Dogen wrote a piece for Shobogenzo called Shukke Kudoku or “In Praise of Home Leaving.” It’s probably the best example of what has become one of the most problematic aspects of Dogen’s writings for Western lay Buddhist followers of the Soto tradition. This is the chapter in which he most emphatically states that the only way anyone can ever hope to truly understand the Buddha Way or become enlightened is to be a home-leaving celibate monastery dwelling monk. There are a couple other places where he says things like this. But Shukke Kudokuis the one where he really lays it on.
This chapter is the one mainly responsible for the often repeated assertion that Dogen in his younger days favored lay practice but later changed his mind and decided that only monastic Buddhism really mattered. This is the chapter in which he famously says, “Breaking of the precepts having left family life (become a monk) is better than keeping the precepts as a layperson, because with the precepts of a layperson we do not realize liberation.” Then a couple pages later he says it again just in case you forgot.
The chapter is problematic not only for the way it makes all of us who don’t live in monasteries and yet do try to follow Dogen’s philosophy and practice feel bad. It isn’t clear exactly what this chapter was intended for. The colophon at the end states that it was copied by his student Ejo in 1255, two years after Dogen died. However, it was included in the 12 chapter edition of Shobogenzo, which was one of the first editions ever produced.
The chapter itself is repetitive and a bit unfocused, if you ask me. It reads like the rough drafts I often produce in which I just write a whole lot of things down with the intention of removing many of them later after I reread it and decide which parts work best. Even so, it’s definitely Dogen’s writing and he must have intended it as something. In 1246 he delivered a similar speech about home leaving. This one doesn’t say that it’s better to break the precepts as a monk than keep them as a lay person. But it does say that becoming a monk is “as important as your head.”
A good Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsor will tell her sponsee that AA is the only way to get sober, that you have to follow all twelve steps if you want to get well, that without AA you’ll be lost to the ravages of the Demon Alcohol forever. These are not objective truths. There are people who get off the sauce without AA and there are people who follow all twelve steps and still end up drunks. But part of making AA work is for sponsors to instill confidence in those who follow the plan. One of the best ways to do that is to tell the sponsee that only AA can ever possibly help them.
Nobody will ever know for sure if Dogen really had a complete change of heart regarding lay practice or if he was being like a good AA sponsor trying to instill confidence in the monastic path to his monks in a snowy, remote monastery where life must have been pretty tough. There is evidence that he was re-working some of his more pro-lay practice pieces even while he was writing stuff like Shukke Kudoku. Nobody ever asked him straight out whether or not he’d changed his mind on the subject. Or if they did they never wrote down his answer.
But does it really matter what Dogen thought? He was just a guy, after all. He could’ve been wrong even if he really did believe that monasticism was the only way. While I’d be as interested as anyone else to know if he actually changed his mind or not, in the end my practice here in the 21st century is something at once very different from what Dogen wrote about as well as being exactly the same.
In any case, I thought a lot about monasticism while I was at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery from mid-August through mid-September. While I was serving up delicious gourmet food to the paying guests who support the monastery (see photo above) I was also trying to come to terms with my own ambivalent feelings about monasticism and lay practice.
Watching what went on at Tassajara I kept wondering if the practice there and at other Zen monasteries teaches discipline or obedience. I had always sort of assumed that the point of spending a month or three months or several years in a place where they ring bells to wake you up way too early, make you submit an official excuse every time you miss zazen practice or service, train you to do all kinds of jobs that keep the monastery running and so forth was to instill a sense of discipline. It was my belief that the purpose of all that was to show you what being disciplined was like so that you could go home and behave in a disciplined way without anyone ringing bells at you or giving you a hard time when you failed to perform.
But if that’s what it’s supposed to do, I’m not sure it really works. Many of the people I met at Tassajara don’t really do much Zen practice when they’re not in a place where they have to. I’m not talking about just sleeping in later than five in the morning or not chanting sutras. I don’t get up nearly that early when at home, nor do I chant very often. But a lot of folks who do monastic training don’t even end up doing any zazen at all after they’re finished with a practice period or whatever course of training they’ve chosen. This is even more true in Japan where your average temple-dwelling monk is highly unlikely to do any zazen at all except during a specific training period, which they avoid as much as they possibly can.
And if monastic practice fails to instill in a person the will to do zazen as a daily part of their normal life, what good is it? If it just teaches monks to obey those in power, how does this benefit anyone in any way?
I can’t really say. Maybe it does a lot of good. Who would undertake such a thing if they didn’t feel there was some benefit? Still, I think daily sitting is way more important than doing intensive practice for a little while and then dropping it. And I disagree with Dogen. It is better to keep the precepts as a lay person than to break them as a monk.
(Oh! And here’s a nice article about the Hare Krishnas and their version of monastic practice by my friend Darrah.)