher used to remind us, “I’m friendly, but I’m not your friend.” He’s the teacher; we’re the students. The price of admission to that relationship is the forfeiture of other kinds of relationships. And when it’s worth it, it’s really worth it.) When a priest is called upon to sit on the high seat, to expound the Dharma or confer the precepts, then it is the priest’s job to sit there without apology, without hesitation, and to become that function, to bring all the stillness or thunder to that role that he or she can. That’s our part of the contract, to say yes and yes and yes, to let go of showing who we think we are, and instead to offer ourselves as a mirror for others, to rise to that occasion, that expectation, that moment.

But it’s also the priest’s job, when it’s over, to get down from that seat and to let that moment be over, to let the role be defined by whatever comes next, not by what just happened.

What I can do is offer everything I have; what I cannot do is tell you how to feel about it, or how to label it. My actions and my words should point to the Dharma, not to myself.  If my actions are words on a page, people should have to squint to see my name at all.