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.)

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.