Lotus in the Fire
May/June 2007

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The diameter of attachment
Twelve Years Since Aum (Part 15)

Abbot Muho with kids in the bathtub.

Father and son.

I mentioned the fact that Buddhist monks and priests in Japan today usually marry as one reason for the degeneration of present day Japanese Buddhism. Before I will explain why it is a problem for Japanese Buddhism as a whole as well as for myself living here at Antaiji, I would first like to point out the positive aspects of trying to live as a Buddhist monk and being a family father at the same time. This might surprise some, as being a monk by definiton seems to mean keeping celibate and renouncing all family ties. We hear about a monk in China who was chased after by his lonely, blind mother. Trying to escape her, he jumped on a boat that was about to cross a river. Unable to see, his mother dropped into the river and drowned. This story is sometimes quoted as an example of the determination that a monk has to have when leaving home. You cut the ties with your parents. No way would you marry and have children on your own. For a bodhisattva, the rescue of all living beings is of more importance than the love to your parents, wife or children.

In the Shobogenzo chapter on "The virtue of home leaving" (shukke-kudoku), Dogen Zenji quotes the Buddha as saying:

"I left behind father and mother, brothers and sisters, wifes and children, followers and friends. Thus I left home to practice the way. ... This means to have compassion for all living beings just as if they were my own babies."

Interestingly though, a large number of the original Buddhist sangha were Shakyamuni's relatives: His step-mother, half-siblings, wifes, children, cousins, nieces and nephews. Obviously, he did not run away from his family when he taught as the Buddha. And in the Chiji Shingi, a collection of examples for temple officers written by Dogen Zenji, we find the story of Ciming (jap. Jimyo), the abbot of a big Chinese Zen monastery. At a time when other monks presumably drowned their mothers, Ciming was visting his "Old Lady Ciming" who lived just outside the temple gate whenever he could find the time, even on the expense of scheduled dharma meetings. One of his students, who was eager to have an interview with his busy teacher but couldn't get him to talk with him, followed Ciming to the old ladies' house and found the two together cooking food in the kitchen. Who was this "Old Lady Ciming"? According to some theories his mother, according to others maybe the wife he had before he became a monk.

Anyway, what should be the advantage of living as a Buddhist monk and taking care of a family at the same time? The disadvantages seem to be all too obvious?

First of all, it is one thing to love someone "just as if" they were your baby. If you actually do have a baby, you have no other choice than to love it - not "just as if it was your baby", but because it is your baby. You won't even have to tell yourself to love it, you will just love it. If you never experience this unconditional love, the metaphor of the bodhisattva loving others "just as if" they were his or her babies might be just that - a metaphor, and nothing else.

Second, the responsibility that comes with having a family is real. You can renounce the worldly life and leave home, but you can not deny the fact that you were born to a father and a mother. If you take the step and become a father or mother yourself, this decision is irreversible. Even if you divorce, you will have to take responsibility. This responsibility may in theory seem to be not as heavy as that of the bodhisattva who takes responisibility for all living beings just as if they were his babies. But then, that is theory. I remember the answer that a Chinese Ch'an master gave to the answer what a Buddhist monk should do during war times. The country might force him to serve as a soldier. How can he avoid breaking the precept of not-killing, probably the heaviest offence for a bodhisattva? The answer of the Ch'an master was simple: "No problem, you just disrobe for the time of the war. Thus you can serve your country and don't have to break a single precept, because you are not bound to the vinaya. After the war is over, you can ordain again and keep the precepts."

I am not impressed by this approach. If you can make up your "bodhisattva-mind", renounce the world for a couple of months and years, then disrobe and return to the world again as a non-bodhisattva, eventually maybe taking up the bodhisattva path again - if that is how it is done, is there any weight to it? Is it for real? For me to live as a bodhisattva must be real. It is like having a family. It is a life time commitment, you can not "disrobe" from it, it is not some kind of "just as if" practice, it is real practice and it isn't easy. Living with a family can be just as stressful, or actually even much more stressful, than living in a Zen monastery. So life as a bodhisattva should not only be compatible with family life, but rather family life can serve as a real example of bodhisattva life. If you can not deal with family life, can you really say that you are a bodhisattva? I don't think so!

So third, family life can be called a model for bodhisattva practice, and it is real. You are dealing with a partner, whom you maybe married out of love. But your relation will not always be so harmonious. You will fight with your spouse. The children give you no rest. You have not time and space for yourself. You have to give in, you have to give up your ideas and preferences. You are forced to live as a bodhisattva, if you don't want to take the easy way out and "leave home to practice the way".

Leaving home used to be a privilege of the clergy, while the majority had no other choice than to marry and protect the family. More often than not, people could not choose the partner they had to live with. Today it is everyone's right to choose if they want to stay single or not, have children or not. More and more people choose to stay single or childless. If they do marry and it doesn't work out, it is easy to have a divorce. So why shouldn' it be today's monks who make the commitment and raise a family?

Someone once asked me: "How can you be a Buddhist monk and be married? Doesn't being married and having children imply that you are attached to your family? Aren't you attached to them?"
The answer is yes, I am indeed attached to my wife and children. But as a bodhisattva, rather than denying this attachment, I try to broaden the diameter of my attachment to include more and more each time. Ideally, I wish to be attached to everything I encounter. But I don't start with telling myself to have metta compassion for all suffering beings in the ten directions of the universe, I start with dealing with my children who are struggeling over their toys, starving for my attention, or I start with my wife with whom I am struggeling over some toy. "Even funnier than watching the monkeys at the zoo is observing these humans on the loose", says Sawaki Roshi at the end of a chapter entitled "To you who are totally exhausted from fighting with your spouse". For me, this realization is where practice begins. In the family, bodhisattva practice can not just be words. It is a 24/7 challenge. And more often than not, you will realize that you are less of a bodhisattva and more of a monkey.

(to be continued ... Docho)

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