What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?

Part 6: Muho the Zen Nazi!

A Zenmaster wakes up one winter morning, and when his assitant opens the paper screens of the windows, he exclaims:
“Master, we have snow, lots of snow!”
The master asks:
“How much snow?”
“I have no idea how deep it is, but horizontally, it extends limitless!”

This year at Antaiji, we seem to have more than 3 meters of snow, and I am talking about the vertical dimension. It is easy to confuse dimensions, especially when we talk about dimensions of practice, not snow.

During the last year, we learned about the various steps you have to take if you want to climb the ladder to become a Soto-shu priest in Japan. We covered most from ordination up to dharma transmission, and last time I wrote about ango, the practice periods in a training monastery. I did not describe the details, like filling out the application forms, arriving at the monastery gates dressed up in the traditional and expensive monk’s travel gear, spending a test week in tangaryo, and finally being admitted into the monastic communtiy with its medieval rituals and social hierarchies. I will save my own experiences in a Rinzai monastery in Kyoto and a Soto monastery in Obama for some other time.

I could go on now to describe the following steps, i.e. becoming a teacher, becoming the head priest of a temple, ordaining one’s own desciples, training a head monk for the first time (and thus becoming a dai-osho), and the mysterious on-e (恩衣 – not pronounced like the English “one”, but rather like the “on a” in “on a cold winter day”). The final step would be death. But I will skip all of that for the time being and proceed to my own idea of practice and structure. But first, let me reply to some misunderstandings that came up in discussions, following my most recent article:

Muho represents Japanese Soto-shu

Some people who skim over my articles seem to assume that all what I say about Japanese Soto-shu represents my own point of view. That is not the case. Please be aware that there is a difference between a descriptive and a normative approach. In short: The descriptive approach tries to describe how things really are. It does not valuate the factual state of things though. The normative approach on the other hand expresses how things should be (from the point of view of the author). This of course does not mean, that things really are that way. So the difference is: Do you explain the way things are, or the way things should be? Most of the time in the past articles I tried to take a descriptive approach, i.e. I tried to explain how things actually run inside Japanese Soto-shu. This explanation is not necessarily true outside Japan or outside Soto-shu, nor does it represent my personal view of how things should be run. Sometimes though, I also take a normative approach and offer my opinion of how things should be done. For example regarding dharma transmission, or considering the necessity of practicing inside a community for a longer stretch of time. But at those times, I thought I made it clear that I speak for myself, not for Soto-shu. I am sorry if the distinction was not as clear as I thought, and people took Soto-shu’s views for my own or vice versa. I am part of Soto-shu, but I do not stand for Soto-shu. In fact, I am also quite critical of Soto-shu, and being a part of Soto-shu, I think it is my duty to express that criticism from time to time. I am also critical of Rinzai-shu, for example, but as I am no part of Rinzai-shu, it would be a waste of time for me to critize Rinzai-shu.

Muho is a monastic Nazi!

Not really. True, I have been living in a monastic environment for almost all of the last twenty years of my life. But at the same time, I have a family, and that alone contradicts monasticism. Also, life in a Japanese Zen monastery is not a life-long affair. In the case of Antaiji, people usually stay no longer than ten years. After ten years of life in the community, it is time for you to move on and form your own community around you. This new community must not necessarily be a monastery. But it is true that I recommend practicing inside a community 24/7 for a longer stretch of time. In the case of Antaiji, I recommend a minimum of three years. The reasons for this I try to explain on our Staying at Antaiji-page, and also in my last article. In short: Practice does not happen in your head, nor during those thirty minutes that you sit on your meditation cushion every morning. It happens in all of the 24 hours of the day that you share with the community. You can practice on your own, but you miss sessa-takuma, the mutual rubbing off of the unrefined rocks that we are. So once more, as a family man, I am not a monastic in the strict sense, and people who come to Antaiji all have to return to the “world” sooner or later, this is no refugee camp, nor is it a home for senior citizens. In fact, the community functioning as a rock grinder makes the “monastery world” much more real, than the virtual world so many people in the so-called “real world” dwell in.

Is it really necessary to sit 1800 hours a year?

That is a question people sometimes ask when they hear about the amount of zazen we do at Antaiji. Yes, when you live at Antaiji, you have to share those 1800 hours of zazen each year, just as you share the remaining 7000 hours of the year. But is it necessary for everyone? Of course not. The question is simply: Is it necessary for you? Most people say “No”. Some say “Yes”. Some of those who say “Yes” come to Antaiji. Antaiji is here for those people. That is the only reason why we offer 1800 hours of zazen per year. If there were other places that sit so much, but no monasteries that offer, say, 500 hours per year, than I would switch to 500 hours per year. But even at Eiheiji the monks sit hardly that much, so I think there should be a number of monasteries that offer more intensive practice. Is it necessary? Maybe not for you, but maybe for somebody else.

Why are 1800 hours necessary for you then?

Speaking about me personally, when I was young I always felt that I could not get enough zazen. When I became a monk at Antaiji, sometimes my master would cancel a sesshin because we were busy with harvesting or something else. Instead we would have a party. Everyone was happy, except me: “I have come here to do zazen, how can we have a party instead!?” I would even use the winter holidays to do sesshin in other temples. Everyone else here would laugh at me: “Aren’t 1800 hours enough for you?”
Now I agree. Actually, now I think I could do with less. When I lived as a homeless in a park in Osaka ten years ago, I sat only two hours a day and it felt fine. I did not feel any difference. But now, back in Antaiji, I sit 1800 hours again, and although I think I could do with less, it does not feel as if I was wasting any time with zazen. I do not have any regrets after a 70 hours sesshin. On the other hand, it does not feel as if I would miss anyhting when a sesshin is cancelled. Now I am in the position where I sometimes have to say: “There is too much to do before the winter, we have to cancel the next one-day-sesshin.” And now I am the one who is surprised that most of the sangha do not seem to be so happy about that. They would rather sit the sesshin. Aren’t 1800 hours enough for them? Obviously not, and I do respect that.

Monks at Antaiji are attached to too long hours of sitting

True, zazen is useless if it becomes an attachment, and counting the hours you sit just to boast with the number is stupid. It is just like measuring snow in the horizontal dimension. The vital question is: How deep is our practice? On the other hand again, I think people’s needs differ. If you use zazen as a means to relax, keep the windscreen of your mind clear and balance your life a little, you do not need 1800 hours of zazen. 30 minutes per day will be enough. But if you have the strong feeling that there is no way for you to survive except through zazen (and I felt like that when I was young), and you want to offer zazen to others as a way to life (and that is what I am trying now), you will probably end up sitting more. One of the privileges of the life at Antaiji is that we can sit more. We do not have to, but we want to, so why not do it while we can?

Last time I used the unfortunate example of masturabation on the one hand and family life on the other, which was provoking to some. But my point is simple: When all you want to do is get your sexual hormones in balance, you do not need to have a family. There are quicker, cheaper and safer solutions for you. There will be no need for the stress that comes with a family. In the same way, when 30 minutes of zazen make you happy (and feeling happy is all you want), there is no need to practice in a monastic environment. Because you would not feel happy here.It is not that we practice more, it is simply a different dimension of practice.

To use another example: Zazen practice is like the axis of a wheel. The 24 hours of the day are the wheel, and all 24 hours (zazen and not-zazen) together are practice. But the wheel needs a stable axis. How strong does this axis need to be? It depends on what kind of wheel it is. If you want to pick up your bottle of milk every morning around the corner, a small bicycle will do. If you deliver the milk from door to door, you might want to use a pick-up. If you drive with tons of milk over long distances, you need a big truck with wheels that have strong axises. Practice at Antaiji is not like picking up your personal bottle of milk. If you stay here for longer, you keep a tradition of milk transportation alive, you deliver milk to others just as much as you consume it yourself, and the more you practice for others, the more zazen you will do for yourself.

The “Muho vs Brad Bitchfest”

At the begining of the year, I received an e-mail from Brad Warner:

“Dear Muho,

I skimmed over your recent article criticizing me and praising yourself after someone sent it to me. It was quite entertaining.

I don’t really follow your career so I don’t have any counter criticisms to offer. But, ironically, I often recommend people to look into going to Antaiji when they want that sort of practice. I was never interested in that kind of thing myself. But I suppose I’m all wrong in my approach to Zen.

I will say this, though. What I was proposing in the article you criticized was to set up an entirely new sort of thing. If I’d had an established temple, with an established system to step into, it would be quite different. But I don’t. As far as the issues of giving my time and so forth are concerned, I wanted to set out some guidelines.

I have very specific and personal problems with what Americans call “setting boundaries.” I can very easily find myself deeply involved in other people’s problems, and many people around me take advantage of that. What often occurs is that certain people will completely monopolize my time making things very difficult for others in the group… Hence I said these things. It was very specific and not meant to be removed from that context. In reality, I know that most of those guidelines will be ignored in practice. But I thought it was important to establish them anyway. I’m amazed you managed to find that piece. It was really meant for just the people in my group in Los Angeles.

Ah well. I’ll just keep carrying on anyhow.


Brad posted a similar reply on his blog.
He is of course referring to my last article, in which I say that a bodhisattva needs to share one’s time, share one’s space, share one’s life with others. An attitude which I contrasted with Brad’s list of conditions for taking the role of the teacher of a Zen group. After I came back to Antaiji at the end of Januray, I wrote Brad a late response:

“Dear Brad,

Sorry for the silence, I was away from the Internet for quite a while, and now we are busy shoveling snow (have about 3 meters here this year).

I liked your recent post (anti-internet rant). People call you old-school. Probably our difference is that I am even more old school. Sitting together on a sunday morning, reading books and listening to talks without mutual sessa-takuma during the 24 hours of each single day seems to me almost as virtual as “practicing together” on the Internet. If it is enough for others, that is OK with me. But it is not enough for me. Although it seems like safe, cheap and easy way to “practice”. And the piece you wrote to the group in LA sounded like the same attitude from the teacher’s side. If it was just a “wipe your own ass” thing, OK. I say that all the time here myself. But at the same time, I have to be willing to wipe people’s asses even if I do not want to. Might post my opinion about the stuff again next month on our homepage. Until then,


Actually I seem to agree with Brad on a lot of points.
Why isn’t practice on the Internet just as real as practice in “Meatspace”? Of course the Internet is also real, but can you smell a fart on the Internet? Can you touch those people? You have only visual and auditory contact with them, and even that is extremely limited. How much percent of your visual field of perception is occupied by the computer screen? Just as with snow, one could say that there are differing degrees of “depth” to reality as well. But the real question, of course, is not which style of practice is more “real” – they are both “real”. The point is simply that they are different. If people can not find a teacher, practicing on the Internet is not a bad thing. But if you are really want to sit with a group of living people, a two or three hour drive will not scare you away. You might even travel around the globe to find your teacher.

In exactly the same way, sitting for 30 minutes every morning, meeting with the Sunday-Sangha and discussing problems with the teacher during office hours is not bad. It is simply very different from sharing one’s practice during all the hours during the day, every day, all around the year. This 24-hour-practice does not just consist of sitting zazen, but ranges from cooking to cleaning to working together. That is called ango, and in my opinion, ango is essential for practice, at least my style of practice. Here again, people might counter-agrue: But what if my life does not allow me that kind of practice, I have a “real life” to take care of?! And again the answer is: If it is enough for you – fine! But if you really want to practice ango, you will find a way to do so, even if it means to make sacrifices, like taking off for three or five or ten years from your “real life” and travel around the globe if it seems necessary. Necessary for whom? For you, nobody else! And if you decide it is not necessary for you, than I guess it isn’t. That does not mean that your practice is better or worse than mine, more or less “real”, no, it is just that we are talking about different dimensions of practice here.

So one more time, the point I try to make in contrast to Brad is as simple as this: Of course sitting on your own in your room before work is also practice, meeting on a sunday morning to share an hour or two is also practice, reading or writing books on Zen is also practice, but just as practice on the Internet is not the same as practice in Meatspace, this practice in Sunday-Sangha is not the same as practice in a 24/7-sessa-takuma-environment. You can hardly compare the two. On a sunday morning, it is not hard to show one’s best behaviour. In a context like Antaiji, you have to deal with people snoring, cooking funny food, using and cleaning the toilet according to standards different from your own. That is when – in my point of view – practice happens. But doesn’t sitting on the cushion for 30 minutes each morning help to balance your life? Of course it does, but practice is not about balancing our lifes, it is just as much about shaking us out of balance at times. Throwing us out of the “old nest”, as Dogen would put it. What many people call practice to me looks more like an attempt at finding stability inside the “old nest”, sorry.

At the end of the day, what Brad and I have to say in theory does not seem to differ so much. But then again, theory does not count. When it comes to practice in real life, we could not differ more. But when I say “differ”, I do not mean “differ” as in “good and bad”, but rather as in “salty and sweet”. It is up to you to pick which you prefer.

How much boundaries do I need?

I found that Brad makes an interesting point about “setting boundaries”. People very often take advantage of him and monopolize his time, Brad says. And, as I wrote in the last article, that is an experience I (and probably any Buddhist teacher) can relate too. What I found interesting is that Brad describes his difficulty as one of “setting boundaries”, while I would describe my own difficulty as one of “removing boundaries”. Could it be that this is the only difference between Brad and me? I do not know. Anyway, in Japanese Zen there is the phrase jita-ichinyo (自他一如), which means “self and others are one”. In theory, there can be no doubt about this: Nothing has substance, there is no “me” or “you”. Everything is connected, one. How could there be any boundaries in the first place? But in real life, it seems that we have to continously create boundaries in order to survive. Someone who is not able to create a boundary between himself (or herself) and others is probably not a bodhisattva, but suffering from a mental disorder (this explains why the question has been raised if religious figures like Shakyamuni or Jesus were in reality not holy, but just crazy).

I think Brad is right, in reality we need boundaries of some kind. And yes, the students need to learn to wipe thier own asses. I make that point myself in “My idea of adult practice”:

“Adults have to learn to wipe their own ass. In the beginning at Antaiji, you might not even know what belongs to “wiping one’s ass”, and you don’t realize how many tiomes others will wipe your ass for you. After some time, you learn how to do things, where to be at what time, how to do this and how to do that. But that is not enough. Next it will be your turn not only to wipe your own ass, but also that of others. you have to return the favors you received and weren’t even aware of. “Ass-wiping” is our way of creating Antaiji.”

My point is: Everyone needs to learn how to wipe their own ass, but for that you also have to show an example, and unfortunaley, more often than not, it is not enough to just give an example of wiping your own ass, as a teacher or seniour student, you also have to be willing to wipe other people’s asses time and again. But I also continue in the same text, quite in the same line as Brad, saying:

“We use to go begging for a week or so in Osaka at the end of March. One time a group of us took a crowded commuter train back to the cheap hotel in Shin-Imamiya, where we were staying. One of my students missed the stop, or maybe she couldn’t manage to get out because of the wall of flesh that obstrucetd the doors. We returned to the hotel, which is a five minute walk from the station. When she arrived some time later, she was furious: “Why didn’t you wait for me? Why didn’t you inform the police? Weren’t you worried that I might get mugged?” Honestly, I wasn’t worried at all. Japan is a save country, and even without knowing Japanese it wouldn’t be to difficult to get back to the hotel. Finally she got me: “I have the impression that you care more for your two children than for me. What would you have done if they had got lost!?” My children are four and two years old. I sure would have been worried if they had got lost on a crowded train. So why wasn’t I worried about my student. Had I failed as a bodhisattva? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m not a good bodhisattva, but maybe there is difference here as well: My student is almost twenty years older than me, she isn’t a three year old child. “But you are my father figure”, she countered.

I see an important difference between the relationships in a family and in a sangha here. A sangha consists of adult practioners. A family consists only in part of adults. So although I view family life as a model for bodhisattva practice, I don’t think that life in the sangha should be exactly the same. Parents take care of their childs without expecting any reward. Ideally, they don’t even hope to be taken care of in return when they are old, although their final aim will be to help their children grow to become mature adults as well. Bodhisattvas help others without expecting any reward as well. But the aim of this help is to help the others to help themselves, and help still others as well. The aim of bodhimind is to save others before one self is saved, but this means to help others to give rise to the same wish, i.e. help still others without expecting to be help themselves. So if a bodhisattva is someone who rows a boat to the shore of liberation, then the other people in the boat will not be just he guests, but they will have to become bodhisattvas as well. And when everyone rows the boat together, they might realize that liberation isn’t on the other shore, but that everyone in the boat has been liberated long ago.

… So, anyway: The teacher shouldn’t be like a parent for the student, and the student shouldn’t relate like a three year old to the teacher. In general it can be said that many people in the begining of their practice think that you only have to find a good teacher and everything will be taken care of. Actually, that is what Dogen writes in the Gakudo-yojin-shu: The teacher is like a good sculptor that will make an excellent piece of art even with a crooked piece of wood (i.e. an imperfect student). But this is only half of the truth. Not only does the teacher create the student. What is more important for the student is that on his side, he or she has to create the teacher as well. Shakyamuni had thousands of students, but they all had a different teacher, because they create their own Shakyamuni: Devadatta didn’t have the same teacher as Maha-Kashapa. Who is your teacher?”

To return to Brad’s point of “setting boundaries”: Although I agree that we need some kind of boundaries some of the time, personally, I do not think I have a big problem with “setting boundaries” most of the time. I do it all the time. My problem is: How can I reduce them? During the six months that I lived in a park in Osaka in 2001, one of the things I realized is that I can live perfectly well without any sense of “my space” or “my time”. Because “my space” and “my time” do not exist for a homeless person. The homeless have no “office hours” and no “private entrances”. For a homeless, everywhere is my space and all the time is my time. The boundary disappears. Rather than sit here and fear that I might be taken advantage of, I feel that I have to try to give more of myself.

Muho pictures himself as the perfect bodhisattva

Sorry if it comes across like that. No need to say I am not. Just ask the sangha at Antaiji, or ask my wife, and you will hear plenty of evidence that I am definately not the perfect bodhisattva. And never will be. But just because I never will be one, that does not mean that I must not strive to at least come at little bit closer. I will never be successful at removing all boundaries, but I hope to remove at least some.
I say that I have the aim to live as a bodhisattva, not that I am a bodhisattva.

Muho thinks you need a family to be a bodhisattva

That claim contradicts the assumption that I am a monastic Nazi. Anyway, I do not think that you must have a family, especially if you are a Buddhist teacher and want to devote all of your time to spreading the Dharma. Because your family also needs your attention and will feel that the Dharma is more important to you than the family. And although there should be no boundary between family and Dharma in the first place, in reality, it is not so easy. So if celibacy seems to be an option to you, go for it! For me, it never was. I wrote about all the resulting conflicts and problems in past articles: Married monks?, The diameter of attachment, Skinship, My idea of adult practice, the first fifth of Letter to a friend about Zen practice, family life, Japanese Buddhism and the war about Zen at war and finally A broken precept. For anyone who is interested: Although I do not think that one must have a family, for me it is one of the most valuable experiences in my life, I would not want to miss it, and – last not least – it is a place for continous practice.