Standardize American Zen! (Or Don’t.)

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.

There is no particular order to American Zen.  Each temple has its own rituals and liturgy; each teacher makes their own rules for students.  Even the teachings are more or less up for grabs.  It’s unclear what the common thread is, the unifying principle, organization, or teaching that connects all the American Soto Zen temples and centers.

Organizations like the SZBA do good work to try to weave the threads together, bind the thing at least at its institutional surface, but overall it’s more like the wild West than like organized religion.  I’ve assumed for a long time that the chaos and independence of temples and centers that we have now marks a kind of unprecedented fragmentation of the tradition.

But I’m coming to think that maybe the unprecedented situation isn’t our American Zen chaos but is instead the orderliness of modern Japanese Zen, its standardization, unification, and centralization.  As odd as it is to say so, it may be that the American Zen landscape now is in this respect a little more like pre-modern Japanese Zen than modern Japanese Zen is itself.

So if I’m looking for “takeaways” from my study, one would be this:  There was no standardized or institutional “Soto Sect” before the Meiji, and Soto-affiliate temples were much more diverse in practice and doctrine than they have come to be.

Griffith Foulk’s definition of “Sōtōshū” in the fantastic Digital Dictionary of Buddhism is striking:

Prior to the Meiji era (1868–1912), there were a number of competing branches of the Sōtō lineage, all of which derived from the lineage founder Dōgen, but no single institutional entity that went by the name of Sōtō school. The present school came into existence in 1874 as the result of Meiji government policies…

Reading those lines – Soto Zen was born in 1874! – I realized that without giving it much thought, I’ve always just assumed that the Soto Sect is an old institution, and that Soto Zen temples across regions and history have generally observed the same practices and taught the same texts.

But it seems that the truth of it is that before the Meiji period, Soto-affiliated temples were quite a bit more diverse in practice and doctrine than one would imagine given the (numbing?) uniformity of modern official Soto.  Regional differences were likely more significant than sectarian ones, and individual temples, too, had their own characteristic forms and observances that shaped their style more than their sectarian affiliation necessarily did.  Different teachers also carried out distinct traditions of practice, including the transmission of esoteric kirigami documents and the like, that belonged to single teaching lineages rather than to the Soto Sect in general.

I’m sure a lot of moments could be described as “the moment” this diversity of practice and form was traded for a singular “Soto” identity, but maybe the most striking is an 1889 joint statement from the Eiheiji and Sōjiji abbots.  Authorizing the newly compiled “Standard Observances of Soto” (Tōjō gyōji kihan), the abbots in one statement effaced (at least rhetorically) centuries of diversity:

We hereby announce the completion of the compilation of a Meiji edition of the Standard Observances of Soto and distribute it, abolishing the various observances that have previously been ordinarily practiced by the clergy within the sect.  These standards must be observed effective the first of the year of 1891.

In short:  Here is this new ritual and liturgical manual.  If there is anything in it that you haven’t been doing, start doing it.  If there is anything you have been doing that isn’t in it, that’s no longer allowed.

To get a sense of what the impact may have been, I’ll take further my already irresponsibly tenuous analogy of the modern U.S. with pre-modern Japan:

What if one day in the not-so-distant future some guidelines were issued by the SZBA to clarify the proper and traditional Soto forms and ceremonies in the spirit of unifying the temples and centers?  That might be nice, really.  And then what if the SZBA leadership, with the support of the abbots of the major temples and centers in the country, further announced that any other observances were to be stopped immediately at member centers.

Have a Christmas tree at your center at Christmas-time – not allowed.  Have a special little text your teacher likes to chant at morning service alongside the Heart Sutra – not allowed.

How effective this 1889 statement really was is not entirely clear – there is plenty of evidence that regional Japanese temples kept their now-prohibited “Christmas trees.”  But the growing standardization and centralization of the sect did make a real impact, and in Japan today, despite the different “vibe” you might sense at different Soto temples, the uniformity of observance is striking.  There is no doubt that in the centralization and standardization of Soto in the Meiji a certain texture of difference was lost.  As temples conformed to the standards of headquarters, they inevitably allowed their own sub-traditions to gradually fade or merge.  It’s not that nothing was gained in that unification and standardization (though could someone remind me what that was exactly?).  But I’m sensitive to what it was that was lost in it too, and that brings me back to American Zen.

There is a natural and reasonable impulse to standardize the sect, and to some degree that is happening now in American Soto, like in the good work of the SZBA.  I value and appreciate that impulse and that project.  It has been interesting to look at this historical precedent, though, and to consider the relative value of consistency and standardization on the one hand, and chaotic, unresolved diversity – like that perhaps of contemporary American Soto and pre-Meiji Japanese Soto – on the other.


11 thoughts on “Standardize American Zen! (Or Don’t.)

  1. Begs the question: What is the benefit of any form of sectarian religion apart from franchising clubbiness and style – and how absurd to speak of American Zen that standardizes in any way (globally or locally) around mediaeval Japanese forms?

    I was speaking recently to a friend in the dharma about a pressing need for building a dharma diaspora – rather the opposite of any tendency towards enclaving around andy forms or standards. Building dharma diaspora is about qualifying the laity to set dharma fires outside of temples!

    All this talk of standardization and central control of what is already a somewhat overly introverted, self-abosorbed and absorbing practice of filtering spiritual plankton through the baline of nested anachronisms will surely make Shakers of Sotos.

    The path for American Zen has to be like America used to be – innovative, entrepreneurial, iconoclastic, egalitarian …

    It’s constitution needs be no more than the Four Nobles, the Precepts, and the Paramitas with the less said and done about arcane xenocultural acretions as necessary.

    Let’s not repeat the error of confusing and ultimately supplanting the cultivation of authenticity with the rigors of authority.

  2. I’ve always thought of Soto-Shu and this cookie-cutter Zen mindset as a very modern one. My understanding of tradition is “every temple did it’s own thing”. To have national standards requires fast transport and comms.

    The current desire to say “Zen must be in Tahoma 9 point with 2 point spacing and……” is just odd.

    remember Zen is the raft. A temporary construct to be used and ditched when finished with. After that if you understand the function of the raft you can construct anything you choose that does the same job and no-one in Zenland will have anything to get upset about.

    I see the current issue is that the standard for teachers is set too low. Only those still clinging to the raft and at sea will fight so strongly for “The one true raft bible”. Everyone who has knowingly left the raft behind is more mellow about it “We build rafts this way” is different from “Thus sayeth the Lord the seventh knot shall be a reef knot and it shall be in hemp rope of 1/2 diameter”.

    I’m working on a multi-faith team. We all have a deep understanding of how to build rafts and the common features. We are all domain experts – we don’t just build rafts. For every person we can say “Look around, what have you got that floats? Have you got any rope or duct tape…..”. We don’t fight over beliefs.

    The battle in Zen is always between those who deify the raft and those who say “dude, it’s a raft. It just needs to float and have space for you to sit”

    • And mostly we see our role as creating a safe space for everyone else to build rafts. We only step in if people are fighting or they are a danger to themselves or others or the overall safety of the space. We have house rules that apply to everyone. For everything else we make decisions either autonomously or via consensus if appropriate. We all work for free, we all have lives. We all live by our own rules outside and house rules inside. It doesn’t have to be complicated!

      Oh, and it’s not fun or pretty at times and keeping the space safe means doing things that totally suck.

  3. An longer historical perspective: the forms of early Buddhism were established by the sage of the Shakyas in collaboration with his early disciples. Siddhatha Gotama grew up in the republic of Magagadha during a time when ancient regional & tribal social institutions were menaced but had not yet been wholly overturned by ambitious warlords. The Sangha as depicted in the Vinaya Pitaka is relatively democratic & decentralized. Any group of ten bhikkkus is autonomous (five in “border regions.”) The suttas of the Pali canon attest that there were plenty of deviations from & misunderstanding of the Buddha-word. As empires rose & fell, the forms of Buddhistic culture changed to reflect the new political reality. By the time Nalanda has reached its full flowering, “tantric” theory & practice have invaded every corner of the Indian religious landscape. What might be called a feudal model of branching guru-chela relations, lineage-based sects, & godlike authority figures has largely supplanted the old order. We see similar shifts over the course of Japanese history, with the fortunes of Shingon & Tendai linked to the royal houses, Zen & Pure Land to the bakufu. However, the Japanese tendency to keep doctrinal schools strictly separate & institutionally isolated from one another seems to be a post-Tokugawa phenomenon.

  4. The lineages weave a robe which is never complete, while Being, whole at every moment.

    On the one hand the diversity of practice lineages, nested amid many broken branches, this diversity is what is allowing zen to adapt in the west, and the west to zen.

    On the other hand the practice lineages are vessels which each carry a Way forward, ways weaving as they will.

    The state Buddhism of various Asian nations and the settled zen of Japan do not appeal, while the teachings many have brought out of Japan have caught fire here, evolving, syncretizing, becoming living zen.

    Awesome, literally this evolution of the branching steams of practice.

    Worthwhile, this conversation about developing common practices.

    Some days sutras of another lineage appear and the old verses arc, alive, like a gushing stream, as never before.

    Other times, encountering the verse of purification in a christianized lineage, I shudder with the seeming misunderstanding of what I have chanted a thousand times. Misunderstanding their understanding as I judge.

    And so we dance along our Ways, where sometimes the Ways coincide.

    Always open to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as they arise.

    Or so it seems.

  5. As i read the differing responses, the statement that starts out the Shuso ceremony at some of the Soto practices comes to mind, “Vast Emptiness, Nothing Holy” which i’ve always found to be a wonderful guide for teaching … what? Maybe that is one of the questions we are skirting around, ‘What are we teaching?’ and is the building or cushion we are teaching from or on, important? Didn’t Suzuki Roshi say something like, Sitting upright is the way? I’m not sure what rules, guidelines, etc., have to do with sitting upright although if one is seriously slumping, some kinda guide or suggestion, could be helpful, maybe?

  6. Thanks so much for another great post in this series, Jiryu! It raises so many good and interesting questions. If I try to name the value of an organization like the SZBA, for me it’s less that it might lead to standardizing practice across temples and lineages (“from this day forth, no one will have Christmas trees”) and more that it leads to exposure across temples and lineages (“hey, did you know that at that other place, they put up a Christmas tree?”)

    I guess it’s always true that exposure can happen outside of a large umbrella organization–a curious person could always just drive down the road to see what they’re doing at the next temple over–but something like the SZBA can serve as a larger container for different approaches and styles to mix and cross-pollinate.

    I guess the open question, then, is whether that larger container necessarily leads to standardization. I see how it could, of course, but it doesn’t seem to me that it has to. Exposure without standardization? Doesn’t that sound pretty good?

    • I’m a fan of road trips and comms. Visiting a place and seeing people tells me so much. Going in as a civilian gets one experience. Going in as a guest in full regalia gets another experience. Either way it supports the “dellusions are numberless” and ends the idea that anyone can ever be 100% self-aware or work safely without peer support”.

      The problem with clubs is that the people who often end up running them love the feeling of being in charge without having the skills required or practical knowledge. I’ve sat through a few secular club meetings with the thought “In business this would be finished in 15 minutes, we wouldn’t spend 2 hours on it”.

      A committee will want to meet and create a book of 227 rules with a new one added for shamanism….

      Cats can work together without appearing to do so. Taoists have koans about it. Treeleaf and Antaiji met – a healthy meeting of two worlds, two radically different ways.

      The only container is our minds. Clubs like this create a new thing which is ‘outside’ which makes decisions that suddenly I no longer make.

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