Laypeople: Leap Clear of Mushrooms!

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.

18 thoughts on “Laypeople: Leap Clear of Mushrooms!

  1. Jiryu, you are so smart. Please write a book (or a post, maybe) on the privatisation of religion – or do you know a good one I can read? The whole corporate mindfulness rage is doing my head in. I want to stand up and say on the one hand “if you really want to practice you should follow the Way of Dogen”; and on the other shout “you money-hungry fake religionists, I expel y’all from the temple”, or maybe even, “come over here, I’ve got a good mindfulness workshop for ya at a goood price”.

  2. Great writing! I would propose an abolition of clerical “elite” status altogether so that templars can market Zazen for everyone anywhere and also qualify a robust corps of highly trained dharma-ready laypersons who can act as scout-attractors to practice in the commons without any of the off-putting kabuki or other exoticisms. I would propose that ALL training – whether for priests or lay – be organized for launching from temples and monasteries rather than for landing in them – reserving place for the socially averse practitioners to hang out in hermitages with books and paraphernalia. Let practice be practice – nothing more or less – and certainly not the special province of bell-jarred elites. Finally, let’s take a hard look at this whole Japanesey thing. Is it necessary, really, given the self-evident chaos the the Meiji both resolved and created?

    • The wrapping isn’t important. Brad W warner wants a Soto Center which is cool. I’m part of a “No Zen Here Center – but don’t look under the rug” Center.

      Obsessing about the wrapper and the structure is missing the point entirely. “What is Zen?”

      I’m working with people who are never going to enter a Zendo, will rebel against the hierarchy and arbitrary rules but still need the whole “end of sufferring thing”. These are people that even Treeleaf would struggle to support even though I suspect it’s pretty damn good these days.

      But It’s still not getting my laid #epicfail

  3. When you took a walk down this “Zen Studies” path I thoughr “What a wuss – after years of griping he quits the scene”, But I continue to be amazed by the sheer quality of the myth-busting stuff that you dig up. 🙂

    Old dead guys write shit down and it becomes doctrine. A few years pass and people forget “guys made this shit up” therefore we can too. It’s the last step that’s a big one. Relying on dead guys is delegation and abdication. Using dead guys knowingly is wisdom.

    I’m rarely impressed in Zenland. I’m impressed 🙂

  4. The shift from a two-tier to an integrated “sangha” was what chess players call a forced move, as can readily be seen when we avert our eyes for a moment from the Christian terminology (“priest,” ordination,” “laity,” etc.) that has become standard in the writings by Westerners about Asian Buddhism.
    “Zaike” is the Chinese rendering of the Indic gṛhin or grihastha, “householder,” designating those who have not gone forth from the householder’s life. The words denote and tradition hallows the distinction between two fundamentally incompatible ways of life.
    By the Meiji era, although the ideal of the monk was still enshrined in memory and upheld in some measure during basic training, the vast majority of obosan had come to resemble country parsons more than the ascetics of yore, temple functionaries who sang for their supper by performing funerary rites. Local temples passed from father to son under a set of conventions that were codified under the Tokugawa.
    In short, the householder-renunciant distinction had long since collapsed. Recall that as recently as the Showa, Kodo Sawaki’s departure from the norm was sufficiently scandalous to earn him the half-pejorative sobriquet of “Homeless.” Takiya’s revision of Dogen was no radical departure. On the contrary, he was playing catch-up with social and institutional realities. It was, of necessity, “all about lay people [by which is meant householders]” because there were virtually no monks.

    • Another great post, Jiryu! And interesting comments as well. As far as the collapse of the householder/renunciant distinction that Richard references here, my mind has been pretty blown lately by Shayne Clarke’s book Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms ( It makes a compelling case that the distinction between monk and householder was a little blurry even in the ancient Indian context. It’s been so interesting for me to realize that I hold some sense of medieval Japanese monasticism as a slipping away from an earlier, purer form. Clarke’s book has been really good medicine for that. What if there never was a purer form? What if these distinctions have been messy from the very beginning? I find that possibility heartening actually–to see the ancients as making their way in some version of the same contradictory stew that we find ourselves in right now . . .

  5. The Buddha did not set up a two tiered system, but rather a system of interdependence that worked about as well as it probably could, given the cultural conditions of the time. The traditional sangha is the fourfold sangha: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

    Given that the vast majority of modern meditation practitioners are non-ordained laypeople — some of whom have a high level of understanding — does it really make sense to view residential priest practice as superior practice? Where exactly is this mountain that people are wanting to be elevated to or, as you suggest Jiryu, were perhaps being pulled from during the Meiji period?

    I guess I’m not clear because all of the emerging styles of practice seem to be so important for the flourishing of the dharma in THIS particular time and place. We need temples and monks. And we need householders and lay people. Let us be nourished by one another.

  6. Pingback: AHHH!!! The Laypeople are Taking Over Zen! | No Zen in the West

  7. Pingback: Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea | Sweeping Zen

  8. Hmm. Priesthood and why it’s better and not better.

    The training I entered into when Hogen Yamahata Roshi ordained me in 2004 was to be his disciple: to train with him, in a submission to him and the Soto lineage he was trained in. This is always deepening, for reasons that have their roots in our shared imperfect human-ness and frailty.

    The practice of that submission for me is well expressed in the Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon, and in my case it’s crossed a spectrum of pathological to pure, and is always moving. The first time I heard the Hotsuganmon chanted in Japanese, at Bukkokuji, while training with Harada Tangen Roshi, I cried with some relief, without having understood the words.

    I’ve come to think of myself as a bakhti practitioner: that my path is a path of devotion. There are some elements in the Catholic Mass that create the same alignment with surrender/submission: in fact I’m finding that this spiritual posture is discoverable in all traditions I’ve danced with. It expresses the truth and experience that there’s no “doer”: that awareness is radically transformative without any need to add a human agent.

    As for priesthood, and lay practice: I’ve moved across the temple and householder boundary pretty fluidly, largely because my husband, whom I met in a temple my teacher had sent me to, and I don’t have children; and because I arrived to priesthood with a well-established professional career that lines up with my vows. Householder practice keeps my connection to family life and the rhythms of the market alive, experiences I find deeply nourishing, including in my ongoing curiosity about how I might eventually transmit the dharma to Westerners themselves deeply established in family life and the rhythms of the market, when my practice is mature enough. All of us avoid what we don’t want to face: I’ve met plenty of monastics in hiding; and plenty of laypeople stuck in avoidant busy-ness. of course, I’ve also been both, and am. I, and I assume laypeople in general, find myself irritated by preaching; and wonder whether that’s what is happening now.

    What is preaching? Speaking from being right and knowing better, I conclude. it leaves its traces in the belly: sensations that are too warm, and too cold at the same time.

    And yet: everything is always moving, except vow; and when you land on knowing, intellectually, what something is, including priesthood, you’re already lost. “Already mouldy”, as Hogen Roshi used to say.

  9. This is rather ingenuous:

    If I read you correctly you have “made-up” a quote to represent you feeling on reading the “Shushogi”

    There is no reference to “laypeople keep clear of mushooms”.

    If you have an issues with the Shushogi it would be more accurate to identify those specific issues rather than make up a quote, which doesnt exist…

    Isnt this rather like making up a quote for a politician because it “reprsents” the “feeling” they give you?

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