The Right Relationship of Priest and Lay

I’ve been surprised to see how much engagement and reaction there has been to my last blog post here and across a few facebook conversations, so I realize I should probably peek out from behind my shield of impartiality and “historical precedent” and weigh in on how I see this issue of lay practice in American Zen.  Or maybe not.  My capacity for negativity is basically boundless and without distinction:  I am happy to engage in priest-bashing, that most esteemed tradition of Euro-American modernity, but I’m also just as happy to slam the hollow and lazy lay apologetics of “the Dharma is everywhere, so you don’t have to renounce anything or really even make the time.”  So the point is that I really didn’t write the post to sharpen some kind of divide or antagonism between priest and lay.  I really was just reporting a surprise I found in my research:  the fact that in the Meiji period lay Buddhist leaders across the sects really did step forward and carried the tradition – not because they were asked to by the institutions, but because they saw that if they didn’t no one would.

So maybe I’m not really ready to peek out and weigh in myself.  I’m not sure what I think, and I have mixed feelings I’d like to explore further.  The truth is that I’m sympathetic to “fighting the power” in general and happy to hop on whatever anti-authoritarian bandwagon comes through town, but I also find myself a little perplexed at how big a deal we can make of a priest-laity distinction which, as people love to point out when critiquing priestly worldliness, can in actual life be so subtle as to be almost meaningless….  Knowing some places at least where the bar to ordination is fairly low, it is further perplexing to me when people object to the special status or role that priests enjoy when they themselves are just actively choosing not to have that institutional status or role (as opposed to being barred from it by economic or personal reasons, as many are in the centers with a “higher bar” for ordination).  Some people take one kind of role, some people take another.  Insofar as there can be movement between and through roles, what is the real problem with that?

But I don’t claim to see the picture entirely, and it’s abundantly clear that we are nowhere near “nailing” the issue in American Zen in general.  We don’t really know what priests are or are supposed to be, so we can’t know what non-priests are either; we don’t know what a lay person is (especially one who wears robes and does retreats), so we can’t know what non-laypeople are either.  A pretty great situation, come to think of it.

To sort out my own thinking and hopefully work towards a productive conversation, I want to try to reach a little more widely into the tradition past and present (and future?) and imagine some possible kinds of relationship between clergy and laity, some possible roles or attitudes or positions that the two might enact.  This is off the top of my head, and I’d love any additions.  Before “deciding” what priest-lay relations should be in the West, how about first we lay out what the relationships have been or might be?

Some roughly stated options:

  • Clergy (monastic) do the transcendent practice of being liberated from samsara; laypeople see no possibility of release from samsara and strive only to achieve a more fortunate rebirth, which they can do primarily through the merit generated by supporting the transcendent clergy.  (Early Indian tradition?)
  • No distinction – neither monk nor layperson is the norm for all practitioners.  This is a Zen-in-the-world approach in which all do “retreat” as possible in zazen or sesshin, and which all engage as possible in worldly affairs.  The democratic impulse effaces the need for a special class of religious specialists (and maybe most don’t see the path as a religion in the first place).  (Future [or present?] American tradition?)
  • Priests are ritual specialists (“Shakyamuni’s performance art” as a feral monk has neatly put it); laity benefit practically from observing the ritual performances and receiving the efficacious dedications of such rituals on behalf of themselves and their ancestors.  (Practical mainstream of pre-modern East Asian tradition?)
  • Priests are ritual specialists and laypeople don’t watch, don’t care, don’t benefit, and don’t even particularly want to be dedicated to.  (Contemporary Japan?)
  • Priests are stewards of temple spaces, sort of community center managers; laypeople support these community centers in various ways and are grateful that a priest is designated and supported to be the primary caretaker of this basically public resource.  This gratitude and vague appreciation is not based in any illusions about or opinion of the spiritual cultivation of priests, which is mostly beside the point.  (Contemporary Japan?)
  • Priests are fat-cats enjoying the power of their posts and languishing in a life of excess enabled by the forcible, State-mandated transfer of wealth to them from the suffering and exploited laity, who basically just wish the priests would all go away and die.  (Tokugawa Japan?)
  • Priests have a vow and responsibility specifically to maintain and transmit the lineage and forms of ritual and practice, whereas laypeople have a more free hand to express the Dharma in responsive and open-ended life circumstances.  That is, priests should say “the Zen tradition teaches” when they teach, and laypeople should just say, “the truth is…”  It is not a distinction in spiritual quality, lifestyle, or commitment, but is a distinction of venue and responsibility.  In terms of practice-life, the relevant distinction is not “priest” and “lay” at all but rather “monastic-style practitioner” and “householder,” positions which both priest and lay move through in their career as devotees of the Way.  (San Francisco Zen Center ideal?)
  • Priests are encrusted in and indebted to institutions that stifle genuine spirituality and entomb the vitality of the ancestors they claim to enshrine; laypeople are the genuinely liberated and liberate-able, unclouded by the accretions of institutional habit and hierarchy.  Laypeople’s role is to pity priests when not excoriating them.  (1960s-Contemporary U.S.?)
  • Clergy are a sort of spiritual consultants removed from the workings of the practice institutions/temples, which are run by laypeople and for laypeople.  Clergy, through their perceived purity of purpose and their lineage links to the past sages, lend some general authority to the project without imposing much, controlling much, or interfering much.  (Contemporary Vipassana movement?)
  • Priests/monks are specialists in meditation and are cultivated examples of a spiritual life.  Laypeople spend less time and energy in meditation and spiritual cultivation, but aspire to the life the priests represent, and take inspiration from them in their own active practice, going to them for teachings and guidance.  (Contemporary Western models of this attitude exist.)
  • Priests/ministers are active and engaged in the community, whether as social activists, social workers, or otherwise a positive presence on the streets and in the shops of their parish/community.  They represent the religious tradition for the laity/non-ordained, who respect them not only for their institutional status but for their active and positive role in the community.  (Contemporary American Christianity?)

Please help me complete this list – there are tons of models missing and tons of attitudes left out.  I am finding this a useful exercise and hope you do to.

A significant caveat: I’m not sure I see myself or my own “priest-ness” in this picture so far.  And maybe this points to a further or more basic problem with the whole categorization-and-evaluation project:  what we are at the end of the day is just a group people with all kinds of different standpoints, conditioned by but not branded or defined by any of them, including our ordination status.

How do we all support each other?  Isn’t that the real question we are asking, and the basic impulse that our many opinions of each other is just masking?

How do we all support each other?

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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?

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Zen Doesn’t Proselytize! Except Always!

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.

From my first contact with American Zen, I have been told, read, and believed that “Zen doesn’t proselytize.”  This, according to Zen, is what is so great about Zen!  (And maybe why you should join…?)

The point is that unlike those other greedy religions, Buddhism is about finding your own light, finding your own way, and has little if anything to with signing up for a religious institution.  The foundational Buddhist principle of “skillful means” is really a lot like generic secular (or even religious) liberal tolerance – everyone finds a path for themselves, and whatever works is great!  (In part since anyway there is no One Truth.)  Making people Buddhist in itself is of no particular value.  Those drawn to Buddhism should become Buddhists, that’s all.  Those drawn to sit should sit.

All those stupid religions that try to grow themselves and gain converts, enticing them with heavens and grabbing onto them with hells, totally miss the mark on this point.  But Zen just doesn’t go there – Zen people don’t proselytize!

Google it – it’s true.  It’s everywhere.

But when did that become true?  Where did we get that idea?  Did we get it from Suzuki Roshi, who crossed the ocean for the express purpose of missionizing in the U.S. to raise Americans’ esteem for Japan?  From Shaku Sōen, who vigorously promoted Buddhism in Chicago at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions and went on to spend years spreading the word to the West about the excellence of Zen?

Or did we learn it from Nishiari Bokusan, the great evangelizer, who (not unlike the nutty street evangelists who linger around most university towns) took to handing out Buddhist beads to every stranger he met in the street with the words “These beads will give you faith in Buddhism, bring you happiness, and protect you”?  Nishiari who defeated an anti-Buddhist government official so thoroughly in a raging, days’ long debate that the official on relenting became Nishiari’s disciple and donated a vast plot of land?  Nishiari who was among the leaders of the charge to sign on to the Meiji government’s national evangelization program, and who spent years travelling the country with that program teaching not even Zen orthodoxy but a State-mandated ideology of the subservience of Zen to the Emperor, and the Buddhist truth of reverence for the imperial nation?  Nishiari who – as religious missionaries always and everywhere have, and whose Japanese coreligionists in Korea and elsewhere were also doing at the time – eagerly aided the government’s colonization efforts by pioneering Soto Zen in the newest-claimed reaches of the Japanese empire?

Surely Nishiari had some good reason, offered some justification for why he felt he needed to violate this basic “non-proselytizing” Zen principle?  Or at the very least his twentieth century Soto sectarian biographers would have tried to sweep it a bit under the rug, dull the razor edge of his evangelist sword?

No!  Not at all!  His greatness as an evangelist in the biographies, and I expect in his own self-understanding, too, was inseparable from his greatness as a monk and teacher.  Gaining converts is what he did.  His followers were proud of him for it, his biographers celebrate him for it, and I can only imagine that he himself felt good about his successes in that regard.

So the question isn’t why Nishiari was such a blatant, impassioned, and unapologetic evangelist and proselytizer.  The question is where did we in American Zen get this idea that “Zen doesn’t proselytize”?

I have some vague theories, one expressed in a convoluted thesis footnote:

…it is useful to note that Nishiari’s evangelism in Hokkaidō, like that of Buddhist missionaries in Korea, would have been primarily oriented towards Japanese settlers rather than regional natives.  To the extent that this was so, and remained so for the Japanese Buddhist missionaries to the West as well, it is perhaps natural that Western Zen converts in the twentieth century may have been left with the sense that they had themselves not been evangelized, and by extension that the tradition itself was anti-evangelist…

But even I’m not really buying that.  Suzuki Roshi was coy, for sure, but notwithstanding his reputedly “hands-off” style (“I’m just sitting here doing zazen if you want to come”), does anyone really honestly doubt that he was actively courting American Zen converts?  Isn’t converting some natives (aka “sharing the teaching”) a basic reason he came over in the first place?

How on earth did the first generations of American converts to Buddhism decide – right after having been converted! – that Zen doesn’t evangelize?

So I guess my point is this:

1) Zen does, and always has, proselytize.  (Not just in modern Japan, but in pre-modern China too – among a million examples, why for instance would Moheyan have taken on Kamalaśīla in the eighth century Samye/Lhasa debates if it wasn’t about gaining converts to the Right Way?)

2) We in American Zen now proselytize.  The word is poison to our secular humanist ears and we love to deny that it describes us, but if we really look at it, can we deny that by and large that is what we’re doing in our efforts to “share” the teachings and – God forbid – “widen” the sangha?  Why are we afraid to admit this?  (I mean other than that it means we’re no better than those other crazy self-important religions…)

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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.

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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.

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No Drinking or No Selling? “Prajñā Water” or Vice?

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?

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Sex, War, and the Problem of Zen Precepts

First 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.

How have our recent Soto ancestors understood the Zen precepts?  Work like Brian Victoria’s has shown us that most of them, including the great Nishiari Bokusan, took a position most of us would find reprehensible with respect to Japanese militarism, taking imperialist war-making as consistent with the precept against killing.  Richard Jaffe‘s work has further shown that many of them, again including Nishiari, felt that priests who married were inexcusably breaking the precept against fornication.

It has been startling to me in my study of Nishiari Bokusan that with respect to these two precepts at least — killing and sex — he seems to understand the Zen precepts in exactly the opposite way as most American Zen students I’ve met do.  For most of us, the precept against killing is a powerful teaching against war.  For most of us, the meaning of the prohibition against fornication is ultimately about “not objectifying others,” and has less to do with any rules of sexuality so much as with a principle of respectful intimacy; in themselves priests marrying is no violation, sex out of wedlock is no violation, homosexuality is no violation.  At issue is not the act but the mind, the attitude, the openness and intimacy and honesty, such that Robert Aitken could even suggest (in Mind of Clover, if I remember correctly — and I think I do remember correctly, as it burned itself into my young brain when I read it!) that in a one-night stand the precept against fornication might still be observed.

So what does this mean about the precepts?  If interpretations can vary so dramatically, then where are the “teeth” of the precepts?  Where does the “rubber hit the road”?  Where in these precepts is there a religious and moral commitment that actually demands a certain response and forecloses others?

Zen precepts don’t have teeth, and that is the basic point of Zen precepts.  They are not dogmatic but are adaptable, are not rigid but flexible, are not “commandments” but “appropriate responses.”  We celebrate this adaptability of precepts.

But when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.  When we celebrate the adaptability of our precepts – the way they define no particular course of action for us – we miss the dark side of our flexible precepts, the fact that without particular actions defined for us, we are more than likely simply going to fall back on our previously conditioned responses.

Christopher Ives in a great book about Buddhist militarism in twentieth century Japan, Imperial Way Zen, relates Ichikawa Hakugen’s argument that if the precepts were more dogmatic — more fixed and less undermined by this principle of adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness over dogma — they may have served to keep Japanese Buddhism from the disaster of war-enabling militarism.  If it were clear that “not killing” just meant DO NOT KILL, it could not have been twisted into a defense of expansionist war-making.  The flexibility doesn’t energize precepts, it undermines them, detooths them, declaws them, and leaves us just with whatever ethical positions the people around us are spouting.

Responsiveness and flexibility of precepts is all fine and good.  Indeed, when Suzuki Roshi famously says after a jukai at San Francisco Zen Center that all of the precepts just conferred may need to be broken soon after the ceremony, it does seem fine and good — even charming.  But what about when Nishiari Bokusan — against the backdrop of escalating imperialist wars — speaks of the “adaptability” of precepts in the same breath as he celebrates the principle of “killing one to save the many” and insists that to not kill when one should is to violate the precept against killing?  Still charming?  Still fine and good?

What are we left with in practice when the precepts don’t really guide us in any concrete way?  It seems to me that we fall back on what we thought already, on how we have been conditioned prior to receiving the precepts.  What we think of as “the appropriate response” is not something that comes fresh and clean out of some kind of radical presence, but is something that is conditioned by our past conditioning.  So to say “don’t follow the precepts, just do the right thing,” is to render the precepts meaningless and to keep Buddhist ethics from actually transforming our sense of how to act.  The precepts are a kind of empty space, and while the rhetoric of Zen precepts is that that space stays empty until filled by the needs of the situation, more often, I’m afraid, they just allow any preexisting views to come forth as the “flexible” or “appropriate” expression of precepts.

How else to explain Nishiari’s support of the imperialist wars as in line with precepts and modern American Buddhist tolerance for sex out of wedlock as in alignment with the precept against fornication?  These positions are more about the values of the social context than they are positions somehow dictated or even informed by Buddhist precepts.

I remain committed to the Bodhisattva Precepts I have vowed to uphold and confer, so I don’t enter this swamp of problems to undermine the precepts or even to suggest that they don’t have transformative and moral power for many of us.  It is quite interesting to ask myself why I think the precepts mean what they do, though — and then consider why it is that the conclusions I come to about the precepts look more like the generic ethical positions of my non-Buddhist American liberal friends than they do with the deeply-considered precept interpretations of our great Soto ancestor.

Where do my ethical views come from, really, and is Buddhism shaping me or am I twisting it?

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