Interview with an American monk in Japan.

Gesshin (Claire) Greenwood, is a 28-year-old, Soto Zen Buddhist nun practicing in Japan. After nearly four years living a monastic life in Japan, Greenwood finally decided to study the Japanese language at Nanzan University.

Greenwood’s journey has taken her from teaching English in a rural town in India to living in Hawaii and ending up in Japan only to find herself deciding to enter a monastic life. Then, years later she returned to “modern society” and reentered college. Varying concepts contributed to her decision to return to college despite her teacher’s initial disapproval.

Out of the Monastery and into the classroom.  

“People have started to ask me to translate things and teach people and I can’t speak Japanese. I also felt like I hit a wall with my maturity level. I missed forming intimate relationships with people. My understanding of relationships and intimacy was meeting people. In a monastery, it is completely professional all the time and it’s hard to form intimate friendships. I also wanted to find out how to support myself financially, and to not be in an environment where I followed orders all the time and actually had to make decisions for myself,” Greenwood said.

Entering a “normal” life outside of the monastery has been an experience with mixed emotions for Greenwood. Eating whatever she wants and surfing the net has been enjoyable but has felt empty and meaningless at times, as she ponders the mortality of life.

“There is sort of this elation about the amount of freedom I have but also it is overwhelming and sometimes lonely because I have to do it myself,” Greenwood said.

For long periods of time, Greenwood was out of touch with the news while in the monastery. Despite the sadness she now sees scoured across the news, she feels it is important as an adult to read and be aware.

“It’s nice to not be connected to the news. I didn’t know anything that was going on. When I started reading it, I just cried.”

Being Foreign

Greenwood began her experience in the monastic life after living with her boyfriend who was studying at Nanzan University. At 22 she had no Japanese studies and was living in Japan, and moved to Nagoya after quitting her job. Her boyfriend spent a year previously in a monastery and with his recommendation, Greenwood found herself practicing in the same one.

It was a fairly new monastery and was unique in that it accepted both men and women, and was very open to foreigners. There is a sense of discrimination within the monastery being foreign. There is a hierarchy in the monasteries that determines who eats where and when baths are taken and this system is very apparent. Monasteries are like a sub-culture to Japan according to Greenwood.

there was only one incident Greenwood recalled when monks and nuns were sent to other monasteries for ceremonies and she was frequently overlooked despite her experience.

Why Japan 

Greenwood’s path towards Buddhism started when she was in college studying social justice and started meditating to deal with stress. With two Buddhist parents, the culture has been close to her for most of her life. In her junior , ear she studied abroad for a semester in India where Buddhism was heavily practiced and got drawn more into the ideas.

“It (Buddhism) has this really ethical and philosophical framework that really appealed to me,” Greenwood said. After she graduated she returned to India to practice Buddhism and ended up teaching English. She came to dislike her job and quit to go to Japan with her boyfriend who was in the study abroad program.

“I found out that it wasn’t India I was actually interested in, it was Buddhism and that I can do that anywhere,” Greenwood said.

After six months of practice in a monastery, her visa expired and she moved to Hawaii with her boyfriend. “I tried to have a normal life and be in a relationship and have a job and wasn’t into any of it.” After realizing she wasn’t living the life she wanted, Greenwood renewed her visa and returned to practice in Japan.

“I tried to have a normal life and be in a relationship and have a job and wasn’t into any of it.” After realizing she wasn’t living the life she wanted, Greenwood renewed her visa and returned to practice in Japan.

She spent a year and a half learning at the co-ed monastery and began to feel like the teacher’s daughter as they grew closer together. Even though she lost contact with many people from her past, the people there began to feel like family. After spending nearly two years there, she decided to transfer to another monastery.

“I just wanted to push myself and I didn’t want to practice with men anymore. I wanted to be in a situation where I didn’t have anything. Didn’t have any tools or things to grab on to. I wanted to be in a situation where I just had to interact with reality.” Greenwood said.

In the all-woman monastery, there were five women to every room. Their futons laid on the floor and the room was so small that at times the futons overlapped. with communal bathing, her feelings of not having privacy only heightened. Greenwood now enjoys her private room at the university dorm.

Why Buddhism 

“People always ask me and phrase it in this weird way like, ‘when did you join?’ It wasn’t like I crossed a threshold, it was just like, I kept showing up. It gradually builds. I started meditating for ten minutes a day and it became my favorite part of the day. The more I did it the more I realized it was all I wanted to do.”

She went on to say that some people technically say you become a Buddhists when you take the precepts which are like a list of vows you will uphold and guides for life.

Life in the monastery

Once you take the precepts it is customary to shave off your hair. Hair is seen as a symbol of delusion and attachment and removing it is freeing you from it, according to Greenwood.

In the monastery, the average day started at 4 a.m. with Zazen (meditation). From there usually chanting and some work, then breakfast at nine. You sit in seiza and there is a ritualized eating practiced for the order in which you set up and put away the bowls.

Breakfast is usually rice gruel and pickled plum. Lunch consists of rice, soup, and vegetables while dinner is leftovers or noodles. It was tough for Greenwood to adjust in the beginning and she states that they all eat really fast but now she loves Japanese food.

After breakfast, there is usually work or a class. Monasteries are for practicing Buddhism and teaching people how to perform various ceremonies and rituals. After lunch, there is a little break time then more work and chanting.

“When you come into that lifestyle and you leave your friends and family, there are times when you bump up against people and have personality clashes. So a lot of time is spent figuring out your place. The biggest challenge and benefit was living with people you don’t always understand or know what’s going on,” Greenwood said as she brings up the point of the language barrier.

Initially entering a monastery usually requires a letter of recommendation from someone. After that, switching monasteries requires some paperwork. Unlike America where people pay to go on retreats and spend time at a monastery, According to Greenwood, In Japan, you don’t have to pay you just have to work. Although right now in Japan people are losing respect for Buddhism according to Greenwood. This is because monks are starting to get married and have “regular jobs.” This has not dampened Greenwood’s resolve however who believes that people live in the Buddhist life in many different ways.

“I’m gonna practice Buddhism for life. I know that, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I have to have a connection to monastic life but I don’t know how much that connection is going to be.”

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