Explicit, tacit; explicitly

As some of you who also follow me on Twitter or Instagram may have gathered, I’ve moved from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The biggest, and most materially relevant reason, is for graduate school. I also am beginning to think it was simply time for me to move on. Other transitions and changes were happening in my life, and a physical move of location and the reorganization which inevitably accompanies that packing/unpacking dyad has ended up corresponding very closely to, and complementing quite precisely, those transitions and changes.

First and foremost, I returned my precepts. In other words, I returned to laylife. The decision was slow in its gestation, although the timing of the actual return of my kasa to my Zen Master was influenced heavily by the start of summer classes this June. As one friend put it, “Do you want to start off graduate school in one mode, then switch partway through and have to explain that to everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply started graduate school, beginning with the summer class, as a layperson?” Since I was settled in my decision to return my monastic precepts, it didn’t feel premature to return my kasa this May, when I was in Korea.

Despite the superficially public nature of a decision like this, superficial in that the effects of the decision are immediately visible in my dress and behavior, and anyone who knows me would recognize right away that something had shifted even if I didn’t tell her, I’ve been reluctant to write about this decision here. Reluctant for so many reasons, and reluctant for reasons that have no rationale, but simply because it felt (feels) so intensely private at times. This sense of privacy is strong, even though I literally wear the decision publically every day, much as I publically wore the decision to ordain every day, in the form of monastic robes. I’m not sure that private is the opposite of public, though, not in this sense. It’s been a month since I formally returned my kasa, and for this month I’ve been content to be both public and private about the decision. Not everything needs to be live-Tweeted. Not every moment or event is Instagramed. Nor should it be. This perhaps is the new privacy: the things we simply do, without attempting to record it on a social-media outlet. This was not something I was ready to announce beyond the people who either know me quite well in real life, or who see me every day.

And yet: I have always included not just my religiousity, but also my religious/monastic identity, in my writing here. If I haven’t written much (or at all) for the past year or so, I know that much of that silence came from the real tensions and unbearably private difficulties I felt surrounding both my personal religiousity and my monastic identity and life. To write anything honest would have required admitting to not only myself but to you, dear readers who find this blog from all over and some of whom I know and some of whom I do not, that I was struggling at a fundamental level with the entire foundation and edifice of my life.

Admitting difficulty is not something monastics really do. We do it, but in retrospect. “One time, when I was struggling with my practice…” “Once, when I was a young nun, my understanding of faith totally fell apart…” “Oh, I hear you, when I have dark times like that…” But rarely do we put it in the present tense even if it’s a current challenge, this very moment, even with each other, outside all but a close circle of friends and mentors. We do not disclose our real-time struggles, but wait until the moment passes so we can use it as a distal reference point. Too proximate, and it can’t be discussed. It’s as if these moments themselves exert a force preventing easy communication.

(Even in that paragraph, I slipped into “we.” There is slippage, a sloppy middle sphere; transitional, liminal.)

To write here that I had returned my precepts was to tacitly admit that I had had difficulties, and difficulties that wouldn’t be relegated to retrospection, “That time when I had a crisis of faith…” Unlike other difficulties in my monastic life which could be embraced by the robes and their effects hidden in some way, I had (have) unreconciliable, irrevocable difficulties. Difficulties that ruptured some fundamental tie to a monastic vocation. Difficulties that pushed the robes away. I wasn’t ready for that tacit admittance, until I felt like I was comfortable saying explicitly: I struggled with my monastic vocation greatly over the past three years or so, and the end I decided that to live authentically and as wholly as possible, I needed to leave. I couldn’t explicitly say it until I was able to own the tacit confession involved, too.

Maybe these difficulties will find new places to hide, like in the pages of textbooks, or in the pockets of my now-colorful wardrobe. For now, however, there is something very bare and open about them, and it was that bareness that had me shying away from writing anything here. Too bare, too open; not a state in which to make an announcement like this, I felt. I have not yet “had difficulties”; I am still having them, still walking through new landscapes of living and feeling both assured and bewildered by turns. I thrill at new freedoms, and I grieve deeply for the loss of old ones.

So, all the packing and unpacking has been good, helpful; it’s shown me that the boxes I store my life in literally and figuratively erupt into an interspliced melange when I unpack. I may use the words “irrevocable” and “rupture,” but it’s clear from where I sit (on a broken chair) in my still-underfurnished and box-strewn apartment, that there is also a continuum in my life. My religiousity remains. My religious identity is still here, in the form of ministry and community building, and I’ll look for other ways to fulfill a clerical or priestly vocation, although not a monastic one. My old kasa from when I was a novice and two kasa from my grandteacher and teacher are a part of the altar. My texts from seminary are carefully shelved. I have all the pictures of the various monastic communities I was a part of, and I will find places to display some of them.

It’s been a little over a month since I formally returned my precepts and my robe to our Zen Master in Korea. It’s taken me this long to say anything in this sphere (no tweeting, no Facebook) because I care so deeply about not only how I’ve now chosen to live, but how I did choose to live, too, and out of respect for my brothers and sisters who still live a monastic life. I really believe that you can’t take your own choices lightly without becoming superficial with others’ choices, and I owe the sangha the weight and time of consideration as much as I owe myself. It took over a month to find words roughly equal to the task. The weight of years and the many relationships involved in my monastic life have held me mute; what could I say that could possibly convey both the debt and the relief of these shifting but never absent relationships?

Honestly, one thing I hope comes out of making this announcement here is that some of the stuckness and silence I’ve experience creatively will ease. Having made my situation clear to both myself and others, maybe I can begin to reground myself creatively, and write again. The fundamental connection between honesty with myself and the ability to write has rarely been clearer than the last several years. With both personal and public honesty, maybe I’ll be able to re-engage writing.

To all the readers, known and unknown, thank you.



Packing up books invariably means reading books, or at least portions of them. This morning, in between loads of laundry, I packed half of my poetry bookshelves. I delayed packing two books, Norman Fischer’s Opening to You and John Stevens’ selected translations of  Ryokan, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. I’m thinking of trying to incorporate some of Fischer’s interpretations of the Psalms and some of my favorite Ryokan poems into my devotional and prayer practice in the next couple of months, so I didn’t want to pack them quite yet. Spring, in addition to its immediate wellspring of good weather and fresh growth, is the season of thinking ahead to the summer—and the summer retreat season, which for me often means thinking ahead to what daily practices I want to commit to for the three months. I’m rarely on full, formal retreat, only twice in ten years as a matter of fact; but my spiritual life now revolves around the twice-yearly summer and winter retreats as surely as it does around the daily activities of morning chanting and meditation sessions. For a couple of years I’ve committed to some form of additional daily practice during the retreat season, either alone or with others, that is often very personal and shaped around the needs of the people committing for that season. The three-month commitment has been a wonderful way to create a spiritual practice more specifically addressing whatever difficulties or needs might be present at the time. Although the commitments are always shaped within the general framework of Mahayana practice and especially Korean forms and texts, we’ve write our own aspirations (發願文) and chosen different practices. In those, there’s plenty of room to express what we are honestly seeking in our practice and move outside of the usual, but tired, religious phrases.
Professionals of all stripes can be hesitant to admit when they themselves aren’t faring too well in a given field, or work to hide their own failings therein. The doctor who admonishes patients to sleep and exercise more but gets only 5 or 6 hours a night and doesn’t have time for a jog; the counselor urging patience to a client has had it up to here with her own work or home life and is ready to tear her hair out; the rabbi or pastor or teacher who speaks with such enthusiasm and commitment for a particular path and practice to her congregation is herself mired in acedia and wandering a spiritual desert, no end in sight. When I start thinking ahead to what prayers and practices I need, I usually first have to come to grips with what I feel is lacking in my own practice, or where I feel stuck and dry. I serve a student sangha and participate in another sangha extended throughout the Northeast, and I spend a fair amount of my time encouraging and teaching basic practices and fundamental attitudes and approaches. I teach mindfulness of breath as it integrates into Zen meditation, and I follow the set routine of the Dharma Center where I live and help lead daily practice. And yet, even though I’ve been publicly espousing these practices, this spring I had to admit that mindfulness of breath isn’t working particularly well for me right now and the daily routine of the Center has gone stale, very stale.
There’s good teaching and strong practice in not expecting anything special from daily meditation, chanting, or ritual. Everything, eventually, becomes comfortable and routine, and at some point becomes insipid and tasteless. No matter how amazing a practice was when you began, eventually it loses its shine. The-grass-is-always-greener syndrome led me at one point during seminary in Korea to think about jumping ship completely back to Tibetan Buddhism, not out of any strong ideological conviction but, honestly, out of boredom with the training I’d been immersed in for years. I didn’t see it that way at the time, of course. I was fairly convinced that there were good reasons to engage in Tibetan-style practices again and reboot my approach to Dharma from a Tibetan perspective. I didn’t make the switch, though, because when I was honest, I knew I’d already seriously committed to Korean Buddhism. Another reason was because there really weren’t any resources in a rural Korean nuns’ seminary to explore anything other than Korean Buddhism. By the time I had the kind of freedom and access to other resources to potentially study and practice another tradition, I’d come to see my urge to change primary practices as symptomatic of a basic human habit toward itchy, bored dissatisfaction rather than an indication of a real problem with the Korean tradition.
In coming to terms with the dryness in my practice and my need for something else, I also have to come to terms with the reality of boredom in all things. No matter how I switch it up, I won’t outrun boredom. Acknowledging that boredom, though, doesn’t mean not working to invigorate a practice that’s gone dry. Once, on a seminary magazine assignment to interview Hae Guk Kun Sunim, a senior monk in the Korean Jogye Order known for his intense devotion to Zen practice (in particular the hwa-du method), one of our interviewers asked him what he did when he felt himself lacking inspiration in his sitting practice. He said, “When I can’t get anywhere with sitting, I go to the Buddha Hall and I do prostrations or I chant. You must have faith in your practice! If you chant, your faith rises again.” The student-nuns were surprised. The divide between “Zen” practice and “devotional” practices is, at least in theory, somewhat contentiously maintained by both sides. Zen practitioners hold that Zen is complete in and of itself and sniff at devotional practices as lesser activities, and those who chant bluster that chanting is as efficacious as sitting in bringing about realization, and unlike sitting Zen, it also simultaneously inspires others and is an accessible doorway to the Dharma. In reality, almost all monastics I knew, including myself, had done stints of both chanting and sitting, and many nuns in my seminary who wanted to go on to sit in the Zen halls also enthusiastically engaged in kido practices of some kind, either sutra recitation, prostrations, reciting mantras or the names of the Buddhas, or copying out sutras. Hae Guk Kun Sunim’s response simply pointed out what we all understood in our experience: a well-rounded practice must be balanced, in the long run, between a variety of practices that pull together into a whole. There are times when you need to just tough it out and stick to the commitment to sit, or chant, or bow; and then there are seasons when you need to try a new approach in order to keep yourself practicing.
I think that which practices are pulled in are personal and can’t be dictated formulaically. The texts that Hae Guk Kun Sunim chants when he needs to re-inspire himself to practice are probably not the texts I would chose. Language informs some of those differences; I mix Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and English texts and prayers together in a way that would probably look messy, and be incomprehensible, to Hae Guk Kun Sunim. But it works for me. I’m also pretty sure he and I have very different understandings of what constitutes connecting with the sacred, shaped by culture. I read in a biography of St. Teresa of Avila one time that, although she was a faithful Catholic, her prayer life was heavily shaped by the (obscured) Jewish heritage of her family, and that Teresa the Catholic mystic prayed like a Jew. I often feel like I’m a Buddhist who prays like a Christian, seeking a personal relationship to the Divine. I was raised in churches that preached personal connection with Jesus Christ as being at the heart of salvation, and I absorbed into my spiritual personality an intense desire for personal connection even if I didn’t have a Christian faith. I may interpret Fischer’s Psalms through a Dharmic lens, but I’m emotionally responding to the I-Thou relationship in them in a way that no amount of non-duality or non-self can obscure or erase. And I love how Ryokan lets the world touch him, wanting to drape a coat on a pine tree dripping in the rain, or addressing the unspeakable tragedy of children dying not with pat religious cliches, but with a sense of profound and inconsolable loss and sorrow. That speaks to me, partly because it sets “faith” aside and lets in all that we can’t know or explain. I need room for the human and the emotional in my practice, and I need poetry and psalms and texts from outside the strict lines of “Buddhist” literature because they move me and make me responsive again to the sacred in the world. I can’t live on sutras and breath alone, at least not if I want to be a whole-hearted practitioner.
Ehi means “Come” in Sanskrit. The Buddha’s initial ordination was to simply say to someone, “Come,” and at that word he or she became a monastic student of the Buddha. Moving beyond the emphasis on monastic ordination implied in the textual use of the word, I like to think of it as a kind of invitation to enter into the Dharma again in a vital, connected, and living way. In order to hear the ever-present invitation, though, I have to realize when I’m in need of reconnection. Boredom, in the acute sense of acedia, is a sure sign that I’ve disconnected.
Setting books in boxes this morning, riffling through old favorites and wistfully thumbing ones I haven’t been able to read yet, it was timely that just as I’ve become aware of a disconnect, I’d find a few things that re-opened the invitation to connect. Ehi, ehi, the entire season seems to say, sunlight coming in through the window, and the lines I underlined in Fischer’s book the first time I read it speaking to me, again:


(Psalm 4)

Because I call
You answer
For you are fitting
Because I am small
You enlarge me
For you are gracious
You hear my song

(Psalm 90)

You have always been a refuge to me
Before the mountains, before the earth, before the world
From endlessness to endlessness
You are

You turn me around
You say
Return child

such tender emptiness

Let us examine the daily life of a Bodhisattva:
There is nothing to be found in the empty mind,
Yet they are full of generous charities
In the empty roots of the six senses,
And such purity without defilement is the precept,
Such tender emptiness, tolerance,
Such innate brightness without dark shadow is exertion,
And such bright serenity, the meditation.

from The Collected Writings of Gyeongheo: A prose collection, translated by Dr. Young E. Park

The moon’s a nicked-out sliver of sky, a slash revealing the illumination waiting beneath every night. In two days’ time, Buddha’s birthday will be upon us, and the brilliant gash of the moon will widen a bit more as it moves toward full. And on the full-moon day next week, the three-month summer retreat will begin in Korea.

I am here, moving with the moon, moving with the widening belly of light, listening to frogs in the pond below the international Zen center, in the light humidity and warmth of early Korean summer.

Last week Tuesday I landed in Incheon. An American nun, one of my closest friends, picked me up at the airport. The next morning she drove me down to my home temple. Almost exactly eight years ago to the day, another friend drove me to that temple to begin haeng-ja, the period of postulancy preceding novice ordination in the Korean monastic system. The parallels were not lost on me: eight years ago I followed through on a decision, the ramifications of which shape and will continue to shape my life every day. Last week, I went to inform the senior nuns at my home temple that I had decided to stay in the US, in order to help with the Zen Center and university community I became involved with over the course of the last 12 months in the US, and to continue to prepare for and (I can only hope) gain admittance to a graduate program in Buddhist Studies. The decision was long in the making. It wasn’t easy to tell my teacher and grand-teacher that, contrary to their expectations, I would not be returning to them, but going off on my own. Like the decision that brought me to them, this decision will also exert substantial influence on each day of my life from here on out. Independence seized also entails a rather lonely-looking path; whatever else I might have to say about living within the closely-drawn boundaries of my home monastic community, it did offer material stability and the assurance of certain kinds of support that don’t come ready-made like that in the West. There is no perfect situation. Every decision and action entails a sacrifice, something given up. For security, I would have to give up a calling toward scholasticism. To pursue that calling, without any insurance that what I hope will happen actually will, I have to give up security, as well as disappoint some of the most important people in my life. To not pursue it, however, would mean disappointing the strong sense of what it is I need to do in this life.

I’ve decided against security. I’ve also decided against “duty,” which was far more painful and difficult than any question of material support. What will come of this, I can’t say. I don’t even want to speculate, although I’m working as hard as I can to lay a foundation for graduate school applications and study, which has been my long-term plan for several years now. I also will use the opportunity of being in Korea to ground again in the monastic community here. Another senior monk, who like me lives as the sole monastic in his local center, said, “Coming back to Korea and being with sangha nourishes me.” It was like I was parched and didn’t even realize the extent of my thirst.

And for the summer, something worked out like a grace: three months’ retreat. The first time I’ve been able to go on retreat since before I ordained. The dates for this summer’s retreat fell in between the American academic calendar, allowing a rare moment of equipoise in which I can participate in both the traditional monastic cycle and the conventional academic schedule. I’ll be chanting (rather than sitting) this retreat, something I’m really looking forward to.

Gyeongheo, one of the preeminent Zen Masters of modern Korea and a patriarch in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn, speaks of the paramita, or perfection, of tolerance (also translated as “forbearance”) as a “tender emptiness.” “All existence is dukkha,” or “unsatisfactory;” this is the first noble truth, and in the Buddhist world we often toss that up as a flippant explanation for why life is just so damn difficult sometimes. The impression I’ve given myself over time is that I try and shrug off the intense pain living can bring by trying to bundle it up with a trite gesture toward this first noble truth, rather than actually sitting with and giving space to pain. Everything changes; we repeat this to ourselves ad nauseam in Buddhist communities. I tend to smother any acute discomfort with that pithy statement about impermanence. I abuse the first noble truth to accomplish this same emotional dulling, because sometimes things just hurt, and nothing we do changes that aspect of living.

The link between dukkha and impermanence is that the reason the stuff of life itself is unsatisfactory is because the stuff of life itself is impermanent. Whatever we hold in our hands is already slipping away from us, and we are slipping away from it. The whole range of responses to the slippage and loss of ordinary life, from mild irritation to breath-taking anguish, stems from the wish that we could hold on just a bit longer to the single bright moment. Tolerance, as I’ve come to experience it, is not a conventional patience. It is a deep acceptance that because people and situations change, sometimes there will be sorrow and sometimes there will be joy. Whatever’s there at the time is what we get to deal with. Then that too will dissolve into something else. Empty of permanence, it’s the nature of things to do this. It’s easy to quote a teaching and pay lip-service to the concept of change. It’s harder to practice that tender emptiness of forbearance, that aches and yearns and still lets go, and that can recognize and hold the aching of others as well. I was sitting in the tea-room today, waiting for a senior monk, and idly flipping through this book of Gyeongheo’s writings. There’s a bit of an ache alongside a bit of joy in me these days, the ache of knowing I disappointed my teacher and grand-teacher, and the joy of being where I feel I need to be. Gyeongheo’s “tender emptiness” touches this spot in me, like a bruise of light. No stoic patience, insensate to the pulsating whirl of living, but a response, genuine yet also discerning. Toward that forbearance, and the embodiment of it, I hope this summer sees us all advance…


Blackstrap-sour cream cornbread. New Haven, 2013.

Blackstrap-sour cream cornbread. New Haven, 2013.

The family story is somewhat apocryphal. My paternal grandfather and mother lived in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Grandpa Young was an electrician; Grandma Young, also called Grandma Tutu, ran a beauty salon. One evening,  Grandma was too tired to fix anything for supper. She put out what she had on hand, which was some slices of cornbread and a glass of milk, in front of Grandpa. He complained about the poor meal. Grandma didn’t say a word, but for the next six meals after that, she put out nothing but cornbread and milk. Grandpa didn’t complain about her table again.

When I first moved to Korea, the only breads the bakeries there sold were either loaves of white bread so insubstantial and over-sweetened they were like a wheat version of cotton candy spun in a rectangular frame, or “chestnut bread” which was the same but with embedded chunks of steamed chestnut. Gradually, multi-grain breads, “rice” breads, and even artesian breads in the big cities appeared, but for that first year the only bread I could find that came close to appetizing was cornbread. The small, flat, patty-shaped loaves were dry with a thin glazed crust. They never stirred the baking powder in properly, so while I ate I would wince at the sudden grab-drying taste of powder pockets bursting in my mouth. That cornbread was also too sweet; but it was, in a foreign country and a small rural town that didn’t even sell real coffee, not bad.

Kitchens in Korea don’t have ovens. They steam their “traditional” breads, their stuffed buns and their rice-cakes. No leavening, no yeast; no ovens. In the nearly nine years I lived there, I ached for ovens and the food that comes from them. Not just breads and cakes, but casseroles, baked potatoes with crispy skins, vegetables roasted with herbs and oil. It wasn’t that I had been a great or enthusiastic cook before Korea, it was simply that I realized only after it was gone how central the oven was to my understanding of and taste for food. I have had spells of infatuation with the oven, though. For awhile in elementary school I baked a lot of muffins. I even started to do cakes. I remember a particularly difficult chocolate bundt cake with fudge frosting. I had forgotten to grease the cake mold, and I had to scrape the cake out in chunks. Fortunately, fudge makes an excellent putty, and I managed to hide the Frankencake nature of the thing under generous layers of frosting.

In the temples I used to daydream about what I would replace the Korean-style altar offerings with, if I were doing ceremonies in America. Home-made cakes and cookies instead of steamed glutinous rice cake; bread instead of rice, overflowing bowls of fruit instead of the geometric pyramids and columns. Last weekend I baked cookies for lunar new year’s. I stacked the first three cookies out of the oven into a little pagoda and put it front of the Buddha, along with an acorn squash, a pile of apples, a hand of bananas, dried cranberries, and Tollhouse chocolate chips. If one aspect of sincere generosity is to give that which you yourself would enjoy, well: that was a moment of deep sincerity for me.

My sister sent me some recipes to try now that I’m back; one was a cornbread recipe. She warned me, “This isn’t health food! …But it’s so good.” The recipe called for sour cream and sugar, but at the last minute I decided to try blackstrap molasses as a sweetener instead. The batter seemed a little runny, so I also tossed in an extra handful of flour and cornmeal, and took the strangely heavy pan up to the oven on the Center’s second floor.

The bread that came out was dark gold and smelled sweet. I chewed my nails for the twenty minutes the bread was cooling, knowing I’d regret slicing into it early but also hungry, and curious. What bread had I made? When I did cut a slice, it was moist and thick, a little crumbly like cornbread should be. Despite all the dairy already in the bread, I loaded three gold-brown squares with butter and ate them with relish. The molasses has a slightly bitter taste, recalling the old bursts of soda from that Korean cornbread without the feeling of aversion that accompanied the latter. Eventually I got up and made greens and heated soup to round things out; but for a moment, eating the first bread I’ve baked in over a decade, I was completely full, with nothing else needed. I thought, I’d like to see a loaf of this on the altar next new moon. I thought, I’d like to take some to my classmates. All the lessons I learned in ritual and giving, in a country and culture as far removed from the tables of my Grandma and Mom as can be, are coming home in our recipes and manners. Baking brings me back, not just to the personal narrative of our family about bread, baking, and women, but also into the greater cultural sweep of America and the West. Lands That Bake! The People Who Bake Cornbread! The idea is hokey but also poignant to me as a returned expatriate, once marooned on the shores of The Lands Which Did Not Bake.

Cornbread didn’t make a meal in Grandpa’s eyes. It’s a funny story, saying less about cornbread than my grandma’s determination to make her point and my grandpa’s probably reluctant capitulation to it. I like how cornbread’s at the physical center of the story, though, and I wonder what Grandpa would have made of the many meals I ate in Korea consisting of poor cornbread and a cappuccino milk, eaten in haste between my first apartment and the small cram school I taught at. Those strange yellow loaves were little like the rich brown bread I made tonight, and perhaps it is only the contrast between the two that allows me to say that yes, it is meal enough. It is, in so many ways, meal enough.

I would like to see

Barrage of terms, definitions lovingly sculpted, the internal landscape divided into hemispheres, wholesome and unwholesome he says, and I agree, I do, to precision and definition and I love with all the weight of my nervous and colicky heart the comfort of a system, and yes, I know when I sit and daydream about Christmas in Idaho or obsessively fondle the skein of the day’s schedule that these are all at best distracted states of mind if not, as we talked about over coffee after meditation, also unwholesome by someone’s definition

but I would like to grab his hand and pull him through the back door, past the shoes on the shoe rack without stopping to put any on, rush out the creaky back door still in our socks onto the pavement still damp with last night’s mist, out into the strong sun drying the asphalt and cement and making geometric shadows out of the houses out to the edge of the street with the cars always going too fast up it with the students ambling to campus and the neighbor walking his curly little terrier (who loves to leap and kiss even strangers while his owner smokes a cigarette and holds the leash and smiles shyly at this free affection), I would like to go, both of us, fully into that world and see if he, too, is as in love with the world as I am, before we thought anything of it, before we crept shyly back from the terrifying beauty, before we curtained the windows with our thick, well-tailored words.

rhetorical consequences

“The general absence of discussion regarding contemporary geo-political divisions as the organizing principle for the field of Buddhist studies, much less its justification, suggests implicitly that dividing the field along these lines is unproblematic — that it is a simple reflection of things just as they are. Naturalized in this way, the categories become hegemonic, molding both decisions regarding research and the ways in which research is presented. The category system and its consequences need to be consciously evaluated, either so that they may be used with more nuance, or replaced with less problematic and (one hopes) more intellectually productive ones. [However,] essentializing rhetorics, in this case geo-political ones, mold the field of Buddhist studies in profound ways and shouldn’t be employed uncritically. It is through critical self-reflection on the established field that new research and insights become possible.”

Richard Payne, “Buddhism or Buddhisms? Rhetorical consequences of geo-political categories

Richard Payne’s short critique of the geo-political divisions of Buddhism in modern academia is a worthwhile read. It reminded me slightly of the continuous critique of the “Two Buddhisms” model often employed in discussions of American Buddhism/s, insofar as Payne is involved in a similar effort to nuance the over-simplified categories used to frame the study of Buddhism in Western academia. (See Charles Prebish, Shannon Hickey, and David Numrich for further discussion and critique of the “Two Buddhisms” model.)

Summarizing an already short article isn’t necessary, so to briefly restate what “geo-political categories” are, the examples of “Chinese Buddhism,” “Korean Buddhism,” “Indian Buddhism,” etc. are such categories. Of the five consequences of this “essentializing rhetoric” Payne lists, three in particular struck me:

1) The confusion of “the geographic boundaries of nations as they exist today with religious cultures[.]”

This is most evident in the misleading category of “Tibetan Buddhism,” when what is often meant in general discussion is the Buddhism found throughout Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayan region. That “Tibetan” Buddhism is distinct from what we mean when we are specifically discussing the prevalent form of Buddhism found in Tibet, but it is not limited to the traditional or modern geo-political entity we call Tibet. The same problematic dynamic is present in what we call “Chinese Buddhism.” The relationship between China and Korea, for example, was one of exchange and interchange throughout the Tang and Song dynasties; what we call “Chinese” and “Korean” Buddhism are neither as separate as the categories suggest, nor are they so indistinct that we can use a single term. Referring to the relationship between Buddhism in various Chinese and Korean dynasties with these terms, however, preemptively assumes a separation between the two, which cognitively limits the discussion of their interrelationship as something different from their categorical distinction, rather than something intrinsic to their development. This is a problematic arising from the basic assumption underlying the use of geo-political categories, which is that the development of a tradition happens along strictly geo-political lines and can/should be discussed as such.

2) “It feeds into the politicized rhetoric of ethnic identity at the expense of historical accuracy.”

Again, I would cite the case of Korea as an example of how the geo-political model fails in significant ways. What to do with the modern Korean (Buddhist) interest in both Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism? What about the Korean Buddhist communities outside Korea that have different needs and concerns than a similar congregation on the peninsula, or the immigrant Buddhist communities in South Korea from Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc.? Or how would a nuanced and accurate discussion of the growing presence of non-Korean monastics and Koreans who grew up outside Korea within major Korean orders (both Jogye and Tae’go, for example) occur within this category? And what about when the discussion is pre-1900, which covers a number of Korean dynasties and states, a great deal of cultural exchange with both China and Japan, and a doubling of the physical nation, to include what we now call North Korea, an area we almost never discuss in contemporary considerations of Korean Buddhism? Within the category “Korean Buddhism,” since that term simultaneously suggests both a certain location (South Korea) and a certain linguistic and ethnic identity, there’s little room for these other Buddhisms. I actually see this point and Payne’s next, that this terminology privileges “some particular tradition [as] more authentically representative,” as interrelated, since “Korean Buddhism” as a term assumes the predominant Seon-oriented Buddhism that informs, but is not the sole shaper of, Buddhism as practiced on the Korean peninsula or in Korean communities throughout the world.

5) “It further distorts our understanding because it tends to treat particular forms of Buddhism hermeneutically. Why bother inquiring [into] possible influences of esoteric Buddhism in Zen Buddhism in Japan, when we supposedly already know that what is important for understanding Zen is only Zen itself?”

One of my personal areas of interest is the ways in which “tradition” as a self-referential method of authentication fails precisely because in order to define itself, any one “tradition” by necessity begins to limit what is allowed within the boundary of tradition to include only those things which support a particular claim to authenticity. Such claims to be “traditional” undermine themselves because the category of tradition becomes static. Growth, or at least continuance, is imperiled by a static model, since the social, economic, and political conditions that foster the development of a religious group do not remain the same, but change. A constant re-assertion of what constitutes the tradition becomes necessary for it to survive. Because the factors that gave rise to a particular definition of the tradition continuously shift, the idea of the tradition itself is forced to exclude enough new elements to maintain continuity with its previous self-definition while incorporating enough elements to remain connected to the new social, etc., landscape. While this particular dynamic, of a tradition’s self-definition, is not the exact same as the dynamic Payne discusses, that of those outside a particular tradition defining it, I think that the two are related and share enough in common as a rhetorical fallacy to make discussing the former useful as a way to explore the problems with the latter.

The modern Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, for example, by calling itself “the representative order of Korean Buddhism” explicitly yokes its particular practice lineage with “The advancement of the [Korean] people’s spiritual society.” Nor does Jogye Order simply affiliate itself with the Seon/Ch’an (禪 ) schools, but with the name “Jogye” (曹溪) reinforces its claims to an ultimate authenticity by tracing its lineage of Patriarchs and practice back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng himself, who practiced at Borim-sa (寶林寺) on Jogye Mountain (曹溪山). (Korean-language source: Homepage of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.)

What Jogye Order’s definition of its own tradition does is elide, first and foremost, the immediate historical background of the modern Order’s emergence. In brief, following the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the Second World War and subsequent civil war, one of the consequences for Buddhism on the peninsula was a severe disruption of the celibate monastic community. The modern Jogye Order does not merely continue a “lineage” of celibate monastics practicing in the Imje Seon tradition, but implicitly stands in opposition to non-celibate orders or orders that are not based primarily in the teaching and practice of Seon. Nor, in this definition of Jogye Order, is admittance given to the complex relationships between various orders that existed during the Choseon dynasty. Thirdly, the name “Jogye” itself privileges Seon over doctrinal schools, despite the fact that the relationship between Seon and Gyo (doctrinal sects) is a dynamic one that has not always favored Seon over Gyo, which is what the use of the name Jogye implies. The Order’s definition of itself ends up struggling to make room for alternate practice methods (Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism are obvious examples), either rejecting them or finding a way to subsume them under Seon rhetoric. It also finds itself defensive in the face of suggestions that the upheavals and difficulties Buddhism faced in the Choseon era might have caused breaks in either the monastic (Vinaya) lineages or the Dharma lineages, because both those suggestions challenge the presentation of Jogye Order as authentic via its direct connection to the Sixth Patriarch and an unbroken line of monastic ordination.

A facile acceptance of Jogye Order’s own definition limits the discussion as to what the Jogye Order is to what it says it is. To use Payne’s words, why bother inquiring into the other factors that shaped a response from within the Buddhist community, which is the modern Jogye Order, if Jogye Order is telling us these factors are not important for understanding its (self-defined) history and role in modern Korea? Furthermore, as anyone who has delved into Korean Buddhism in depth can tell you, the actual landscape of practices and communities within the modern Jogye Order is far more complex and multifaceted than the image presented by Jogye Order itself. I’ve deliberately chosen a recent and specific example, even though this is not an assumption made by Western academics about Korean Buddhism but an image Jogye Order itself actively promotes. It highlights the same problematic, however, which is why I bring it up.

Payne remarks:

“One of the legitimatizing rhetorics of the modern nation-state is continuity with historically pre-existing forms, no matter how tenuous that continuity may be. (Consider the claim of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī: that he was heir to a continuous monarchy dating back 2,500 years to Cyrus the Great.) Religion has often been employed as part of that rhetoric of continuity.”

The example of the Jogye Order highlights this dynamic, especially its claims to be a direct continuation of the Seon lineage reaching back to the Sixth Patriarch. What I am not contesting is whether or not the Jogye Order, or Korean Seon practice on the whole, is authentic. Rather than trying to locate that authenticity in claims to an unbroken line of transmission—Payne’s “rhetoric of continuity”—I would suggest trying to locate it in the efficacy of its methods to achieve desired spiritual aims, namely, do the practices foster a lessening of delusion and attainment of awakening.

I would echo Payne’s suggestion that, even if we can’t find terms which more adequately reflect the complexities underlying the overly simple geo-political terms currently in use in Western academia, then we can at least be educated about those complexities. This is so that we use these categories with greater nuance and sensitivity, aware of their relative usefulness and rhetorical consequences. Terms and categories describe situations or provide “handles” by which we can begin to grasp the situations and realities they open into; what we need to be careful of is not allowing these categories to become definitive, as if they, and not the people, places, and communities they point to, were somehow more real.

faure, falling down, & the living hagiography

I can’t remember which Bernard Faure book it was. Maybe The Red Thread. At any rate, in one of his books, Faure makes the point that the lives of saints (“hagiographies”) in the East Asian tradition are eerily and exceptionally lacking in human characteristics, the trials and temptations, the despair, the deep self-doubt, that are often prominent features of Western Christian hagiographies. I found myself fascinated with his suggestion, that hagiography in East Asian Buddhism frequently presented a sanitized—indeed, inhuman—portrait of the saint. Which may explain why, for the most part, I can’t stand reading any of the “classic” hagiographies of East Asia. Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, selections from The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and so on: I don’t find myself, messy and perfectly human, obviously flawed, in those patriarchal portraits.

It began as a private joke. I wrote it on my shoes, living hagiography (we were always required to put a unique mark on the toes of our shoes at school, to distinguish your pair from amongst the hundreds). A reminder that “dead” hagiographies, the stories written by pious students eager to make a point or hoist a banner of tradition or purity, probably had less to do with the living person as he or she was before someone’s ideas encased them in wax and rendered them fit for hagiography. If the lives as lived of the saints had been written, maybe those lives would look more like mine. Not that I’m a candidate for sainthood, but the idea of a living hagiography to counterbalance the dead ones that litter the so-called tradition absorbed me. I was raised Protestant but I’ve always been drawn to the Catholic doctrine of God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ: I need a god who cries out and weeps, a saint who doubts and despairs. I need a living hagiography, so that I can learn how to live and accept myself as I am, faults and all. Not to wallow or despair, but, like someone looking in a fridge with nothing but a few wilted carrots and onions and some beans, to stop longing for a five-course French meal and get to cooking with what I have at hand.

I’ve named my private journals for as long as I can remember. For years, I wrote to someone, in the form of a monologue or a soliloquy, “Dear —.” Later, blogging came naturally because I had always written for an audience. It was simply a matter of which audience. I no longer start my journal entries with “Dear —” but I do continue to name them. For roughly nine months of my 31st year, I wrote a journal entitled “Analog 31.” “Analog” reflected my feeling that it would be a year in which I learned to slow down, switch modes of engaging and feeling, returning to the circle, like an analog watch, away from discrete and easy-to-count digital units. A year that moved in ambiguity and question, that gave the gray areas space instead of trying to define them as white or black.

A shift occurred at some point in the late winter, and I realized I needed a new journal title to reflect a new question emerging in my spiritual life. Graduation just around the corner, preparing for full precepts: what kind of a monastic was I going to be? Not that I had any answers; but I realized I would need to begin discerning. It all seemed too heavy, though, so as a joke I named my private journal “Living Hagiography,” a reminder to not take myself too seriously and not get too caught up in the idea of either monasticism or practice, but to remain responsive, sensitive, attentive to the natural shape of my life. It’s easy, especially in the monastic world, to get caught on ideas of what you and others “should” be. That’s dead. Life is full of what we cannot anticipate or easily categorize. Chris Clarke’s sonnet Systems Analysis became an anthem:

There is no natural taxonomy
that is internally consistent, no
consistent organizing scheme that fits
the world that is. All your clever rules,
all of the frameworks on which you hang
your understanding of this fractal world
fall short, and do so unpredictably. …

When I started this blog earlier this year, I knew I wanted to stay tongue-in-cheek about my life. It’s too easy to take myself seriously, to over-think things; and it’s easy for others to do so, as well. I resist even the label “monastic” at times because it conjures up ideas that have little to do with the material reality of my life (in particular) or the messy internal landscape that I deal with. If by “monastic” you mean “human being dealing with things within a specific framework;” why yes, yes, that’s me. And nothing more. So I carried the private joke into the public sphere, and started using the “living hagiography” category for anything that had anything to do with mundane life. Trips. Particular days. I don’t actually write a whole lot about my every-day life, because I don’t really want to make that the subject of this blog.

Another example of a living hagiography would be Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s post, “The Rabbi And…” Say “rabbi” and you probably imagine one kind of person; say “mother of a toddler” and you’ll imagine another; where you see overlap is the degree to which you’re free from stereotypes of rabbis who spend all day over Torah and moms whose entire lives revolve around their children. (The latter is a more common stereotype from my childhood and also Korea, even today.) Join the two real pictures, not the stereotypes of either alone, and you have the living hagiography of a Rabbi And.

I always meant to explain the living hagiography joke in a post, but never got around to it. Today, I got caught: a brother of mine, quoting the definition of “hagiography,” said, but isn’t it a bit haughty? Well, I never meant to imply I was a saint; maybe I’ve taken too many liberties with the idea of sainthood, and perhaps I’ve been a bit too liberal with my sense of humor, but I find the idea of a living hagiography to be immensely humorous. The point is that no, my daily life, and me in the midst of it, doesn’t qualify as hagiographical because it’s too mundane, too ordinary, too unsaintly.

I don’t know how many people have read the tag “living hagiography” as a serious case of hubris, and how many may have suspected that I’m just pulling my own leg. But here it is, my full confession: nope, I don’t consider myself a candidate for sainthood or the contents of my life fit for a compilation. I do find myself laughing more and more at my own ideas, shedding preconceived notions and loosening up, opening up, to just trying, day in, day out, to be myself and to actualize the Dharma. I fall down way more than I stand up; but Zen Master Seung Sahn, who is one of my root teachers, always said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Well, here I am, falling down again. And laughing, while I get back up. That’s life. That’s living.