Tradition and Change

Each morning at Soto Zen temples throughout Japan and elsewhere as well, it is customary to chant a series of five sutras for the morning service. The third sutra chanted, typically Sandokai or Hokyozanmai, is dedicated “to the successive generations of buddhas and ancestors who transmitted the flame (of the Dharma).” One of the defining characteristics of the Zen school is this transmission of the Dharma from generation to generation. And hence, there is a strong emphasis on tradition*1.

Many of the sutras chanted in Japanese Zen monasteries, as well as all of the eko, are still written and recited in classical Chinese, albeit using Japanese phonetics. And this is hundreds of years following the introduction of Zen to Japan. Since the eko are written in classical Chinese order, the grammar of which is completely different than Japanese, a monk is required to spend extra time simply learning how to read the phrases in Japanese order.

I remember explaining to a younger American monk what seems to Westerners to be an archaic system and he immediately exclaimed, “But why?!” He couldn’t fathom the reason for maintaining a system that seemed to him completely obsolete, a good example of our very pragmatic American way of thinking. Why not simply write the characters in the order in which they would be read in Japanese? The only answer that came to mind was, “In Zen, there is this great emphasis on tradition.” China was traditionally looked to as the source of culture in other fields as well. So, this one example is by no means unique. It also corresponds to the way the Catholic Church continued to use Latin as the liturgical language even until fairly recently.

In Zen, however, it wasn’t only the liturgy. Many of the anecdotes referred to in teaching about Zen are from China and still pronounced in Chinese order. Also, nearly all of the thousands of phrases used by Zen masters for various sorts of calligraphies come from China. This is really quite astounding when we consider that Zen was introduced to Japan nearly 800 years ago. It is easy to see the way language and tradition have been used to authenticate Zen.

All of this serves as a lengthy introduction as I reflect on the Dendokyoshi Kenshusho (Workshop) that was held last year at Hosshinji Monastery in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. Six European and two American Zen teachers participated in a one-month special ango that comprised this workshop. Over the years, the Administrative Headquarters of Soto Zen Buddhism has convened several of these special study sessions in order to recognize senior Western teachers. The first of them were held in the 1980s at Shuzenji, Daijoji, and Koshoji, three monasteries in Japan, and one was held in the 1990s at Green Gulch Farm. There was a several year hiatus until the one held last hear.

Hosshinji Monastery was probably chosen for two main reasons. One was that Harada Sekkei Roshi, abbot and shike of the monastery, had been chosen to be Director of Soto Zen Buddhism Europe Office. Since six Europeans were scheduled to attend the ango, it would provide a way for Harada Roshi and these teachers to get acquainted. Secondly, Hosshinji Monastery is a flourishing monastery in a rural Japanese setting, and since many non-Japanese people have been training there over the years, it would be fairly easy to accommodate these Westerners and at the same time give them a taste of traditional Japanese monastic training. The primary reason for these Dendokyoshi workshops is to give certification to Western Zen teachers who have not, for one reason or another, been able to spend a longer time in a Japanese monastery so that their disciples can be properly registered at the Administrative Headquarters of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokyo.

The actual ango was divided into two two-week sessions, the first in the latter part of May and the second in mid-November. The theme of the workshop was “Transmission of the Dharma.” Harada Roshi was the chief lecturer and first spoke on Zenkaisho, a commentary on a teisho Dogen Zenji gave on the Bommo-kyo, a sutra specifically concerned with the precepts. In total, Roshi gave nearly twenty talks and certainly this was one of the main attractions of the workshop, not only for the guest participants, but also for the people training at Hosshinji. During the course of the workshop, Harada Roshi continued to speak about the transmission of the Dharma (a transmission outside of the teachings), often using cases from the Mumonkan as well as sections of the Gakudoyojinshu to illustrate his points. Participants in the ango were then encouraged to ask questions following the talks or to come to dokusan individually to clarify any uncertain points. Certainly, this was another attractive element of the ango. Other lecturers included Rev. Shohaku Okumura, who lectured on the Eihei Koroku and The Four Practices of a Bodhisattva and Rev. Dosho Saikawa, who lectured on the Shoyoroku.

The other main feature of the Dendokyoshi Workshop was to have the guests participate in everyday monastic life. At Hosshinji, we get up at 4:00 a.m. and sit one period of zazen. At 5:00 a.m. the morning sutra service is held in the Dharma Hall. This is followed by breakfast and during the first half of the Workshop, breakfast and lunch were served in the zendo with formal oryoki. Typically, we work from 8:00-10:30 a.m., followed by lunch at 11:00 a.m. However, because many Dharma talks were given, the work period was often cut short. Following a rest period after lunch, we have work from 1:00-4:00 p.m. During the workshop, this work period was also shortened to make time so that the participants could practice the various duties needed to perform the morning and afternoon sutra services. The afternoon sutra service was at 5:00 p.m., followed by dinner at 5:30 p.m. and then a bath. At 7:20 p.m. we sat two more periods of zazen. Outside this regular daily schedule, other activities included takuhatsu (begging) in Obama, which we usually do three times a month at Hosshinji during the ango, and a sightseeing trip to see local temples.

Although some Zen centers in the West have incorporated quite a bit of the Japanese monastic form into their training practice, many of the people who took part in last year’s workshop had never used oryoki (at least not the formal style with six bowls used in a Japanese monastery). Several were also not familiar with even the basic movements in the Dharma Hall, not to mention performing all the different duties necessary for the daily sutra services. For myself, I have to say that teaching these basics was the most demanding part of the workshop. Persuading the participants that it was worth their time and effort to seriously undertake learning the various meal forms, the duties for services, as well as keeping up their general appearance in terms of robes, kimono, and so on, and then teaching the forms and doing our best to see that they could carry them out well, took quite a bit of energy. To this end, several staff members of the Administrative Headquarters of Soto Zen Buddhism, as well as monks at Hosshinji, joined in to help make this possible. It really is expecting a great deal for people with little or no experience to come into a new environment and master forms that some, though certainly not all, may perceive to be unnecessary.

To this end, one of the most convincing points I was able to make was that all of the activities in the life at Hosshinji are considered to be forms of zazen, that we live within zazen, rather than zazen being one activity which we incorporate into our life. It took me quite a while myself to appreciate this aspect of zazen. When I began practicing at Hosshinji as a young man, I felt quite a bit of resistance toward ceremonial form, and for a long time contently cooked breakfast each morning instead of participating in the morning service. It was only over a period of several years that I came to appreciate the beauty of performing the services in unison with the other monks as another form of zazen. And I think my personal experience was useful in conveying the value of this aspect of monastic form to our guests.

For Westerners, one of the most attractive aspects of Buddhism is that is has been so flexible over the centuries. As it has moved from India to China to Korea to Japan and now the West, it has always adapted itself to the new culture rather than trying to change it. And yet at the same time, it has brought about huge transformations to each culture, most likely because rather than trying to suppress native religions, it has incorporated them into the Buddhist teaching. Many Westerners have been eager to claim Zen as their own by emphasizing its universal aspect. At the same time, some people have rejected traditional Japanese Zen because they perceived it as stuck in tradition and no longer relevant.

It is here at the juncture of East and West that we can sense the tension between tradition on the one hand and the desire to innovate and be free of tradition on the other. It seems to me that Soto Zen is now at a crossroads. The critical and really the only important issue is the true transmission of the Dharma, regardless of East or West. Certainly, this is a transmission outside the teachings and yet at the same time, it is precisely because of the blood, sweat, and tears of the successive Great Masters that we can now do zazen. This is something we cannot deny or overlook. While many Westerners would like to be confident in their understanding of Zen and confident to experiment with new forms, I also know that at least some Western Zen teachers are concerned that there is still something left to learn from traditional Japanese Zen. For that reason alone, I am sure I speak for everyone at Hosshinji when I say that even though it was a considerable task for us to host last year’s Dendokyoshi workshop, we thought it was a worthwhile effort for everyone involved.

  1. Coincidentally, until about twenty years ago in Japan, this eko (verses read following the chanting of a sutra for transferring merit) was read as “the successive generations of the three countries” — India, China, and Japan —in which this flame was transmitted. In Japan, this was felt to be discriminatory against other countries and so it was revised to be read without “the three countries.” Ironically, at the American Zen Center where I now reside, this eko is still read with “the three countries.”