To you who has decided to become a Zen monk

by Uchiyama Kōshō Rōshi
Translated from Japanese by Muhō.

The motto for living in the world is: eat or be eaten! Now, if you have decided to become a monk because you think that life in this world is too hard and bitter for you and you would prefer to rather live off other people’s donations while drinking your tea – if you want to become a monk just to make a living, then the following is not for you. If you read the following, be aware that it is addressed to someone who has aroused the mind to practice the Buddha way after questioning his own life, and only therefore wants to become a monk.

For someone who has aroused this mind and aspires to practice the way, what is important is to first of all find a good master and look for a good place for practice. In the old days, the practicing monks would put on their straw hats and straw sandals to travel through the whole country in search of a good master and place of practice. Today it is easier to get informations: Collect and check them and decided for a master and community that seems suitable to you.

You should not forget though that to practice the Buddha way means to let go off the self and practice egolessness. To let go off the self and practice egolessness again means to let go off the measuring stick that we are always carrying around with us in our brains. For this, you must follow the teaching of the master and the rules of the place of practice that you have decided for loyally, without stating your own preferences or judgements of good and bad. It is important to first sit through silently in one place for at least ten years.

If, on the other hand, you start to judge the good and bad sides of your master or the place of practice before the first ten years have passed, and you start to think that maybe there is a better master or place somewhere else and go look for it – then you are just following the measuring stick of your own ego, which has absolutely nothing to do with practicing the Buddha way.

Right from the start you have to know clearly that no master is perfect: Any master is just a human being. What is important is your own practice, which has to consist of following the imperfect master as perfectly as possible. If you follow your master in this way, than this practice is the basis on which you can follow yourself. That is why Dogen Zenji says:

To follow the Buddha way means to follow yourself. [Genjokoan]

Following the master, following the sutras – all this means to follow oneself. The sutras are an expression of yourself. The master is YOUR master. When you travel far and wide to meet with masters, that means that you travel far and wide to meet with yourself. When you pick a hundred weeds, you are picking yourself a hundred times. And when you climb ten thousand trees, you are climbing yourself for a ten thousand times. Understand that when you practice in this way, you are practicing yourself. Practicing and understanding thus, you will let go of yourself and get a real taste of yourself for the first time. [Jisho-zanmai]

It is often said that for practicing Zen it is important to find a master – but who decides what a true master is in the first place? Don’t you make that decision with the measurement stick of your thoughts (that is: your ego)? As long as you look for the master outside of your own practice, you will only extend your own ego. The master does not exist outside of yourself: the practice of zazen, in which the self becomes the self is the master. That means zazen in which you really let go your thoughts.

Does that mean that it is enough to practice zazen alone without a master at all? No, certainly not. Dogen Zenji himself says in the Jisho-zanmai, just after the quote above:

When you hear that you get a taste of yourself and awake to yourself through yourself, you might jump to the conclusion that you should practice alone, all for yourself, without having a master point the way out for you. That is a big mistake. To think that you can liberate yourself without a master is a heretic opinion that can be traced back to the naturalistic school of philosophy in India.

When you practice all for yourself without a master, you will end up just doing whatever comes into your mind. But that has nothing to do with practicing Buddhism. After all, it is absolutely necessary to first find a good master and to follow him. Fortunately, there are still masters in Japan that transmit the Buddha-Dharma correctly in the form of zazen. Follow such a master without complaining and sit silently for at least ten years. Then, after ten years, sit for another ten years. And then, after twenty years, sit anew for another ten years. If you sit like this throughout thirty years, you will gain a good view over the landscape of zazen – and that means also a good view of the landscape of your own life. Of course that does not mean that thus your practice comes to an end – practice always has to be the practice of your whole life.