Temple of Peace

Lotus in the fire
May/June 2008

A broken precept
(13 years since Aum - Part 20)


Back to the topic: Why is it a problem that Buddhist priests are married, and what does it have to do with the decline of Japanese Buddhism? I would like to concentrate on my own case. First, I think we should make clear that it means a violation of the precepts when an ordained Buddhist monk, priest or whatsoever has sex. Surprisingly, a lot of monks or priests seem to disagree, stating that the precepts only forbid "sexual misconduct". One Buddhist scholar for example, who also is an ordained Buddhist priest, in an e-mail exchange (that can be found in the January issue) quotes Dogen Zenji himself as saying in the Shushogi "...third, do not engage in improper sexual conduct". What the scholar doesn't say though is that the Shushogi, from which he takes the quote, was actually authored by a layman more than 600 years after Dogen's death. Most, or all, of the Shushogi though consist of quotes from Dogen's Shobogenzo. But I couldn't find the expression "improper sexual conduct" ("ja-in" in Japanese) anywhere in Dogen's writing. And even if he was using the expression somewhere, he would be refering to lay believers, not ordained monks. The third precept for monks is not "no improper sexual conduct" or "no sexual misconduct" but: "NO SEX AT ALL". Being imprecise with one's own interpretation of the precepts in order to make it fit one's preferences or circumstances, but then point one's finger at others that have "solemnly taken the precepts" and then go on to break them is just hypocritical in my view.

So to be clear: I am an ordained monk and I am married. I have two children. I am breaking the precepts. When I am talking about the decline of Japanese Buddhism, I am also talking about my own practice. If I start to point my finger at others (and I always feel the temptation) without reflecting on my own practice, I will end up like said Buddhist scholar myself. I would calculate another man's treasure - or in this case: Other men's faults! - while never bothering to look into my own pockets.

Just in case someone still believes that a Mahayana monk is allowed to have sex as long as it isn't "improper" (defined according to his preferences), here are some quotes from the sutras. The first one is from the "Records of the Mirror of Truth", and is interesting, as it not only forbids sexual activity, but also - which is unusual - sexual desire altogether:

"Ananda! What do I mean by 'concentrating the mind is precept'? If living beings in the six realms of the world, have no sexual desire in their minds, they will not continue within the continuum of birth and death. When one cultivates the basics of samadhi, one first removes the 'dust' - if sexual desire is not removed, the 'dust' cannot be removed, and this will obstruct the direct manifestation of prajna and samadhi. If one does not cease sexual desire, one will certainly fall into the paths of Mara – the superior being the Mara king himself, the middling being the minions of Mara, and the inferior being Mara's daughters. If one seeks the sublime fruits of Buddhahood while personally engaging in sexual activity, this will obstruct sublime realization. With sexual desire as the foundation, resulting in sexual activity, one will revolve in the three lower realms, and be unable to escape. In order to cultivate and realize nirvana, one must definitely control sexual desire. Even if one ends both body and mind, sexual desire is still not ceased, and this is useless as far as the enlightenment of a buddha is concerned. ... The habit of sexual intercourse, is considered as the fire of desire. Bodhisattvas consider desire, and avoid it like a burning pit."

Ch'an Master Yungming Zhijueshou gives the following advice:

"In the latter days there will be those who speak of Ch’an, they will only learn vain words, and will have no real understanding. Wherever they go, they will speak vain and empty words, such as 'one cannot be led by karma', and they will spread it amongst the people that 'there is no cause and effect', and will also say 'drinking alcohol and eating meat will not obstruct bodhi', that 'engaging in theft, and engaging in sexual activity does not prevent prajna'. In this life, they will encounter the law, and on death will fall into the avici hells. After experiencing the end of their karma in the hells, they will become hungry ghosts and animals, and will not escape this for millions of kalpas. ... If one can cut out one's own heart and liver, as if it were a piece of wood – then one can eat meat. If one can consume alcohol as if it were urine and feces – then can drink alcohol. If one can see an attractive man or woman as if they were a corpse – then one can engage in sex. ... Countless sutras and sastras state, if one does not remove sexual desire, one destroys the seeds of purity; if one does not stop drinking alcohol, one destroys the seeds of wisdom; if one does not cease theft, one destroys the seeds of virtue; if one does not end meat eating, one destroys the seeds of compassion. All the Buddhas of the past, present and future have so proclaimed it! All those of the Ch'an school state this unanimously! If later practitioners ignore, and do not follow this, they will ruin the true cause, and rather engage in the teachings of Mara. Through this perfuming of their minds, they will encounter deviant teachers. The roots of goodness are easily lost, the roots of evil are hard to remove. Ancient holy practitioners viewed the deeds of Mara as ten thousand arrows piercing their hearts, the sound of Mara as a thousand spears stabbing their ears. One should swiftly abandon this. Do not take this advice lightly!"

And in the Surangama Sutra the Buddha says:

"In the Dharma ending age, the subjects of Mara will be found everywhere, they will encourage sensuality and will disguise themselves as men of good counsel and cause living beings to fall into the pit of lust thereby missing the Bodhi path. You should teach worldly men who practise Samadhi to cut off their lustful minds at the very start. This is called the Buddha's profound teaching of the first decisive deed. Therefore, Ananda, if carnality is not wiped out, the practice of dhyàna is like cooking gravel to make rice; even if it is boiled for hundreds and thousands of aeons, it will be only hot gravel. Why? Because instead of rice grains it contains only stones. If you set your lustful mind on seeking the profound fruit of Buddhahood, whatever you may realize will be carnal by nature. If your root is lustful, you will have to transmigrate through three unhappy ways (to the hells of fire, blood and swords) from which you will not escape. How then can you find the way to cultivate the Tathagata's nirv ana? You should cut off both the sensual body and mind until even the very idea of doing so ceases; only then can you hope to seek the Buddha's Enlightenment. This teaching of mine is that of the Buddha whereas any other one is that of evil demons."

So for everyone who hasn't realized it yet, these "Lotus in the fire" articles also belong into the category of the teaching of evil demons. But, again according to the Surangama Sutra, there is still some little hope for a married person like myself:

"Those who have relinquished all sexual desires but are prepared to satisfy those of their wives and who feel as if they chew wax during the intercourse, will, after their death, be reborn in the region attainable by leaps and bounds (direct from the realm of human beings). This is the Nirmanarati heaven."

I do not know where that heaven is located, but it still sounds better than the "avici hells". Chew wax during the intercourse! Poor wife, though. Anyway, the sutras make it quite clear that any kind of sexual activity for an ordained practioner is probably improper. It is not just about anal sex or cheating on your girlfriend.

So why then does no-one in Japan or in the Western schools of the Japanese tradition seem to care? Were the precepts changed or interpreted in a new way? The answer is no. The precepts were not changed or re-interpreted. The only thing that changed was the law of the Japanese state after the Meiji restauration approximately 150 years ago. Until then, monks were forbidden by Japanese law to marry or consume alcohol and meat. After the law was changed and responsibility for their behaviour was given back to the monks themselves, they obviously decided that keeping to the precepts wasn't so important anymore. Today only few Japanese priest stay celibate. I am married. My teacher was married. My teacher's teacher was married. Why? Do we take the precepts and sutras too lightly?

In the January issue I tried to give a hint at an answer by making a rough devision of three possible interpretations of the precepts. First, you take the precepts and sutras literally. Keeping to the precepts makes you a "good monk". After a couple of hundreds of thousands of lifetimes as a good monk, you will finally enter perfect nirvana. Congratulations! If you break the precepts though, you fall into hell. The second interpretation is slightly metaphysical: All of the precepts are not really precepts (commandments) in a moral sense, but rather expression of absolute truth. It is not "you must not kill" but rather "killing is not done". Eternal life can not be killed. No conduct can ever be "improper", because each and every little thing that happens in the universe is a manifestation of reality. And reality can not be "broken". I prefer a third view of the precepts. The precepts need to be taken serious as precepts, but their function must not be to elevate me as a "good monk". Contrariwise, the precepts remind me of my imperfection. Read not as a moral code, nor as a cosmic truth, but as the koan "What will you do when there is nothing at all you could possibly do?"

After all, the aim of a bodhisattva, as far as I understand it, is not to be reborn in some remote heaven or to reach nirvana as fast as possible, but rather to share the hell of this life with everyone as much as he or she can. Doesn't the bodhisattva vow to remain in hell until everyone else is saved? So why worry about some "avici hells"? I can not quite understand.

On the other hand then: If do not have to worry about falling into hell, why should the precepts still be taken serious? What is the problem with married monks after all? What meaning could the precept possibly have?

My feeling is that the precept does not just mean: Stay away from girls because sex uses up your spiritual energy that you could otherwise use to attain higher states of samadhi. Sure, that might be one aspect that led to the origin of the precept prohibitting sex, and that is also why practioners at retreats are usually asked to refrain from sexual activity (of course including masturbation), but it is not the most important aspect. Sometimes it is said that a sexual relationship is alright if it is done with commitment and responsibility. A long-term relationship isn't as harmful to the buddha-way as a one-night-stand, according to this interpretation. But I am not so sure. Actually, I have the feeling that it is actually the commitment and responsibility that a sexual relationship brings with itself, that is the more important aspect of the precept.

The question is: Can you really commit 100% to the buddha-way, live as a responsible monk, let go of greed, material possesions, all kinds of attachments and worries - and be a commited lover, a responsible mother or father? And the answer is, at least in my case, that a lot of compromises have to be made. Now, a compromise isn't a bad thing, but if you prefer to practice the buddha-way without compromises, it is best to keep to the letter of the precepts. Otherwise, you will have to sacrifice part of the practice here, part of the family life there. Of course, as I wrote last year, family life in itself is a wonderful practice, but living in a Zen community with other practioners is not the same as living with your children in your family. The roles a different, responsibilities are different.

My situation is a little bit special, as I am living in a monastic setting. I am not just teaching the dharma or sitting zazen in the evenings or on weekends, nor am I interested in having a virtual sangha on the Internet. I am the abbot of a Zen monastery where people live together 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. One might ask: Are such monasteries really necessary anymore? Isn't the trend towards lay-buddhism, practice in everyday life?

My answer is: Yes, it would be ideal if we could expand our practice limitlessly, so that the whole universe becomes our monastery. But, at least for myself, that is not more than just an idea right now. Many people like myself need a certain setting to really practice 24 hours a day. And even in a monastery that is not easy, because naturally there are no borders between the monastery and the so-called mondane world. Ideally, the whole world is our monastery. In reality, we encounter the world inside the monastery. But one advantage we have in the monastery is that we have the help and support of a community of practioners that likewise aim at 24 hours of practice. Eating, cooking, working, going to the toilet etc are all understood as practice. We do not have to remind ourselves all the time that we should live the 24 hours of the day "as if it was practice". No, we are already reminded that it is practice.

Also, the hours of the day in Antaiji are designed in away that allows us to spend 1800 hours in zazen each year. As I say again and again, how many hours you spend in zazen isn't really the most important question, because you can sleep through thousands of hours of zazen, and you can also be wide awake when not sitting. In fact I feel that the practice does not start when you finally put your behind on a meditation cushion, but rather the moment you get off the cushion. But again, outside of a monastic setting, I feel it is really hard to remind yourself of that. The hours of zazen will always remain something "special", "practice" in the strict sense, that bear a different quality than the rest of the 8.000 something hours of the year. When you live in Antaiji, after a while you do not feel a difference anymore. Sitting in zazen and plowing the fields doesn't feel different. I know some people, including myself, who are at first alarmed by that: "What has happened to my zazen? It used to have that special feel to it, and now it is gone!" But probably that is not a sign that your practice has gotten worse, but rather that everything is starting to be practice, and therefore practice ceases to be something "special".

Anyway, the problem for me and my family is that being the abbot of a monastery is a 24 hour commitment. I raise with the other practioners at 3:45 am, sit zazen, eat with the community, join the work, give or listen to dharma talks. During sesshin, I hardly see my family at all, although we share the same room. Being a husband and father should also be a 24 hour commitment. I want to spend as much time as possible with my wife and children, who have few other contacts, as the monastery is 5 kilometers away from the next house, and 16 kilometers from the next small village. One solution would be to integrate my family completely into the life of the community. Then I could be with the community and at the same time with my family. But this approach has many negative aspects to it: First, people would look at the temple as my family home. In fact, most Japanese temples have turned into family homes, where the husbands functions as the manager of funerals, while the wife organizes things inside the temple. But Antaiji always was and will be different. The temple does not belong to me or my family, but to everyone who wants to practice with the community here. That means that my wife and children eat separately. They do not join in zazen, as the children are still too small (3 and 5 years old). The only alternative would be to give up formal oryoki-style meals and accept that children are running around in the zendo. But I do not want to do that. So although my family lives here with me at Antaiji, I spend a lot of time away from them. On the other hand, I spend the nights with my family, all of the free days, and as much of the breaks during the day. That means that then I am not available for the rest of the community. I even had a student who left Antaiji because he felt that I spend so much time with my family that he couldn't knock on my door and ask me how to put on his kesa-robe. So the compromise I am making means a sacrifice both on the side of my family as well as on the side of the community. I can not share the 24 hours of the day with both.

Now sharing the 24 hours of the day is exactly what in my view monastic practice is all about. It is not about how much time you spend in the full lotus posture, it is about sharing your whole time and space and energy with those around you. This is why we say on the Staying at Antaiji page that we do not accept couples "unless both partners come here as seperate individuals and suspend their relationship for the duration of the stay", because otherwise either or both of the partners wouldn't really open up to the community. They would have a relation with the community, but that relation would exist only parallel to their own personal relation as a couple. At times, the relation with the community will conflict with the relation as a couple, and people start to break up because the communty is more important to them, or they leave the communty, because their relation is more important to them. Therfore, when you enter the community, you should try right from the start to give up everything that is personal or individual and share everything of you, including your time and space and life, with all others. But then, isn't it ironic that only the abbot, that is me, is married and spends time with his wife and children?

At least I think that it is a strange situation, but the only thing I can do is to accept it as another koan and reminder of my imperfection. I have to fulfill two roles 100%, and there is no way I can do so.

There are also economic problems. Usually monks or priests do not get paid for being monks or priests. At some temples the training monks receive some pocket money that covers minor expenses, but at Antaiji you don't even get that. And that is true for the abbot as well. Resident priests in other temples get a monthly salary that depends on the size of the parish and the number of ceremonies they perform, but here at Antaiji we have no parish and perform no ceremonies. Therefore my salary is zero. I and the other monks have to take time off to go begging individually during the winter to support ourselves. Fortunately, it is not so difficult to support yourself as a single monk by begging. But if you want to provide for a family, it is a different thing.

So after all, it makes sense that the Buddha would recommend to his ordained disciples that they don't have sex. If they have sex, they will have families, and they will have responsibilty for their families. They will have to look for ways to support their families, and just begging and meditating will not surfice anymore.

So I see a contradiction in my life as the abbot of a zen monastery and a family father. I enjoy both roles, it gives my life meaning, but I do not find it easy sometimes to live up to both of these roles. And although my aim is not to be a perfect (?) bodhisattva who is reborn in some fancy heavenly realm, I also see the contradiction with the precepts as a real contradiction. But then, contradictions are what I learn from.

How do other Japanese priests deal with the contradiction? As said, for most of them the temple has turned into a family home that operates as a funeral business at the same time. There are no training monks living there. There is no zazen practice happening. Meals are eaten familiy style. If the priest is refering to "his disciple", he means his son. When he talks about "his master", it is usually his father. In the few cases where a Japanese of lay origin ordains to become a monk, it is often because he fell in love with the daughter of a temple priest who has no sons. In this case, the bridegroom will not only marry the daughter of the temple, but also ordain as a monk and refer to his father in law as "his master". In either case, most Japanese monks ordain not because of an interest in Buddhism, but because of filial piety. No wonder that they understand their job simply as a job, not as a vocation. And no wonder than that you find not much Buddhism in a Japanese Buddhist temple. This is not only the fault of the priests though. Sometimes, when a very idealistic young monk leaves Antaiji to become the resident priest in some small country side temple, he has does so with the dream of turning it in a small but genuine place for the study and practice of the dharma. What he usually gets told by the parishioners though is: "We didn't wait for someone to preach us the dharma, we want you to perform the ceremonies as usual, and apart from that, you don't have to do anything outlandish. Zazen, study groups, we can do without that. Rather get a wife soon, so that we do not have to worry about a succesor when you die!"

There could still be a lot said about Japanese Buddhism and family life, but I will stop here. I hope it has become clear why marriage poses a lot of problems for a Buddhist priest. I also tried to explain that living as a family father and husband is still a valuable practice for me, maybe even one that I could not do without. This is my koan. I do not think that marriage of priests necessarily leads to a decline of Buddhism. It depends on how you deal with the koan. If you sacrifice your familiy for the sake of the dharma, you can hardly be called a bodhisattva, and the question will be: What kind of dharma is that anyway? If you sacrifice the dharma and run the temple like a business, you might keep up the Japanese family tradition, but Buddhism will be dead. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened in most Buddhist temples in Japan.


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