Sex, War, and the Problem of Zen Precepts

First 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.

How have our recent Soto ancestors understood the Zen precepts?  Work like Brian Victoria’s has shown us that most of them, including the great Nishiari Bokusan, took a position most of us would find reprehensible with respect to Japanese militarism, taking imperialist war-making as consistent with the precept against killing.  Richard Jaffe‘s work has further shown that many of them, again including Nishiari, felt that priests who married were inexcusably breaking the precept against fornication.

It has been startling to me in my study of Nishiari Bokusan that with respect to these two precepts at least — killing and sex — he seems to understand the Zen precepts in exactly the opposite way as most American Zen students I’ve met do.  For most of us, the precept against killing is a powerful teaching against war.  For most of us, the meaning of the prohibition against fornication is ultimately about “not objectifying others,” and has less to do with any rules of sexuality so much as with a principle of respectful intimacy; in themselves priests marrying is no violation, sex out of wedlock is no violation, homosexuality is no violation.  At issue is not the act but the mind, the attitude, the openness and intimacy and honesty, such that Robert Aitken could even suggest (in Mind of Clover, if I remember correctly — and I think I do remember correctly, as it burned itself into my young brain when I read it!) that in a one-night stand the precept against fornication might still be observed.

So what does this mean about the precepts?  If interpretations can vary so dramatically, then where are the “teeth” of the precepts?  Where does the “rubber hit the road”?  Where in these precepts is there a religious and moral commitment that actually demands a certain response and forecloses others?

Zen precepts don’t have teeth, and that is the basic point of Zen precepts.  They are not dogmatic but are adaptable, are not rigid but flexible, are not “commandments” but “appropriate responses.”  We celebrate this adaptability of precepts.

But when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.  When we celebrate the adaptability of our precepts – the way they define no particular course of action for us – we miss the dark side of our flexible precepts, the fact that without particular actions defined for us, we are more than likely simply going to fall back on our previously conditioned responses.

Christopher Ives in a great book about Buddhist militarism in twentieth century Japan, Imperial Way Zen, relates Ichikawa Hakugen’s argument that if the precepts were more dogmatic — more fixed and less undermined by this principle of adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness over dogma — they may have served to keep Japanese Buddhism from the disaster of war-enabling militarism.  If it were clear that “not killing” just meant DO NOT KILL, it could not have been twisted into a defense of expansionist war-making.  The flexibility doesn’t energize precepts, it undermines them, detooths them, declaws them, and leaves us just with whatever ethical positions the people around us are spouting.

Responsiveness and flexibility of precepts is all fine and good.  Indeed, when Suzuki Roshi famously says after a jukai at San Francisco Zen Center that all of the precepts just conferred may need to be broken soon after the ceremony, it does seem fine and good — even charming.  But what about when Nishiari Bokusan — against the backdrop of escalating imperialist wars — speaks of the “adaptability” of precepts in the same breath as he celebrates the principle of “killing one to save the many” and insists that to not kill when one should is to violate the precept against killing?  Still charming?  Still fine and good?

What are we left with in practice when the precepts don’t really guide us in any concrete way?  It seems to me that we fall back on what we thought already, on how we have been conditioned prior to receiving the precepts.  What we think of as “the appropriate response” is not something that comes fresh and clean out of some kind of radical presence, but is something that is conditioned by our past conditioning.  So to say “don’t follow the precepts, just do the right thing,” is to render the precepts meaningless and to keep Buddhist ethics from actually transforming our sense of how to act.  The precepts are a kind of empty space, and while the rhetoric of Zen precepts is that that space stays empty until filled by the needs of the situation, more often, I’m afraid, they just allow any preexisting views to come forth as the “flexible” or “appropriate” expression of precepts.

How else to explain Nishiari’s support of the imperialist wars as in line with precepts and modern American Buddhist tolerance for sex out of wedlock as in alignment with the precept against fornication?  These positions are more about the values of the social context than they are positions somehow dictated or even informed by Buddhist precepts.

I remain committed to the Bodhisattva Precepts I have vowed to uphold and confer, so I don’t enter this swamp of problems to undermine the precepts or even to suggest that they don’t have transformative and moral power for many of us.  It is quite interesting to ask myself why I think the precepts mean what they do, though — and then consider why it is that the conclusions I come to about the precepts look more like the generic ethical positions of my non-Buddhist American liberal friends than they do with the deeply-considered precept interpretations of our great Soto ancestor.

Where do my ethical views come from, really, and is Buddhism shaping me or am I twisting it?

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12 thoughts on “Sex, War, and the Problem of Zen Precepts

  1. My preceptor named me “Wild Energetic Spirit, Precept Flower” or Ya Sei Kai Ge in Japanese. This name came, I surmise, from my own lips when I first introduced myself as a Feral Monk and later suggested that I do not follow the precepts, but let them flower out of me as the fruit of my samadhi practice. “When my behavior seems to violate the precepts I don’t practice a better behavior; rather, I look to my practice and typically find that I have been neglecting it. Improving my practice improves my behavior.” It is in this way that my behavior best approximates an appropriate response as my practice meets my hearing the cries of the world. Having read your thesis, Jiryu, I have concluded that Nishiari Bokusan was less concerned with the buddh of buddhism than its ism and particularly the conservation of the status his cohert had accumulated prior to the reformation. It is, I think, a mistake to assert that Nishiari’s activity was in any way related to anything other than status, a primary benefactor of which he would hope would be and remain the Emperor.

  2. Jiryu — thank you for this thoughtful post. When one side is illuminated the other side is dark, indeed. I agree with all you have to say about Zen’s slippery ethics. I have little to add, except to also thank you for your thesis paper on Meiji Zen and Nishiari Bokuson which I read with great pleasure and benefit. It’s always perilous to judge others who lived in another culture and historical context, but Bokusan comes across as more concerned with preserving the institution of Soto Zen during a period of ongoing persecution and proving its usefulness to the Nativists — thereby also preserving his own position and livelihood as well as the fortunes of the temples he assumed responsibility for — than he does preserving the essential heartwood of practice — his years with the Great Teaching Academy being a major case in point. Of course, we lack copies of the lectures he gave during that period so this may be a bit unfair, but how could he, as a Buddhist teacher, evangelize for Kami and Emperor with such apparent enthusiasm? I must say, I come to reading your thesis several months after reading Nishiari’s commentary on the Genjokoan, which I found more interesting as an historical document than as a useful gloss on Dogen’s teachings. Dogen actually wrote more intelligibly! I guess I’m not a big Nishiari fan, but I’m glad to better understand his ancestoral role on the canvas of history.

  3. When I took the precepts, I was aligning myself with the spirit of Shakyamuni Buddha as expressed in his life and teachings and with the lineage of Eihei Dogen as transmitted down through Suzuki Roshi to my teacher. I wasn’t aligning myself with the militaristic precepts and beliefs of any government, in the U.S., Japan, or anywhere else, nor was I aligning myself with a patriarchal system of sexual control that I believe to be outdated. It’s our job now as modern Buddhists to parse what’s worth saving from the original Buddha’s teaching (very much, I believe) from the societies and institutions that Buddhism has passed through, all of which inevitably try to twist the teachings to serve their own ends. We have seen how the dominant religion in the U.S. has been used to justify all sorts of wars and atrocities…without much to do with the teachings and intentions of its founder. If we don’t adapt our sexual and societal practices to the present age, we’re at risk of a kind of medievalism and fundamentalism that creates enormous suffering for the people who never had a hand in fashioning its codes–women, many men, and gay people of all genders.
    This is not to say that we should have a free-for-all and drop the need for standards of behavior. It’s all too true that when we insist we rely on ourselves to follow the precepts, we run the risk of falling back on our unconscious habits. But if we are not careful about the larger system in which we are operating and fall in with corrupted traditions and institutions, we run the risk of falling back on the collective’s bad habits, rather than our own.

  4. I am considering the whole discussion as important and necessary.
    The truth might to be found somewhere in a middle position: Between investigating ourselves, our own motives to undermine a precept we find difficult to hold and also investigating how the different ancestors and masters interpretated the precepts, children of their time and ideologies as ourselves, AND developing trust, perseverance, faith, more and more, that the spirit of the precepts will reveal more and more, and deeper and deeper, as our practice and study will transform or cut “old”, narrow, selfish perspectives. – Fundamantalism and arbitrariness are both pitfalls for human beings: Also concerning Buddhism, also concerning our attitude towards the precepts.

  5. I practice in the Korean Zen tradition and my knowledge of Japanese Zen is based mostly on hearsay. So I don’t have a point of view about the issues you raise. But I do have a question.

    I’ve heard that monastics in the Japanese Zen lineages followed one of the Vinayas (Dharmagupta?) until the changes made during the Meiji Period.

    If that’s true, then monastics would have been celibate, with no permitted sexual activity. On the other hand, the 16 precepts (taken for ordination post-Meiji) permit sexual activity except when undertaken out of self-centered lust (at least, that’s my understanding).

    So did Nishiari Bokusan’s view married priests as fornicators primarily because they were not following the Vinaya? Or, put another way, did Nishiari Bokusan essentially reject the changes made in ordination during the Meiji Period?

    • Thanks for this & and all the comments. On the question of pre-Meiji Zen precepts, I don’t think it is right that any Vinaya was observed generally in Japan pretty much ever, or at least not since the 9th century or so. I write a little bit about how this came to be in a post a couple of years ago: https://nozeninthewest.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/why-theres-no-zen-in-the-west-tassajara-dispatch-4/.
      On the background of clerical sexual & family relations, Jaffe in his book on clerical marriage talks some about the background and makes it very clear that clerical marriage and families is a very old problem in Japan. I’m not sure Jaffe would go as far as to say this, but it seems that by-and-large clerical celibacy was never really the norm or standard for Japanese priests.
      I think Soto ordinations established solely on the basis of the 16 precepts were conferred even by Dogen on disciples of his, and I haven’t come across references to any major change in the ordination ceremony during the Meiji period.

  6. Very interesting issue, thank you so much. Its a bit focussed on the practice of others, but in terms of a study project it probably must.
    For me personally, precept study is very conrete and pattern breaking. In the Zen Peacemaker Order I learned the three perspecitves: literal, relaitve and absolute. In the relative perspective counts the people involved, the amount appropriate, the right place and time. My German teacher from the Tibetan tradidion added: if there are doubts, stick to the literal and just don’t do it.
    We all know that there is the stink of emptiness around in Zen. Nishiari (who’s commentary of the Genjokoan I really appreciate), shows us, where it can lead, if we stick to a not real insightful perspectice of emptiness. Well, good negative role modell.
    We are all humans, Forgiveness and righteousness included. Can we embrace ourselves and others with loving kindness and compassion. That is the vow behind all precepts for me. Very concrete 🙂

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