Those who are clear inevitably leave family life. Those who are dull end their lives at home, which are the causes and conditions of bad karma. – Dōgen
Dōgen’s tone is quite harsh. What’s the positive intention he’s trying to convey here about leaving home to become a monk?
This is from Shukke-kudoku, the last chapter of the 75-chapter version of Shobogenzo. Shukke is home-leaving and kudoku is virtue or merit. It’s said that after finishing this, Dōgen wanted to make Shobogenzo into 100 chapters. He started to write, but only completed 12 of the additional 25 fascicles before he died. The very first chapter of the 12-chapter version of Shobogenzo was again Shukke-kudoku, Around this time, late in his life, home-leaving, or what becoming a Buddhist monk means seems very important to Dōgen. In Shukke-kudoku he praised the virtue or merit of home-leaving.
Dōgen’s statement here is very strong. He shows discrimination between lay practitioners and monks. Yet when he was young in Kyoto, around the time he wrote Bendowa and Genjokoan, he said in one of the Hogo that there are two ways of practice in Buddhism: one is staying on a mountain or in a forest, and another is to live in the city. Within this hogo, he expressed that he didn’t want to leave the city. When he was young he made a choice to stay in the city and practice with a larger range of people in society. But when he left Kyoto, and especially later, after he came back to Echizen and Eiheiji from a visit to Kamakura, I think he developed a different idea. Kamakura was the seat of the Shogunate or the Samurai government, and Dōgen stayed in Kamakura for about eight months during 1247 and 1248. When he came back he told his monks that he really loved the mountains. Shukke-kudoku was probably written after that. The date is not clear. There was some change of opinion that had happened within him over those years.
To understand what this means is a koan. If I want to be Dōgen’s student, I have to think about this in order to make a decision about how I practice. This is a very important point. The first thing is to clearly see Dōgen’s change of attitude, this transformation. The next thing is to see the reason he made this change. This has been a koan for me for many years; even today I cannot make a clear decision which is better. When I was young, I think I had the same idea as Dōgen when he was young. This dharma should be recommended to all living beings, without any distinction between lay people and monks. That’s what he wrote in Bendowa. At that time, I think he really tried to share the dharma he studied and practiced in China. But I think he had some disappointment when he practiced and tried to recommend this genuine practice to people, especially to the high-class people in Kyoto, and the high-class government officials in Kamakura.
I think he may have found that in the Chinese stories which he described in Bendowa, stories about emperors and ministers and high government officials who practiced Zen, that what they called Zen practice or Buddhist practice was kind of insincere. For example, from my own experience, one time a Japanese prime minister had a photo of himself in the newspaper sitting zazen— and I really know that was insincere, without any question. I’m not sure if Dōgen really thought these Chinese examples were insincere, maybe he did, maybe not. He might have thought that those were really good examples and it was an ideal situation, but that it just didn’t work in Japan.
Even in Japan after Dōgen, there were many shogun, samurai, and famous people in high-class society who practiced Zen. But I think that possibly from Dōgen’s point of view their practice is not really the true practice of dharma. I don’t think those aristocrats in Kyoto and samurais in Kamakura at the time of Dōgen were so different from that prime minister. Dōgen had some disappointment after working hard with those aristocrats. I think he had some disillusionment about the people in the upper class of society, like emperors. He knew emperors because his family belonged to that society. His father was a secretary of the emperor. His grandfather was a prime minister— so he knew that society. When he was young, he was kind of idealistic, he thought that if he presented genuine dharma, people would accept it and support him and create a good dharma-world. But after ten years of his practice in Kyoto he found that was a dream. That is my understanding for now.
In any event, I think that he gave up the idea he described in Bendowa. What he next wanted to try to do was to create a small place where people with a very sincere aspiration can get together, and he felt it must be remote from the capital. He wanted to create a place where sincere people can get together and practice with him. To encourage those people who came to practice with him at this remote place, he wrote this kind of admonition or warning to his disciples, not to be involved in that kind of world. I’m not sure that he wanted to return to a separation between lay and monastic practice, but he wanted to make a small place where a small number of people could practice. I don’t think he rejected lay people, but his idea was for a small number of monks to practice at the monastery in a quiet place, and for lay people to support and join the practice whenever they can. That is similar to the original form of the Buddhist sangha. Again, that is my understanding for now.
After Dōgen, Soto Zen and the Soto School had eight hundred years of history. Neither of his two plans became actualized. That is a challenge for the Soto School today. Sotoshu is among the biggest Buddhist orders in Japan now. It has fifteen thousand temples, and more than twenty thousand priests. But the reason why the Soto School became big was not because people accepted Dōgen’s teaching of just sitting. There are other reasons, many different reasons, but it’s not because clergy and practitioners understood what Dōgen taught, and their practice was not necessarily what Dōgen taught.
Our koan for now is “so what?” What should we do in this country? Which is a better picture? The one in Bendowa or the one Dōgen presented after he moved to Eiheiji? Might there be something in the middle? What is that? This is a very important koan for Buddhist practitioners in this country right now. What we are doing creates the next generation, the history of Buddhism in this country. What I’m doing, or what we’re doing here is one attempt to find a middle way, at least to me. When I was in Massachusetts at Valley Zendo, I was very clear I didn’t want to practice in a city with a big group. I just wanted to keep this small quiet place, and that’s it. But after five years of that experience I had a question— why was I there? We had only five-day sesshin, without anything but zazen, every month, twelve times a year. I found that not many American people could sit that much. So in a sense, offering that amount of zazen is a kind of rejection of people. Of course, some people could do it but could not continue, because they had a job and a family. They didn’t have enough time or energy to practice in this way. So to offer practice in that way was a kind of a rejection. If we just wait for the very firmly determined people who are ready to practice in this way, I don’t think I need to be in this country. If such people exist, they could come to Japan. I couldn’t find any good reason to practice in that way in this country.
When I came to this country again in 1993 and started my own place, I wanted to find a middle way between what we did at Valley Zendo and spreading dharma. Now we have a five-day sesshin, not every month, but five times a year. Another thing I found is that it’s kind of dangerous to sit that amount of zazen without a clear understanding of the meaning of that practice. That’s why I started Genzo-e. I try to keep the gate a little broader. To me this is like a middle path. But still, it can be too difficult for many American people, especially American lay people. For some people, what I’m doing is still a kind of extreme. It’s kind of difficult to find where is the middle. We can’t say before we start. So while we are trying to continue to practice, we have to make some adjustments. But as a person who studied dharma and trained in Japan, and as a dharma-heir of my teacher, I myself cannot and don’t want to make such a big change. I’d like to continue to practice with a relatively small number of people. American people who practice and study with me can make a change to make this practice more accessible for a larger range of people in this country for the future. That is my wish.
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 Okumura’s translation.
 Hogo can be translated as “Dharma words.” These are often letters of practice instruction to students. For this particular hogo, see p. 498-500 in Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record: A translation of the Eihei Koroku (Wisdom Publications,2004), p. 632-733.
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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi
The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.
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