In an essay called Living With Dogen, Dogen scholar Carl Bielefeldt says, “For most Buddhists throughout history, the serious practice of Buddhism has been a kind of ‘spectator sport’: a few people do it; the rest of us watch.”
This is what you find throughout most of Asia. In Japan people at my workplace found it odd that I meditated every day, attended retreats and tried to bring a Buddhist attitude into my regular work-a-day life. Japanese people, even those who define themselves as Buddhists, generally just don’t do those things. Oh maybe a few eccentric older people try it out in their “Golden Years” after retirement, but not people like I was, a guy in his thirties working for a film production company. My meditation practice in many ways seemed weirder to Buddhists in Japan than it does to Christians in America.
I’m working on two books simultaneously right now. One is the Dogen book I’ve been mentioning fairly often here. The other is an attempt to compile and revise a lot of material I’ve previously published on-line and in magazines about living as a non-monastic Buddhist in the modern world (it will also contain a lot of material written specifically for the book). I’ve only just started to realize that this is the subject I write about most often.
Dogen, the 13th century Buddhist monk/philosopher whose take on Zen I have followed most of my life is a bit schizophrenic on this matter. In some of his writings he unambiguously praises non-monastic Buddhist practice while in other writings he appears to denounce, or at least belittle it. Those of us who study Dogen are often at a loss to understand this contradiction.
Yet, non-monastics like myself are forced to just shrug our shoulders at some of his pro-monastic rants since the only other option is to take them at face value and simply give up our non-monastic practice as an exercise in futility. I, for one, cannot do that since Dogen’s practice has been so valuable to me.
The other day a certain aspect of the problem became really apparent to me. I’d just been listening to or reading something about some disturbing example of violence and militarism/police work. It may have been the stuff going on in Ferguson, Missouri or maybe it was ISIS and the US plans to demolish them. Whatever it was, I went from that to looking at a bunch of people peacefully practicing meditation in a safe and secure zendo.
I started thinking about why it is that we can practice in our secure little zendos and ashrams and meditation centers. It wasn’t always like that. The Buddhist temples and meditation places that once existed all over Afghanistan were destroyed by invading armies. Their libraries were burned and the monks were killed. In Dogen’s day, there was no such thing as a police force. If temples wanted to defend themselves from the very real threat of attack they trained their monks in the martial arts and swordsmanship and formed their own mini-armies. Dogen established himself in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture (then called Echizen) not just for its peace and tranquility but also because it was an unattractive target being so remote, which meant he and his monks didn’t have to worry so much about defense as they would have in the capitol city of Kyoto.
These days we don’t have to think about that stuff because it’s not as much in our faces. We can even fool ourselves into believing that we nice, peaceful Buddhists in our meditation centers are somehow better than soldiers and police people with their machine guns and their weapons of mass destruction. Yet we depend on them to make our little corners of the world safe enough that we can peacefully meditate while arrogantly praising ourselves for choosing a better way of life.
In the old days, monks understood this connection. They could see clearly how their ability to live apart from the violence of the everyday world was made possible by those within that world who were willing to protect their ability to do that. There was a lot of mythology about how monks generated merit that they then dedicated to their supporters. In contemporary Buddhist temples we still perform rituals that are supposed to transfer the merits of our meditations and religious services to those who keep us going.
Yet sometimes I wonder if this idea is lost to a lot of current practitioners who occupy that weird middle ground between monk and layperson that is emerging as the norm for Western Buddhism. It’s clear to me that many of us do not get the connection at all.
Maybe it’s because we’re able to live lives that allow us to self-identify as special, peaceful people in contrast to those awful, violent people out there. We can go to Whole Foods and stock up on tasty microwavable vegetarian meals and organic cage-free non-gluten pretzel snacks, with our Fair Trade hemp jeans and our locally sourced honey or whatever. We’re able to create the illusion that we live in a bubble of peace and we start thinking, “If only everyone else could be just like me, the world would be as one!”
We fail to see how we can’t be barefoot Zen hippies unless someone else is willing to be a tough-as-nails, jack-booted cop to make sure nobody messes with our fantasy world. That’s us retreating from reality rather than confronting it.
I wish it wasn’t this way as much as anyone else does. I think we’re capable of better. I’d like to think there will come a time when there are no more soldiers and no more cops. But that time is a long way off. And we’ll never get there unless we’re able to be honest about how things actually are right now.
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As a non-monastic living independently I depend on your donations for my livelihood. Thank you for your kind support!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near WÃ¼rzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon — 5pm Manchester, UK