Lotus in the Fire
March 2007

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Married monks?
Twelve Years Since Aum (Part 14)

Abbot Muho with kids in the bathtub.

Abbot Muho with kids in the bathtub.

Twelve years have passed now since the Sarin attack in the Tokyo subway. I have mentioned repeatedly that the degeneration of Japanese buddhism is one factor that led to the rise of the Aum cult and the poison attack. The reason for this claim is simple that if Buddhists would fulfill their responsibility to preach and practice the dharma in daily life, people would look for things like meaning in life, spiritual guidance or liberation in Buddhist temples, not strange new cults. Unfortunately, although Japan is considered to be a Buddhist country, there isn't much "Buddhism" going on even in the Buddhist temples.

Why is this so? One explanation that can be given is that the Japanese Buddhist clergy of today is usually married. I myself married five years ago, when I became the abbot of Antaiji. Now I have two small kids. Of course there are also monks and priests who stay celibate, but monks and priests living in temples with their families are more like the rule than an exception.

I say "monks and priests" here for the lack of an accurate English term. In Japanese there are many words with the meaning of "Buddhist monk/priest", but there are no two distinct words that would describe the difference of a celibate monk and a married priest. Words like "sôryo", "o-bôsan", "oshô", "hôjô" or "jûshoku" can all refer to a Buddhist cleric, regardless if he or she is married or not. "Jûshoku" is a resident priest in a temple, "hôjô" specifically the priest in a Zen temple, "unsui" is a Zen training monk, "oshô" can be either a resident priest or an experienced training monk, "sôryo" and the more colloquial "o-bôsan" or the derogatory "bôzu" are more general terms that refer to any ordained person. In English it is sometimes said that there are Buddhist priests in Japan, but only few or no Buddhist monks. In Japan this distinction makes no sense, as there are no words to express it. Japanese refer to "monks and priests" with the same word. This word includes nuns too, although a nun can be specifically called "ama-san" or "nisô-san" as well.

By the way, the distinction between "senseis" and "roshis" which is so common in Western Zen doesn't exist in Japan either. Buddhists are usualled not called "sensei" in Japan, although there are exceptions (this term refers to any kind of teacher, staring with kindergarten and elementary school teachers, English teachers on a working holiday, university professors, but also medical doctors, manga writers, artists, musicians, anyone...). In Rinzai Zen, people are recognized as a roshi when they have "inka-shômei", a form of dharma transmission that requires that the student, among other things, has solved the whole curriculum of kôans. Unlike Western "roshis", a Japanese Rinzai roshi will never refer to himself or herself as a "roshi". He or she will never say "I am a roshi", nor will he say "my name is Roshi This-and-that". People will refer to the person as a "roshi", or they will simply not. It is not that the person has a "right" to be called a roshi.

In Sôtô-Zen almost anyone can but need not be called a roshi by other people. Again, no-one would refer to themselves as "roshi". Rather it is a form of address towards an older, respected priest. Dharma transmisson in the Sôtô school is called shihô. Shihô is much easier to get than inka-shômei. Many temple sons get shihô from their fathers upon graduation from college. More than 15 000 persons hold shihô in the Sôtô-school, but I think only one hundred or even less have inka-shômei in the Rinzai school. The rank that corresponds to a roshi in Rinzai-Zen would be a "shike" in Sôtô Zen (in Rinzai Zen, roshis are also called shike). Just as with Rinzai Zen, the number of shike isn't so large in Sôtô. Still, Sôtô priests like Sawaki Kôdô, who is usually referred to as a roshi, refused to accept inka-shômei and become shike so as not to become involved in sectarian politics, as he put it. For him, living a his life as a Zen monk and having inka-shômei couldn't go together.

This means that neither having shihô alone nor possesing inka-shômei are good reasons to call yourself a "roshi". As I said, even someone with inka-shômei doesn't refer to himself as a "roshi" here in Japan. Even less monks and priests who only have shihô. That is the reason why Japanese priests are baffled when you ask them: "Are you a sensei or a roshi?" The fact is that they don't refer to themselves as neither "sensei" nor "roshi" but just as "sôryo", "bôzu" or the like.

In the West the distinction between monks and nuns on the one side, and priests on the other side, seems to help to explain why some stay celibate while others marry. Some people also distinguish between "monks precepts" and "priests precepts". As mentioned, this distinction doesn't exist in Japan, although it is generally expected that training monks and nuns in training monasteries live celibate while they are free to marry after their training, or leave their families outside the monastery during the training. But the idea of "training" does almost not exist outside of the Zen school (which makes up less than 25% of Japanese Buddhism), and isn't taken too serious inside Japanese Zen either.
From the side of the Asian continent, where the idea of a marrried Buddhist priests doesn't exist from the start, Japan is often critized as a country where "Buddhist temples do exist, but there are no Buddhist monks". This is because a married person can not be a Buddhsit priest by non-Japanese standards (although there are some married Buddhist in other Asian countries as well, but few). Another reason for the bad image of Japanese Buddhism in the rest of Asia are the sex tours in that Buddhist monks/priests participate.

In Japan also, until the Meiji Restauration in 1868 it were only the monks/priests of the Jôdô-Shin school who were officially married. This started with their founder Shinran, who lived at the time of Dôgen Zenji and was married to the nun Eshin-ni. The monks/priests of all other sects were officially not married. This is of course because of the Buddhist precept that prohibits any sexual activity (except wet dreams, as no voluntary action on the side of the person is involved and thus not considered to be an "activity"). In Japanese it is called "fu-in-kai" or "fu-ton-in-kai". Today it is often refered to as "fu-ja-in-kai", which can be translated as "no wrong sexual conduct", where the word "wrong" can be interpreted in a lot of ways. The "fu-ja-in-kai" is originally not a monks/priests precept but a lay precept that forbids sex between persons who are not married to each other (according to the common interpretation).

Reasons for having the original "fu-in-kai" are probably manifold. According to one interpretation, sexual activity consumes the energy that a person needs to attain deep samadhi during mediation. So a person better saves his or her sexual energy to attain higher spritual states. Also it is said by some that monks were told to stay away from women because women could never become buddhas and thus would obstruct the monks on their own quest for buddhahood (this is for example reflected in a recent post in a Buddhist forum: "Zen is a path that renounces sensual objects and women are sensual objects.").

Now, what changed so that monks and priests started to marry? Funnily, it is not the Buddhist code that changed or was re-interpreted by the clergy in a new way, it was simply the Japanese law that changed. It was the Japanese government that decided in 1872 that it was up to the monks/priests themselves if they want to marry or not, want to eat meat or not. So unlike the Chinese Cultural revolution or the Japanese occupation of Korea, no-one was forced to get married or disrobe. Monks and priests were just given the freedom to decide for themselves what to do. The Meiji Restauration was a time when the Japanese government shifted from supporting Buddhism, on which the Tokugara regime had largely relied for controlling the country between 1600 and 1868, to Shintô - indiginous Japanese shamanism - which put the emperor back into a position of power. Especially during the first years of the Meiji area Buddhism was actively suppressed, with some temples being burned or sold for ridiciously cheap prices to the publc (for use as firewood).

So why then should this anti-Buddhist government give freedom to the Buddhist monks/priests? It is usually said that this was done to strip them off their privileged status. By telling the monks to stay celibate, the government excempts them from the obligation of filial responsibilty as well as the responsibilities and duties of taking care of a family. Celibacy can be interpreted as a privilige as well. By telling the monks to think for themselves, the government expelled them from the shelter of the warm womb that it used to be for the Buddhists clergy during the Tokugawa era. This in itself should have been a great chance for Japanese Buddhism, but it happens to be one reason for its decline. When told to think for themselves, most monks/priests eventually ended up marrying and turning their temples into family homes.

Now, are "married monks" really a problem for Buddhism? Japanese Buddhism belongs to Mahayana Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism is a movement that started in India as a reformation of the older Buddhism that many felt failed to respond to their needs. It is said that unlike the older Buddhism that was a Buddhism for home-leaving monks only, lay practioners were at the center of this new movement. The goal of this movement is not the escape of the individual from samsara, but rather the identification with each and everything inside suffering. Right from the start Mahayana Buddhism refused to separate itself from the laiety. It was a Buddhism that is largely practiced by lay persons, with lay persons and for the lay persons. Therefore it is only consequent that even the Mahayana monkhood should try to live a life style that is not too far from that of the laiety. Thus, the "degeneration" of married monks Japanese Buddhism can even be re-interpreted as a "progression" towards an identification of monks, nuns and lay persons. Why then do we have a problem here in the first place?

I am not the first abbot of Antaiji who is married and has kids. But until now no abbot of Antaiji has given the temple to one of his children, as is common in other temples. Also, the abbot keeps his family and the temple separate. He will not regard the temple as his home, and he will eat for example with the practioners in the temple, while his family eats separate. The other practioners are either celibate or leave their families outside the temple. Practioners can not live in the temple as couples, as their relationship wouldn't allow them to open up equally to the whole sangha.

This doesn't mean that there are no problems with relationships and marriage at Antaiji. The status quo is by no means a perfect solution. In fact we have a whole lot of problems here. There are many questions that we will have to answer in the future: What does it mean for a "monk" to be married? In what sense can the family be called a place for practice on the one hand, and what is the difference between the place of practice and a family on the other hand? If we and the rest of married Buddhists don't find answers to these questions, there might be no future for married Buddhism.

I only asked the question. I'll return to it in April or May to think about how and why the marriage of monks/priests might have caused the degeneration of Japanese Buddhism. How does the problem look like here at Antaiji? Is sex the main problem, and if not, what is the real problem?

(to be continued ... Docho)

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