Interview With a Buddhist Nun

I met Gesshin (月心) Greenwood at Tassajara Zen monastery this Summer. She is an American-born Buddhist nun who currently lives in Kyoto, Japan. She trained in two very intense training monasteries in Japan and knows first hand what it’s like to do that sort of rigorous practice. Her current teacher is Shundo Aoyama, the author of the book Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest.

As those of you who regularly read this blog and my books already know, I never really experienced this sort of training. Both of my teachers were and are non-monastics. Although both of them trained in Zen monasteries, they chose to teach their students a different way. They believed in weaving the Zen life into the the work-a-day world outside of the monastic setting.

I had a lot of lengthy and interesting conversations with Gesshin about this stuff while we were at Tassajara together. So we decided to try and recreate some of those conversations for you, the readers of this page.

There’s a lot here. But I think it’s really interesting and relevant to hear Gesshin’s take on these matters.

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Putting this together took a lot of time plus I had to buy some new software to make it work. Your kind donations help offset those costs in time and money. Thank you!

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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:

Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

13 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred September 20, 2014 at 8:40 am |

    So why do anything because it makes you happy?

    Why are nuns called nuns, and not monks?

    Change the face of Buddhism.

  2. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm |

    Hey Brad, Nice Skype (which is free, by the way, what did you have to buy to post this? Stone Mirror’s breakfast?) interview, but you might in future want to plan them later in the day after you wake up a bit…you look like a junkie on the nod…or maybe its the 30+ year meditative mood of contemplative cool you’re trying to cultivate?


  3. Khru 2.0
    Khru 2.0 September 20, 2014 at 8:40 pm |

    Who is Gesshin (月心) Greenwood?

    Who is Brad Warner?

  4. justlui
    justlui September 20, 2014 at 9:37 pm |

    Hey this was really interesting and a good way to spend the evening. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. I am looking forward to the new book.

  5. Michel
    Michel September 21, 2014 at 11:48 am |

    But you’ll remember that the Old Gudo was a bit adamant that, either you were celibate, either you were married and faithful. But, himself, when he decided to become a monk, he decided, along with his wife, no longer to have sex.

  6. Hungry Ghost
    Hungry Ghost September 21, 2014 at 1:49 pm |

    You’ve always reminded me more of a yogi than a monk – like Marpa or Tilopa – but it would make no sense to adopt that term as there is no precedent and it’s just as loaded and confusing as the term ‘monk’. I find it interesting and worth bringing up because it draws attention to how illusory and arbitrary culture is: if you had happened to have been trained in the Tibetan tradition the position you occupy would be clearly defined and without controversy, while because of particularities of zen language and tradition, what you do/are is very difficult to define and subject to scrutiny. It ultimately doesn’t matter though does it? – if you get the kids out of the burning house who cares what kind of fireman you are (or if you’re a fireman at all).

  7. The Idiot
    The Idiot September 21, 2014 at 7:31 pm |

    Great format Brad!

    And how cool… play them all at the same time :o)

  8. Daniel
    Daniel September 22, 2014 at 8:11 am |

    Nice interview. I especially liked that she’s not afraid to call things for what they are:

    – Buddhism is a religion.
    – There’s a lot of hierarchy, sexist hierarchy and misuse of power going on in monastaries like in other religious institutions, too.
    – People are tended to get misused because they get said that “everything is a practice opportunity” etc.

    And I think it’s time to say those things and accept them. It just doesn’t help to pretend that buddhism is just a “philosophy”. Does anyone else know a philosophy where people wear robes, shave their heads, there’s a cult like hierarchy etc? I don’t. That’s what the word “cult” is for.

    In the USA Soto-Zen-Buddhism is a cult, in Japan it’s a religion. The difference is the number of people…

    And while we’re at it, when you’re a member of that you support the whole thing as it is. You support the sexism, the power abuse etc.

  9. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer September 22, 2014 at 11:11 am |

    “And I think it’s time to say those things and accept them.”

    Like samsara, the cycle that coils around itself, repeating in an endless helix, you have said these things.

    Now go forward, prosper and make good use of this dangerous knowledge.


  10. Fred
    Fred September 22, 2014 at 5:46 pm |

    “And while we’re at it, when you’re a member of that you support the whole thing as it is. You support the sexism, the power abuse etc.”

    No, I don’t.

  11. YouCanCallMeAl
    YouCanCallMeAl September 23, 2014 at 4:12 am |

    Really interesting interview.

    I think Gesshin is the first monastic in Japanese Buddhism that I’ve heard speak about celibacy like this. A female friend who trained in a Japanese monastery on and off for 3 years wasn’t strictly celibate. And as far as I know, all the other Buddhist traditions outside Japan adhere to some form of the monastic Vinaya, which includes a vow of celibacy.

    So there’s an interesting middle ground here, referred to in the interview, of neither monk nor lay. Perhaps that’s why in the west the word ‘priest’ was chosen to capture this particular role in Japanese Zen.

    As someone who previously practiced in another tradition, and who strongly considered ordination but in the end didn’t because of the vow of life-long celibacy, there’s something refreshing about this approach. If you feel a deep commitment to your tradition and practice, and wish to commit your life to it as fully as possible, while still being a ‘householder’, there is this option of priest ordination.

    I’m a long-lapsed Catholic, and it always made more sense to me that priests in other faiths could marry- I saw and see no conflict there. If you’re a lay practitioner, it’s easier to relate to a lay ordained person. (And this is also the reason I wish there were a better word than Zen ‘priest’- it has a lot of negative connotations for me and all the other ex-altar boys.)

    Anyway, I also think it’s important to preserve a strong monastic tradition, for those who are called to that. That seems to largely be lost in Japan, although perhaps is growing again slowly, which is encouraging.

  12. The Right Way to Meditate | Hardcore Zen September 25, 2014 at 10:48 am |

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