It turns out there’s no Zen in the West because of a ninth century Japanese Tendai school monk named Annen.
Maybe I should back up a bit. My critical, scoffing friends (and alter-egos) who say there’s no Zen in the West say so in large part because there is no real Zen monastic practice in the West. As there’s no real monastic training, there are no real enlightened trainees. Thus no real teachers, thus no real Zen.
I’m writing this from Tassajara, a place we like to call the first training monastery in the West. And it’s true that folks here are sitting a lot of zazen and living immersed in ritual. But by no standard measure is it a monastery – “a place for monks” – because by no standard measure are we who practice here monks. We are not monks in any regular sense of the word because we have taken no monastic rule. Even those of us ordained as “home leavers” really have no stipulations on our behavior, have no vow of discipline. We’ve committed to a life of moral conduct, but no differently – no more narrowly – than a “lay” Buddhist has. The only unique vows we have taken are in the fine print of the ordination ceremony: vague vows, which we never renew, about how we will handle our priestly gear in the spirit of the Buddha. Nice vows, but not enough to make a monk, and certainly not enough to hold together a monastic order.
This lack of concrete monastic vows is why Japanese “monks” have to stand in the back if they’re ever around “real” Buddhist monastics; it’s likely the reason why even the great Japanese teacher Dogen Zenji had to wait on the boat in a Chinese port and was nearly barred from joining the Chinese monks’ practice. Then as now, ordained Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Tibetan Buddhists look at us and say: “Well that’s nice, but say again how you figure you’re a monk? Because you took on a few vague rules about doing good, not evil?”
So this is the thin ice that Japanese monasticism has been on for some centuries, and we in the West with our Protestant and Enlightenment values have certainly stomped on the ice our fair share – sometimes indeed a joyful and useful stomping, and a stomping this blog likes to look at.
But looking back it seems like the damage we’ve done to monasticism is fairly mild when compared to what the Japanese did. Our situation is in some sense just the unfolding of causes they set into motion.
Which brings me back to Annen, the ninth century Japanese Tendai monk who is the reason I can write this while wearing monks clothes while my “layperson” wife sits in the head monk’s seat in the Tassajara zendo and my son sleeps on our (immodestly high) bed. According to Paul Groner in another excellent piece in the book Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha that I mentioned a post or two ago, Annen was responsible for what became the definitive Tendai interpretation of a very important Chinese precept text, the Brahma Net Sutra. Annen’s predecessor Saicho had succeeded in instituting that Sutra as the official precepts of the Tendai school. (This is the subject of Groner’s fascinating book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School.)
Now the Brahma Net Sutra, Groner argues, was already too vague to hold together a monastic order, and only really made sense as a supplementary set of precepts – a way to add a more Mahayana flavor to the much more comprehensive traditional Buddhist vows that all monks would naturally have taken. In China they did (and I believe still do) use it that way, as more precepts rather than as the precepts. Particularly since the Brahma Net Sutra lacked any enforcement mechanisms, made no provision for assessing or addressing lapses, it couldn’t really stand alone. So once it was adopted in Japan as the primary monastic precept text the Order was, in Groner’s assessment, more or less doomed – unless a Tendai commentator would have come along with an authoritative commentary that could give the Sutra teeth.
Instead of a toothy new interpretation, though, we got Annen, who proceeded to make the toothless even gummier. As Groner describes it (and I haven’t read Annen’s commentary myself), Annen’s approach was much like the precept interpretations you hear in Zen to this day (recall Suzuki Roshi’s telling freshly precepted students that they may need to go out and break all of them). Annen emphasized intention over action, and he argued that ultimately the precepts can’t be broken anyway (you know the drill: fundamentally life is not killed, etc.). He also insisted on the power of confession and repentance ceremonies to effectively remove any karmic obstacles born of past action. As if that weren’t enough, he further offered that even in the worst of offenses, simply re-ordaining would wipe the karmic slate. He suggested that people with low spiritual faculties might want to try taking up some literal precepts, but that really all rules are simply provisional – the real work is to leap beyond this realm of “right” and “wrong” and realize the total liberation of Buddhahood with this very body.
Apparently this was the right message for Japanese Buddhists, because it stuck. Where Annen went, the Tendai school went; where Tendai went, so followed virtually all of the Japanese sects. Now and again a reformer would come along to try to recover the urgency of monastic discipline, but it didn’t take, it couldn’t take. Humpty Dumpty wasn’t getting put back together.
So to draw this rather technical ramble to a close, I certainly don’t say Annen was wrong, or particularly that he was right. We all look for the balance between form and the formless, and there’s no final landing anywhere in that. I bring all of this up not to pass judgement but just to appreciate again that the road to the current state of “No Zen in the West” has been a long and slow one.
I mean, if you will, that we didn’t start the fire.