Monks and Laypeople, War and Peace

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 Würzburg, 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

49 Responses

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  1. buddy
    buddy September 15, 2014 at 10:44 am |

    While you make good points about the freedoms we have to be peaceful and zenny being underwritten by the threat of state violence, it’s equally true -as we see in Ferguson and the Occupy movement -that those mechanisms of civil defence are equally in place to limit our freedoms. Especially since the War on Terror began, the parameters of public expression of opinion have gotten narrower and narrower.

  2. A beginner in Texas
    A beginner in Texas September 15, 2014 at 10:55 am |

    I would suggest that one potential “name” for a non-monastic Zen practitioner (or even more generically Buddhist) would be the word pilgrim.

    Even though we may not travel as much as the Wandering Hardcore Monk/Actor/Bass player we are all on our own journey. The path is along our own lives. We may visit ‘holy’ places, but the our journeys are only done when we no longer draw breath in this life.

    In the older use, one who journey’s physically, pilgrims were usually at the mercy of all the dangers of their time. From bandits, from invading armies, from the elements. They had no choice. If they traveled with others for protection they would be expected to shoulder some duty within the group, not remaining some aloof tag-along.

    I recall you writing/saying (can’t recall if it was a podcast or something written) that many people in today’s Buddhism think the only two occupations they can hold is a yoga teacher or a therapist. That goes along with your writing above about living a Whole Foods-sourced bubble. It’s like everyone thinks they live in Austin.

    Perhaps showing people how they can enact Buddhism in whatever part of the journey they are on should be a focus of Western Zen. As long as your own actions help to shape those you meet on that journey you are being a Zen pilgrim.

    1. Oleksa
      Oleksa September 16, 2014 at 2:40 am |

      This lack of appropriate terminology also troubles me. What do you think about “tertiarii” – a person who lives according to the ideals and spirit of a Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran religious order, but do not belong to its “first order” (monks), or its “second order” (nuns). In other words that’s a traditional term for a practicing layman.

  3. justlui
    justlui September 15, 2014 at 11:40 am |
  4. NoWallsUp
    NoWallsUp September 15, 2014 at 11:49 am |

    Ah, privilege… the headache you don’t know you don’t have.

  5. Michael
    Michael September 15, 2014 at 12:06 pm |

    I welcome this discussion of violence in reality, and how “spiritual” people ignore its existence. I would also like to see a discussion of the wholesale dismissal of Republicans/conservative thought by Buddhists in the US. Even Brad exhibits this behavior.

  6. shade
    shade September 15, 2014 at 12:21 pm |

    “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!”

    Cage free pretzel snacks? Is the practice of pretzel husbandry benighted by accusations of cruel and inhumane treatment as well then?

    Okay, just kidding. What I really want to say is I’ve lived all my life in Boulder county, Colorado, where this sort of moral myopia is extremely pervasive and has always driven me a little crazy. But for all that, I also have a problem with the idea that mass armament and state-sponsored violence are necessary to preserve the peaceful livelihood of peaceful civilians. A enormous number of people have been killed and maimed in the history of the human race by convincing individuals that they absolutely must engage in armed conflict in order to protect themselves, or their family, tribe or nation, from some perceived threat to their safety, freedom or material comfort (or worst of all, property). As often as not these threats are contrived or illusory. Or consist of a “enemy” force operating from the exact same mentality. Thus one’s offensive actions are perceived as essentially defensive and defensible in nature, while the same action on the part of one’s adversary is read as an act of aggression. This is a whole other form of moral myopia, and the results can be catastrophic.

    The problem, of course, is that people do sometimes act in a a way that is purely aggressive, and there are acts of violence motivated by something other than self-preservation – greed, hatred, bloodlust, or systematic campaigns of conquest, enslavement and genocide. There are situations when a show of force is the only way to prevent another person, institution, or nation from engaging in such crimes. It’s very easy to take the position of pacifism when one has never come within a thousand miles of a battlefield, never been the target of an invading army, or lived in a neighborhood where assault and murder are commonplace. But the world being what it is, the only way I can see for a person to claim an absolute commitment to non-violence with any honesty and integrity is if one is willing to put one’s own life on the line to support that commitment. And not just at some vague, unforeseen future date either – right now, and on daily basis. There are very few people who’ve been able to pull that off. (Myself, I’ve never been put to the test, but I would never count myself as such, regardless.)

    And yet… it is possible. There have been a handful.

  7. ptree
    ptree September 15, 2014 at 12:29 pm |

    Brad, although you have some valid and interesting points, concerning the violence you are simplifying things:
    First, I don’t know any buddhist who is against using violence if someone is in real need, like the Yazidis in your example about the IS.
    But then, just this conflict shows that the military you are so happy about is more part of the problem than the solution.
    If there wouldn’t have been the invasion in Iraq the IS never would have this support and that much power.
    There have been thousands of 9-11s in the last 20 years done by your govermenment, all to “defend” the american people.
    Killing innocent people, nowadays mostly done by drones, doesn’t make me safer.
    It’s always too easy only looking from one owns point of view.
    These people also have been disturbed in their meditation and they are taking your advice to defend themselves by causing terror in the western world which is starting the circle again….
    So better than calling for tough cops and the military is to stop terror by stopping doing terror.

    1. A beginner in Texas
      A beginner in Texas September 15, 2014 at 3:52 pm |

      I would amend your words regarding what you see as multiple 9-11s being committed by the military.

      The U.S. military does not direct itself. It is under the leadership of the politicians. With limited exceptions the deaths of the innocent which happen as a result of U.S. military action are the responsibility of the people in Washington who don’t wear uniforms. The military is a tool, much like the samurai’s sword. It can kill with great efficiency, but it never leaps from the scabbard to slay on its own. It is always following the will of others.

      Like the sword unsheathing the efficient tool (the U.S. military) should only be a last resort.

      1. ptree
        ptree September 16, 2014 at 1:23 am |


  8. The Idiot
    The Idiot September 15, 2014 at 2:45 pm |

    “…that weird middle ground between monk and layperson…”

    That’s an interesting thought. The difference between ‘monk’ and ‘not monk’ is pretty clear (to me). What is it about the ‘middle ground’ that distinguishes it from ‘layperson’?

  9. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 15, 2014 at 3:06 pm |

    Read this somewhere today & copied to save and found it interesting just now, in light of the above question about labels…

    “We must ask: for whom do we practice? We see the paradox of the self in the world, focusing inwardly in order to manifest outwardly. The inward look is the outward view. Ultimately we practice for others as our inward polishing manifests itself as good action in our activities.”

    – Eido Frances Carney

  10. justlui
    justlui September 15, 2014 at 3:59 pm |

    Would you (Brad or whoever cares to comment) say it is within the buddhist view to see the violence of the world as part of what we are? Do I experience a world filled with war and pollution because that is what my mind does? Is taking that kind of responsibility, sad as it is, buddhist?

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer September 15, 2014 at 4:53 pm |


      I certainly don’t claim to speak to anything other than my own understanding. That said…

      To your first question, the buddhism I understand asks me to see the world as it is. Since violence is a part of the world and I am part of the world, violence is certainly a part of me.

      I am sorry that I don’t really understand the second question.

      I can say that I have seen the world as filled with war and pollution. I’ve also seen it filled with wonder and miracles. It’s my choice as far as I can tell.

      As far as the third question, I do feel that I am responsible for how I see the world. I am also open to the idea that I am responsible for what the world is, but I don’t know this for a fact.


      1. justlui
        justlui September 15, 2014 at 6:29 pm |

        Hey thanks for the response. I appreciate the time and you’ve made some interesting points to consider.

        I think my second question is one of those questions that gets even more messed up the more I try to define “mind” so I better just let that one go as me not being able to articulate clearly since I don’t know what I am talking about. 😉

        Some interesting stuff here.

  11. Call Me Bob
    Call Me Bob September 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm |

    Brad, if self identifying Buddhist folks in Japan seldom meditate, do they put any effort into following the lay precepts? What is it about Buddhism they identify with?

  12. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid September 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm |

    “I think — I hope — that both concepts [of a utopia and dystopia] are dismissed as adolescent thinking. There are moments of pure, heart stopping beauty in the most tragic and broken environments. And the loveliest community on earth will not be able to eliminate the dog turd. I have attempted to reflect this in Transmetropolitan: the understanding that the world can be neither perfect nor doomed. But that it can be better. And the people who get to decide if it’s going to be better or not are the people who show up and raise their voices.” ”• Warren Ellis

    “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” – Cormac McCarthy

    It is to spite others that I practice.

    If you are sincere about practicing for others, then Paypal some money. Yeah, that’s what I thought! It’s just a gameshow for all of you, as it is for me, but I choose to engage in it as a way to deconstruct it.

    I practice to spite others because that way they can’t point their fingers at me and blame me for ‘my’ or ‘their’ problems. I don’t practice to run away from my problems or to become transparent to them. I’m no Underground Man or Dostoevskian tragedy.

    There is no reality in a culture, rituals, creed, or whatever, but my dreams and sound of birds chirping or the river’s melody are more real than anything else. All of this is trivial but I put up with it because I hate the mirror but love the dreams. We share no fundamental Buddha nature or egalitarian “common source”, and I practice to show this.

    I say one thing but underneath the mask there is nothing but resent.

    I practice to get away from all of you. I work, I practice, to distance myself from all of you! Because I am not human! I am as much the trees, brains, oceans, and etc. than I am this “human”! I practice for this reason! Because I want nothing to do with ANY of you.

    Except my dreams.

    1. justlui
      justlui September 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm |

      Dude, you’re totally a human!

      1. SamsaricHelicoid
        SamsaricHelicoid September 15, 2014 at 4:56 pm |


        I may have the attributes of a human, but I won’t be calling myself a human even if the fulfilled requirements are sufficient in order to call me human.

        We share no commonalities.

        I prefer to be defined by my interests, activities, biological functions, or etc. than apparitions such as culture (which doesn’t exist) or other arbitrary divisions.

        1. justlui
          justlui September 15, 2014 at 5:01 pm |

          Nope. You’re totally a human. That’s that, dude. And we do share commonalities! A huge one actually. We share this! If I saw you right now face to face I could totally prove you were human by poking you in the eye and then asking you to buy me dinner! I wouldn’t do that, by the way, I am nice, but I’m sure you’d react!

          1. SamsaricHelicoid
            SamsaricHelicoid September 15, 2014 at 5:06 pm |

            Nope, I refuse to let the “overarching” category of human define me.

            I’m sorry.

            I’d rather be defined by the trees, ocean, or my brain. I refuse to let you define me based off your concept of “human”.

            “Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.”
            H. P. Lovecraft

  13. Mumbles
    Mumbles September 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
  14. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra September 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm |

    This is one issue where I’ve always disagreed with Mr. Warner. It’s not that I believe we can all be peaceful “zen hippies” or whatever. Quite the opposite. My problem is the belief that we automatically assume we are special. That our way of life, our customs, our practices are automatically worth the atrocities committed in their name. The other side of the fight feels exactly the same way, so which side is right?

    That’s the wrong question to ask. Zazen–and the culture that has developed around it–is special and no-so-special. It’s special because it’s beautiful and wonderful and it makes life significantly less sucky. But it’s not so special because it’s not the only way of accomplishing those things. And it’s not special because even if it were to be wiped off the face of the planet (which, we should take time to notice, hasn’t happened yet, despite numerous attempts to do just that, in several different countries–perhaps something as powerful as Zen doesn’t “reside” in peaceful temples and what not. Perhaps, just perhaps, the idea is much more subtle and adaptable than that), the very next day after it is destroyed, the deeper experiences and realizations cannot be destroyed and human beings will go on forever building practices around those experiences and realizations.

    I’m not naive enough to believe we can live without violence. I’m also not naive enough to believe violence actually solves anything or protects anyone in the long run. The apparatuses put into place to “protect” become yokes that implicate us in the actions done our name. Black people in this country, for example, are not able to practice Zazen safely. Peaceful Muslims in the middle east are being blown to bits as they pray so that we can practice our Zazen. What makes us better or more deserving of that “protection” than they?

    I’ve noticed this line of thinking (thinking violence in the name of Zen is necessary)is more accepted in Japanese Zen than in Ch’an or Korean Zen–ironically, both sects of Zen have suffered greatly by bandits and governments hell-bent on their destruction. This is why you get books like “Zen at War” and other nonsense. It’s easy to misinterpret these ideas, but they’re there to some extant. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu specifically denounces violence and the use of weapons unless there are no other choices. The Shaolin warriors disregarded Lao Tzu’s warning, but that didn’t stop the temple from being burned to the ground on numerous occasions. And yet… Shaolin survives. Sometimes it’s not the biggest fish that survives. Often times it is the one that knows how to lay low and not catch the attention of the big fish. This is really has Zen has survived. You can destroy a temple, but you cannot destroy an idea.

    That’s not to look down about soldiers or cops or any other like-profession. That is to say that they don’t protect me or my ability to “practice.” Half of them would harass Buddhists or any other non-Christian if given half a chance. And all it takes is an unforeseen event for your “protectors” to become your agitators. Live by the sword, die by the sword–that applies to those hiding behind the person with the sword.

  15. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid September 15, 2014 at 7:54 pm |

    My friends in Harvest Moon games are more real to me than all of this.

  16. threethirty
    threethirty September 15, 2014 at 7:55 pm |

    White Buddhist Privilege is something that kept me from this path for a long time. I couldn’t stand granola eating dharma yuppies. Your first book showed me a different view of Buddhism. I now understand that dharma yuppies make Buddhism accessible (in there own weird way) and safe (no one is going to burn down the zendo “cuz them damn devil warshipers are chanting their curses and ringin bells again”). Also who the hell am I to judge!?!

  17. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid September 15, 2014 at 7:55 pm |

    Haha, my friends… Haha…

  18. dwsmithjr
    dwsmithjr September 16, 2014 at 4:46 am |

    “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.”

    Then to disparage the soldiers and police that help preserve the peace we enjoy. The problem is not the police and soldiers but the people and circumstances that make there job necessary. Dispensing with their services wouldn’t make for more peace. It would simply give the wolves free reign.

  19. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon September 16, 2014 at 5:30 am |

    “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”

    1. Fred
      Fred September 16, 2014 at 11:57 am |

      “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.”

      Excellent, Brad. That’s why it’s hardcore and not pussy zen.

  20. The Idiot
    The Idiot September 16, 2014 at 5:30 pm |

    What , me worry ?

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2014 at 10:16 pm |

    I was reading about the Irish “troubles”, mostly on Wikipedia, and I was curious why the nationalists didn’t try a non-violent approach. I discovered that they did, somewhere in the sixties I think, and the unionists, most likely feeling cornered and outnumbered and fearful of majority rule, responded with terrorist violence. Maybe non-violent protest in North Ireland just didn’t get the press coverage that the marchers in Selma got, or Gandhi’s salt march in India. Seems like it takes some amazing timing as well as good press coverage to make non-violence productive in terms of political outcomes.

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm |

    O , good evening Moreau
    O , good evening Moreau
    O, I know it’s time I
    am going

    We got here
    a good time,
    A good time all night
    O, I know it’s time I
    am going

    O , moon after bedtime,
    And after the sun rise
    Caillette and is pulled
    Bonsoir Moreau …

    caillette: a pork sausage with Swiss chard and herbs

    “take a large gumbo pot… (etc.)”

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