Lotus in the Fire
When the dharma fills body and mind,
understand that something is still missing.
October 2005
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Daido from Poland making a point during a dharma talk

Why are you so busy?

How to sit 10

(Adult practice - Part XXX)

When we work and live in a Zen monastic environment, the question isn't really if we work to live or live to work - work has to be a manifestation of life in this present moment, it is not a means to an end. Last month I said that both the Japanese and the Western approach to work have their pitfalls. The Japanese work long hours and never feel completely comfortable when they don't have anything to do. They almost seem to be afraid of the vacuum of "free time" that would await them once they are finished with their job. Therefore, although they work long, they don't necessarily work hard. Often they are just killing time, rather than looking for ways to finish their work as fast and efficiently as possible to enjoy themselves with their families and recreate.

This might have to do with a basic difference between the Japanese and us Westerners that I was trying to hint at in the February version of the Lotus in the Fire. I had said that Westerners are usually tense while Japanese can be called flexible, or soft. This leads to the paradox that in the West zazen is (mis-)understood as a relaxation technique, while Japanese (especially the early Sawaki Roshi) tend to emphasize the necessity of tension in the sitting posture.

Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi, a Zen teacher in the Tokyo area, says that zazen aims at balancing the autonomous nervous system. Usually, either our sympathetic or our para-sympathetic nervous system dominates the other side. They are never completely in balance. In zazen that means that Westerners are so tense that they grind their teeth, while Japanese tend to be too lax and fall asleep. With work too, Westerners will be eager to do a "good job" and be efficient, even if it is only to finish work as early as possible. On the other hand, Japanese are in no hurry to finish their job, that is why they lack concentration and their efforts are generally not focused on a clear goal. In life in general, Westerners have much more problems with hate than the Japanese. You will never find kids in Japan that beat each other up after a football match, and you will also find no survivor of the atom bomb in Hiroshima who would say that he hated the Americans. This is less because of forgiveness than of the complete absence of the notion of "the enemy".

Maybe this has to do with the fact that Buddhism does not address the problem of love and hate so much. Sure, hate is counted with craving and delusion as one of the three evils, but in practice Buddhism in the East is mostly concerned with attachment and desire, and - at least outside Japan - not eating meat, not drinking alcohol and abstaining from sex are considered to be prerequists to practice. Christianity is less strict here, but rather asks us to "love our neighbour" and even "love our enemy", "turn the other cheek" and so on. This is because hate is the main problem of a person dominated by his sympathetic nervous system, while the person with a stronger para-sympathetic system experiences difficulties to control his desires. The para-sympathetic type is more physical and less self-centered, while the sympathetic type is aim-oriented and will favor "brain over body".

The relation of sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system - in more conservative terms - corresponds to that of Yang and Yin. It is interesting that macrobiotic cooking, which emphasizes the right balance of Yin and Yang elements in the ingredients of a meal, is usually quite salty (i.e. Yang oriented) in Japan, while Western macriobiotic cookbooks usually tell you to use less salt. Japanese macrobiotics explain their preference of salty dishes with the argument that "human beings tend towards Yin anyway" - therefore a little more Yang in the dish is necessary. This mjight be true for the "para-sympathetic" Japanese, while Westerners quite contrarywise show an affinity towards sweet things like chocolate, cakes or ice-cream, that is not shared by the Japanese to the same degree. Maybe we sympathetic Westerners thus balance their surplus of Yang energy.

Now, when I say that Westerners are more focused and efficient in their work, it might sound if I favored the Western approach to work. This though is not the case. Actually I get the impression that our approach to work is quite sick at times. Although they do not succeed always in practice, the Japanese generally understand that work and life are not seperate. Japanese are not the work-slaves that we think they are, because work is one way to enjoy life for them. That is why they don't work so hard - life in Japan does not begin when work is over, but rather work itself is understood as a part of life (or - at times - as life itself). In the West though, the general idea seems to be that work is not part of life. Work is a "necessary evil" to earn us a living, but we feel as if the more we work the less the live. Why should that be?

I think one of the reasons is our religious background. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches us that we were created by God in an ideal setting, the Garden Eden. Originally, we were not meant to work. Adam and Eve had nothing to do but enjoy themselves. If it wasn't for Adam's eating that apple offered to him by Eve, doing nothing but having a good time would have been the fate of all of mankind. Only because of the apple incident were we driven out of paradise and have to work and sweat ever on. In this context, work is not understood as an essential part of the human existence. Quite contrarywise, work is looked down upon as a punishment for man's original sin. And the only relief granted to mankind is the sabbath (being a "holy-day"). Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, so his creature has the right (and at the same time: duty!) to rest every seventh day. This is the only time we human beings can enjoy our original state of existence, or at least what we take for it. And that is why we try to work hard and efficient and enjoy the maximum amount of holidays. The efforts of labourer's organizations have been to reduce weekly working hours from 60 to 50 hours, from 50 to 40, from 40 to 37, from 37 to 35 hours. Even when these efforts had success, does that means that we live "more" now? Are our lifes really more fulfilled when we work less? Or are our lifes just as vacant as they always were, because we have no clue what to do with ourselves on the "holy day"? Jesus opened the eyes of some when he said that man does not exist for the sabbath, but the sabbath exists for man. But does man really know how to live the sabbath, even now, 2000 years after Jesus, with much more leisure and luxury available than then?

In Japan, the idea of the weekend being a "holy day" does not exist. Often people head to "work" even on their days off. I have met school teachers who would spent their sundays at school, only to sit at their desks and chat with their colleagues. This of course isn't quite what we would call work in the West. Because Japanese don't punish themselves with work. Working on a sunday in Japan is just another way to socialize. The idea of having to rest on a sunday because God did so doesn't exist, just as the idea of having to work in exchange for the original sin commited by Adam would never come across a Japanese mind. Work is not a price paid for life, and the holydays are not a reward bestowed on us. Every second of our lifes counts, and can be called "holy". Not only the sundays.

In German we say that "the one who sleeps does not sin". Calling someone between 12 and 2pm on the other hand is an unforgiveable sin - you can't possibly disrupt their siesta. Does that mean that the one who works does sin? Not necessarily, but at least there seems to be some connection between work and sin in the Christian background. In Japan it seems that it is the one who works who does not sin. And even when they don't, Japanese will often pretend to be working. That is why shops never close and it is OK to disturb people's siesta - they wouldn't admit that they were having one in the first place. And only when Japanese can't possibly pretend to be working - for example when sitting in a commuter train or sitting in zazen - they will be fast asleep. This happens to be one of the big problems in Japanese Zen temples.

While I think that the Japanese can learn a lot from the West about the importance of rest, we Westerners first have to learn the meaning of work. It goes without saying that the Japanese themselves have to improve their attitude towards work, and Westerners have to realize that leisure and recreation are more than being just off-duty for the time being.
"What does man work for, what is the meaning of his work? What is the meaning of this life of work? I think work is a way for that person to shine with the light of life. Life itself provides the time and space for us to shine with the light of the universe. Through work, through our life, we shine with our own light and also make the people around us shine with their respective lights. Shining with the light of life - isn't this the meaning of our lives?" (Tassho Mugikura in "Approaches to the mutual understanding of differing cultures")
What is important though, is not intellectual understanding but practice. Rather than talking about work being the light of life, we actually have to work and life in that way. This should be our aim.

Be that as it may - how come we feel so tired, how come we always feel busy? How come we think that work takes away our energy to do zazen? I think that is because we do not understand that work itself is life, and work itself can be a manifestation of our practice of zazen. Sometimes this has to do with the fact that we do not see the results of our work. Marx noticed that we got enstranged from our work. But even in a place like Antaiji, where we literally eat the fruits of our labour, it happens that we feel stresses out by work when we fail to see that work as practice. So when we feel to exhausted to do zazen, often we do not need to reduce the amount of work we do (and often that will not be possible anyway), but rather change our attitude towards that work. Unless we do so, we will never feel refreshed, no matter how many hours we sleep during zazen.
(To be continued ... Docho)

Something stinks. And not only here...

Buddhism for the dead

Ten years after Aum (Part 7)

Japanese Buddhism has turned into a service industry that offers funerals and memorial rites for money. The Buddhist organizations, including the Soto Zen school, function like big corporations with the aim to gain profits, while the temples themselves have turned into the home of the resident priest's family, who act as the local representative of the "funeral corporation". The Rinzai and Obaku school remarks during their symposium that even the parishoners who support the temple - that used to be the center of the activities of the local community until one or two hundred years ago - do not feel welcome there anymore. They say that the reason for this lies in the fact that the priests started to marry after the Meiji restauration (in 1868), and that the wife performs a central function in the temple. That means that the "temple wife", as she is called in Japanese Buddhism, is not so much the wife of the priest as an individual, but rather is married to the temple itself. On the other hand though, the temple for her represents the home for her family, and she will not be willing to open the doors for anyone - let alone spiritual seekers of truth that do not contribute to the temple's donation box and whom she or her husband has nothing to offer anyway. Anyone who is looking for the Buddha's teaching is told to stay away, and even the parishoners can visit the temple only to attend the services which they pay for. Today's temples are anything but a "soul asylum" - it's where you go to buy a grave. The rule of the wife in a Japanese home can be so strict that even her husband (the resident priest in this case) does not feel welcome anymore and kills his time in the next body building studio or game center. Whenever some customer asks for a funeral service at the temple, his wife will contact him on the cell phone, and in no time he changes into his monk's robes and is on his way to the parishoner's home.

In the Buddhist world of Japan, when monks speak of their "master" they mean their father, while their "disciple" is their son. Since the Meiji restauration, it has become an exceptional case that someone from outside the temple family ordains or trains there as a monk. The monks of course do not have the feeling that their profession is holy, they do not feel that studying or propagating the teaching of the Buddha is their mission. The practice of the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma that Dogen Zenji speaks of is not an issue anymore. A Buddhist temple is a family business that you inherit from your father - for one to make easy money but also to keep up the (family) tradition.

Three and a half years ago, when I became the abbot of Antaiji, I had to attend a two-day seminary at the Soto headquarters in Tokyo (which by the way also functions as "Grand Hotel Tokyo"), where they taught you all you need to know to be a full-fledged Buddhist priest. One of the lectures was about "the attitude that a resident priest should have". Hearing this lecture, first I was surprised to learn that a resident priest gains an income from living in the temple. As both the priest and his whole family live for free in the temple precincts, I wouldn't be so surprised to hear that he is paying to live in the temple - but why should he be paid? As far as I know, none of the abbots at Antaiji ever received an income for being the abbots of Antaiji. The lecturer proceded to proclaim that he received "only 350.000 Yen" (about 3000 dollars) of income from the temple each month, but as he had no children and also worked part time at Komazawa University, spending the rest of his time growing vegetables at his temple, he "gets along all right". What the hell is he using 350.000 Yen per month for when he is just a hobby farmer that works as a college professor part time? And what "attitude of the resident priest" did he try to communicate to us? I did not fully understand.

But when you think about it, it is just a matter of course that the resident priests receive an income for representing the local affiliates of the funeral corporation. But then they should pay the corporation also a rent for living in their buildings. And in a place like Antaiji, where everyone eats the food that the tenzo cooks in the temple kitchen, we would have to pay a certain price for each meal, or the monthly board. In return, we would get paid for the work we do in the fields, and maybe should even receive a fixed amount of money for each period of zazen we sit? After all, we are keeping the practice at Antaiji going by doing zazen. Of course this is only a joke, but this is actually what the Soto school is expecting from the priests: They are supposed to seperate their private lifes from their function as a priest, i.e. they work as priests for the temple for a certain part of the day, and for the rest of the time they are "off-duty". The priest gets paid for his services, the costumers (the parish) pay for it. This has nothing to do with the life we aim at at Antaiji, where all the 24 hours of our daily life should be practice. Practice is our life - we don't pay for it, and we don't get paid for it.

I realized just how great the gap between our life here and the situation of the Soto school in general is when I looked at the questionaire that the headquarters sent us the other day. It started with the question concerning the members of the sangha (the community of practioners). The Chinese (and Japanese) term for the Sanskrit "sangha" consists of two characters meaning "thicket" and "forest". The meaning is that the members of the sangha join together just like the many different kinds of trees and bushes growing in a wild forest. There are small ones and big ones, there are straight ones and crooked ones - all united for the sole purpose of practicing the buddha way. The Soto headquarter's questionaire on the other hand asked if the desciples of the abbot were "1) his real (i.e. not adopted) children 2) adopted children 3) a spouse of one of his children 4) the children of other members of the family, or 5) others". That someone from outside the family becomes a student of the resident priest is today considered an exceptional rarity. Blood-relationships used to play no role in the Buddhist sangha, they used to be the exception - today they are the rule. Your career as a Zen priest depends solely on your family background. You are born into the Soto school, otherwise you will forever be an outsider. The questionaire goes on to ask questions like: "Do you think that the souls of the ancestors can curse us?" or "Is it OK to perform a funeral on a tomobiki day (a day which is reserved for the performance of marriages and other events, as any event performed on that day is supposed to 'pull/affect a friend (Jap. tomobiki)'?" The Soto schools questioning has obviously come quite a long way after the quest of figures like Shakyamuni, Bodhidharma or Dogen Zenji. At the end of the questionaire, there was some space for people to feel in their opinions freely. I wrote:

"How will Soto Zen develope from now on? Will we continue to aim at making more and more money through funerals in order to protect the temple buildings? Or will we take a step back and reflect on what our ancestors aimed at with their practice? Or will the Soto school just disappear, as a redundant relict of old times? It might also happen that the school devides into two different organizations, one that sees it as its task to provide funerals and other service for money to anyone who asks for them. The other aimed at preserving the teaching handed down from Shakyamuni Buddha to Dogen Zenji to us. One day it might happen that the temple where I am abbot - Antaiji - will break free from the dead frame of the Soto school and walk its own way. We need some fresh air, not the smell of dead rituals and dirty money."

But before continuing to examine the historical background of the decline of Japanese Buddhism (and the question if it is really a decline in the first place), I want to take a look on how the Soto officials dealt with the Aum incident ten years ago, and also explain briefly what I personally think that Buddhism is all about.
(to be continued ... Muho)
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