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?