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 the last post I noted this moment in Meiji period Soto where all prior observances were disallowed, a single declaration that I take as marking the birth of the Soto sect as a unified whole. But there is an even more amazing and defining moment in Meiji Soto that also feels relevant for we Western Zen folks to consider now and that also comes in the form of a declaration, incidentally also delivered by the same two abbots, Azegami Baisen of Sojiji and Takiya Takushū of Eiheiji. This moment is most amazing maybe because it seems so minor – a single, understated adjustment that irrevocably transforms the whole sect.
The declaration followed a minor change in the title of a text called the Shushogi, the text that would define Soto orthodox teaching all the way to the present. This minor but crucial change, by Eiheiji’s abbot Takiya, turned the text from Tōjō zaike shushōgi to Sōtō kyōkai shushōgi.
I understand if you haven’t yet leapt from your seat in amazement.
The kicker isn’t the Tōjō to Sōtō (a highly speculative footnote in my thesis notwithstanding, really the terms are just synonyms). The kicker is this change from zaike – laypeople (“stay-at-homers”) – to kyōkai – congregation, assembly, “church.”
That is, the text in one swipe of Takiya’s brush went from being The Meaning of Practice and Realization for Soto Laypeople to being The Meaning of Practice and Realization [for the Whole Entire] Soto Assembly [Priest and Lay Alike]. In 1892 this change was formalized and codified, as the two abbots declared the text as the new Soto orthodoxy for both priest and lay.
What’s crazy about this is that the text was not written to have anything to do with priests or “elite practice.” The text had rather been explicitly designed to establish the doctrinal foundations for a kind of “zazenless Zen” (to use Ian Readers’ term) for laypeople; it was drafted by a lay Soto leader who wanted to find a doctrinal work-around for the basic problem that laypeople had neither the time nor inclination to observe the more profound Soto practices like zazen. This prominent and prolific layman, Ōuchi Seiran, was driven by the fear that if Soto Zen was too hard for laypeople, they’d go join the Pure Land sects or turn Christian instead. (This fear, by the way, was a reasonable response to the first inklings of what is now, in Japan and the West and pretty much everywhere, the full-blown privatization and commodification of religion – the “pick your brand!” and “shop smart!” kind of religious individualism we are all a part of.)
Anyway, this text intended as a lay-oriented “doctrine patch” is the text that the sect ended up adopting to describe the entire Soto perspective.
Until then, the attempts in the Soto school to clarify and standardize Soto doctrine tended to take a “two-tier” approach (as Lobreglio puts it), where there was one path for priests – zazen, austerities, the usual – and another for laypeople. Um, but what was the laypeople path supposed to be? No one could quite figure it out.
In an amazing demonstration of the openness and indeterminacy of Soto orthodoxy at the time, some super-interesting “Soto practices for laypeople” were proposed: How about we say our practice is chanting the name of Shakyamuni? How about we say that our main deal is chanting the name of the Three Treasures? Why not have Kannon be the main figure on our altars? Or how about Amida Buddha? – he’s hella popular!
The Shushogi authors and editors ended up resolving these debates through a Dogen text cut-and-paste job that would have made William Burroughs proud. The logic the text ended up expressing was roughly as follow:
Dogen says the practice of zazen is itself the expression of enlightenment.
He isn’t really just talking about zazen, which anyway is too hard and boring. So let’s just say practice in general is enlightenment.
Reciting repentance formulas is a practice, and haven’t the Catholics had good luck pushing that whole thing? They seem to be successful. Also precepts are good. No, no, not precepts – way too hard – but the precept ceremony is pretty nice, right?
A repentance formula and the precept ceremony are enlightenment!
Zazen removed, weirdly mystical repentance power affirmed, plenty of preceptors instantly employed, and the Way just got a TON easier. Now we won’t lose so many people to the Pure Land sects!
Oh, and by the way, Dogen did say all of this.
Oh, and by the way, this is the essential and sufficient teaching for monks, nuns, laypeople, kids – everyone.
They could package this all as “Dogen’s words” because quite literally it was: they made the text by cutting and pasting passages from Dogen into a kind of Soto collage. I hesitate even to call the fragments “passages” – there are moments in the text where the feeling is more like single words cut and pasted than whole, coherent “passages.” The feeling of reading the text in an edition that notes the source passages has moments that read roughly like this:
“The Buddha Way is basically leaping clear of…” [from Genjokoan]
“…mushrooms.” [from Tenzokyokun]
<<BREAKING NEWS>> <<American Soto abbots jointly announce that the above statement, written by Dogen, is the most profound and orthodox statement of Soto teaching.>>
So three “takeaways” for me here in this ramble. First, the reduction of Soto teaching into a single path that applied to both lay and priest was not inevitable or historically determined, nor is it simply “true about Soto” but was the product of heated debates. People really fought over whether Soto should be understood as a “one” or “two” tier system, and the decision to make it a “one-tier” system rested largely in the hands of one powerful man, Abbot Takiya Takushū. Second, a million different ideas were floated seriously in the debates of the period around the “definitive Soto practice” and the “definitive Soto teaching” – there was an openness to the possibilities of the teachings of the school that I think has long since dried up and flattened out. This creative openness is expressed in the extreme in the Shushogi. What would we do if we felt that creative license or even mandate, or do we feel it already? Would we leap mushrooms? Do we leap mushrooms?
This leads me to the third, which is just that the Shushogi is crazy. I do still think it’s weird that this text – the most read, best known, most recited, single most important text of modern Japanese Soto – is almost totally ignored in Western Zen (at SFZC, for example, we have more or less replaced it liturgically with Genjokoan – a text I’ve never heard of being chanted in Japanese services). But I think we ignore it because it’s too familiar, as though we can sense the Christian influence, and because we resent the cut-and-paste, and because anyway we are not so interested in lowest-common denominator teachings but, as always, want the elite and highest quality of whatever we get our hands on. We want there just to be one practice for everyone, too, but we don’t want to get there by bringing the elite corps down to us. We tend to do it the other way, and demand equal access to the mountaintop.
A fourth point, implied here but for a later post, is a huge one, maybe the biggest (and most relevant?) takeaway for me from my study of the period: Meiji Buddhism was all about laypeople. The period is marked by a turn towards meeting, hearing, and really empowering laypeople. In a way, laypeople of the age “saved” Japanese Buddhism and recreated it, while the priests for the most part just ran to catch up and prayed to Buddha they wouldn’t lose too much power.