Human beings are religious animals.

The Absolute is present at the heart of all phenomena of the universe. The entire universe practises the Way, naturally, unconsciously, and automatically.

That gives rise to the question that Master Dogen had before meeting Master Nyojo: “Why practise if everything is Buddha ? “ His doubts resolved, he tells us that mountains and valleys are none other than the genuine mind. It is because it is difficult to recognise this truth that many among us engage ourselves on mistaken paths and deviate from the functioning of Buddha … while we should return to the ancient Way that the universe has practised for all eternity. Shakyamuni was the first to find that ancient Way practised by those ancient Buddhas who are the mountains and valleys.

For human beings, who too often depend on their own mental fabrications, to return to that ancient Way is not easy. To achieve that, the human being, even though he is a child of the universe, must resort to a religious practice. Starting with the fact that human beings are gifted with the capacity for reflexive thought with a powerful tool like the brain, he must take into account the laws of the universe. If he does not take those laws into account then he faces Suffering. In fact, the human being, as Master Deshimaru reminded us, is a religious animal.

Fundamental practice of the Bodhisattva

In Soto Zen, which belongs to the Mahayana, there is but one single practice; The Bodhisattva practice. All those who practise the Way are Bodhisattvas. In the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra the Bodhisattva is defined as a consciousness that is awakened. The Bodhisattva Way is infinite and is accomplished in the perfect, unsurpassable state of Buddha. Thus, a person who takes on the form of a monk or nun remains, above all, a Bodhisattva. All Bodhisattvas place the Three Treasures at the heart of their life. They vow to become a Buddha, to follow his teachings, and, by so doing, to free themselves of the Three Poisons and to help all existences to do likewise. Those are the four vows that govern the Bodhisattva’s life.

In order to realise his aspiration to be free of the three poisons, the Bodhisattva receives the ten precepts by the light of which all aspects of his life are illuminated. In fact, following The Precepts is none other than patiently remaining in the “non-born”. That is to say, not moving when confronted by the assaults of the Three Poisons. That’s what we do in Zazen, and that is what we try to continue to do during all our life.

The Bodhisattva who takes his vows seriously may doubt his or her own capacity to carry them out. The Bodhisattva recognises that the task is fascinating, but, nevertheless, out of reach of those who rely solely on their own willpower. He or she wishes to be guided on that infinite and subtle Way. The Bodhisattva therefore asks for help and decides to lean on a line of patriarchs that goes all the way back to Buddha and so to be ordained as a monk or nun. He enters the Soto order.

The Soto Zen Monk or Nun

The monk places zazen at the root of his practice and recognises Soto Zen forms. He refers to the teaching of the Zen patriarchs, expresses veneration for Buddha mind through ceremonies, dresses according to the tradition of the Soto school, and lives daily life through ritualised forms like, for example, the practise of oryoki for receiving food.

During the ordination of a monk, the person ordained takes the extended hand of the ordaining master and recognises him as his instructor. He agrees to receive instruction and education from the members of the community and to follow the rules. Later, whenever he walks in the world, his heart desires to honour Buddha’s teaching in its Soto Zen form.

Of course, the bodhisattva who has decided to enter the Soto order and to become a monk is less free to follow his or her own personal consciousness. But when he lucidly considers the power of karma, then he sees the demands of a monk’s life as a great help.

In the text read during the ordination ceremony it is said that, of all the Buddhas, not one has failed to take the form of a monk. Among all merits, the merit of becoming a monk is the greatest. It is a merit that grows constantly until one day it produces the Buddha fruit.

When we say, “among all those who have attained awakening, not one has failed to take the form of a monk” it means, of course, that it is through bodhisattva practice – placed at the centre of our life, lived twenty four hours a day, guided by a master of our line – that we have the best chance of awakening.

Indeed, Master Dogen defines the monk as one who has left home – shukke 1 in Japanese. This is a symbolic way of saying that the monk is one who has left his selfishness behind. Master Dogen uses the word zaike to designate a person who practises the Way without leaving home. Both shukke and zaike decide to realise the Way 2 . One follows the traditional forms of Soto Zen, while the other lives with a family and accepts the responsibilities of life as a layperson (until now zaike ordination has most often concerned the wives of temple leaders in Japan). Master Dogen writes, Complete, perfect, unsurpassed awakening is always realised the very day one leaves home and receives the precepts. Were it not for the day one leaves home to become a monk, there would never be any accomplishment.

Master Dogen is inviting us here to consider the difficulty of reconciling the profane world with the Dharma. Although one does not exclude the other, it is hard to serve two masters at the same time. The monk devotes his life to his own liberation and the liberation of others. He devotes himself to the essential and turns away from secondary matters. During the ordination ceremony the novice does sanpai toward his family, thus showing deep respect for those who have nourished and loved him. He strips his relationship with his family of all attachment. He opens his Buddha heart to all existences including his family. He detaches himself from worldly values in order to devote himself to Buddha life.

As soon as you enter the Way you turn your gaze inward toward original mind without worrying about the forms that appear and disappear. That’s what we do in zazen, what we do all through a sesshin. That’s what a monk does when he withdraws from the agitation of the world in order to live ango 3 with other monks.

In the three situations that I have just cited, it is always a question of awakening, of awakening to one’s vocation to be Buddha, of clarifying one’s mind, before turning to the world. Indeed, personal realisation is necessary but it has meaning only if it is placed in service to others. With a view to real wisdom and compassion, the monk is ready – aware of his own personal weakness – to follow instructions given by his peers, ready to accept rules, ready to leave home in order to come to Buddha’s home. It is most difficult to live the Way in society because your mind is preoccupied with providing for your material needs, which are often amplified and perverted by a society of consumption. In a monastery all the necessary conditions are present for a life devoted to the essential. In addition, there is the strength of the group, the current that carries us beyond ourselves. We also benefit from the rules, which protect us from our own negligence and distraction.

Of course, the real monastery exists deep within us. It is not a construction outside one’s own life. However, it is in a monastery that we can be trained as monks, that we can give ourselves completely, freely, without personal worries, to honouring the three treasures, that we can live side by side with a master and unconsciously receive transmission of Buddha’s mind and precepts.

We must always bear in mind that Buddha teaches according to two realities: one reality is absolute, the reality of the Awakened one, while the other is relative, perceived through our eyes of flesh, understood and interpreted through our mental activity. These two visions are co-existing at every instant. Only the awakened being is able to see both realities at one and the same time.

As it is said in the Hannya Shingyo, we can see the absolute in phenomena and we can also see phenomena come forth from and return to the absolute. Ku zoku ze shiki, shiki zoku ze ku. We have no reason to choose between the absolute and the phenomenal, or give preference to one or the other. Yet that is what we tend to do. Some privilege the relative aspect of things while others privilege the absolute aspect. We can see these tendencies at work in the way we commit ourselves to the Way. Some people become shukke, monks of the body, while others become zaike, monks of the mind. We might say, oversimplifying a bit, that the monk of the body favours the absolute aspect and somehow rejects the ordinary world. The monk of the mind, however, rejects none of the forms of samsara even if that means running the risk of forgetting the absolute aspect. These two tendencies are a function of our karma. In modern Western society we are more interested in forms than in the essence.

Our practise aims at harmonising these two ways of looking at things. The correct realisation is to stand beyond both tendencies and to see nirvana in the midst of samsara, to see ku in shiki and shiki in ku. So the choice is left up to each one of us. But it must be an informed choice. History tells us that in the beginning there was a tendency to withdraw from the world, to favour ku. Later, as Buddhist doctrine developed (as we can see in the early councils) phenomena became, for the Mahayana, the place where awakening is practised and, consequently, they must not be rejected. We do not withdraw from the ordinary world itself but rather from its values.

1 The chapter of the Shobogenzo titled Shukke kudoku was the first text presented by Master Dogen at Eiheiji. In it he espouses a radically monachal vision.

2 Our school defines two different ordinations: shukke tokudo and zaike tokudo. Tokudo means to realise the Way, while shukke means to leave home, and zaike means to stay at home.

3 Ango: literally “dwelling in tranquility”. Ango is in fact a three month period during which one lives in a training temple and devotes one’s time to the practice of awakening in the forms of the Soto school.

The end of controversy

We have just finished preliminary commemorations for the 650th anniversary of the death of Gasan Zenji, Keizan Zenji’s successor. During that ceremony it was indicated that Sojiji and Eiheiji are, “Soto School places of practice, for the promotion and the spreading of the Buddha Dharma, for the education of monks whose vocation is to transmit the teachings to future generations.” We were reminded of the preponderate place of sojo – transmission of teaching from master to disciple – in our school.

Gasan Zenji deployed great energy in honouring the vow of his master who, as he was to do himself, had tirelessly devoted himself to the development and diffusion of Soto Zen teaching. He also educated 25 eminent disciples, five of whom were to become abbots of Sojiji.

As a descendant of the lines linking him to Buddha, the monk’s vocation is to participate in the transmission of this precious teaching. Hearing the earth-shaking footsteps of those giants, we must set forth ourselves and continue the transmission of the Dharma. According to the standards of the Soto School, a monk who has not yet accomplished the hossenshiki ceremony within twenty years of his ordination loses his monk status. A monk’s vocation is therefore to become a transmitter of the Dharma. In order to go out into the world and correctly transmit the authentic Buddha Way, he must have come to a certain realisation and received a solid training.

In conformity with our tradition, a shukke is trained for several years in a temple. We have translated shukke as “monk” with the idea that a monk in the West leads a “regular” life while a priest leads a secular life.

But, in the Sotoshu, we speak rather of “priests” even though they might reside in a temple. As a priest he is called upon to turn generously toward the world to make Buddha’s teaching known. He uses skilful means to remind lay people to put the absolute in the first place in their lives, to lead their lives in accordance with the cosmic order. He gives this teaching at the great Buddhist holidays, he invites lay people to take refuge and receive the precepts during o-jukai ceremonies, at funeral ceremonies he calls upon lay people not to waste their time but to bring Buddha into their lives.

Traditionally, the monastery lives in the world, in interdependence with the world. The monastery is the property of the village and lay people assure its material management. The villagers go there naturally to meet and help the monks.

Thus those who devote themselves to religious practice transmit spiritual values to lay people and, in return, they receive their subsistence from them. This respects the old saying that when material giving meets spiritual giving then unlimited merit is generated.

In the East as in the West a monk does not sit on his zafu from morning till night. A monk who lives in a monastery begins and ends the day with zazen. He accomplishes the ordinary activities necessary for the life of the community and gives the rest of his time in service to Buddha and human beings. In that, he is not really different to a monk of the mind.

In the West, where Buddhism has only recently been implanted, it is the monk who goes to the world. He gives talks, goes on television, and uses all sorts of means so that people might learn that the Buddha Way exists. Although the forms in Europe might be different to the forms in Japan, whether the monk goes out into the world or the world comes to the monastery, the mind is the same – the mind of giving Buddha’s teaching to the multitude and, by so doing, helping all existences.

Realistic transmission

For Master Dogen, realising the Way consists in practicing the precepts and in giving up the ordinary world. There are two ways of giving up the ordinary world – in the mind or in fact.
Ubakikuta had just been ordained a monk when his master Shonawashu asked him, “Have you chosen to be a monk of the body or a monk of the mind? Are you leaving home for real or figuratively?” This exchange is recounted in Master Keizan’s Denkoroku1.

For Keizan, a monk of the body physically leaves his dwelling, shaves his head, wears monk’s clothing, and lives on the generosity of his fellow beings. He strives to live the Way 24 hours a day. Free of all family or social obligation as well as of any need for affection, he desires nothing. He no longer wallows in the pleasures of life nor does he fear death. He has surpassed the ordinary mortal state. He follows the Way, neither seeking truth nor fleeing illusion. Keizan says, “His mind is like the pure clarity of the autumn moon.”

The monk of the mind gives up selfishness but does not shave his head. He lives in the world the way the lotus lives in mud without being soiled by it. If he has a spouse and children, he is not selfishly attached to them. He knows that the desire to cut off passions is a disease, for samsara is none other than nirvana. Keizan compares him to, “a star hanging in the sky, a pearl rolling around in a bowl.” He is in the world but not of the world. He tastes the flavours of life but is attached to none of them.

Between these two archetypes – monk of the body and monk of the mind – there is a wide range of intermediate possibilities, which we take on according to the causes and conditions of our lives. Each of us is called to take on the form best suited to him or her. Both archetypes have their values and their reasons for existing. We can imagine experiencing being a monk of the body, having that experience and realisation, drawing from it the training necessary to then go out in the world with great liberty and lucidity.

If we are not careful we might end up opposing the monk of the body to the monk of the mind. In fact, Shonawashu does not make such categories. They have no place in the Buddha Way. For him, body and mind are not separate. We cannot separate form and content, mind and form.

Both the monk of the body and the monk of the mind try to bring nirvana into the heart of samsara whether it be in a monastery or in a city. They are both careful not to confuse freedom of selfishness with freedom from selfishness. If we look at the past we see that most of the great patriarchs were monks of the body. We find few monks of the mind – like the mythical Vimalakirti – who realised the Way. Those who remain in the world without being complicit in the errors of the world are engaged in a heroic but dangerous undertaking.

Even if the distinction between monk of the mind and monk of the body has no place in Buddha’s reality, in Europe today many of us are asking questions like: “Is monastic practice the only right practice?” or “What is an authentic monk?” etc. In fact, such questions are not pertinent and the debates around them are not serious.

In fact, the real questions are about how we can help human beings to get free of suffering, how we can transmit the Buddha Way correctly. Because Buddha’s teaching is so contrary to our habits of thought, we must reflect deeply about how to receive and transmit it. For example, ought we to simplify Zen forms in order to adapt them to our society?

1 Denkoroku is a collection of short biographies of the 53 patriarchs from Shakyamuni to Koun Ejo.