Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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FiveSkandhas
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Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by FiveSkandhas »

A friend of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous) who is a monk in Japan wrote out a very solid and concise short series of mini-essays about the general process and lifestyle because he was sick of being asked how to become a Japanese monk. :D

I translated and lightly edited some of the material and I thought it would make a good thread.

Note that I'm using the word "monk' for 僧侶 and "priest" for 住職. There is some messiness about how these words are used and translated, but basically a "monk" is a lower-ranking member of a traditional Buddhist sect while a "priest" as I am using it here is a higher-ranking position at a large temple or an owner/operator of a smaller family-run local temple.

In truth, there are many different ranks and position names (12 monastic ranks, three "tiers," and a separate but interlocking system of 4 or 5 hierarchical positions in the Tendai Sect alone, each with different kanji...). Moreover "priest" is often used for general prelates at newer non-traditional sects or "Buddhist Churches", while "monk" (僧侶) is almost exclusively used for the old-school schools.

For sanity's sake, this conversation is limited to the traditional sects, the youngest of which are 700 years old or so.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Step 1. Formal Buddhist education

To be a monk you need two major types of education: academic/theoretical, and practical training at an actual temple. Let's look at the first category here, because it's where most people start.

In order to be a monk, you must first acquire the necessary theoretical and doctrinal knowledge of a monk. This usually means an undergrad or graduate program at a university with a Buddhist Studies department. Each of the traditional sects is affiliated with one or a few particular schools, so you need to know what sect you are aiming for before you go to uni.

There are some correspondence courses and educational programs at actual temples, but even if you skip uni and go this road you are usually looking at 3-6 years of academic study. And not every sect accepts this path. An undergrad Buddhist program will be 4 years, and a grad school is usually 2 or three years.

So, most monks first go to Buddhist universities and learn the teachings of denominations and the history of Buddhism through classes.

Depending on the school, you may be able to practice as a previously ordained monk if you have already started temple training while you are simultaneously enrolled in the university, by taking advantage of long vacations such as summer vacation, or you may be exempted from the examination to obtain a degree by earning a fixed number of credits. In some cases, special deals can be wrangled.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Step 2. Training

Many denominations are allowed to get started at the master's discresion, but most people do training after college.

So after preliminary vows, confessions, and other rituals conducted by the priest, etc., they shave their heads, don the low-level black robes, and proceed to the path of training.

It is usually true that the training is strict in Japan, and many people give up on the way. Sometimes the treatment by the priests or higher-ranking monks is what most modern people might consider "abusive" or close to it. There is often hazing and bullying of "noobs" at big temples.

The content of the training varies depending on the sect, but the training is carried out at the training center of the sect's main temple. Every morning, we woke up at 3 or 4 o'clock, cleaned up, served meals, read sutras, and learned the teachings and history of denominations.

The duration of training varies depending on the denomination and person, but it seems that it often takes two to three years. In an environment where going out and possession of mobile phones are often prohibited and it is not possible to contact family members, etc., you will need to discipline yourself and work hard from morning till night. Congrats, you just enlisted in the armed forces.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Part 3. From monk to priest.


So now you have finished your basic training. You have several choices. You can stay several more years at the training temple to get a higher rank if you wish. Actually in most cases there is no theoretical limit on the time you spend in a training temple (at least in my sect), but most monks leave after 3 to 5 years.

Let's say you want to progress from monk to priest, and either work as a priest at a large temple or run your own smaller local one.

The priest has important responsibilities as the face of the temple, such as raising disciple monks and managing and managing the temple.

Most of them are hereditary, so the children who will be the heirs of the temple will inherit the position of priest. It is said that it is difficult for a monk who is not born in a temple to become a priest, but recently, it is said that the number of temples without a priest is increasing due to reasons such as Japan's famous declining childbirth rates.

A temple without a son and heir may appoint an "outsider" as a priest with the approval or recommendation of the major temple that plays a central role in the sect.

And if you overcome the rigorous training in the large temple, you may be able to become a priest even if you were not born to a temple family.

Keep in mind some denominations require extra qualifications to become a priest. And if you want to rise in the clerical hierarchy, you may need more training, more eduction, and special achievements like running an especially successful money-raising campaign for the temple or sect, starting a new program that enhances the prestige or wealth of the organization, etc.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Part 4. The Job

So now you have all your basic qualifications and if you are like most monks/priests you will be working at a small or medium-sized local temple. It's probably where you grew up, and probably where you die. My father is the 16th generation to head our small family temple, and I will be the 17th. This is the most common way of life for priests in Japan. Some might work at big temples helping with the training or just basically selling charms to tourists, blessing people's automobiles, etc. Some may return to academics and become priest-professors at a Buddhist university. A growing number run or work in hospices. Another growth area is to work at a kind of grief counseling center, in suicide prevention, or work with victims of disasters or in international NGOs. A few "mavericks" might write a best seller or become a media figure.

But generally speaking the majority will be working at their family's local-level temple in the countryside, big city, or suburb somewhere.

For such garden-variety priests, conducting funerals and maintaining graveyards are the single biggest duties.

One of the important tasks of a monk is to read the sutras at funerals and memorial services so that the deceased can achieve a higher rebirth in peace.

In addition, it can be said that it is also a role to be close to the grieving hearts of the bereaved family who is sad and to comfort them. Priests are often called upon to find solutions to neighborhood problems by consulting with persons who have a problem.

Another important task is the management and maintenance of the temple. If the temple owns a graveyard, it also manages the graveyard. In recent years, in order to pass on Buddhism to posterity, we are also focusing on communicating Buddhist teachings to people through meetings and public events. Zen temples may have numerous lay Zazen practioners; Pure Land or Nichiren priests might run chanting gatherings for the laypeople, and so on.

There is also a yearly cycle of temple events that are akin to festival experiences for the neighborhood. For example most temples conduct mame-make, a good-fortune bean-scattering ceremony, every early spring. Buddha Shakyamuni's Birthday each year involves a washing ritual for a special statue. There are marathon sutra-chanting rituals in the autumn, the Obon festival for ancestors, and so on. Even a small temple like ours might see crowds of many dozens or even hundreds of people at these events, and they have to run smoothly.

It is one of the trainings and an important daily routine to present sutras to the principal image at the temple alter and to clean the precincts. Temples, even old ones built in the 1500s like my family's, are expected to be extremely clean spaces. You might be surprised by how much time I spend just scrubbing, polishing, and swabbing things.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Part 5. Money matters: Putting food on the table.

The monk's salary is paid by the temple to which he belongs. Most of the income sources of the temple are donations from the Danka families.

The Danka families are the families that are "members" of the temple. Originally in the early Edo period, the Shogun required every single family in Japan to be formally affiliated with a traditional temple; it was a way of ensuring the bans on Christianity and other forbidden religious heresies. This was called the Danka system. Of course now the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, so nobody has to be a Danka family anymore, but many if not most still are. Since the affiliated temple is probably where the family grave plot is, it tends to keep people tied to the old Danka system. Also traditions have a certain inertia in Japanese culture.

So the temple depends on Danka families to a great extent for support. The amount of annual donation per family varies greatly depending on the area, the number of Danka families, and the size of the temple.

Generally, if you are inexperienced, your salary will start at 150,000 yen a month (about 1,500 USD), and by training and working for a long time, you can expect to see that amount go up somewhat (or sometimes a great deal...the disparity of wealth among temples is wide, and some are downright wealthy while others barely make it month to month).

In recent years, the number of danka families and the amount of donations have been declining, and some people have said that their annual income is less than 3 million yen. (About 30,000 USD). Many people make a living by doing a side job other than being monks.

Generally, the salary increases if you become a priest who is the owner of a temple, but this also depends on the number of priests and the size of the temple, so it seems that the salary is not high simply because one is a priest.

Funerals and memorial services from the Danka families are thus a major source of income, and often what determines the wealth of a temple. However, some temples have great artistic treasures of value and may have been carefully investing and saving little by little for 500 or even 1000 years. Most family temples haven't had mortgages for many generations, and the tax situation is generous. Many own significant local landholdings that appreciated extensively in value over the past century of industrialization and economic development.

But lest you think we are all rolling in cash, recall that Japan has been in serious recession for 30 years, and events like the bursting of the 1992 financial bubble or the 2008 global crisis hit many temples hard.

So the situation is quite variable. But I think it is fair to say most temples are getting poorer rather than richer.

As noted, the monk's income is supported by the donations (funerals, memorial services, etc.) from the Danka families. In addition, depending on the temple, there is also income from graveyard management and temple admission fees.

Generally, in order to earn a stable income, it is necessary to have a certain number of Danka and perform regular memorial services. However, in recent years, the relationship with the Danka families has diminished, and the number of Danka families is declining.

Depending on the region, there are differences such as the region where the 33rd anniversary of a funeral is performed as a ritual, and the place where it is customary to perform a 50th anniversary rite, but overall the funeral system tends to be becoming simplified and the number of memorial services seems to be decreasing.

Although it is necessary to tell people that they value their ancestors, some people currently say that it is difficult to make a living from the work of a monk alone.

Therefore, in addition to being monks, there are also people who earn income by working as civil servants. In addition, in the case of temples that manage real estate such as parking lots and condominiums, and manage nursery schools and kindergartens, there is also income from them.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
YareYareDaze
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by YareYareDaze »

Very informative, thank you for the translation and many thanks to your friend!
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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YareYareDaze wrote: Sun May 02, 2021 11:54 am Very informative, thank you for the translation and many thanks to your friend!
Thanks for the the thanks.

The author is of the opinion that AI and robotics will eventually replace the human priesthood/monkhood in many ways. I admit I find the opinion somewhat off-key if not bizarre. Yet it must be admitted steps are already being taken in this direction in Japan:

https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east- ... bot-priest


Make of that what you will...
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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ajhayes
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Thank you for the information.
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by Manjushri »

Thank you for this wonderful and insightful look into monkhood/priesthood in Japan.
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FiveSkandhas
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by FiveSkandhas »

Thanks to the above two posters for their appreciation.

One of the things that comes across to me from this man's essays and from talking to him is how much of a "daily grind" it can be for smaller family-owned temples (which are the majority). While there are tons of innovative, creative, and dynamic Japanese Buddhist prelates, there are also a large number that just sort of "go through the motions," spending their days cleaning, hassling over money, managing parking lots and other side-businesses, and basically acting as funeral parlors and graveyard groundskeepers.

Hardly a romantic spiritual quest or days spent immersed in practice and dharma study for most, at least after training is completed. Again I hasten to add exceptions abound, but I think the mundane struggles to keep the bills paid and the lights on can be overwhelming.
"One should cultivate contemplation in one’s foibles. The foibles are like fish, and contemplation is like fishing hooks. If there are no fish, then the fishing hooks have no use. The bigger the fish is, the better the result we will get. As long as the fishing hooks keep at it, all foibles will eventually be contained and controlled at will." -Zhiyi
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Whenever I hear about the business end of religion, I think of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and the ladies of the night asking him, "Whose little boy are you?"

Could always lose the family, worldly responsibilities, and just seek bodhi...
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Upaya Chapter

純一実相。実相外。更無別法。法性寂然名止。寂而常渉照名観。
There is only reality; there is nothing separate from reality. The naturally tranquil nature of dharmas is shamatha. The abiding luminosity of tranquility is vipashyana.

-From Guanding's Introduction to Zhiyi's Great Shamatha and Vipashyana
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by Budai »

Wonderful post FiveSkandhas. It is kind and informative that you are bringing such knowledge here from your monk friend.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Namu Amida Butsu.
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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FiveSkandhas wrote: Mon May 10, 2021 11:32 pm While there are tons of innovative, creative, and dynamic Japanese Buddhist prelates, there are also a large number that just sort of "go through the motions," spending their days cleaning, hassling over money, managing parking lots and other side-businesses, and basically acting as funeral parlors and graveyard groundskeepers.
At the Bangkok monastery where I ordained, the late abbot, who was somewhat of an East Asiophile, instituted an annual monastic exchange program. Each year twelve of our monks would go and spend six months training in Japan or Korea, and twelve Japanese and Korean monks would come to train with us. The Japanese would take Theravada bhikkhu ordination for the duration of their stay, while the Koreans (who were bhikṣus already) would just change into Theravada-style robes but retain their Dharmaguptaka lineage ordination. By the end of their stay the Korean monks were usually quite eager to get back to Korea. Not so with the Japanese. For most of the latter, spending half a year in Thailand was a sort of gap year thing that they would do after completing their monastic training but before taking over the incumbency of their family temple. For many of them the prospect of returning to Japan to "basically act as funeral parlors and graveyard groundskeepers" wasn't very appealing at all. I remember one in particular, a Shingon priest, writing to his family to inform them that he had no interest in inheriting the family temple, nor in marrying the pious Shingon lady his parents had selected for him (and whom he'd never even met!). He suggested that his father appoint one of his siblings to the post, while he himself planned to go and spend the next five years training in a Thai forest monastery. His outraged father then wrote back ordering to return within a week or else he'd send some Yakuza thugs to bring him back by force.
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Dhammanando wrote: Wed May 12, 2021 8:32 am
FiveSkandhas wrote: Mon May 10, 2021 11:32 pm While there are tons of innovative, creative, and dynamic Japanese Buddhist prelates, there are also a large number that just sort of "go through the motions," spending their days cleaning, hassling over money, managing parking lots and other side-businesses, and basically acting as funeral parlors and graveyard groundskeepers.
At the Bangkok monastery where I ordained, the late abbot, who was somewhat of an East Asiophile, instituted an annual monastic exchange program. Each year twelve of our monks would go and spend six months training in Japan or Korea, and twelve Japanese and Korean monks would come to train with us. The Japanese would take Theravada bhikkhu ordination for the duration of their stay, while the Koreans (who were bhikṣus already) would just change into Theravada-style robes but retain their Dharmaguptaka lineage ordination. By the end of their stay the Korean monks were usually quite eager to get back to Korea. Not so with the Japanese. For most of the latter, spending half a year in Thailand was a sort of gap year thing that they would do after completing their monastic training but before taking over the incumbency of their family temple. For many of them the prospect of returning to Japan to "basically act as funeral parlors and graveyard groundskeepers" wasn't very appealing at all. I remember one in particular, a Shingon priest, writing to his family to inform them that he had no interest in inheriting the family temple, nor in marrying the pious Shingon lady his parents had selected for him (and whom he'd never even met!). He suggested that his father appoint one of his siblings to the post, while he himself planned to go and spend the next five years training in a Thai forest monastery. His outraged father then wrote back ordering to return within a week or else he'd send some Yakuza thugs to bring him back by force.
A householder or householder's son, hearing the Dhamma, gains conviction in the Tathagata and reflects: 'Household life is confining, a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness?
Change the details, and you could probably find the same story about a brahmin's son in the Nikayas.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Upaya Chapter

純一実相。実相外。更無別法。法性寂然名止。寂而常渉照名観。
There is only reality; there is nothing separate from reality. The naturally tranquil nature of dharmas is shamatha. The abiding luminosity of tranquility is vipashyana.

-From Guanding's Introduction to Zhiyi's Great Shamatha and Vipashyana
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Dhammanando
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Queequeg wrote: Wed May 12, 2021 1:42 pm Change the details, and you could probably find the same story about a brahmin's son in the Nikayas.
Yes, though with the distraught parents usually resorting to bribes rather than threats.

Then, it being morning, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, he went to his own father’s house and sat down on the seat made ready. Then his father had the pile of gold coins and bullion uncovered and said: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla, this is your maternal fortune; your paternal fortune is another and your ancestral fortune is yet another. Dear Raṭṭhapāla, you can enjoy the wealth and make merit. Come then, dear, abandon the training and return to the low life, enjoy the wealth and make merit.”

“Householder, if you would follow my advice, then have this pile of gold coins and bullion loaded on carts and carried away to be dumped midstream in the river Ganges. Why is that? Because, householder, on account of this there will arise for you sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives clasped his feet and said to him: “What are they like, my lord’s son, the nymphs for whose sake you lead the holy life?”

“We do not lead the holy life for the sake of nymphs, sisters.”

“Our lord’s son Raṭṭhapāla calls us ‘sisters,’” they cried and right there they fainted.

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla told his father: “Householder, if there is a meal to be given, then give it. Do not harass us.”

“Eat then, dear Raṭṭhapāla, the meal is ready.”

https://legacy.suttacentral.net/en/mn82
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

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Dhammanando wrote: Wed May 12, 2021 2:14 pm
Queequeg wrote: Wed May 12, 2021 1:42 pm Change the details, and you could probably find the same story about a brahmin's son in the Nikayas.
Yes, though with the distraught parents usually resorting to bribes rather than threats.

Then, it being morning, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, he went to his own father’s house and sat down on the seat made ready. Then his father had the pile of gold coins and bullion uncovered and said: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla, this is your maternal fortune; your paternal fortune is another and your ancestral fortune is yet another. Dear Raṭṭhapāla, you can enjoy the wealth and make merit. Come then, dear, abandon the training and return to the low life, enjoy the wealth and make merit.”

“Householder, if you would follow my advice, then have this pile of gold coins and bullion loaded on carts and carried away to be dumped midstream in the river Ganges. Why is that? Because, householder, on account of this there will arise for you sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives clasped his feet and said to him: “What are they like, my lord’s son, the nymphs for whose sake you lead the holy life?”

“We do not lead the holy life for the sake of nymphs, sisters.”

“Our lord’s son Raṭṭhapāla calls us ‘sisters,’” they cried and right there they fainted.

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla told his father: “Householder, if there is a meal to be given, then give it. Do not harass us.”

“Eat then, dear Raṭṭhapāla, the meal is ready.”

https://legacy.suttacentral.net/en/mn82
Next time someone tries to bribe me with a pile of gold coins and bullion I'm definitely telling them to dump it in a river.

Happy Pride month to my queer dharma siblings!
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Queequeg
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Re: Good, solid advice on becoming a Japanese Buddhist monk.

Post by Queequeg »

I have sympathy for those scions of the family temples in Japan. I think they often feel the same weight that any child expected to carry on the family business would feel... especially when the family business is 500 years old. For them, the national treasure that they have for their temple honzon becomes a lead weight.

So much of this seems to me a function of cooption of Dharma by the state going all the way back to Shotoku Taishi's constitution, and Ritsuryo government system. In that model of government, Buddhism was coopted as a super shamanism expected to serve the prosperity of the state. And ever since, dharma was expected to serve the state. Getting cut loose after WWII set Japanese Buddhism in general adrift after centuries of neutering and domestication under the danka system. Its wonderful that the traditions are being carried on and I think that for those willing to undertake the training and follow the dynamism that is still there in the midst of all the institutionalization, there is still a great treasure of dharma there. Fudo myoo's fire is still blazing for those who seek it out.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Upaya Chapter

純一実相。実相外。更無別法。法性寂然名止。寂而常渉照名観。
There is only reality; there is nothing separate from reality. The naturally tranquil nature of dharmas is shamatha. The abiding luminosity of tranquility is vipashyana.

-From Guanding's Introduction to Zhiyi's Great Shamatha and Vipashyana
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