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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2 0 1 5 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 37 twenty-eight and still a beginner, so I am just now starting to appreciate the value of time and of wait- ing. I’ll share one example: In the Buddha Hall at Nisodo, there are dozens of flower arrangements, and it’s someone’s job to change the water every day, trim the stems, take off brown leaves, and rearrange the flowers so they look beautiful. In the Founder’s Hall, which no one ever visits, there are at least six vases of flowers that get changed every day. Ostensibly, the flowers are offerings to the spir- its of dead people. It doesn’t matter if you believe in spirits or not; the water has to get changed, and old flowers replaced with new ones. When I was taking care of the flowers, I could tell myself that this was some Japanese cultural thing and that I would be better off using my time to sit zazen and “actually practice.” And I did think this, frequently. I would make myself crazy. “Why am I changing these flowers? No one sees them except for the ghosts, which don’t actually exist.” It was only after months and months of taking care of flow- ers that no one looked at that I realized the most important thing was my own effort: my hands in the water, clutching scissors, fingers around flower stems, the care and time I brought to each flower, standing back, rearranging, trying again. And no matter how much time I spent on the flowers, no matter how much surgery I performed on the stems, they all died eventually. But that was okay. I could appreciate their beauty while it lasted, and when it ended, start again. I created beauty again and tended to it. It is this repetition, this constant reengagement with reality, that is the most meaningful. My own energy is the offering and the merit. Offering flowers or incense to a spirit or Bud- dhist deity was cultural, the outside of the wheel, but it allowed me to access something true: in the face of impermanence and death, it is important and nourishing for humans to create beauty and express gratitude. Without the altar, without the vase and the statue of the Buddha, I wouldn’t have a place to practice. There would be no occasion for me to arrange flowers. I don’t know if I could have arrived at this appreciation of flowers, offerings, merit, and effort had it not been for years of repetition. That, and a willingness to keep showing up. There are times, of course, when I’m not so patient with the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen training. I remember one time toward the end of my stay at Nisodo when evening zazen was canceled to make time for a class on how to write mortuary tablets. When a person dies in Japan, a monk has to write the deceased’s Buddhist name on a tablet. How to write these names is complicated and not something the average Japanese person naturally knows, and the abbess felt it was important we learn how to write the names and other esoteric symbols properly. Most of the other nuns (all Japanese) were excited to learn this, because they of course would be making their living one day by performing memorials and funerals. I, however, knew I wouldn’t be able to understand the lecture. I had been working in the kitchen all day and was exhausted. When I found out zazen had been can- celed for a class on writing mortuary tablets, it was too much for me to take. I’m embarrassed now to admit that I spent most of the class hiding in the bathroom—not my finest moment. I was so tired from working all day, and so uninterested in learn- ing how to write mortuary tablets, that I went to the bathroom, sat on the floor, and took a nap with my head in my hands. At Zen monasteries in Japan, attendance at all events is compulsory. Because Dogen stressed the importance of “following along with the Great Assembly” in the monastery, there’s very little room for being sick, and even less so for not wanting to go to something. So I’m embarrassed about skip- ping the class now; it’s clear that I was creating an imaginary hierarchy of importance in my mind, placing zazen at the top and everything else below it. I would gladly have gone to zazen and given that my full energy and concentration, but I took the liberty of deciding what part of life was important and what was not. Who’s to say if the class would have been a waste of time? Who am I to decide what Buddhism is, or where practice can and can- not take place? The costumes, the art, the rituals—this gets labeled as “just culture,” creating an imagined schism with “true Buddhism,” as if we could strip the outer layers to reveal a universal, timeless dharma practice inside.