AHHH!!! The Laypeople are Taking Over Zen!

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.

One of the major takeaways from my study of Meiji period Buddhism has been the profound role of laypeople in the survival and revival of Buddhism… clearly of no relevance at all to American Buddhism today!

To paint a picture of the Meiji lay movement, I need to back up to the preceding period, the Tokugawa (1600-1868).  Anti-Buddhist sentiment grew especially in the late Tokugawa period and culminated in the national anti-Buddhist project of the early Meiji – another surprise to study, by the way – in which the State did its best to displace if not destroy Buddhism, trying to replace it with a made-to-order “State” Shinto that even the Shintoists came to hate.  The anti-Buddhist feelings of the time were rooted in the abuses and excesses born of the incredible power that Buddhist temples were given during the Tokugawa period, when they functioned essentially as another arm of the government.  Registration with a temple was mandatory for all Japanese, and it was that registration and temple affiliation that allowed the government to track and control the population.  The local priest became the mediator not just between you and Buddha or you and your ancestors or you and your rebirth, but in a very real and very this-worldly way, between you and the government you were subject to.

I don’t know how bad Buddhism and “Buddhist priests” really were in the Tokugawa period.  Certainly power corrupts, and certainly getting rich on temple dues that the State forces your parishioners to pay you could have some adverse long-term effects on your mental health…  Some scholars point out, though, that great teaching and innovation also happened in Japanese Buddhism in the Tokugawa – think Bankei, even Hakuin! – so to say that the period was one of “spiritual decay and stagnation” as many even within the Buddhist establishment have said, misses something.  The “Buddhists sucked back then” rhetoric is also complicated by the fact that Buddhists trying to maintain favor with the State in the Meiji were quick to blame themselves for the real violence and repression they were being subjected to by the State; it was part of their strategy of moving forward and showing their sincerity for “reform,” but it comes across to me at least as a victim’s counter-productive self-blame.  So anyway, it seems prudent to withhold judgment on moral character of the “Buddhism of the Tokugawa period,” but it is important to note that some serious grudges were being carried against the Buddhist institutions.  And that some of the people with the biggest grudges against the Buddhist institutions were the ones that ended up taking over the country…

Anyway, the bottom line is that people by the start of the Meiji period were by and large disgusted with Buddhism, especially with fat-cat Buddhist priests with their lush temples and cushy jobs.  People, especially as they grew more and more aware of the religious reform movements in the West, got to thinking that the priests weren’t really adding much to Buddhism anyway, and that the real life of Buddhism should be found in the laypeople.  It got so bad that even some priests started calling for the abolition of the priesthood!

This is a key aspect of the “New Buddhism” of the time:  the turn towards laypeople as doing serious practice, taking important institutional roles, and taking real responsibility for the teaching.  In an imperfect analogy that was consciously noted even at the time, the “Old Buddhism” was a kind of clergy-centered Catholicism, and the “New Buddhism” a kind of anti-clerical Protestantism.

So as a result of this turn in lay consciousness and rising of lay self-empowerment, the lay people basically started taking over Buddhism.  The priests sort of resisted and then sort of pretended they were managing the thing.

In Soto for example, the great layman Ōuchi Seiran not only composed the Shushōgi (which I mentioned in a prior post became the definitive statement of Soto orthodoxy for the next hundred plus years), but he also started a popular association of laity and priests that operated outside of the Soto establishment until it was eventually incorporated into it.  Little “small group”-type congregations, known as “confraternities” or “teaching assemblies,” started springing up everywhere, sometimes with the participation of a priest but often just as associations of like-minded Soto laypeople wanting an outlet for their devotion, practice, and study that they couldn’t find in the existing temple order.  The official sect, understanding that they had to respond more to laypeople, tried to sponsor a few “official” lay associations, but they never took off.  The unofficial ones, though, especially under the umbrella of Ōuchi’s “Association for the Support of Sōtō” (Sōtō fushūkai), sprouted like crazy.  In the late 1880s, for example, the official sect claimed about a hundred lay groups nationwide, while the Association boasted around 1,100!

Looking at these numbers and following the power, the Sotoshu shrewdly said, “Oh yeah, that lay movement is totally our thing” and in a stroke incorporated Ōuchi’s movement into the official Soto structure.

There is a ton to say about this all, and some really good research has been done and is being done about so-called “lay propagation” in Meiji Buddhism.  But the main point for me here is that in looking to the Meiji for the immediate roots of our modern Zen/Zen modernism, the role of the laypeople is an obvious continuity.  The budding emphasis on the laity that characterized “New Buddhism” has the aspects of the valorization of lay practice that also characterize our American Buddhism (or our Buddhists at least, if some of the institutions may be now, as then, more reluctant…).  Owing as much to Western Christian developments and the surge of modernity in general as to anything “essentially Buddhist,” we find in the Meiji the stirring of the widespread sense we have today of laypeople as equal practitioners, or even better practitioners, worthy and able to observe the highest practices and study the highest doctrines.

More than one persistent and engaged layperson (thank you, by the way) has been calling to my attention lately the tricky question of the actual role of laypeople in our SFZC community, for example, and I know this is an issue in a lot of American Zen groups.  One aspect of their question might be put something like this:  we say our institution is committed to priests and laity both equally, but why are the teachers mostly (or all) priests and the administrators mostly (or all) priests?!  We say we train priests and laypeople equally, and value their practice equally, but why does it seem priests have more access to teachers and teaching resources?!

I am inclined to look to historical precedent for insight into this problem, and from a first round of reflection on the Meiji Soto situation I gather the following.  Maybe I’d even go as far as to say that these are Ōuchi Seiran’s words from the grave to American Zen:

  • If the priests are messing things up, why not take things over?
  • If laypeople and lay practice need support, why not support each other?
  • If there is no room in the institutions for lay leaders, why not make independent associations?

What do you think?


10 thoughts on “AHHH!!! The Laypeople are Taking Over Zen!

  1. Where Buddha’s first followers monks or priests or lay-people or something else? Are priests and lay-people are different species? Do we really need another club?

    I see all these clubs as natural in/out groupings and transient. In the end there are no priests, monks, lay-people and everyone else, there are just people some who like to dress up, some who like to believe certain things, some who like to live life by certain ‘external’ rules and some who choose the rules. Nothing wrong with any of it, just to say that tribalism is natural and the solution to tribalism isn’t another tribe it’s inter-tribal communication. I’m not sure I could be categorised into any tribe anyway….

    Maybe I just like being human and want to help others to like being human because we are stuck with it after all…..

  2. I remember Aitken Roshi discussing this way back when. Someone asked him about the importance of ordination for attracting people to the practice, and he said “I don’t think we need any of that”. His teacher, Ko’un Yamada Roshi, was a layman also and the lineage thrives without the overlay of monastic hierarchy.

    You wrote “but why does it seem priests have more access to teachers and teaching resources?” Because there’s always an implied message that the special folks with the special costumes are the “real deal”. You rightly point out that people’s actual behavior around this belies the statement that laity and clergy are trained equally. The Robes confer power and wisdom in people’s minds – successful marketing works like that, especially when people are very vulnerable.

    But I know this is, to say the least, a minority view, and one that most American zen folks find deeply offensive. But when I lived in Asia I preferred spending time with the farmers and herders in Nepal, and not the well cared for monks (some of whom, to their credit, told me that they preferred living in the Gompa to farming). In Tibet I witnessed older monks sexually abusing young novices (at Sera-Je). But we love the power of the exotic, don’t we?

  3. What do I think?

    Even less than a Faberge egg can save any being from suffering by hunger, mumbling maka hanya haramita shin gyo in a painful posture does not convince me that anyone realizes wisdom, nor does prostrating to an object or to persons impersonating objects equip me to intimidate bullies with loving kindness.

    This is how a FERAL monk thinks:
    Schools of thought collect like frost around ideas
    that occur largely out of schools.

    Institutions bestow credentials.
    Courage bestows credibility.

    The street and the unbeaten path are my monasteries.

    I have been feral all my life. Embraced transformations. Shattered cocoons. Emerged. Lately have lived by my wits with no greater need for nostalgia than that which sustains my gratitude.

    Faith is the willingness to show up vulnerable.
    Trust is actually showing up that way.

    GOD is a three letter word that stands for everything that I do not
    know at this moment.

    Seekers never find. Finders never seek.
    I prefer finding.

    I would rather feel the Buddha’s blisters on my feet,
    than his footprints on my sandals.

    The feral monk does not abide, takes rest in no masters refuge.

    I would like it to be said of my presence: He lived happy, joyous, and free
    on less than his share.

    Siddhartha Gautama – a prince of the Shakya clan – was a person fully of his time who confessed, repented, renounced and deeply questioned all conventional authorities, wisdoms, and practices that had yet failed to crack the eggshell of suffering. He succeeded in releasing the full power of his bodhicitta – may I substitute the phrase ‘profound authenticity’ – from that egg but not as the haute coutured world honored one, rather as a species exemplar of a fully realized being.

    Who followed in his footprints was a crowd of cultic fetishists that turned – largely with the help of hierarchically disposed and secular potentates – his performance artistry of realizing authenticity into a kind of tribute repertoire.

    The true lineage from Gautama follows the litter of broken eggs. Notable egg breakers have been Vimilikirti, Shantideva, Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Hue Neng, and many subsequent iconoclasts – including Dogen – both priest and lay.

    I asked in response to your previous post: Does the buddh- have -ismic nature or not?

    Can we not speak of buddhic priests and lay without any reference to -ism?

    There is a role for buddhic priests – but only as masters of Shakyamuni’s performance art, who can then make journeymen of any laity who aspire to awakening authenticity anywhere.

    I must say, that the current regime of priest and teacher training in American Zen is both unduly onorous, pretentious, anachronistic and stifling of the very impulse that drove Gautama to full realization before the age of 35.

    • I think it’s interesting to compare it with other things.

      If AZTA were a sports club they’d be saying “You must go to the gym at least three times a week and have done at least 200 sessions” wheras in football tryouts they’d say ‘You must be able to run 6 minute miles, bench 200 pounds and throw a ball to a moving target at 60 yards”. One is a goal based on history, another based on capability.

      But that’s always been my bugbear. Clocking hours in the gym is simple. Benching 200 pounds isn’t. Zen is really about what you can bench, not how hard you try or what T-shirt you wear. [Metaphor stretched a little 🙂 ]

      Finally I’m always mindful that what Zen calls ‘ultimate’ everyone else calls ‘novice’. Yogis, Martial Artists and others can do far more. My first teacher would split rocks the size of a human head with his bare hands and then do handstand press-ups on three fingers when bored in classes. Not bad for a guy in his late 40s 🙂 He dressed up at times too 🙂 I don’t do any of these things 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Right Relationship of Priest and Lay | No Zen in the West

  5. Thank you, Jiryu, for this amazing post and for giving a voice to this important issue. I recently had a conversation with a senior lay teacher on this very subject. This person said that the Zen Centers where lay leadership flourishes are the very places where the membership base has asked for this. This person also mentioned the importance of keeping one’s eyes open in all practice situations. In one instance, an established group of lay practitioners decided to ask someone to serve as head teacher. After some time, the teacher thought it was OK to name a teaching successor for the community without consulting the rest of the group. Not so, not so. Personally, I think a healthy sangha is a more horizontal one, with a shared balance of power.

  6. I am still inclined to see this “problem” as a molehill that is being looked at through the wrong end of the telescope. Here’s why.
    1. The ancient distinction between householders & monks no longer applies. “Monastic” tokudo is an exercise in nostalgia.
    2. In their respective manners of living, priests & lay people exhibit no important differences in behavior or attitudes.
    3. The rationale for the layperson-cleric distinction resides in the licensing &/or ritual empowerment of clergy to perform duties that lay people are unqualified, unwilling, or unable to do, such as community leadership, teaching, & the performance of special rites, for which a higher level of education & training is commonly required. A layperson who steps up a acquires the necessary knowledge is de facto a minister.
    4. In the context of a relatively open & egalitarian society it is reasonable for the members of a community to have a say in the selection of their leaders. The peculiar assumptions & requirements of Zen succession may impose some restrictions on that process.
    5. The trappings of 13th-century monastic Chan are irrelevant & can be considered optional theater.

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