When I was a girl, I was very close with my aunt, my mother’s sister. She didn’t have children of her own, so she treated me as if I were her daughter. She took me to the park, to the beach, and for drives. She taught me to cook and do patchwork. During summer vacations, I stayed at her house for many days. I really loved her.

Shortly before I graduated from high school, my aunt got sick and in just a few months passed away, at the age of 36. It was too sudden. I was shocked and depressed, and I cried for many days. “Why did Aunty Michiko have to die?” I asked myself. In my grief, I began to wrestle with the meaning of life

A concerned friend invited me to her church. I hesitated, because my parents were Buddhist, but I went, and while listening to the Gregorian chants I felt a kind of restoration and peace of mind come over me. The priest talked about eternal life, which made a deep impression on me, especially in light of my aunt’s death and my nascent search for meaning. I went back to the church after the first visit and ultimately became an active member of the congregation. 

Meditating at the convent confirmed for me that monastic living was the only way I could be truly at peace in this world.

After five years of church attendance, I had the opportunity to visit and meditate at a Catholic convent. I went, but not with the intention of becoming a nun. I didn’t know anything about monasticism; rather, I was seeking to further and deepen my relationship to God. The convent’s sacred silence and the nuns’ sincere practice moved me. I returned a number of times, and over the course of those visits I came to realize the inadequacy of my ordinary life. I had enjoyed a normal upbringing with a stable and supportive family, a good education, and many friends (including a romantic partner). But I wasn’t fulfilled. Meditating at the convent confirmed for me that monastic living was the only way I could be truly at peace in this world. So I decided to take the vows that would make me a Catholic nun.

The convent sat on vast stretch of land in the northern part of the Kanto region of Japan and was surrounded by a tall concrete block wall. In three years, I only left twice— both times to see a doctor when I got sick. We were twelve sisters practicing together—four novices and the other eight our seniors. The schedule was strict. Every night we were awoken at midnight to go to the chapel for one hour of prayer. We then went back to sleep until four o’clock morning prayer, which lasted for three hours and included Mass. During the day we prayed five separate times; between these sessions we worked in the chapel, kitchen, and vegetable garden and cleaned the convent thoroughly. 

All activities except for prayer were conducted in silence. The convent was very quiet, and at first the silence scared me. Only once per day, during a 45-minute recreation period, were we allowed to speak freely to one another. On Sundays, we observed the Sabbath and so did not work. But we never stopped praying. We prayed every day of the year. 

nun who converted from catholicism to zen holds a catholic rosary in her hand
Photograph by Shiho Fukada

As a nun, I wore a head cover made of very thick material that fit tightly and completely covered my ears, which made it hard to hear and to open my mouth. On top of the head cover I wore a veil, which restricted my peripheral vision so that I could only see what was in front of me. These measures were intended to prevent us from seeing, hearing, or speaking bad things. In that way, we wouldn’t be distracted by the world, and it would be easier to focus on God. At all times, our minds were supposed to be full of love for God so that there was no space for evil. When someone said, “Thank you” to me, I was to answer, “Thanks be to God.”

I loved how this monastic life enabled me to feel great peace and joy for the first time. I had many difficulties there, but my mind was calmed and I was no longer preoccupied with my aunt’s death. But still I felt that something was missing. One day, after I had spent three years in the convent and ten as a practicing Christian, I heard a sermon that would change my life. There was a men’s monastery in the same town as our convent, and every morning one of the priests came to the convent and led us in the Mass. One day, the priest recounted his experiences at a recent gathering of religious leaders from different faiths. He touched upon zazen [seated meditation] in his sermon. This resonated with me because I was familiar with the word zazen through my family’s practice of a Zen-inspired tea ceremony. I didn’t actually know anything about zazen but imagined it must be a Japanese style of prayer, and I wanted to try it.

Nowadays, Catholics and Buddhists talk to each other freely through interfaith dialogues. But at that time, I was told—in no uncertain terms—that in order to try zazen, I would have to leave the convent. This posed a major dilemma: While I cherished my convent sisters and our life together, I was feeling the pull toward a more Japanese style of faith. The convent and our practice were completely Western, lacking any elements familiar to me as someone born and raised in Japan. In spite of my years in the Church, both the nunnery and Catholicism remained foreign to me.

Nobody can authentically be a nun without experiencing a calling to Christ, and my quest to find a Japanese form of sacredness was leading me away from Him. It was a very hard decision, but I left the convent in order to discover zazen. When I made my vows, I had given up all worldly possessions: my money and personal belongings were left to my parents, while I was allowed to bring with me only some underwear and personal effects in one bag. Now, upon leaving the convent, I gave back my nun’s habit and in return received the bag that I had brought as well as a little money. And just like that, I was back in the world. But I didn’t know anyone in the area. I didn’t even know the town, since we were never allowed to leave the convent.

“What should I do?” I asked myself. “Where can I practice zazen?”

I hailed a taxi and told the driver to take me to a Buddhist temple.

“Which temple?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Whichever.”

He drove me to a big temple that by chance was part of the Soto Zen sect. “I came from a Catholic convent,” I told the priest. “I’d like to try zazen.”

The priest looked at me skeptically. “If you want to practice zazen, go to Nagoya,” he said. “There is a women’s training monastery there.” He showed me a video of the nuns’ hard practice and austere life, thinking it would scare me off. My reaction surprised him: “Yes, this is exactly what I want!” Sensing my determination, the priest advised me to write for permission from the abbess if I wanted to go to Nagoya. 

nun who converted from catholicism to zen sits in a zen monastery
Drawn to Zen meditation, Yamada was forced to make a decision: stay at the convent and never learn zazen, or leave it forever. | Photograph by Shiho Fukada

Since I couldn’t go straight to the monastery, I first returned to my parents’ house. I just showed up out of the blue, yet they were overjoyed to see me. They knew that had I stayed in the convent, I would never have been able to see them again, not even if they were sick and near death, not even for their funerals. Those were the rules. I wrote a letter to the Zen abbess, and while I waited for a reply I catered to my parents. I cooked, cleaned, and did everything for them, all the while trying to explain why I was so drawn to the idea of zazen.

Eventually I heard back from the abbess telling me to come to a threeday sesshin, a period of intensive zazen practice. The nuns and laypeople there sat zazen and did kinhin (meditative walking) from four o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night. I was awed by the unfamiliar monastery and its rituals. On the first day, I learned to sit zazen and to eat using the oryoki bowls. Five minutes into the first sitting, my knees began to hurt. Long prayer sessions at the convent had disciplined my mind, but my body was not prepared to be bent into the lotus posture. “What shall I do?” I fretted. “How can I survive three days of this pain?”

Eventually the sesshin ended, and I had survived. I didn’t know anything about Soto Zen, but I did know that by the end of the three days my mind was perfectly refreshed. I told the abbess about my experiences in the Catholic convent and why I had left to come to Nagoya.

“Zazen is not one part of Buddhism,” the abbess told me. “It is the core.” Probably sensing my willingness to leave home again, she described how the Buddha had left his palace and family to enter practice. “Do you think you can fully understand zazen if you don’t give up anything?” she asked.

“That makes sense,” I replied. “I should completely dedicate myself to practicing zazen. I should become a Buddhist nun.”

Within a short time of entering the Nagoya monastery, however, I came to realize that the daily schedule actually did not allow much time for zazen. Except for our monthly sesshin, we normally only sat only twice a day. This was not nearly enough for me. 

Most of our daily routine was spent doing samu (work). Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, said that all our daily activities are zazen. I knew this intellectually, but I didn’t understand its deeper meaning. I dutifully followed the schedule, thinking that doing so without ego was good practice. But after three years in Nagoya, my frustration exploded.

“We should sit zazen more!” I complained to the abbess.

Obeying the teacher is a fundamental tenet for a Buddhist nun or monk. Still, I couldn’t help but express my dissatisfaction: without extensive zazen, being in the monastery felt just like ordinary life to me. My teacher responded angrily to my complaint. She was (and remains) the most famous Soto Zen nun in Japan, with more than 40 disciples who have been trained to follow and obey her.

“Do you think you can fully understand zazen if you don’t give up anything?”

“If you want to sit zazen so long, go to America!” she snapped.

“Why?” I shot back. “I was ordained in Japan. This is Dogen Zenji’s country. Why do I have to go to America to sit zazen? That doesn’t make sense!”

It would be several years before the answer came to me. I had never been abroad, and I spoke no English. But my teacher had said go abroad, so off I went. I traveled alone to a Soto Zen temple in Pennsylvania run by an abbess who had trained at my Nagoya monastery. Mt. Equity Zendo was a very beautiful place in an area dotted with corn and soybean fields. The backyard of the Zen center was forest, and on its land lived horses, cows, birds, squirrels, and many other animals. Its vegetable garden grew potatoes, corn, broccoli, carrots, chard, and other plants that were cooked and served for our meals.

At Mt. Equity, I had many chances to sit zazen. Sesshin was held every month, and people came from all over the US to attend it. The center’s evening zazen drew local people three times a week. But happiness still eluded me. One clear night after zazen, I went out to the garden and looked up at the dark sky. I could see the moon. It dawned on me that Japanese people were also looking at this moon—and I burst into tears. I had fought my teacher about wanting to sit more zazen, and I had come to America, where I could sit a lot of zazen; but I had not found true happiness. That was my ego, I realized. “I should have obeyed my teacher. I always do what I want to do. This is not Buddhist practice.” I finally understood that my teacher had sent me to America to confront my own ego; she had kicked me out of the monastery to help me.

Now, I thought, I was ready to return home, but I couldn’t go back immediately. Even though I was disappointed, I did my utmost to continue to learn and practice. It helped that the abbess at Mt. Equity was a sincere and compassionate teacher who had trained in Japan for more than 15 years. She once explained to me how Pennsylvania and Japan were connected in the dharma: “Japanese people practice all day sitting zazen. When they go to bed it is dawn here, and we take over their practice and sit zazen. Our never-ending practice is embracing this earth.”

At the end of my time in the US, a shinsanshiki (“mountain seat”) ceremony was held to officially recognize her as a Soto Zen abbess, and I arranged much of the event. My Nagoya teacher came and brought about 40 people, including nuns and monks. I wanted to apologize immediately and ask if I could return to Japan. But after the ceremony, a Japanese priest who ran a Zen center in Germany approached her. “I’m going to have the same ceremony next year,” he said. “I’d like to invite many Japanese priests. Please send Yuko to help.”

“OK!” my teacher answered, without asking me. I was crestfallen.

Soon I was on my way to Germany, where I spent six months preparing the ceremony for the abbot. It was very successful, and afterward, I was relieved to know that my duties were completed: now I could return home. But the leader of Soto Zen in Europe had come to the ceremony in Germany and called my teacher before I could. “Your disciple is here in Germany. Why don’t you send her to other Zen centers in Europe?”

“It’s a good idea!” she replied, again without asking me. So for another year I visited Zen centers in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain. I met many sincere students; sitting with them made me happy, and being in Europe was an adventure, but I couldn’t understand the deep meaning of dharma talks in English, let alone in European tongues. I still longed for home.

statue of the virgin mary
Photograph by Shiho Fukada

I spent two and a half years in America and one year in Europe before I was finally able to return to Japan. It has now been 20 years since I converted from Catholicism to Buddhism. When I meet Zen practitioners, especially from the US and Europe, they often ask me why I switched religions and whether I was disillusioned with the Catholic Church. I genuinely loved my convent life, and my conversion was not influenced by the many scandals that have rocked the Church. 

Why then did I leave it to pursue zazen? I have asked myself this question many times. I know that I lacked the calling to Christ, but over the years I also have observed differences between zazen and Catholic prayer that helped explain why I was drawn to Buddhism.

For one, I have come to believe that the contrast in body postures in Catholic prayer and zazen have profound significance. As a Catholic, I knelt down to pray while bowing my neck slightly forward, clasping hands, and keeping eyes closed—all gestures of respect to God. While I struggled mightily in my early days of zazen to get comfortable in the lotus position (being Japanese did not make the pose natural), I came to understand it as the platform of Zen: not a gesture of respect—a means to an end—but a practice unto itself. Our lives are constantly throwing us off-kilter, but zazen restores balance and returns us to our birthright of universal harmony.

I also think back to the restrictive head coverings we novices wore in the convent. Zen Buddhists do not practice limiting their senses in that way, for it is important to open our eyes, ears, and noses to use all five senses in harmony with the universe. Unlike prayer, zazen does not shut out the world; we embrace everything to realize our orig – inal connection with the universe and to accept reality as it is.

Just as important is the contrast in Catholic and Buddhist approaches to the notion of purity. In the convent, we novices modeled ourselves on the white lily. Our comportment, how we kept our rooms, confession—all was designed to deliver us from evil and make us as unblemished as the lily. I remember my feelings of hopelessness after confession—how I thought that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be pure in mind and body. 

I never had this feeling after converting to Buddhism, because I was taught to embrace imperfection rather than seek to eliminate it. The Buddhist symbol is the lotus, a beautiful flower that blooms in muddy water. Such water represents our imperfections and the suffering that make us who we are. If the environment is too clean, the lotus cannot bloom; if we are at war with our imperfections, we cannot become who we really are. Buddhists accept reality as it is: pure and impure but still always perfect.

In expressing my sense of the differences between zazen and prayer, I don’t mean to imply that Catholicism is bad and Buddhism is good. Despite their differences, I believe that both prayer and zazen are touching the same deep silence that is at the heart of all faiths. I still respect my Catholic sisters and brother. Though I no longer see them, I feel that their constant prayer encourages my zazen practice. Because they never stop praying, I can’t stop practicing. We are practicing in different ways, but we are still connected. Wherever I am—in Japan, Europe, America, or somewhere else—I want to bloom like the lotus, to help all people embrace both purity and impurity, and to support peace and happiness in this world. That, for me, is zazen. 

 

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