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.
In my last post I raised this question: are the Zen precepts so flexible that they are essentially meaningless? If each of us ends up just interpreting the precepts to mean whatever we think they should mean, why have Zen precepts at all?
For example, for someone who thinks priests should be able marry (like I do), the Zen precept regarding sexual misconduct allows priests to marry. For someone who doesn’t think priests should marry (like Nishiari Bokusan), the precept on sexuality forbids priests from marrying. For someone who was taught to think that war is unjustifiable (as I was), the precept on killing precludes war-making; for someone who was taught to think that military aggression is a moral imperative when the nation is at risk (as Nishiari was), the precept on killing demands war-making. So what’s the point, where are the teeth, where is the moral compass?
Along with sex and war, there is a third example from my study of Nishiari that I could have included: the prohibition against alcohol. As I went over Nishiari’s biographies for my thesis research, I was startled to notice how much and how often Nishiari was shown drinking. From youth to old age, in story after story, there was alcohol.
I tried not to draw any particular conclusion about Nishiari’s drinking – I didn’t want to conclude that it was just what everyone did at the time, nor that Nishiari stood out as some kind of full-blown alcoholic. I don’t know enough about the social context of the time to say either way, and anyway I’m suspicious of my own moralism around alcohol (which I think is more basically Protestant than Buddhist in my case). But I couldn’t get away from the fact that even the sources themselves were consistently using terms like “heavy drinker” or “extraordinarily fond of alcohol” to describe Nishiari, in contrast with their accounts of his strict and life-long discipline on other points of monastic conduct like orthodox dress, celibacy, and vegetarianism. There is not so much condemnation of his drinking in these accounts so much as a sort of wink – that ol’ SOB! One cheerfully written anecdote recalls that the old master liked to use the phrase “Prajñā water” for sake warmed with hot water.
I haven’t sorted out yet whether Nishiari felt the precept didn’t apply to his own drinking or whether he was just resigned to his own vice. He wrote plenty of comments on the precepts that I think hold the answer to that, but for this post at least there is a more basic question on my mind.
Whatever Nishiari thought about his drinking, or however he dealt with his habit (addiction?) in light of the precept, what’s important to me for now is why I think of the precept as I do, why we in American Zen tend to take it as we do. For most of us, as far as I can tell, the precept is pretty clear: intoxication is not a good idea.
After all, that’s what the fifth precept says: “I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.” Or, as Suzuki Roshi put it, “A disciple of Buddha abstains from taking harmful intoxicants or drugs.” Or, as they say at Great Vow Monastery, “I vow not to misuse drugs or alcohol but to keep the mind clear.”
Most of the English translations of the precept have this sense, and it is only recently that I realized how skewed this “translation” is. The precept as written in Chinese and as recited in Japanese is quite clear and quite different: fukoshukai (不沽酒戒). In Nishijima’s blunt transliteration, “Not to sell liquor.” Aitken’s version is pretty clear as well, a bit updated: “No dealing in drugs.”
So “non-intoxication” is not a translation at all, but is a willful and blatant mistranslation, another entry in the vast catalog I can’t help calling American Buddhist Apocrypha.
This isn’t to say that there is no stream of temperance in Buddhism. There are various prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in the early monastic rules. In the novice precepts of the Pali tradition as transmitted to China, for example, “the precept to not drink alcohol” (fuinshukai 不飲酒戒) is among the first few. But even as far back as the Brahma Net Sutra, the most important source for Mahayana precepts in China, the major precept – as a Bodhisattva precept – is not about personal purity but is about supporting others. Granted there is a minor precept in the Sutra that clarifies that alcohol should be avoided personally, but the grave precept, the greater fault, lies not in intoxication but in enabling intoxication in others.
Japanese Buddhism shed the minor precepts pretty early on as I understand it, and in doing so they lost this background precept of “not drinking” (fuinshukai) and kept only the more Bodhisattvic, other-focused precept of “not selling” (fukoshukai). And then it seems that they maybe sort of, um, forgot that the basic assumption behind the Bodhisattvic version, too, must be that alcohol is basically impure or problematic. If it’s not a bad thing to begin with, why would it be a problem to share it?!
It’s tempting then to say that by purposely mistranslating “not selling” as “not drinking” we American Zen people are somehow correcting a medieval Japanese mistake and recovering or restoring a more original and basic sense of the precept. It would be funny to frame our take on precepts as anything like a “return,” though, because on so many other points of discipline we are unabashedly not returning. We’ve been way too selective in our American Zen interpretations to have any room left to claim that we’re doing a “return”! If we’re “returning” from the point of view of alcohol, shouldn’t we “return” too to, say, “home-leaving” and avoiding high beds? Given that we have the whole canon and all of Buddhist history laid out in front of us and that we pick as we’d like from ancient, medieval, and modern (and India, Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, etc.) we can’t really call our way a “return” just because one of our many selections happens to line up with an earlier iteration.
So from this rambly (and I assure you, unintoxicated) stew, I am left with at least two somewhat contradictory questions:
1) What’s up with Nishiari drinking all the time?!
And, 2) When, why, and how did American Buddhists decide by and large to “translate” not selling as not drinking and then basically erase the tracks of this change?