On Zen Nuns & Novelists

Setouchi Jakucho in her garden in Kyoto. Photo by Jeremie Souteyrat

"Usually people who do bad things make good writers. I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting."

~Jakucho Setouchi, novelist-turned-Buddhist nun

Jakucho Setouchi is one of my heroes, and she made this comment during an interview with Reuters back in 2008, when she was eighty five years old. Here are some of the reasons why I admire her.

She was born in 1922 in Tokushima prefecture. She married and had a child, and then in her mid-twenties, she fell in love with one of her husband's students. She left her husband, lost custody of her daughter, and started writing novels. She wrote about the affair, and later about her relationship with a married man, breaking ground by freely describing sex from a woman's point of view. She was quickly labelled a pornographer by the mostly male Japanese literati, and the publisher of her second novel described her as "a writer who thinks with her womb." Responding to this, Setouchi said, "I was very excited about releasing the book, so I was shocked and flabbergasted when I saw the advertisement copy. Most upsetting was that some male critics reviewed the book and said I must have written it while masturbating."

She fought back and continued to write, but as her success grew, she started to lose what she called her power of judgement. Without hearing the Japanese, it's impossible to know exactly what she meant by the word "judgement," but I can't help feeling she might have been referring to a kind of breakdown of moral or ethical discernment in regard to her fiction, her self, and her voice in the world. She went into psychotherapy, which was very unusual in Japan at the time, and a decade later, at the age of 51, she shaved her head and took vows as a Tendai Buddhist nun, explaining that while she was willing to give up writing completely, she knew that were she to continue, she would need a backbone.


And continue she did. In 1998, she wrote a best-selling modern translation of the classical novel The Tale of Genji, focussing on the experiences of the women characters instead of the prince, and in 2006, she received the Japanese Order of Culture. Now, at the age of 90, she's still writing novels and plays and essays, giving hugely popular public talks, and working a political activist. She's best known for her opposition to the death penalty and to the Gulf Wars and she went to Iraq to distribute medicine. Most recently, at the age of 90, she staged a hunger strike to protest the reopening of Japan's nuclear facilities in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Jakucho was an inspiration for the character of Old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being, and she was an inspiration to me when I was thinking about ordination, too. The comment she made about needing a backbone in order to continue writing resonated strongly, and I wrote about it in an essay for the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine, exploring the ever-changing relationship—sometimes harmonious and most often confounding—between my two beloved practices of writing and Zen.

I would like to meet Setouchi Jakucho, but I don't think she would like my novels. In another interview she said, "The most important thing to write about in novels is love affairs. Corporations and politics -- none of that is interesting." I disagree with her on this point, although maybe I could convince her to change her mind. She seems willing to admit when she's wrong. In talking about her decision to become a nun, she said that she had no regrets about her ordination, but she might have gotten the timing wrong. "I'm glad I did it, but it was a little bit early. It was a bit of a waste. I had no idea I was going to live so long. I thought it would be 25 years at most."


I just remembered an essay I wrote for the New York Times back in August of 2004, and since it's August all over again, I thought I would repost it here. The memory of this summer when I was seven, visiting my grandmother in Japan for the first time, is the source of the scenes at Old Jiko's mountainside temple. Perhaps it's also the source of my interest in the things that drop out of history, which the BBC's Mariko Oi writes about in her article, What Japanese History Lessons Leave Out. Matsushima

A Vacation with Ghosts, New York Times, August 11, 2004

My first six summers were American suburban, filled with the familiar thrills of Slip 'N Slides and sprinklers, the smell of gasoline lawnmowers and the tickle of grass blades sticking to my skin. Then, the summer I was 7, my mother took me to Japan to visit my grandmother. It was my first trip outside the United States.

My grandmother was very old. She lived by herself in a tiny house, made of paper and wood, that clung to the side of a mountain. A bamboo forest encroached upon it, tall and towering, like some kind of monster lawn grown out of control. The days were humid and hot, and the heat made everything, including time, stand still. It was a complex Asian kind of heat, made of far more than just temperature. It was textured with strange sound and scent: the incessant whine of cicadas; the moist exhalation of forest moss; the hot breeze rattling the bamboo's bladelike leaves; the faint stench of sewage wafting up the mountainside from town.


I was drawn to the forest but scared of it as well, and so I would stand at the edge, looking in. The forest floor was shadowy, but a bright green sunlight filtered through the canopy. There were trees other than bamboo: stout trees, cryptomeria and camphor, with huge wisteria vines looped around their branches that the local children swung from.

I was curious about these Japanese children. While my features showed that I was half-Japanese, in my heart, I was all American, and where I came from - Connecticut - no one else looked like me. Now, here were children whose faces mirrored mine, but who were still not at all like me. Their tongues made high staccato sounds that my ears could not decipher. I recall one little boy calling out to me—taah-zan! taah-zan!—as he swung from his vine. When he landed on the ground, he thumped his chest and yodeled. I ran back into the house.

My mother tried to get me to play with the children, but I didn't exactly trust her. In Japan, she had revealed hidden sides of herself, the existence of which I'd never before suspected. She and I had spoken only English. Now, as I watched her talk to my grandmother in Japanese, switching fluidly from one language to the other, I saw that in this strange new tongue she was a different person-possibly not my mother at all. It made me dizzy, all this switching, but maybe it was the heat.

The heat was relentless, even at night. After dinner we would put on light cotton kimonos called yukata and walk to the public baths, where it was even hotter. Inside the tiled rooms, steam curled from the surface of the large soaking tubs. Pink-fleshed ladies of all sizes and shapes submerged themselves, then slowly rose again from the scalding water. I had never, in all my seven years of living, imagined there could be so many shapes of ladies.

After we came out of the bath, my grandmother would buy me a soda in a thick green refillable bottle that looked as if it was made of sea glass. The stopper was a heavy marble, held in place by a rubber gasket, which popped when you pushed it back inside the bottle. After the scalding heat of the baths, that cold soda was the most delicious thing on earth, and even the warm wind felt cool on my skin as we walked home through clouds of fireflies that lighted the darkness.

In the morning my grandmother would make tea; she always offered a cup to the photograph of my dead grandfather that sat on the altar, talking to him as though he were alive. He had moved to America in 1896, when he was just 16, to build himself a life, but during World War II, he was interned and my grandmother, who had followed him there, was left alone in Hawaii. By the time the United States government released him, at the age of 65, they had lost everything. Disenchanted, he and my grandmother moved back to Japan and he died a few years later. Of course, I didn't know any of this then. I just thought it was strange that my grandmother talked to a dead man.

But she wasn't the only one. For three days in August, my grandmother told me, during Obon the spirits of the dead walked among us and the living raised red lanterns to guide them, first safely back to earth, then home again to their spirit world. The festival of the dead has been celebrated in Japan since the seventh century. In my grandmother's town, in 1964, a bamboo tower was raised in the schoolyard for the festival and the townspeople gathered and danced around it. There were fireworks, and it was fun, but I still found it strange to hang out with ghosts.

And then there were the soldiers. Like living ghosts, they wore green military uniforms under bedraggled white robes, and begged for alms on busy street corners. They leaned on dirty crutches. Many were wounded or disfigured—amputees—missing arms or legs or parts of their faces. The legless, resting on small platforms with wheels, were my height exactly, and I could look into their eyes. What I saw was terrifying and I couldn't help but stare. My mother took my wrist and pulled me away. When I demanded more information, she told me the soldiers were veterans of World War II. She seemed embarrassed. Japan had fought America and lost, she said, as though this explained everything.

Years later, when I went back to Japan as a foreign exchange student, I asked people about the crippled soldiers begging on the street corners, but no one seemed to remember them or be willing to talk about them. Confused, I wrote to my mother, but she said I must have made it up. She said that while there may have been soldiers begging shortly after the war, they would certainly have been gone by the time she and I went to Japan. She didn't actually say I was lying, but since I'd always been a storyteller, she was accustomed to attributing these discrepancies to an overactive imagination.

But the image of the soldiers persists. How could I have made it up? I was only 7, a postwar child who knew nothing of war's mutilations. I remember the hard red sheen of their scars, the brownish scent of the bandages. But when I went back to Japan in 1975, it was as if the clocks had been rewound, and the soldiers had been erased from history.


Now in midsummer, there are days when the air becomes heavy, and time stands still. Of course, in New York there are no forest mosses, no bamboo or eucalyptus trees looped with vines, but in my neighborhood, there are children swinging in the parks and playgrounds. Watching them, I remember how a light bulb went off in my head, when I ran back from the forest to my grandmother's house, and my mother translated the little boy's strange words. Taah-zan, she explained, was Japanese for Tarzan.

I was delighted! I knew all about Tarzan. It was an American film, after all, and, when I was 7, knowing that these Japanese kids had adopted my country's story was hugely comforting to me. So I ran back into the forest. Pushing the little boy out of the way, I grabbed hold of a stout vine, thumped my chest and swung.

Life is tough...and transient

Shambhala Sun just sent me the pdf of Norman Fischer's article, Life is Tough - 6 ways to deal with it, from the March issue of the magazine, so I thought I'd share it here. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, it's a great article about the Lojong slogans, and his book, Training in Compassion, which I'm reading now, is even better. Today I'm studying slogan #2: See everything as a dream. Here's a little bit of what Norman says about it:

Everything is always passing away. That's just how it is in this world. As soon as something appears, in that same moment, it's already gone. Everything that exists in time is like this, appearing and disappearing in a flash. That's what we mean when we say "time is passing."

Now it is today. Where did yesterday go, and where is tomorrow now? You can't say. Nor is it really clear where today—where now—is. As soon as you try to figure it out, it is already gone. Since this is so, you have to wonder whether it was ever really here to begin with...

Reading this, I can trace so clearly the influence of Norman's thinking and teaching on A Tale for the Time Being. I can also hear the echoes of Dogen Zenji's beautiful fascicle "Uji" or "The Time-Being." After my mother's death, I spent several years studying these Zen teachings on impermanence, and the outcome of this study was a novel. Who could know?

This evening, as I was walking through the forest on my way back from a neighbor's house, life really felt like a dream. It was getting dark. The mist was hanging low in the trees. Drops of rain clung to the tips of the cedar boughs. The ground was spongy and deep, and the moss, clinging to the dark wet bark of the fir trees was brilliantly green. At least that's what I remember.

Norman writes that everything is a memory, even while it's happening. Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain registers experience a moment after it occurs, so by the time it occurs to us that we're experiencing something, it's already over. Life, as we think we're living it, is always a dream. It's always an illusion. This sense of the fleeting and ephemeral is at the heart of the Japanese term wabi-sabi, which refers to the exquisite, dreamlike beauty of impermanence, simplicity and imperfection. This is an aesthetic ideal I aspire to as a writer.


Nothing is Wasted

Here's an article I wrote for the March issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine about turning problems into art.

When you’re a writer or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and to transform our suffering into something meaningful.

<read more...>

The theme of the March issue is Life Is Tough, which is also the title of the feature article by Norman Fischer about transforming difficult situations into beneficial ones. The essay is based on his wonderful new book, which I'm reading now, entitled Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Lojong refers to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist mind-training methodology, described in The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind, by the twelfth century master Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. The seven points of mind training, each contains several pithy slogans, which are like taglines or exhortations to guide your practice.

In his article, Norman talks about the six Lojong slogans that pertain to transforming difficulty, but in the book, he goes into greater detail about all seven points and fifty-nine slogans, and offers ways of practicing with them. They are all very useful, very beautiful, and far more practical than writing novels.

Here's a list of some of my favorite slogans:

  • See everything as a dream.
  • Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
  • Be grateful to everyone.
  • Trust your own eyes.
  • Don't be a phony.
  • Abandon hope.
  • Don't poison yourself.
  • Don't be so predictable.
  • Don't go so fast.
  • Don't be tricky.
  • Be wholehearted.
  • Don't expect applause.

These are the ones I'm going to be practicing when I'm on book tour next month...

baby priestlet

The significance of headshaving is complex. Certainly it's a symbolic act of renunciation, of cutting ties with the world. But it also felt like a kind of liberation, and after my head was shaved, I felt light-headed and clear, like a weight had been lifted. I could feel every cool and ephemeral breeze and glint of warm sun against my skin. When I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my skull for the very first time, I recognized myself. There I was. Where had I been all this time? It was like my face had opened up. Suddenly, there was no place to hide, but there was no need to hide, either, and this was a powerful feeling. I felt strong and lean, and my friend said I looked taller, too. Hair seemed immediately extraneous and cumbersome, and in the shower, I was delighted to realize that I no longer needed shampoo, conditioner, blow dryers, and product to keep the stuff in line.

Having no hair also made me feel like a baby, and that's what I am: A bald baby priest, who doesn't even know how to put on her robes, and needs to ask for help at every turn. It's a sweet feeling, and a relief from the normal responsibility of always thinking I have to know things.

The ordination ceremony was a beautiful mix, formal but also intimate and friendly, and I felt relaxed and able to enjoy it, to laugh and also to feel moved to tears. Lots of friends, family, and the wonderful sangha. I've had many thoughts about ritual over the years, lots of skepticism, resistance and doubt, but now I feel a deep and growing appreciation for ritual's ability to mark moments in time, to strengthen intention, and to forge bonds within community. It doesn't always work like this. Sometimes ritual can feel superficial, or pompous, or exclusive, and I have at times felt excluded and resentful and embarrassed. But not this time. This time felt fine.

I feel deeply grateful to my teacher, Norman Fischer, for all this. He's truly a great teacher, and he's got a great website (okay, full disclosure: I edit the site), with hundreds of wonderful talks that you can download for free or for a donation. And if you'd like to see the range of Norman's teaching activities, from Zen & Jewish meditation to his workshops at Google, check out this video that recently aired on PBS's Religion & Ethics program. And don't miss the extended interview, which is in many ways even better than the program, because he talks at length about the benefits of meditation practice, about renunciation and happiness, and about the psalms.

And last but not least, I have an essay in the July/August issue of More magazine about ordaining and sewing Buddha's robe, so check it out!

Okay, I'm off to Japan in a week, and I'll try to post again from there. Thanks for all the comments, emails and encouraging words. I appreciate them all.


Well, this is it. Today I go into retreat. In a week from today, I'll be shaving my head and being ordaining as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. People keep asking me why. Why am I doing this? What does it mean? I try to answer. I talk about how profoundly Zen practice has helped me and changed me. How I want to share this practice with others. I talk about the importance of transmission of knowledge and forms, and about how I want to help by being a link in this lineage. I talk about how I've lost my parents and have no children or close blood relatives, and about how my Japanese grandparents were Zen Buddhists, so in a way I've inherited their traditions and am carrying them forward. I talk about the importance of sangha to my psychological health, and the importance of meditation to my writing practice. I talk about my profound gratitude to my teacher, Norman Fischer, and how much he has inspired and helped me. I talk about all these things, and all of these are good reasons, but the final answer to the question of why is simply, "I don't know." I don't know. I may never know. The truth is, I just have a feeling. The feeling has grown stronger over the past ten years of Zen practice. This feels like what I should do, and I'm okay with not knowing exactly why.

So, if you happen to think of it, on June 25th, please take a moment and send me some nice, steadying thoughts. I'm sure I'll be nervous about shaving off my hair. I know I'm both scared and excited about taking vows that will last for all lifetimes to come (especially given that don't really "believe" in reincarnation) but anyway, here goes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

waiting for nothing

I’ve been writing well these days, which means I’ve been feeling well, too. This is different than feeling good, although as it happens, I've been feeling good, too: happy, excited, eager to get back to the page. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

My point here is that I’ve been feeling well, which is to say that my ability to feel is heightened. This is what happens when I’m writing well: I feel better.

Writing is one of the means I have available to feel. Meditation is another. Put another way, writing and meditation are practices that allow me to feel my feelings. Otherwise, how would I know?

We are what we tell ourselves we are,” says my friend and teacher, Norman Fischer. “Language-making isn’t incidental or ornamental to human consciousness: it is its center, its esssence. No language, no person. No relationships, no tools...Meditation practice brings the mind to a profound quiet that comes very close to the bottom of consciousness, and right there is the wellspring where language bubbles up.”

I’m hopelessly drawn to this wellspring. I sit on my cushion or at my computer, alert, eyes half shut, listening into that profound quiet. I seem to be waiting.

How am I waiting? Hopelessly (because hope can be constricting), and yet curiously, too. Trying to cultivate some patience and trust. Drawn by a longing to be fully who I am, whatever that may be.

What am I waiting for? Words. Or the world. No, that’s not quite right, because this is an intransitive kind of waiting, with no object.

I could just as well be in the garden, pulling up weeds or planting tomatoes or watching the ducks eat slugs. But instead I’m sitting here, waiting for nothing at all.

Back in the World

After a wonderful monastic retreat, I’m back in the everyday world. Here’s a report on activities, thus far: The “Way with Words: Writing & Meditation Workshop” (see below) was awesome, thanks to all the amazing participants who wrote beautifully, shared generously, and supported each other wholeheartedly. Kate and I are looking forward to offering this workshop again next summer at Hollyhock. We are also thinking about offering a shorter, non-residential version of the workshop in Vancouver or in Bellingham, WA, so if you’re interested, please check back here from time to time.

I just got back from Victoria, where I gave a talk for The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. I mention it here because I had some more thoughts that I wanted to share with the folks from the conference, so if you’re a member of ASLE and you happen to see this, please check out my weblog posting on the conference for some resources on introducing contemplative practices in the classroom.

Also on my weblog is a new del.icio.us feed, so if you’re interested in what stories I’m tracking on line (providing I remember to post them!), check out the feed in the right hand column, under All Over Creation.

Between email and all my other on-line networking outlets (this news page, my weblog, my facebook page, my del.icio.us feed, flickr, twitter, not to mention everydayzen.org, etc.), I’m getting very confused as to what I’ve posted where, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. The retreat made it clear to me how hooked I am on this wired world, and how, while it’s great to be in touch, it’s also interfering with my ability to write and read and sustain my focus and attention. However, the good news (at least for those of you with Mac’s) is that I have found a solution, of sorts: FREEDOM. I don’t usually endorse products, but this one is terrific. It’s a small Mac application that you can download for free (and if you like it you can make a donation), and when you open it up, it asks you, “How many minutes of freedom would you like?” You can enter any number from 10 minutes to 480 minutes (8 hours), and Freedom will disable your computer’s networking for that length of time, making it impossible for you to go on-line, check your email, or be distracted by some piece of missing information or research or consumer item that you absolutely must have or tend to immediately. It’s possible to disable Freedom and get back on-line, but it requires that you reboot your computer, which is a big enough disincentive to keep me from cheating. This small intervention has really helped me focus and write. I think it’s effectiveness lies not just in the mechanical disabling of your internet access, but also in the power of intention that you engage when you open the app and commit.

So that’s what’s new. I’m going to post this and sign off, and enjoy a good long stretch of freedom.


The last day of January. I’m leaving for the monastery in 4 days, and everything feels vivid and transient and a little sad. In the morning when I open my eyes and see my husband sleeping next to me, I find myself holding very still so I can watch him breathe. Then, when I get up, I notice that it is 8:00 and I’m well rested, and I’m aware that soon I will be achingly sleep-deprived and getting up four hours earlier at the sound of a bell. I make a pot of sencha and come upstairs to write, and I appreciate the stillness of the house in the morning, this solitude, and the green bitterness of the tea. I am grateful for this unstructured time alone to track my thoughts; at the monastery I will have very little privacy, and my days will be lived by the schedule, which sounds rigid, but I look forward to the containment. As I sit down at my desk, I feel a fierce appreciation for my computer, and this keyboard, and the way my fingertips translate thoughts into words and put them up onto the screen, letter by letter. This keyboard is especially precious to me right now. Of course I can do more or less the same thing with my fingers and a pen, but this interface is familiar to me and has many advantages. I'm leaving my computer behind, along with my cell phone, and it is both scary and exciting to think about being without these devices for two months. I’m especially interested to see if the absence of a digital interface will change my thoughts and the action of my mind. Will my thinking feel different? Will my mind feel less agile? More fixed? Less fragmented? More cumbersome? Calmer? More agitated? Will my thoughts feel more tangible? Will they feel fast because handwriting is slow? Or slow because the computer invites leaps and quick re-adjustments? Will I go through withdrawal, or the bends? And how will this make time feel? Will the days be long or short? And what about my social networks? Will I be lonely without email and my twittering friends?

I had a disconcerting experience the other day while reading a book. I wanted to recall something the author had written several chapters earlier, and I experienced a shuddering jolt of cognitive dissonance when my mind reached for the global search function and almost simultaneously realized that no, this was a book, with pages. It struck me as wrong, somehow, that the only way to find the reference I needed was to flip through pages.

And there was another incident, during a conversation, when I needed a fact about something--the scientific name for a banana slug’s blow hole (the pneumostome), or the previous role of a supporting actor in a TV show I was watching (Justin Kirk in Weeds and Angels in America)--and for a brief and jarring moment, my mind actually mistook itself for Google. The question arose, initiating the search, and then…nothing. My mind just hung there, like a frozen drive, or a system crash, spinning like the pizza of death.

No wonder I feel stupid all the time. (I remembered pseumostome, but I had to Google Weeds to find Justin Kirk.)

I’ve been worried about my memory ever since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but it’s quite possible that the lapses I experience are not lapses at all, but rather phantom gaps created by the very technology that was invented to fill them. There’s an article in my De.li.cious feed from the Journal of Higher Education, called The End of Solitude, which talks about this phenomenon, how technology creates the problems that it’s designed to solve. Thus, television creates boredom by alleviating it, eroding the skills we need to entertain ourselves. The Internet creates loneliness by enabling constant connectivity with our social networks, thereby defamiliarizing solitude and turning it into something to fear and avoid, rather than to savor.

I think something analogous is going on with my experience of the way my mind conceives of memory and information. My cyborg mind has melded with these digital interfaces and become so conditioned by access to these certain types of information, that it now compares itself to Google and Wikipedia, and finds itself continually wanting.

So, it will be interesting to see if my experience of my mind changes, and if the conditioning can be reversed. This monastic retreat is an experiment, one I’ve always wanted to perform on myself, and right now I’m caught between leaving and going. It is an unsettling time, and I’m enjoying it.

... and what isn't

Well, I'm finally going to do it. I'm taking two months off from secular life and moving into a zen monastery. I know I've threatened to do this many times. It used to be kind of a joke, my fallback plan, or Plan B, for when things got really tough, but somehow over the years it's edged its way up into the Plan A position...and this is not just about the recession, either. I'm truly excited to have the chance to do this. One thing, though. I'm not allowed to bring my computer with me (gulp), which means that I won't have much chance to access my email for the months of February and March. If you're trying to get in touch with me, I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. If it's any consolation, the inconvenience I will be causing myself must surely be far greater, so please enjoy that thought as you wait patiently for me to rejoin the world in April.