Priests Aren’t Parents

No Zen in the West is back online! I was advised that if I waited any longer folks would get to thinking that there was indeed Zen in the West. I hope it hasn’t come to that.

Note the new layout, and especially the “Forum: Young People in Dharma” tab. Comments are amazingly still coming in from the April post on the topic, and I’ve moved the conversation to it’s own page in order to hopefully keep it going strong. Please read or skim it and contribute your thoughts if you haven’t already. This may end up being the most lively and useful thing happening on this site!

Many of you know that the last four months or so of not blogging have mysteriously coincided with my first four months or so of fatherhood.  Thank you for welcoming little Frank to the wide Sangha. He’s been here the whole time, of course, but now he has arms and whatnot to make him easier to see. You will be happy to know that whatever American-Zen confusion I may have had about the single awakened teacher to whom I should report is now settled.

Given this current transformation I’m undergoing, it seems right to hold off on some backlogged posts I have in mind – like, what about when Zen practice makes you psychotic, a story of some convoluted nineteenth century East-West Buddhist history, and whatever happened to hara, to name a few. Instead, it is only proper that I reflect a little bit on the No Zen of fatherhood as I see it now.

 Jiryu & Frank

Having a baby is of course about the least monastic thing a person can do. It undermines the monastic path even more than marriage. My recollection (someone correct me if I’m wrong) is that in the late Daido Loori Roshi’s Mountains and Rivers Order, monastics can marry but not have kids. That is, even for a Sangha that is flexible enough to include marriage, child-rearing is just too big a lifestyle leap to be tenable. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t happened or even been commonplace historically in monasteries and temples East and West. Richard Jaffe’s Neither Monk nor Layman cites research showing hereditary temple succession in Japan as early as the 1600s, long before the Meiji decriminalization of clerical marriage, and Stephen Covell’s Japanese Temple Buddhism is pretty clear about the state of things there nowadays, wherein though virtually all the monks have families, the party line is still simply that monks don’t have families. (Covell’s subtitle says it all: “Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation.”) More on both of those excellent books before long, I hope – they get right at the No Zen in Japan that is amplified all the more as it becomes the No Zen in the West. (A tangential but relevant book from a Catholic perspective, Celibacy in Crisis, has been really valuable for me in considering these questions.)

What both authors point to is the hypocrisy (or, if you prefer, the high tolerance for paradox) in a Japanese Buddhism that identifies strongly with a monastic ideal that is completely contrary to family life, while engaging in family life. (Jodo Shinshu is an important and wonderful exception, having long ago renounced monastic pretensions.) As I think I mention in Two Shores, to this day Soto Zen hasn’t said anything really positive about the role of family life for clergy. They finally permitted it in the by-laws (long after the fact), but they have yet to really name it as an authentic expression of priest/monk practice. And how could they? How could they celebrate themselves as the unbroken successors to Dogen and say at the same time that family life is their unsurpassed Dharma gate?

That is where little Frank, American Zen, and I come in – and where I am grateful to be in a Sangha that, in our best moments at least, doesn’t mind being the “broken” successors to Dogen. We dare to turn the wheel again – we maybe are already – to go from barely “permitting” what’s happening into full-on celebrating it. Not from a rigid ideology of family life as the best life, but more from a profound pragmatism: the understanding that what’s actually happening is actually the real practice.

In that spirit, I say: what better way than child-rearing for a priest of the Great Vehicle to learn the warm heart of practice? How could a cold, sharp temple invite that heart more than a warm, soft baby body? What about that unconditional, boundless Bodhisattva love? What about training in dropping, meeting, responding, dropping, meeting, responding? How could that be more authentic in the layered artifice of monastic life than in the a screaming, shitting, laughing, wonder-filled baby? How better than parenthood for a priest to hone that one project of flowing responsiveness, the single practice that is the mono of monastic?

One priest friend told me that he understood unconditional love only after having a child. It might not take that for everyone, but it wouldn’t it be the height of arrogance to call it a hindrance? Another told me it is like having a han in the living room that is poised to call zazen at any moment, echoing a mother friend of mine who offers that Zen training is nothing more than a male attempt to approximate the experience of motherhood.

In these clear and confident expressions I hear the rumblings of a vital Dharma turning, one that I must say American Zen is taking up far more strongly than our Dharma parents and siblings in Japan. In embracing the life we have inherited as Japanese-lineage priests (or “lay-priests” if you don’t mind the oxymoron), we can hold up our children and say, “look here – this is practice!” It seems that on this point the Japanese clergy are still insisting, “don’t look here! – there is practice!” and carrying on about Dogen-zenji-sama. They are saying, “do as I say, not as I do.”  Or, perhaps more precisely, “do as I do, but say as I say.”

Of course and unfortunately it’s never so simple. Last week I tried to sit a sesshin, but because of my responsibilities for Frankie, I hardly gave 100%. Is it possible to “show up” (SF Zen Center’s unofficial slogan) for sesshin and to “show up” for the responsibilities of family life at the same time? How can we deepen and fulfill our formal practice while the accretions of the “mundane whirl” hang on us like barnacles? What about the time, the energy that formal practice takes? How can we genuinely fulfill the deep Dharma potential of parenthood,  this unattached, selfless love, without the support of the attachment-cutting zendo schedule? But how can we follow the schedule that promises to teach us that if we’re weighed down with family duties?

(Incidentally, it’s just this tension that led Confucianists in China to denounce Buddhism as un-filial – the worst insult imaginable. For them the solution wasn’t to ditch the family, but to ditch the monastery or whatever other excuse anyone had to not fulfill familial duties.)

It’s clear that if I weren’t being trained by Frankie, I would have been more available to be trained by this last sesshin. And maybe the ancient training of sesshin is really better than the more ancient training of parenthood. It may be that the two can’t ever peacefully coexist, and maybe here the Japanese clerical hypocrisy/openness to paradox can serve us well, even energize our engagements. It offers a way, however clumsy, to do both.

Whatever the case, I sincerely confess that never in my life, even in the deepest heart of the deepest sesshin, have I sensed the kind of monstrous and tremendous love that is suddenly gradually overtaking me as a father. Far from a hindrance to my priest path, it whispers a promise that – if only I don’t turn away – it will push open still wider the gate onto the great matter of birth and death

May all of our training, wherever and whatever it is, invite warm, connected, and gone-beyond-conditions love. And may we not be fooled by other ways.


14 thoughts on “Priests Aren’t Parents

  1. I think when you don’t have children that is the perfect way.. When you have children that is the perfect way.. Whatever way you are practicing, if you are truly studying the self and dropping the self in that moment, then you are practicing.

    But then again what do I know?

  2. Jiryu, it’s great to see you back, and to read your reflections on parenting. That little Frankie is a lucky guy — and I hope that you and Sarah are lucky, too, in being supported by Zen Center in this great undertaking.

  3. Hi Mark! Thanks for a wonderful, erudite and moving posting (which Renshin passed along by way of my wife Christine’s Facebook page). I have to say I agree that parenthood can indeed be a gate – and I agree with Daigan’s statement that it will only be so if you make it so. Because if you don’t practice with the amazing joy and equally amazing stress of parenthood, then it will lead you (I should say me, not you) straight in the opposite direction. How wonderful that Zen Center is supporting you on this path (which seems only fair since the generation of your teachers was supported on the same path by Zen Center). If I could offer just one piece of unsolicited (sorry) advice, it would be this – stay at Zen Center! Because once you leave, the vortex of social pressure and the irresistible drive to provide for your children makes it very very difficult ever to return to a place where you’ll have the chance to sit even a partial sesshin and ponder the very questions you raise.
    Deep bows and good luck! (nice to see your smiling face again 🙂

  4. “… a cold, sharp temple”? I hope Green Gulch has not changed so much in my short time away as to earn such a designation (playing, I know you didn’t mean that, exactly). I think it may be all the mother and father teacher/priest/monks of our lineage, starting with Suzuki Roshi, who have made Zen Centers temples more warm and soft than cold and sharp, just as they should be. Reading your lovely post to the end I think of Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for every purpose under the sun.” Now the question is, where does the grandmother go? (at this time, under the sun, or here in Devon, the rain). Cheers to all, and bows (and feedback welcome on the grandmother question). Love, Catherine

  5. Hi.

    Good to see you up and about.
    I really enjoy reading your posts.
    And congrats are in order i believe.
    In the end it’s all good practice.
    Thank you for your practice.


  6. Hi Jiryu!
    Glad to see you are still telling it like it is and not how others think it possibly should be. Didn’t Dogen say that everything is practice-enlightenment? Take care,

  7. Hi Jiryu,
    I love this post. Having spent a good part of the summer being trained by my nephews, I think I can wholeheartedly agree. I also think that my monastic training enabled me to handle the experience of child care (I won’t say rearing since they aren’t “mine”) with more grace and patience than I might have had otherwise. But the experience of having to be fully completely available no matter what or when, in each moment–showed me in an absolutely concrete way the suchness and commitment I’d heard spoken of in Zen training. The never for a moment ceasing practice. The boundless giving. Grandmother mind. Standing where you fall. Etc.
    Please keep writing!

  8. Hello Jiryu,

    sesshin and Frank, Frank and sesshin…not two, not one.
    I’m glad you are writing about parenthood, practice, and love.
    I had the pleasure of meeting Frank on Monday night when I passed Sarah, who was holding him, on the path at Green Gulch.
    Congratultions to all three of you!

  9. I have three sons…and the love I have for them is unfathomable.

    With children or without, the answer is simple……MU…………

  10. Let me put it this way: if you fall asleep in sesshin, you might annoy the people sitting around you. If you fall asleep while taking care of an active toddler, the kid could die. Both are good practices of awakening, and the stakes are different.

  11. J-san, thank you so much for thoughtfully sharing your love of Frankie and for your wise and loving dedication: “May all of our training, wherever and whatever it is, invite warm, connected, and gone-beyond-conditions love. And may we not be fooled by other ways.” More and more, practice seems to reveal that LOVE, the L-word in Zen, is our deepest expression of “dropping away”. Your posts and comments help me remember the warm heart, bodhisattvas!

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