Repaying Our Debt of Gratitude to Those Who’ve Gone Before Us

For the upcoming workshop on the spirit, principles and practices of Zen priest home leavers at Boundless Way, I’ve been reviewing a number texts about the fine points of Zen decorum – how to sit, walk, bow, wear the kesa, use the bathroom, etc.

It strikes me that we’re a tradition in major transition – from a slightly post-feudal monastic culture and into the global market place.

We have the great good fortune to have the opportunity to receive the work of handful of teachers from the last century, providing two different approaches for embodying the buddhadharma, making it alive in our lives now.

The first couple teachers are Roshis Dai-un Harada and Hakuun Yasutani. They took the traditional Rinzai koan system (or one of them) and made it portable by reducing the number of koans, including some Soto elements, and dropping the more scholarly dimensions of the training (essays, capping phrases, etc.). It isn’t clear if it was their intention (I guess not) but the effect of this was to create a koan system that Westerns could work with without being fluent in Japanese and Chinese.

The second group were also Soto teachers like Suzuki Roshi, Chino Roshi, Uchiyama Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. They took the monastic spirit, principles and practices and abbreviated them, focusing on the most essential elements of sitting, walking, and bowing, and offered them to a group of people much different than the mostly young, mostly male Japanese trainees of the past bunch of centuries. It seems that it was their intention to offer what they could – from their monastic tradition – in order to keep it alive for future generations.

These two ways are not necessarily two. The choice isn’t either or – most lines of training in the US today include elements of both of the above. My interest, as I’ve said here many times, is in the synthesis of these approaches and what happens then.

So I’ve developed a way of working with Dogen texts that integrates koan processes with Dogen study – entering the text rather than philosophizing about it – and am now getting feedback from other teachers and gradually rolling them out with students in the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.

An edge of my present work involves the forms of Soto Zen and koan. What is koan behind the form, for example, the koan for which a clear response is gassho by “…holding both hands together, with arms slightly away from chest and fingertips aligned with the end of the nose (fingertips should be held at the same heights as the nose)?”

Nevertheless, this moment I’m very grateful to those that have come before us.

May the merit from this
repay our debt of gratitude for their compassion
nurturing us with the milk of dharma.

- from the Personal Morning Service for Home Leavers

BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
  • Kogen 古 元

    Hi Dosho,

    I was struck the other day by Dogen’s Home Leaving and the force of his advice that ordaining is basically the only way. This in the light of his Genjo Koan, written to a lay person, leaves me a little confused. His emphasis on the 16 bodhisattva precepts also seems inclusive. But living in a temple, aspiring to wear the Okesa, I sometimes catch the flak of homeleaving is the only way, and personally, I don’t feel like this is our soto-zen message, and yet, I’m afraid if our householders read Dogen’s Home Leaving, it will turn them off. How do you respond to questions about the appearance of our priests taking a front row seat to lay practice? (by appearance, I actually mean they do sit in front for all major ceremonies)

    • doshoport

      Hi Kogen,

      Yes, I found Dogen’s “Words of Admiration for Home Leaving” (that’s what you’re referring too, right?) shocking when I first heard it … and now consider it very important.

      Might be a longer blog post there!

      One consideration about this for now is that the home-leaving way of life is open to all – especially as it has developed in the Soto tradition. Home leaving has become more of a sacred rite of vow and confirmation, perhaps more than Dogen imagined.

      Maybe too much.

      Seniority systems, imv, are largely left-overs from out-dated forms of doing power and authority.

      Palms together,