Making Space

If you’ve ever been to Japan and visited temples here – especially the more famous ones – you were probably impressed by the scale. Dharma Halls, especially, tend to have incredibly high ceilings, but the room is basically empty; you might find yourself looking for the beams, trying to figure out how it stays standing. The Dharma Halls of Eiheiji or Sōjiji, when no one is around, can feel like empty stadiums, or really ornate airplane hangars. It can all seem a bit excessive.

But if you were to visit those same rooms in the morning, during chōka (朝課, morning service), you might have trouble finding a place to sit among the 200-plus monks in training, temple officers, and visitors. It’s not wasted space.

I haven’t written too much about the technical side of nyohō, in spite of the name of this blog. One of the more difficult aspects to describe, for me, has to do with space, so I thought I’d start there.

We say that there are three faces of nyohō: food, clothing, and shelter. In adhering to these teachings, we look at three aspects: materials used, color, and size (or amount). So on a purely technical level, there are nine discussions to be had: food in terms of ingredients, color, and amount; clothing in terms of cloth, color, and size; and housing in terms of materials, color, and proportionate space.

From the point of view of the tradition, “housing” refers to the sōdō, or monks’ hall, where monks do zazen, eat, and sleep. It expands outward from there to include the whole temple (which, if it’s a monastery, is also referred to as a sōdō). But that’s just a starting point, a useful reference to something measurable. The point is to apply these teachings to the space we’re in, to our homes, to our own location.

How do we determine the “correct” size of something? This is not about big or small. It’s about finding what is just right.

We see this idea most clearly in ōryōki, the bowls traditionally used in temples for formal meals (行鉢, gyōhatsu). The ō in ōryōki (応) means “appropriate”; the ryō (量) is “amount.” When servers come with rice and soup and vegetables, we hold out our bowls and signal when we’ve received just what we need. If you’re not hungry, you need not take a lot; if you’re a big eater, you can ask the server to fill the bowl, then to fill it again later on. One of my teachers is fond of pointing out that in the Zen world, equality doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing – it means everyone gets what they need, no more or less.

In a building, of course, “just right” can’t be determined on a purely individual level. Buildings are group spaces; “enough” has more to do with function than with whether someone is big or small. A simple example can be found in the sōdō:

D, E, F, and G are the jō, where monks sleep, do zazen, and eat (in this case, five monks side by side). Each space is about 3’ x 6’, big enough (barely) even for me. (Bedding and personal possessions are kept in a short cubby called a kanki (N). But what I want to point out is the space in between the jō, marked by ‘O’ and arrows. Most of the time, nothing happens there, but there are ceremonies in which people get down from the jō and do prostrations, facing one another. So this space is measured in terms of that function – it has to accommodate two average-sized people bowing, foreheads to the ground, without bumping into one another. That much space, and no more (because in the nyohō world, nothing goes to waste).

This is one side of nyohō, an important one. We establish, physically, an atmosphere of practice, a place of encouragement. We orient ourselves toward the practice, but we also create spaces which are themselves oriented in the same way. This is not magical; it’s not feng shui. It’s something felt. It’s an opportunity to look beyond our own preferences and allow what looks mundane to be an integral part of our own intentions.

That’s one side. But another is that we are where we are. Wherever you are, wherever you’re reading this, that is your place of practice. Space is determined by function, but function is also determined by space – if a sōdō is not built with a particular ceremony in mind, then that ceremony has to change. This is your location, and in this moment, the question of how you arrived here is irrelevant. It’s what you do now, what you’re doing now.

There’s an incredible generosity in trying to put a teaching like nyohō into practice, in shaping that space for others. But there’s an equally great humility – and power – in using the space you’ve been given. Traditional Zen training, in so many ways, is an exercise in putting ourselves in smaller and smaller boxes, in closing the walls in around us. In a monastery, we literally give up our idea of what is “mine,” but even if we’re sitting at home, we do zazen according to a prescribed form. We accept those boundaries. We don’t move. It’s my experience that when we make the box so small that it seems we can’t move at all, when we choose that, the box ceases to be a box, and the world around us opens up into a vast field,  open sky, ocean in all directions.

Do you feel constricted, right now, in your life? Where are your walls?

What, for you, is your function? How do you make that the function of where you are, in this moment?

How do you measure your world?

(Sodo image above borrowed from Practices at a Zen Monastery — Clothing, Eating, Housing: Being in Harmony with the Dharma by Tsugen Narasaki, published by Zuioji Senmon Sodo.)


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?

The Song Stuck in my Head

Like some people sing in the car, I give Dharma talks in the car. I get an idea in my head, and on my way to this or that temple, I riff on it, try to make it come alive. This isn’t rehearsal for some future talk–these days, I do very little public speaking, and since it’s all in Japanese, it’s hardly spontaneous.  I don’t know the next time I’ll sit with a group and feel free to just speak freely about practice. But I deliver these talks in the car, and as I do so, I can feel passionate about what I’m saying.  No doubt more than one driver at a stoplight has looked at my face and wondered what I could possibly be so worked up about.  It’s not that I give stirring talks, or that I get lost in the performance of it. I can’t measure any of those things. But what I have found, over years of speaking to others about Buddhism, is that my primary audience member is myself. I look back at every single talk in which I felt at all inspired, and it is clear that I was actually giving myself a pep talk in front of 10 or 30 or 200 people. I’m telling myself–as best I can–what I need to hear in order to push more deeply into the practice, or to let go of a useless idea, or to do what I know my teachers expect me to do. I’m not teaching.  I’m not bestowing anything on anyone.  If anything, I’m just exposing myself.

When I first encountered the teaching referred to as nyohō, it was as a novice monk, and it was simply a lens by which to measure if I was doing things properly according to the rules of the monastery.  I liked it–I liked the aesthetic of it. But it was also like a set of rules, something very clearly defined, and also very limited to that traditional context. It wasn’t until after I’d left the monastery that this question of how to express the Dharma physically–and in all contexts–really came to life for me. I found that I had made that lens a basic part of how I look at the world. And in the last couple years, as I’ve looked through that lens and chewed on the questions it raises, it’s become obvious that the teaching of nyohō has profound implications for how we understand not just monastic life, but also family life, our role as consumers, our relationship to the environment, and more. It’s thorough–as one might say in Japanese, it goes all the way to the bottom.

So this teaching has become a kind of soundtrack to my life, a question constantly in my ear.  But that doesn’t mean that I live it out. Part of my interest in writing this blog is to have an excuse to really examine the tradition, to write down what I learned in those monastery walls and try to see how it all fits together. But the bigger goal is this: to force myself to write down those things that I intuitively know but ignore anyway. This teaching informs my day-to-day decision making in lots of little ways, but really, only when it’s not too inconvenient.  I can see how one could make major changes (in schedule, in diet, in spending) in order to bring one’s life more into “accord” with the Dharma–I would like to push myself to explore more of those directions and see where they lead. So this blog, too, is a pep talk to myself–me gesturing emphatically to no one at a stoplight.

The Simple Beauty of Masking Tape

Traditional ōryōki sets contain a kind of folding tray called a hattan. It’s black and shiny and crisp, and if you have a relatively new one, you’ll spend a couple extra seconds before every meal smoothing it out so that it’s flat beneath your bowls. Its primary function seems to be to waterproof the cloth below it, to minimize mess. Ōryōki sets designed for laypeople seem never to include this piece–I don’t know why.

The first time I worked as a server (jōnin), rushing through the monks’ hall spooning out soup and pickles to monks seated with their ōryōki, the hattan of the godō caught my eye. First, it wasn’t black–it was a pale reddish brown. Second, it was criss-crossed with what appeared to be masking tape, at almost every folding edge. It was practically paper thin.

I mentioned it that evening to some of the younger monks, and I got two responses: (1) eye-rolling, in the vein of, “Oh, I wish the godō would get over himself”; and (2) “Isn’t that awesome? Sooo nyohō.” I’d probably heard the term before that day, but in my memory, that was the first time I was able to connect the word with some concrete physical example.

What made the godō’s hattan nyohō? In what way was that ragged-looking rectangle an example of being in accord with the Dharma? A lot of things, maybe, but here’s how it starts:

  1. It was used. It was not a new, shiny object–not only was it old (I suspect decades old), but it had been carefully repaired again and again rather than being discarded.
  2. The color was what is referred to as a “broken” color. I’ve heard this defined in various (and sometimes contradicting) ways, but basically, a broken color is not a primary color, and not black or white–it is a color with its own internal, natural variation, like cloth that’s been rubbed over time.

Both of the above are very much a part of the classical conversation of nyohō. They point to a recognizable aesthetic, one with concrete markers.

But there are other ways in which to discuss if something is nyohō or not.  A commonly raised question is this: Does the object in question arouse desire?  This is tricky. Looking at the hattan, on the surface, it’s an old thing that most people would throw away without consideration.  And I would suggest that even the monks that admire the godō’s way of doing things don’t actually want that particular hattan for their very own.  But it can get complicated, once people start to appreciate this kind of thing, because it’s also true that some monks see that hattan and feel a desire to have one like it, or to be like the godō, or to be thought of as that kind of person.

To be nyohō–to be in accord with the Dharma, to express Dharma–is a living question in every moment, in every sort of action. What does it mean to walk in a way that is in accord with the Dharma?  How does one eat spinach and express Dharma?  There is no endpoint to this line of inquiry (and that’s a good thing). But a starting point can be this traditional understanding of nyohō as a kind of aesthetic.  The list of criteria will grow and grow from here, but as a teaser, this is an aesthetic which respects age, which encourages reusing and recycling, which favors  subtle and rough over gaudy and shiny. It celebrates the dignity and simple beauty of a mat held together with masking tape. This particular tradition-within-the-tradition is predicated on the simple idea that part of practice is establishing the atmosphere of practice for others, and that there are criteria which we can apply to that process, some based on tradition, some resting on intuition. We can learn how to make that space.

This is what I want to explore in this blog. This is how I want to live my life.