What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?
Part 7 – Back to the topic!
First of all, my friend in Ofunato is alive. The area where his house stood has been completely destroyed, but he managed to escape together with his 80year old mother. He left his cell phone in the house though, and it was not until April that a contact could be established. According to him, the real mental stress is starting weeks after the desaster, when friends are still missing, others are discovered with parts of their bodies missing almost every day. Ten thousands are still living in refugee camps. Fish that was dumped after the desaster (most of the affected towns are fishing towns) is starting to rot now, during the rainy saeson, and hygenic conditions could not be worse. “Ganbare!” (“fight!”) is what the rest of Japan says, but for the victims, living just day by day, inch by inch, is hard enough.
Let me return to the question of the present series:
What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?
Questions are being raised in the Western sangha, that relate to our topic. This spring, a number of Buddhist commentators wrote about the topic of Zen and institutions in the aftermath of the “Genpo Roshi affair”. Here are some examples:
Brad Warner: Zen is Not in the Helping Profession
Barry Graham: When Zen Becomes a Club
Adam Tebbe: Response to Zen is not in the helping profession
Discussion on Zen Forum International: An interesting post by Brad Warner…
Discussion at Treeleaf Zendo: “Zen is not in the Helping Profession”
Dosho Port: Zen Teachers as Professionals – Not
Nathan: Zen Teachers As Professionals
Do we need an organzied structure for Western Buddhism at all? Doesn’t Zen break out of all institutions? But does that mean that one should just follow what works best for himself or herself? Is it enough to learn from books and the Internet, or do we also want face-to-face contact with a teacher? And if we want a teacher, do we want to see him or her several times a year, several times a week or actually share our daily practice with the teacher? How is the realtion between teacher and student supposed to work? Is it a vertical realtionship that implies authority? Or are student and teacher supposed to be “dharma buddies”? And is something like “peer control” needed apart from the quality check that the teacher and student mutually perform needed? Should the sangha organization be entitled to check its members? Does the organization have to take resposibilty for the action of its members? What would that organization look like? Would it be Japanese Soto-shu? Or would it look like Soto-shu?
Let me consider a different question first:
What is dharma?
Dharma is just another word for the reality of our life.
What then, is “dharma transmission”?
Good question. Teaching the dharma is often compared to selling water by the river. We are already living the reality of our life. Still we are looking for a teacher to point us to this reality. we are looking for someone to sell us the water of the river that we are standing in.
So, does that mean that we do not need dharma transmission at all? Why don’t we just scoop the water out of the river by ourselves?
There are several problems. Using the water/river analogy: The river is too deep to stand in several spots, you need a teacher to teach you how to swim if want to be save in the river of the reality of your life. In some areas the water is not as clear and fresh as in others. If you stand too close to the shore, the water might be a little muddy. Or someone might have just urinated a little bit upstream… And, most of us do not really know what the teacher is telling us when we hear that we “already are inside the river” at first. It sometimes helps to have someone show you a bottled example of the water we are looking for. With the bottled water, there is another problem: To use Dogens words, mixing dharma with water is not a big problem. We could even say that we have to keep mixing dharam with water, because dharma is water and only mixing keeps it fresh. But Dogen warns us from dharma mixed with oil (there are schools of Buddhism that call Zen “Buddhism lite”, refering to its water nature. Other schools add some calories and taste). Nor should we drink the dharma mixed with liquor, even less with lacquer. The difficulty is, that we do not know which teacher offers bottles with pure, fresh water. Some of the more “authentic” teachers offer pure water, but it is centuries old and has never been removed from the bottle. The best is to find a teacher that does not sell bottles, but teaches you how to swim. Dharama transmission in this sense is less a brand of bottles water, but rather an instruction in swimming.
At the beginning of the year, one of my students asked about the possibility of him performing a precepts ceremony without having received dharma transmission. What would the consequences be? Another good question. What are precepts in the first place? In the past I wrote that you can roughly distuingish three meanings:
1) The orthodox or common-sense appoach to the precept as forbidding certain actions. You can either “keep” or “break” the precepts. In some traditions you can stay “clean” by excusing yourself from the percept (by disrobing etc) for the time you want to practice the action that is forbidden, i.e. have sex, kill people during war time etc.
2) The precepts as stating a “universal law”. This seems to be the Mahayana interpretation that many Japanese Buddhist were and are still using. When Sawaki talks about the precept throwing a bomb, he is using this interpretion. Here you can not “break” the precept at all, because it is universal. You cannot kill universal life. Thus the precept becomes a tautology.
3) The percept as contradiction or koan, as Hisamatsu Shinichi’s basic koan: What will you do when there is nothing at all you can do (and doing nothing at all is not an option either)? So it is not possible to “keep” the precept in the first place, but the function of the precept is to keep you aware of the contradiction of your life, and humble. It prevents the illusion “I am right, because I don’t do wrong”.
Another answer would be to say that the dharma itself, the reality of your life itself is the precept.
If that is the case, why would we need a teacher to “give” us the precepts? Can’t we just make up our mind to live a decent life in the midst of reality by ourselves right here and now?
Below is the e-mail exchange:
I would like to ask your view on the possibility of me conducting a Jukai ceremony sometime later this year for 3 members of our group here, who have recently embarked on sewing their Jukai Rakusu. This is a development further to what I asked you about late last year. All three are aware that doing the Jukai here by ourselves, it will not really be recognized by Sotoshu, but that seems to be ok. I wonder would you be prepared to send me instructions, or could you suggest a weblink with traditional Jukai instructions, even if it is on a Japanese webpage but able to be translated. I am not sure to what extent you’d be ok to be involved, or not involved? From my point of view, I would appreciate it if you had some kind of involvement (whether it’s simply by offering advice; or perhaps by signing the Jukai rakusu and certificate and maybe appointing me in this instance to execute the ceremony on your behalf; or even if you had time and would like to come over in person for a few days, I’d be happy to try and raise money for your trip). But I appreciate that you may also wish not to have any indirect or direct involvement, and of course that’s fine too.
About the Jukai-ceremony.
First the technical aspect: Soto-shu does not keep track of lay people’s Jukai. So if I do it or you do it, it would not be registered in Tokyo.
But: For the ceremony you usually have a precept master (who gives the precepts and the rakusus and the kechimyaku to the participants) who needs to be a certified teacher.
So it would be indeed a breach with Soto-shu procedure if you do the ceremony by yourself, it is just that no-one would probably notice.
It would be a little bit like a Christian bible study group baptizing each other, or maybe rather like giving the sacraments of wine and bread out to each other on Sundays, without a real priest being there.
In the long run, if you want to do it by yourself, you would have to think about if you want to start your completely own Zen school. Like Luther or Calvin started their own religions. Then you do not need permission from anyone to do anything.
As I probably told you in the past, I was contemplating leaving Soto-shu myself (and it might still happen at some time, although I do not think it is very likely – I am afraid I am no Martin Luther). So anyway, it is possible and has happened in the past, see for example the Sanbokyodan, Dogen-Sangha, the Shasta-Abbey tradition, Kapleau’s school, the Order of Mindfulness etc. Most (but not all) of these schools were founded by people who were already authorized as priests in an existing school of Zen, which they left behind. In Germany, Willigis Jaeger, one out of three proper roshis in Sanbokyodan, now left that group and started his own school, because the Japanese side of Sanbokyodan did not let him give dharma transmission to whomever he wanted. The danger of course is what you call “Eigenduenkel” in German. You are free to do what you want, but no-one tells you your mistakes anymore. And it seems that most of these split groups lack the strength to survive for several generations.
So, if you want to do it the traditional Soto-way, you would have to invite a priest to give the precepts and the other stuff. It could be any authorized Soto-shu teacher.
I could also come, but among the three dates you mention, only March 14th is OK, and it is pretty close. For me, actually next winter would be best, but that is still quite some time ahead.
So once more: Nobody would extradite you from Soto-shu for doing it by yourself, simply because no-one would know or care. But if you follow Soto-shu procedure, you would need a Soto-priest present at the ceremony. If that was me, we would need to get prepared soon (aiming at March 14th) or – which I would prefer – take our time and wait until after Rohatsu this year, or until early 2012.
Thank you for your email and for your advice. The situation as far as Sotoshu was pretty much as I had understood it, but I was particularly interested in your take it, and had your communication been slightly different, I’d have been okay not worrying much about Sotoshu and going ahead more independently. But really what does or can this more independently ever mean. Actually it’s something that comes up regularly in my talks: namely our practice of first coming to Zen with our conventional “tape measure” and then deciding, bit by bit, to let go of it in favour of “all there is” and Jiko. So really of all the things that make me judge and want to reject Sotoshu, almost every one basically stems from my ideas and preferences. I mean I regard Sotoshu as a clownish an idiotic institution, but actually as far as I am aware they are not causing gross harm to anybody, and they have been maintaining the Soto tradition for centuries. As you say someone like Kapleau, and not to mention “Big Mind” Genpo, basically do end up kissing their own behinds – sorry you did not quite say that, it’s me breaking another precept. (By the way, I happened to see the reaction from the Warner camp to your comment and link… all of us duelling with “measuring tapes” QED, except for me and my monkey:)
Anyway I am no Martin Luther either, in my case I’m not even recognized by the institution that I would be rebelling against (if I ever find myself recognized by them I may well consider rebelling then). Going it alone would be okay, and could even be fun in many ways, but yes I would almost certainly get lost, and I would sense it at the same time – a bit like going on a sex tour while knowing that my wife is at home and cooking for the kids. This is not a Sotoshu precepts kind of consideration, just no point kidding myself. So as far as Zen practice, you are my teacher, and Sotoshu is the umbrella organization whether I like it or not. Rather than using energy to reinvent their wheel, I am happy just to practice the way as best as I can in the current circumstances. And yes, there are enough things to take care of already, so I’m not going make it my business wondering whether or not I might eventually graduate, or when that might be.