Mindfulness or Menmitsu?

I’m not alone in feeling that the practice of mindfulness has utterly transformed my life.  When I say that Zen gave me my life, I’m basically talking about mindfulness – that simple and life-changing instruction to pay close attention to what’s happening, beyond any judgement or conceptualization, in each moment.  To notice that I’m alive.

That deep debt notwithstanding, the “Mindfulness Movement” bugs me.  (And I’m not alone in this either!)  It bugs me like maybe only family really can, and on a lot of counts, not all of which are even consistent with each other.  For instance, it bugs me that it’s too secular, and it bugs me that it’s too Buddhist.  The list goes on.

Instead of just griping, though, I want to offer an alternative word.  A companion word that offers a useful angle on Buddhist practice.

This is menmitsu – “attention to detail.”  “Continuous intimacy.”  “Soft and subtleness.”  “Warm-hearted, thorough diligence.”  Suzuki Roshi says that it is to be “very considerate… very careful in doing things.”  This menmitsu is the defining character of the Soto Sect – it is the flavor, the style of the lineage (menmitsu no kafū 綿密の家風).

Menmitsu is about caring for things.  And of course we can’t care for things without some basic attention; of course “mindfulness” underlies menmitsu.

But there is an important difference.  Mindfulness as it’s usually taught points inward.  That makes sense – “inside” is where we spiritual types think the real deal is.  (Thank you, Descartes.)  Menmitsu points outward.  Outward.  To relationships with people and (maybe especially) with objects.

Volumes have been (and are currently being) written about how “mindfulness” – what could have been a powerful antidote to the excesses of our age – instead risks being swallowed up by the narcissistic, gain-oriented, capitalistic self-improvement culture we live and breathe in.  It’s about how I feel, and what I’ll get.  What matters is me.

Menmitsu, as an enactment of the immutable truth of the total connectedness of all things, includes but is not fundamentally about looking within, or about any kind of inner awareness.  Menmitsu isn’t about an inner state.  It’s about taking care of things.  It’s not about me; it’s about the fork, the dish, the person I’m looking at.

That shift from “me” to “you” goes hand in hand with another transformative shift, from “what can I get” to “what can I give.”  Mindfulness, at least as it’s being sold around town, can seem like something I will get – something for me, by me, about me.  And of course our self-centered, gain-oriented patterns will follow us into any practice we take up, but menmitsu is more sharp, more clear on this point:  it is about what I can give, not what I can get.  If we’re going to live in the world of “you” and “me,” let’s at least see the practice as something from me, not something for me.

How about letting that one take over our culture?  How about a Menmitsu Movement?


[I say some more about menmitsu in a recent public talk.]

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Online Dharma and Cheese Sandwich Buddhism


One of my favorite stories from our San Quentin Sangha is of the guy who ended up in our group as part of a long and involved strategy to get a cheese sandwich.  In a nutshell: Buddhists can be approved vegetarians, approved vegetarians can get two slices of bread with cheese in between instead of two slices of bread with bologne in between, so the best way to get the cheese is to join the Buddhists.

I forget if he got the sandwich.  The point is, he got distracted once he arrived.  Distracted by the silence, and the Dharma, and the warmth.  He became a much appreciated member of the Sangha, practicing with us for a couple years before his eventual parole.

We don’t care why you come.  Cheese sandwich?  Ok.  Putting to rest agitated ancestral spirits.  Ok.  Protection of the State?  Ok.  Stress reduction?  Ok.  Enlightenment?  Ok.

Because the point is that once you arrive, something else can happen.

So my friend has coined the phrase “cheese sandwich Buddhist” – it’s the one who thinks they are there for the sandwich, and doesn’t yet know they are there for the Dharma.  (Or maybe they’re really, really just there for the sandwich…)

So should we advertise our Sangha as the ticket to cheese sandwiches?  A while back I did a post on proselytization, reflecting on how deep and old and central the tradition of Buddhist proselytization is, and how recent and Western this idea that “we don’t do it.”  In that spirit, maybe we should have a big cheese sandwich painted on the door.  Isn’t the point just to get you in the door, since once you arrive something else can happen…?

This is on my mind because I’ve been working with some great folks in charge of San Francisco Zen Center programs to try to spread the word about an online course on Breath that I’m launching in a week or two, and trying to find ways to spread the word, and even entice people to come, without offering too many cheese sandwiches.  Without reducing the Dharma to the deli.

Those of you involved with SFZC may have come across some of our efforts, past and present, and may have noticed that in the rush to “make available” the teachings we’ve fallen down from time to time on the cheese sandwich front.

Hot and crispy!  Come and get ‘em!  Today only!  Hot and crispy and stress reducing!  Just 99 cents!

To put it bluntly, we’ve been told that the way to get people interested in our programs is to tell them what they are going to get out of them.  We need to remind people of what they don’t have right now, and make sure they feel how awful that lack is, and then let them know that by doing our program, they too will get it!

Hot and crispy!

That makes a lot of sense.  Why would any of us do anything if not for the cheese sandwich?  When have any of us ever done anything other than for a cheese sandwich?

Of course I will only look twice if I’m promised something I want.  What’s in it for me?

The problem is that the actual promise of the Dharma is that we can stop needing to get what we want.  And the actual practice of the Dharma is to do something without trying to get something out of it.

We don’t practice for cheese sandwiches.  We don’t practice for ourselves, or, as Dogen has it at least, not even for others.  We practice for the Dharma, or for no reason, or for its own reason.  Or because we have no idea what else to do, or just because we have no idea.

“What can I get” is the root of suffering.  And “what can I get” is the mantra of our time.  So mayve “gaining nothing” is the very best medicine for our age.  But how do we pitch that?

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After much back-and-forth and much hand-wringing (“how can online Dharma possibly be authentic or responsive?” “what can I possibly say about breath and how could anyone possibly care?!”), I’m stepping from the hundred foot pole and into the pixelated dust of the digital marketplace…


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No Limits to Shakyamuni’s awakening?

It’s been a long time since Jiryu or I have gotten it together to post something here, but I wanted to share a link to a dharma talk I gave in Houston last week at the end of rohatsu sesshin.  In it, I try to take up the question of where different Buddhist schools have drawn the limits of the Buddha’s awakening as a way to try to understand our particular Soto Zen way.  Limits and limitlessness–it was fun for me to consider.

So is it cheating to use a talk as a blog post?  Yes.  Yes it is.


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The Right Relationship of Priest and Lay

I’ve been surprised to see how much engagement and reaction there has been to my last blog post here and across a few facebook conversations, so I realize I should probably peek out from behind my shield of impartiality and “historical precedent” and weigh in on how I see this issue of lay practice in American Zen.  Or maybe not.  My capacity for negativity is basically boundless and without distinction:  I am happy to engage in priest-bashing, that most esteemed tradition of Euro-American modernity, but I’m also just as happy to slam the hollow and lazy lay apologetics of “the Dharma is everywhere, so you don’t have to renounce anything or really even make the time.”  So the point is that I really didn’t write the post to sharpen some kind of divide or antagonism between priest and lay.  I really was just reporting a surprise I found in my research:  the fact that in the Meiji period lay Buddhist leaders across the sects really did step forward and carried the tradition – not because they were asked to by the institutions, but because they saw that if they didn’t no one would.

So maybe I’m not really ready to peek out and weigh in myself.  I’m not sure what I think, and I have mixed feelings I’d like to explore further.  The truth is that I’m sympathetic to “fighting the power” in general and happy to hop on whatever anti-authoritarian bandwagon comes through town, but I also find myself a little perplexed at how big a deal we can make of a priest-laity distinction which, as people love to point out when critiquing priestly worldliness, can in actual life be so subtle as to be almost meaningless….  Knowing some places at least where the bar to ordination is fairly low, it is further perplexing to me when people object to the special status or role that priests enjoy when they themselves are just actively choosing not to have that institutional status or role (as opposed to being barred from it by economic or personal reasons, as many are in the centers with a “higher bar” for ordination).  Some people take one kind of role, some people take another.  Insofar as there can be movement between and through roles, what is the real problem with that?

But I don’t claim to see the picture entirely, and it’s abundantly clear that we are nowhere near “nailing” the issue in American Zen in general.  We don’t really know what priests are or are supposed to be, so we can’t know what non-priests are either; we don’t know what a lay person is (especially one who wears robes and does retreats), so we can’t know what non-laypeople are either.  A pretty great situation, come to think of it.

To sort out my own thinking and hopefully work towards a productive conversation, I want to try to reach a little more widely into the tradition past and present (and future?) and imagine some possible kinds of relationship between clergy and laity, some possible roles or attitudes or positions that the two might enact.  This is off the top of my head, and I’d love any additions.  Before “deciding” what priest-lay relations should be in the West, how about first we lay out what the relationships have been or might be?

Some roughly stated options:

  • Clergy (monastic) do the transcendent practice of being liberated from samsara; laypeople see no possibility of release from samsara and strive only to achieve a more fortunate rebirth, which they can do primarily through the merit generated by supporting the transcendent clergy.  (Early Indian tradition?)
  • No distinction – neither monk nor layperson is the norm for all practitioners.  This is a Zen-in-the-world approach in which all do “retreat” as possible in zazen or sesshin, and which all engage as possible in worldly affairs.  The democratic impulse effaces the need for a special class of religious specialists (and maybe most don’t see the path as a religion in the first place).  (Future [or present?] American tradition?)
  • Priests are ritual specialists (“Shakyamuni’s performance art” as a feral monk has neatly put it); laity benefit practically from observing the ritual performances and receiving the efficacious dedications of such rituals on behalf of themselves and their ancestors.  (Practical mainstream of pre-modern East Asian tradition?)
  • Priests are ritual specialists and laypeople don’t watch, don’t care, don’t benefit, and don’t even particularly want to be dedicated to.  (Contemporary Japan?)
  • Priests are stewards of temple spaces, sort of community center managers; laypeople support these community centers in various ways and are grateful that a priest is designated and supported to be the primary caretaker of this basically public resource.  This gratitude and vague appreciation is not based in any illusions about or opinion of the spiritual cultivation of priests, which is mostly beside the point.  (Contemporary Japan?)
  • Priests are fat-cats enjoying the power of their posts and languishing in a life of excess enabled by the forcible, State-mandated transfer of wealth to them from the suffering and exploited laity, who basically just wish the priests would all go away and die.  (Tokugawa Japan?)
  • Priests have a vow and responsibility specifically to maintain and transmit the lineage and forms of ritual and practice, whereas laypeople have a more free hand to express the Dharma in responsive and open-ended life circumstances.  That is, priests should say “the Zen tradition teaches” when they teach, and laypeople should just say, “the truth is…”  It is not a distinction in spiritual quality, lifestyle, or commitment, but is a distinction of venue and responsibility.  In terms of practice-life, the relevant distinction is not “priest” and “lay” at all but rather “monastic-style practitioner” and “householder,” positions which both priest and lay move through in their career as devotees of the Way.  (San Francisco Zen Center ideal?)
  • Priests are encrusted in and indebted to institutions that stifle genuine spirituality and entomb the vitality of the ancestors they claim to enshrine; laypeople are the genuinely liberated and liberate-able, unclouded by the accretions of institutional habit and hierarchy.  Laypeople’s role is to pity priests when not excoriating them.  (1960s-Contemporary U.S.?)
  • Clergy are a sort of spiritual consultants removed from the workings of the practice institutions/temples, which are run by laypeople and for laypeople.  Clergy, through their perceived purity of purpose and their lineage links to the past sages, lend some general authority to the project without imposing much, controlling much, or interfering much.  (Contemporary Vipassana movement?)
  • Priests/monks are specialists in meditation and are cultivated examples of a spiritual life.  Laypeople spend less time and energy in meditation and spiritual cultivation, but aspire to the life the priests represent, and take inspiration from them in their own active practice, going to them for teachings and guidance.  (Contemporary Western models of this attitude exist.)
  • Priests/ministers are active and engaged in the community, whether as social activists, social workers, or otherwise a positive presence on the streets and in the shops of their parish/community.  They represent the religious tradition for the laity/non-ordained, who respect them not only for their institutional status but for their active and positive role in the community.  (Contemporary American Christianity?)

Please help me complete this list – there are tons of models missing and tons of attitudes left out.  I am finding this a useful exercise and hope you do to.

A significant caveat: I’m not sure I see myself or my own “priest-ness” in this picture so far.  And maybe this points to a further or more basic problem with the whole categorization-and-evaluation project:  what we are at the end of the day is just a group people with all kinds of different standpoints, conditioned by but not branded or defined by any of them, including our ordination status.

How do we all support each other?  Isn’t that the real question we are asking, and the basic impulse that our many opinions of each other is just masking?

How do we all support each other?

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AHHH!!! The Laypeople are Taking Over Zen!

Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.

One of the major takeaways from my study of Meiji period Buddhism has been the profound role of laypeople in the survival and revival of Buddhism… clearly of no relevance at all to American Buddhism today!

To paint a picture of the Meiji lay movement, I need to back up to the preceding period, the Tokugawa (1600-1868).  Anti-Buddhist sentiment grew especially in the late Tokugawa period and culminated in the national anti-Buddhist project of the early Meiji – another surprise to study, by the way – in which the State did its best to displace if not destroy Buddhism, trying to replace it with a made-to-order “State” Shinto that even the Shintoists came to hate.  The anti-Buddhist feelings of the time were rooted in the abuses and excesses born of the incredible power that Buddhist temples were given during the Tokugawa period, when they functioned essentially as another arm of the government.  Registration with a temple was mandatory for all Japanese, and it was that registration and temple affiliation that allowed the government to track and control the population.  The local priest became the mediator not just between you and Buddha or you and your ancestors or you and your rebirth, but in a very real and very this-worldly way, between you and the government you were subject to.

I don’t know how bad Buddhism and “Buddhist priests” really were in the Tokugawa period.  Certainly power corrupts, and certainly getting rich on temple dues that the State forces your parishioners to pay you could have some adverse long-term effects on your mental health…  Some scholars point out, though, that great teaching and innovation also happened in Japanese Buddhism in the Tokugawa – think Bankei, even Hakuin! – so to say that the period was one of “spiritual decay and stagnation” as many even within the Buddhist establishment have said, misses something.  The “Buddhists sucked back then” rhetoric is also complicated by the fact that Buddhists trying to maintain favor with the State in the Meiji were quick to blame themselves for the real violence and repression they were being subjected to by the State; it was part of their strategy of moving forward and showing their sincerity for “reform,” but it comes across to me at least as a victim’s counter-productive self-blame.  So anyway, it seems prudent to withhold judgment on moral character of the “Buddhism of the Tokugawa period,” but it is important to note that some serious grudges were being carried against the Buddhist institutions.  And that some of the people with the biggest grudges against the Buddhist institutions were the ones that ended up taking over the country…

Anyway, the bottom line is that people by the start of the Meiji period were by and large disgusted with Buddhism, especially with fat-cat Buddhist priests with their lush temples and cushy jobs.  People, especially as they grew more and more aware of the religious reform movements in the West, got to thinking that the priests weren’t really adding much to Buddhism anyway, and that the real life of Buddhism should be found in the laypeople.  It got so bad that even some priests started calling for the abolition of the priesthood!

This is a key aspect of the “New Buddhism” of the time:  the turn towards laypeople as doing serious practice, taking important institutional roles, and taking real responsibility for the teaching.  In an imperfect analogy that was consciously noted even at the time, the “Old Buddhism” was a kind of clergy-centered Catholicism, and the “New Buddhism” a kind of anti-clerical Protestantism.

So as a result of this turn in lay consciousness and rising of lay self-empowerment, the lay people basically started taking over Buddhism.  The priests sort of resisted and then sort of pretended they were managing the thing.

In Soto for example, the great layman Ōuchi Seiran not only composed the Shushōgi (which I mentioned in a prior post became the definitive statement of Soto orthodoxy for the next hundred plus years), but he also started a popular association of laity and priests that operated outside of the Soto establishment until it was eventually incorporated into it.  Little “small group”-type congregations, known as “confraternities” or “teaching assemblies,” started springing up everywhere, sometimes with the participation of a priest but often just as associations of like-minded Soto laypeople wanting an outlet for their devotion, practice, and study that they couldn’t find in the existing temple order.  The official sect, understanding that they had to respond more to laypeople, tried to sponsor a few “official” lay associations, but they never took off.  The unofficial ones, though, especially under the umbrella of Ōuchi’s “Association for the Support of Sōtō” (Sōtō fushūkai), sprouted like crazy.  In the late 1880s, for example, the official sect claimed about a hundred lay groups nationwide, while the Association boasted around 1,100!

Looking at these numbers and following the power, the Sotoshu shrewdly said, “Oh yeah, that lay movement is totally our thing” and in a stroke incorporated Ōuchi’s movement into the official Soto structure.

There is a ton to say about this all, and some really good research has been done and is being done about so-called “lay propagation” in Meiji Buddhism.  But the main point for me here is that in looking to the Meiji for the immediate roots of our modern Zen/Zen modernism, the role of the laypeople is an obvious continuity.  The budding emphasis on the laity that characterized “New Buddhism” has the aspects of the valorization of lay practice that also characterize our American Buddhism (or our Buddhists at least, if some of the institutions may be now, as then, more reluctant…).  Owing as much to Western Christian developments and the surge of modernity in general as to anything “essentially Buddhist,” we find in the Meiji the stirring of the widespread sense we have today of laypeople as equal practitioners, or even better practitioners, worthy and able to observe the highest practices and study the highest doctrines.

More than one persistent and engaged layperson (thank you, by the way) has been calling to my attention lately the tricky question of the actual role of laypeople in our SFZC community, for example, and I know this is an issue in a lot of American Zen groups.  One aspect of their question might be put something like this:  we say our institution is committed to priests and laity both equally, but why are the teachers mostly (or all) priests and the administrators mostly (or all) priests?!  We say we train priests and laypeople equally, and value their practice equally, but why does it seem priests have more access to teachers and teaching resources?!

I am inclined to look to historical precedent for insight into this problem, and from a first round of reflection on the Meiji Soto situation I gather the following.  Maybe I’d even go as far as to say that these are Ōuchi Seiran’s words from the grave to American Zen:

  • If the priests are messing things up, why not take things over?
  • If laypeople and lay practice need support, why not support each other?
  • If there is no room in the institutions for lay leaders, why not make independent associations?

What do you think?

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Zen Doesn’t Proselytize! Except Always!

Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.

From my first contact with American Zen, I have been told, read, and believed that “Zen doesn’t proselytize.”  This, according to Zen, is what is so great about Zen!  (And maybe why you should join…?)

The point is that unlike those other greedy religions, Buddhism is about finding your own light, finding your own way, and has little if anything to with signing up for a religious institution.  The foundational Buddhist principle of “skillful means” is really a lot like generic secular (or even religious) liberal tolerance – everyone finds a path for themselves, and whatever works is great!  (In part since anyway there is no One Truth.)  Making people Buddhist in itself is of no particular value.  Those drawn to Buddhism should become Buddhists, that’s all.  Those drawn to sit should sit.

All those stupid religions that try to grow themselves and gain converts, enticing them with heavens and grabbing onto them with hells, totally miss the mark on this point.  But Zen just doesn’t go there – Zen people don’t proselytize!

Google it – it’s true.  It’s everywhere.

But when did that become true?  Where did we get that idea?  Did we get it from Suzuki Roshi, who crossed the ocean for the express purpose of missionizing in the U.S. to raise Americans’ esteem for Japan?  From Shaku Sōen, who vigorously promoted Buddhism in Chicago at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions and went on to spend years spreading the word to the West about the excellence of Zen?

Or did we learn it from Nishiari Bokusan, the great evangelizer, who (not unlike the nutty street evangelists who linger around most university towns) took to handing out Buddhist beads to every stranger he met in the street with the words “These beads will give you faith in Buddhism, bring you happiness, and protect you”?  Nishiari who defeated an anti-Buddhist government official so thoroughly in a raging, days’ long debate that the official on relenting became Nishiari’s disciple and donated a vast plot of land?  Nishiari who was among the leaders of the charge to sign on to the Meiji government’s national evangelization program, and who spent years travelling the country with that program teaching not even Zen orthodoxy but a State-mandated ideology of the subservience of Zen to the Emperor, and the Buddhist truth of reverence for the imperial nation?  Nishiari who – as religious missionaries always and everywhere have, and whose Japanese coreligionists in Korea and elsewhere were also doing at the time – eagerly aided the government’s colonization efforts by pioneering Soto Zen in the newest-claimed reaches of the Japanese empire?

Surely Nishiari had some good reason, offered some justification for why he felt he needed to violate this basic “non-proselytizing” Zen principle?  Or at the very least his twentieth century Soto sectarian biographers would have tried to sweep it a bit under the rug, dull the razor edge of his evangelist sword?

No!  Not at all!  His greatness as an evangelist in the biographies, and I expect in his own self-understanding, too, was inseparable from his greatness as a monk and teacher.  Gaining converts is what he did.  His followers were proud of him for it, his biographers celebrate him for it, and I can only imagine that he himself felt good about his successes in that regard.

So the question isn’t why Nishiari was such a blatant, impassioned, and unapologetic evangelist and proselytizer.  The question is where did we in American Zen get this idea that “Zen doesn’t proselytize”?

I have some vague theories, one expressed in a convoluted thesis footnote:

…it is useful to note that Nishiari’s evangelism in Hokkaidō, like that of Buddhist missionaries in Korea, would have been primarily oriented towards Japanese settlers rather than regional natives.  To the extent that this was so, and remained so for the Japanese Buddhist missionaries to the West as well, it is perhaps natural that Western Zen converts in the twentieth century may have been left with the sense that they had themselves not been evangelized, and by extension that the tradition itself was anti-evangelist…

But even I’m not really buying that.  Suzuki Roshi was coy, for sure, but notwithstanding his reputedly “hands-off” style (“I’m just sitting here doing zazen if you want to come”), does anyone really honestly doubt that he was actively courting American Zen converts?  Isn’t converting some natives (aka “sharing the teaching”) a basic reason he came over in the first place?

How on earth did the first generations of American converts to Buddhism decide – right after having been converted! – that Zen doesn’t evangelize?

So I guess my point is this:

1) Zen does, and always has, proselytize.  (Not just in modern Japan, but in pre-modern China too – among a million examples, why for instance would Moheyan have taken on Kamalaśīla in the eighth century Samye/Lhasa debates if it wasn’t about gaining converts to the Right Way?)

2) We in American Zen now proselytize.  The word is poison to our secular humanist ears and we love to deny that it describes us, but if we really look at it, can we deny that by and large that is what we’re doing in our efforts to “share” the teachings and – God forbid – “widen” the sangha?  Why are we afraid to admit this?  (I mean other than that it means we’re no better than those other crazy self-important religions…)

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