Renunciation in Soto Zen

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Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby shel » Sat Apr 24, 2010 6:50 pm

Was reading a recent online discussion about renunciation in Soto Zen Buddhism and some curious things came to light. Rev. Nonin Chowaney, an American Zen Master who chairs the Membership Committee of the American Zen Teachers Association and serves on the Priest Training Committee of the Soto Zen Teachers Association, was part of this discussion and in support of his rather odd Soto Zen concept of renunciation he offered the following link to an article he'd written on the subject. See: http://www.prairiewindzen.org/renunciation.html

In the public article Nonin Chowaney writes:
"Renunciation does not mean becoming a monk; it means "turning away and turning towards." Both the monk and the lay person must make this turn."

By this definition anyone who's interests "turn towards" spiritual practice over other worldly pursuits is a renunciate. It would also seem to degrade the meaning of what being a monk represents. By this definition a Zen monk or Zen priest can be married, drink alcohol, have a job and career, eat meat, and be generally indistinguishable from any non-renunciate.

Nonin Chowaney also seems to claim that what others outside of Soto Zen Buddhism define as renunciation or monastic life is irrelevant. I suppose that would be all well and good if Soto Zen Buddhism existed in a vacuum, but it does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in this world, a world where people must coexist, cooperate, and agree on meaning of terms such as renunciation and monk, least those terms and the truth behind those terms become meaningless.

What do you think, can a monk drink etc and still be monk?
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Indrajala » Sat Apr 24, 2010 10:26 pm

The cultural context in which Soto Zen has evolved in recent decades should be taken into account.

It isn't just American Soto priests who have heavily revised traditional views on renunciation.

Here in Japan the word shukke (出家) doesn't mean the same thing as it does in China or elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Next door in Taiwan when you renounce you take the Vinaya and the social pressure of that society demands that you conform to it, never mind that there exists mechanisms within Buddhist institutions to deal with violations. As a lay person you're not held to so high a standard of behaviour, but a bhiksu(ni) caught drinking, stealing or fornicating would not be looked upon favourably.

However, in Soto Zen there is no transmission of the Vinaya, so the priests are still upasaka (laity). As my friend who is a Soto priest here in Japan explained to me his vows do not actually include celibacy or a prohibition on alcohol consumption (you're just not supposed to engage in the trade of it). So, technically there is no violation of precepts.

As I said on Zen Forum International, I think renunciation in modern Soto Zen cannot begin to compare to the renunciation in Theravada or Taiwanese Buddhism.

What do you think, can a monk drink etc and still be monk?

In Japanese traditions this is acceptable. In the rest of Buddhism, no. I agree with the later assessment. Again, keep in mind what translates as "monk" in Japanese doesn't correspond to the same concept in the rest of Buddhist traditions. Bhiksu means taking the whole set of Vinaya vows. This doesn't happen in Soto.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby shel » Sun Apr 25, 2010 1:07 am

Hi Huseng, thanks for your attention in this matter.

Huseng wrote:What do you think, can a monk drink etc and still be monk?

In Japanese traditions this is acceptable. In the rest of Buddhism, no. I agree with the later assessment. Again, keep in mind what translates as "monk" in Japanese doesn't correspond to the same concept in the rest of Buddhist traditions. Bhiksu means taking the whole set of Vinaya vows. This doesn't happen in Soto.


In the Nebraska Zen Center Heartland Temple article linked to above that was written by Nonin Chowaney, he mentions the Bodhisattva Precepts. Uh, I was going to say the precepts that they vow to live by but as I reread the article he only says that they take them into their lives in many ways, formally during precept ceremonies, and informally when they study them. He says that it takes some doing to understand the precepts fully and to live according to them.

One of the Bodhisattva precepts he lists, for instance, is a prohibitory precept against "intoxicating oneself or others." Yet Nonin apparently drinks beer with Zen students. See http://www.zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=865&p=8132&hilit=beer#p8132. I don't point this out to disparage anyone, I only wish to understand the apparent contradiction. Nonin refers to himself as a monk and a priest. Maybe Soto Zen monks and priest don't actually make vows?
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Huifeng » Sun Apr 25, 2010 3:18 am

For a bit of perspective, maybe a look into the word "seclusion", which is basically the same as "renunciation", is in order. This is NOT Soto Zen position, but the position of early Buddhism up to the Mahayana period, and the same attitude found in China, at least, up to the present.

It is traditionally given as three stages, corresponding to the three trainings.

1. physical seclusion (= training in moral discipline): physical detach from objects of craving and aversion, ideally in an environment suitable for meditation practice.
2. mental seclusion (= training in meditation): temporarily detach the mind from craving and aversion, ideally by entering into dhyana meditative states.
3. true seclusion (= training in insight): viewing phenomena as impermanent, dissatisfactory and not self, to fully remove the underlying causes of mental craving and attachment.

The first two, which are temporary and conditioned, are basically considered necessary for the third one, which is final and does not depend on conditions. Thus, once the final state of true seclusion is reached, one does not need to maintain physical and mental (meditative) seclusion. However, because at this point, all defilements are removed, it is simply impossible for such a person to kill, steal, engage in sexual acts, lie, etc. They may come and go from dhyana, though.

Mahayana traditions like to emphasize that "seclusion" is true seclusion, not just the former stages. Well, actually, the Buddha did too. However, just by emphasizing that the final seclusion is the goal, does not mean that the first two are not necessary. One who cannot maintain the first two types of seclusion simply is unable to reach final seclusion, release from defilements.

Thus, while having "real renunciation" may not necessitate wanting to become a monk, one definitely would not want to have a job, own a house or car, start or continue a relationship, either! To suggest that one should "renounce wanting to be a monk / nun", but continue with all those worldly things, is kind of funny. (As in tragic comedy.)

For some Mahayana traditions, "renunciation" is when one renounces intentions to become an arhat or pratyekabuddha, but only wishes to become a fully awakened Buddha. Of course, to become a fully awakened Buddha, one also needs to engage in the three forms of seclusion as outlined above. But just add an awful lot of merit into the equation, too! So, even the Mahayana argument doesn't really hold out against abandoning unskillful behavior.

Restraint from alcohol as a precept is slightly different. Whereas any sort of killing, stealing, sexual actions, or false speech are always driven by some sort of mental defilements, drinking alcohol is not. The original prohibition against alcohol was when an arhat got drunk! Even a drunk arhat can't arise defilements, just throw up and sleep it off! haha! However, for other people, when they drink, the mind is distorted, and it is much easier for them to arise defiled states. Hence the prohibition.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby m0rl0ck » Sun Apr 25, 2010 6:31 am

If you read the whole article instead of one quote taken out of context , its a good read. Heres a quote:

"the importance of accepting the precepts and making them paramount in our lives cannot be underestimated."
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 25, 2010 7:18 am

shel wrote:Hi Huseng, thanks for your attention in this matter.

Huseng wrote:What do you think, can a monk drink etc and still be monk?

In Japanese traditions this is acceptable. In the rest of Buddhism, no. I agree with the later assessment. Again, keep in mind what translates as "monk" in Japanese doesn't correspond to the same concept in the rest of Buddhist traditions. Bhiksu means taking the whole set of Vinaya vows. This doesn't happen in Soto.


In the Nebraska Zen Center Heartland Temple article linked to above that was written by Nonin Chowaney, he mentions the Bodhisattva Precepts. Uh, I was going to say the precepts that they vow to live by but as I reread the article he only says that they take them into their lives in many ways, formally during precept ceremonies, and informally when they study them. He says that it takes some doing to understand the precepts fully and to live according to them.

One of the Bodhisattva precepts he lists, for instance, is a prohibitory precept against "intoxicating oneself or others." Yet Nonin apparently drinks beer with Zen students. See http://www.zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=865&p=8132&hilit=beer#p8132. I don't point this out to disparage anyone, I only wish to understand the apparent contradiction. Nonin refers to himself as a monk and a priest. Maybe Soto Zen monks and priest don't actually make vows?



I would recommend discussing the matter directly with Reverend Nonin if you want his opinion on the matter.


Keep in mind in Japanese Buddhism nowadays whether you want to maintain precepts or not, hardly anyone will hold you to it. The general public is unaware of precepts too. In fact here in Japan I'm constantly under the impression that if you actually maintain precepts you stick out of the crowd and peer pressure tends to encourage you back to the social norms which is the ordinary lifestyle of samsara. If you're Japanese then you're under enormous amounts of pressure to conform to social norms or you risk becoming a pariah which can effectively kill your ability to operate in society.

The other day I was introduced by one of my colleagues to a Buddhist studies professor.

"This is Jeff, he is Canadian. He's also a vegetarian."

"Amazing!!!"

That's not the first time either. Being a vegetarian is somehow extremely remarkable and surprising in Japan even in Buddhist circles. I've never actually met a vegetarian priest from a Japanese tradition. In a lot of cases they take Bodhisattva precepts which specifically include a vow to refrain from consuming meat, but hardly anyone cares or even notices. In the rest of East Asia with a few exceptions here and there being Buddhist usually entails either being vegetarian all the time or at least once in awhile. There is no sense of surprise associated with being vegetarian if you're Buddhist. If you're in robes, it is mandatory.

I like Japan, but modern day Japanese Buddhism is just in a weird state. Everything from the funeral business to the way doctrine and precepts are interpreted makes me roll my eyes.

Still, Japan is good for scholarship on Buddhism. :reading:
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 25, 2010 7:22 am

Huifeng wrote:Thus, while having "real renunciation" may not necessitate wanting to become a monk, one definitely would not want to have a job, own a house or car, start or continue a relationship, either! To suggest that one should "renounce wanting to be a monk / nun", but continue with all those worldly things, is kind of funny. (As in tragic comedy.)


One of my friends, a pretty European lady, apparently had offers to have her set up to marry one of the single priests at a temple in Tokyo.

Gotta find brides for the renunciates eh!
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby shel » Sun Apr 25, 2010 6:08 pm

m0rl0ck wrote:If you read the whole article instead of one quote taken out of context , its a good read. Heres a quote:

"the importance of accepting the precepts and making them paramount in our lives cannot be underestimated."

Hi M0rl0ck,

Indeed, it's a good read within the context of the article. However when the words are taken outside of the article and into the real world there are apparent contradictions, such as the incident that I mentioned where Nonin invited a Zen student over for a beer. That doesn't appear to be taking the Bodhisattva prohibitory precept against intoxicating oneself or others very seriously.

There are other apparent contradictions that I could point out.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby shel » Sun Apr 25, 2010 6:17 pm

Huseng wrote:I would recommend discussing the matter directly with Reverend Nonin if you want his opinion on the matter.

I searched the article linked to in the OP for the word "vow" and yes, it says "I vow to..." So apparently Soto Zen priest and monks do make sacred promises.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Lazy_eye » Sun Apr 25, 2010 6:18 pm

It seems to me there are two different questions to be considered.

One is the institutional/social question -- that is, should there be a function of "priest" which is different from "monk" as was traditionally understood across the centuries? In other words, do we agree with the way this function has evolved in Japanese Buddhism? Actually it is not so new, since we can see that Shinran (12th century) had a wife and son.

We can argue over whether the "priest" model is preferable or not to the Chinese monastic-lay model, or whether Japanese should be using the term "monk", but again this is mostly an institutional question.

The deeper question is how we define anuttara samyak sambodhi and the steps that lead to this goal. Since the path is the same for everyone, how Buddhism organizes itself in terms of various roles and functions is not really the core issue. A tradition may allow priests to live what is basically a lay lifestyle, but this just means that the priest will face the same constraints that laypeople do in terms of how completely they can realize the path. Putting on special robes isn't, in itself, going to get you or I any closer to enlightenment.

So what I wonder is: has Soto Zen also revised how it sees the goal and the path? How does a Japanese priest with a wife, family and car view his practice? What are his aspirations? (And I mean here somebody who is serious about it, not just running the family funeral business). As long as someone's understanding of what they are doing is in accordance with the dharma, whatever role they are in simply sets the parameters and conditions for practice. But if the path itself has been redefined -- well, there we would be talking about radical break with the rest of Buddhism.

Huseng, you're over there so maybe you'd be a position to answer such a question. I remember on e-sangha there was a Japanese practitioner (Matylda) who kept saying that, no, the view in Japanese Buddhism hasn't fundamentally changed.

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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby shel » Sun Apr 25, 2010 10:15 pm

Hi Lazy_eye,
Lazy_eye wrote:So what I wonder is: has Soto Zen also revised how it sees the goal and the path? How does a Japanese priest with a wife, family and car view his practice? What are his aspirations? (And I mean here somebody who is serious about it, not just running the family funeral business). As long as someone's understanding of what they are doing is in accordance with the dharma, whatever role they are in simply sets the parameters and conditions for practice. But if the path itself has been redefined -- well, there we would be talking about radical break with the rest of Buddhism.

As for American Zen, I read an article the other day from a Zen priest/monk that I think addresses this. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-eckhardt/pbss-this-emotional-life_b_539418.html. I studied with Mark Eckhardt at the Santa Monica Zen Center for a short time. At the time, the other priest in training at SMZC also had a wife and career, some kind of executive for a major ad agency. Sensei Yoshin, the Roshi at SMZC, owns and operates a construction company, and is also married. I don't know if any of them drink or are vegetarian.

Anyway, in the article Mark writes:
Mark Eckhardt wrote:Zen is not about tips, tools and strategies. Instead, it's a meditative and reflective practice which seeks to cultivate a certain character and quality of being that leads to greater life satisfaction. This only comes from understanding yourself and the true nature of things. My Zen teacher refers to Zen training as that of making a sword. First you have to heat the metal until it is red hot, then you have to pound out the impurities and finally let it cool. Only then will you have an effective sword. That's Zen; an all-out assault on anything which prevents us from expressing everything that we are. For those who expect wind chimes and ripples on a pond, the real experience of Zen can be quite unsettling at first.

Rev. Nonin Chowaney has written similar things online, such as this:
Rev. Nonin Chowaney wrote:I'm committed to giving the best advice I can give to those wishing to deepen their lives by pursuing this path and practicing Zen Buddhism.

The deeper places of our lives are our original face, our true nature, which is no nature.

The cessation of suffering stems from living from a deeper place. To deepen our lives means to push the center of our living down from the frontal lobe and into our lower abdomen, to live from the hara, from the center of the mind/body and to trust what comes up from the deeper places rather than from the intellect, and also to trust our gut feelings or our intuition. This is living from a deeper place.

By deepening our lives, we connect with the deep stillness at the bottom of human existence and our lives spring from there.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby m0rl0ck » Sun Apr 25, 2010 11:13 pm

shel wrote:That doesn't appear to be taking the Bodhisattva prohibitory precept against intoxicating oneself or others very seriously.




Define intoxication. A couple of beers wouldnt have done it for me when i was still drinking. The feeling of superiority that comes from judging others can also be very intoxicating.

How would you approach/ feel about the same percieved fault in a family member? or in yourself? Would you be compassionate ? judgemental? forgiving ? angry? dissapointed?
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby m0rl0ck » Sun Apr 25, 2010 11:28 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:As long as someone's understanding of what they are doing is in accordance with the dharma, whatever role they are in simply sets the parameters and conditions for practice.


:applause:
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Indrajala » Mon Apr 26, 2010 3:22 am

Lazy_eye wrote:
One is the institutional/social question -- that is, should there be a function of "priest" which is different from "monk" as was traditionally understood across the centuries? In other words, do we agree with the way this function has evolved in Japanese Buddhism? Actually it is not so new, since we can see that Shinran (12th century) had a wife and son.


Just because a precedent was set centuries ago doesn't mean it has to be maintained or even recognized as legitimate in the present day.

The deeper question is how we define anuttara samyak sambodhi and the steps that lead to this goal.


I've met Japanese Buddhist priests who reject rebirth and speak of Buddhas and Arhats as amusing literary figures. Rebirth, karma, liberation and so on are not heavily emphasized or even recognized in much of Japanese Buddhism in the present day. For a lot of people Buddhism is an intriguing study of literature and philosophy, and maybe even an "experience" of zazen up in a mountain where you surrender your mobile phone for a day or two, but it ends there.

It is like doing Aikido or something -- do it for as long and as much as you like, but there is no reason to keep going if you get bored with it.

Putting on special robes isn't, in itself, going to get you or I any closer to enlightenment.


I agree, but precept upholding Bhiksu(ni)s are a source of refuge and offerings for us lay people who wish to earn merit and bind ourselves to the sangha.


As long as someone's understanding of what they are doing is in accordance with the dharma, whatever role they are in simply sets the parameters and conditions for practice. But if the path itself has been redefined -- well, there we would be talking about radical break with the rest of Buddhism.


This assumes the person is wise enough to draw their own parameters based on their own potentially deluded knowledge.

Most of us ignorant samsara dwellers, myself included, prefer to defer to the Buddha.

Buddha specifically said that sensory desires (kama) are a source of suffering and must be eliminated if one is to achieve liberation. Furthermore, they must be overcome if only to master the first dhyana of four, which is a mundane accomplishment (anyone including non-Buddhist yogis are capable of this), but still a prerequisite for realizations and higher knowledges.




Huseng, you're over there so maybe you'd be a position to answer such a question. I remember on e-sangha there was a Japanese practitioner (Matylda) who kept saying that, no, the view in Japanese Buddhism hasn't fundamentally changed.


My feeling is that much of Japanese Buddhism in the present day is empty rituals that are done out of habit and tradition rather than a desire for altruism or enlightenment. You must keep in mind the Japanese in general will maintain a lot of empty rituals just because they become so engrained in the fabric of life and social interactions. When somebody dies it isn't just a single funeral and that's it -- there are certain rituals that are performed after certain periods of time for the deceased and whether or not you really believe they're necessary or not, you're still expected to have a priest do it.

There are still serious Japanese Buddhists, yes, but in general they're low key and most of what I've encountered is fossilized old rituals that prop up a profitable trade of priestcraft. The public is willing to pay for that service, so the demand is met regardless of whether or not the priest really cares about the Dharma or not.



I'll add that I think the present Japanese model has great appeal in western countries where celibacy and abstaining from alcohol are considered abnormal by some and are often associated with religious traditions people either reject or despise for various reasons.

Being told by an exotic character from that enigmatic country of Japan that you can have your enlightenment without renouncing sensory pleasures like sex, alcohol and so on has great appeal. You have the freedom to enjoy yourself without any guilt stinking of Catholicism as well as participating in an exotic Eastern tradition that has few roots in the west and thus almost no skeletons in the closet.

Now in contrast that if you spoke to Chan Master Sheng Yen, who incidentally spent some years in Japan studying at Taisho University, he would have told you that premarital sex is a violation of the third lay precept and that renunciation entails complete abstinence from sex, alcohol and probably music.

The Japanese model is an easy sell to westerners. The orthodox Chinese model is a bit too orthodox for those westerners wanting to reject Christianity and Christian morality.
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Re: Renunciation in Soto Zen

Postby Ngawang Drolma » Mon Apr 26, 2010 4:38 am

Shel, please contact Nonin directly with your inquiries. This thread is closed. You can start a general thread about the state of Soto Zen today if you wish.

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