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 More on precepts in Soto Zen - drinking, etc.

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: More on precepts in Soto Zen - drinking, etc.   Wed Jul 13, 2016 2:08 pm

From the Shores of Zen:  http://shoresofzen.com/meiji_soto.htm
Soto Zen in Meiji Japan: The Life and Times of Nishiari Bokusan – thesis – free PDF download

Meiji Japan (1868-1912), a period of radical transformation -and Westernization - of Buddhism, and the era of the birth of what is known today as the Soto Sect.
Nishiari Bokusan (1821-1910) —the teacher of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s teacher Kishizawa Ian, the most influential commentator on Dogen in the twentieth century, and the scholar-priest sometimes called the “father of the modern Soto Sect”— is largely ignored in English language writings on Zen despite his tremendous importance.

Available for free download or at-cost printing

In this paper, an edition of Jiryu’s MA thesis written under the guidance of the Group in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley, Nishiari Bokusan’s life story is presented for the first time in English.  It is told in the context of the persecution and transformation of Buddhism in the Meiji Period, and against the backdrop of the history of the institutional birth of Soto Zen.  This edition includes a preface for the American Sangha.

Sex, War, and the Problem of Zen Precepts
Posted on December 29, 2014 by Jiryu Mark

First in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.

How have our recent Soto ancestors understood the Zen precepts?  Work like Brian Victoria’s has shown us that most of them, including the great Nishiari Bokusan, took a position most of us would find reprehensible with respect to Japanese militarism, taking imperialist war-making as consistent with the precept against killing.  Richard Jaffe‘s work has further shown that many of them, again including Nishiari, felt that priests who married were inexcusably breaking the precept against fornication.

It has been startling to me in my study of Nishiari Bokusan that with respect to these two precepts at least — killing and sex — he seems to understand the Zen precepts in exactly the opposite way as most American Zen students I’ve met do.  For most of us, the precept against killing is a powerful teaching against war.  For most of us, the meaning of the prohibition against fornication is ultimately about “not objectifying others,” and has less to do with any rules of sexuality so much as with a principle of respectful intimacy; in themselves priests marrying is no violation, sex out of wedlock is no violation, homosexuality is no violation.  At issue is not the act but the mind, the attitude, the openness and intimacy and honesty, such that Robert Aitken could even suggest (in Mind of Clover, if I remember correctly — and I think I do remember correctly, as it burned itself into my young brain when I read it!) that in a one-night stand the precept against fornication might still be observed.

So what does this mean about the precepts?  If interpretations can vary so dramatically, then where are the “teeth” of the precepts?  Where does the “rubber hit the road”?  Where in these precepts is there a religious and moral commitment that actually demands a certain response and forecloses others?

Zen precepts don’t have teeth, and that is the basic point of Zen precepts.  They are not dogmatic but are adaptable, are not rigid but flexible, are not “commandments” but “appropriate responses.”  We celebrate this adaptability of precepts.

But when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.  When we celebrate the adaptability of our precepts – the way they define no particular course of action for us – we miss the dark side of our flexible precepts, the fact that without particular actions defined for us, we are more than likely simply going to fall back on our previously conditioned responses.

Christopher Ives in a great book about Buddhist militarism in twentieth century Japan, Imperial Way Zen, relates Ichikawa Hakugen’s argument that if the precepts were more dogmatic — more fixed and less undermined by this principle of adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness over dogma — they may have served to keep Japanese Buddhism from the disaster of war-enabling militarism.  If it were clear that “not killing” just meant DO NOT KILL, it could not have been twisted into a defense of expansionist war-making.  The flexibility doesn’t energize precepts, it undermines them, detooths them, declaws them, and leaves us just with whatever ethical positions the people around us are spouting.

Responsiveness and flexibility of precepts is all fine and good.  Indeed, when Suzuki Roshi famously says after a jukai at San Francisco Zen Center that all of the precepts just conferred may need to be broken soon after the ceremony, it does seem fine and good — even charming.  But what about when Nishiari Bokusan — against the backdrop of escalating imperialist wars — speaks of the “adaptability” of precepts in the same breath as he celebrates the principle of “killing one to save the many” and insists that to not kill when one should is to violate the precept against killing?  Still charming?  Still fine and good?

What are we left with in practice when the precepts don’t really guide us in any concrete way?  It seems to me that we fall back on what we thought already, on how we have been conditioned prior to receiving the precepts.  What we think of as “the appropriate response” is not something that comes fresh and clean out of some kind of radical presence, but is something that is conditioned by our past conditioning.  So to say “don’t follow the precepts, just do the right thing,” is to render the precepts meaningless and to keep Buddhist ethics from actually transforming our sense of how to act.  The precepts are a kind of empty space, and while the rhetoric of Zen precepts is that that space stays empty until filled by the needs of the situation, more often, I’m afraid, they just allow any preexisting views to come forth as the “flexible” or “appropriate” expression of precepts.

How else to explain Nishiari’s support of the imperialist wars as in line with precepts and modern American Buddhist tolerance for sex out of wedlock as in alignment with the precept against fornication?  These positions are more about the values of the social context than they are positions somehow dictated or even informed by Buddhist precepts.

I remain committed to the Bodhisattva Precepts I have vowed to uphold and confer, so I don’t enter this swamp of problems to undermine the precepts or even to suggest that they don’t have transformative and moral power for many of us.  It is quite interesting to ask myself why I think the precepts mean what they do, though — and then consider why it is that the conclusions I come to about the precepts look more like the generic ethical positions of my non-Buddhist American liberal friends than they do with the deeply-considered precept interpretations of our great Soto ancestor.

Where do my ethical views come from, really, and is Buddhism shaping me or am I twisting it?

No Drinking or No Selling? “Prajñā Water” or Vice?
Posted on January 18, 2015 by Jiryu Mark

Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.
In my last post  I raised this question:  are the Zen precepts so flexible that they are essentially meaningless?  If each of us ends up just interpreting the precepts to mean whatever we think they should mean, why have Zen precepts at all?

For example, for someone who thinks priests should be able marry (like I do), the Zen precept regarding sexual misconduct allows priests to marry.  For someone who doesn’t think priests should marry (like Nishiari Bokusan), the precept on sexuality forbids priests from marrying.  For someone who was taught to think that war is unjustifiable (as I was), the precept on killing precludes war-making; for someone who was taught to think that military aggression is a moral imperative when the nation is at risk (as Nishiari was), the precept on killing demands war-making.  So what’s the point, where are the teeth, where is the moral compass?

Along with sex and war, there is a third example from my study of Nishiari that I could have included:  the prohibition against alcohol.  As I went over Nishiari’s biographies for my thesis research, I was startled to notice how much and how often Nishiari was shown drinking.  From youth to old age, in story after story, there was alcohol.

I tried not to draw any particular conclusion about Nishiari’s drinking – I didn’t want to conclude that it was just what everyone did at the time, nor that Nishiari stood out as some kind of full-blown alcoholic.  I don’t know enough about the social context of the time to say either way, and anyway I’m suspicious of my own moralism around alcohol (which I think is more basically Protestant than Buddhist in my case).  But I couldn’t get away from the fact that even the sources themselves were consistently using terms like “heavy drinker” or “extraordinarily fond of alcohol” to describe Nishiari, in contrast with their accounts of his strict and life-long discipline on other points of monastic conduct like orthodox dress, celibacy, and vegetarianism.  There is not so much condemnation of his drinking in these accounts so much as a sort of wink – that ol’ SOB!  One cheerfully written anecdote recalls that the old master liked to use the phrase “Prajñā water” forsake warmed with hot water.

I haven’t sorted out yet whether Nishiari felt the precept didn’t apply to his own drinking or whether he was just resigned to his own vice.  He wrote plenty of comments on the precepts that I think hold the answer to that, but for this post at least there is a more basic question on my mind.

Whatever Nishiari thought about his drinking, or however he dealt with his habit (addiction?) in light of the precept, what’s important to me for now is why think of the precept as I do, why we in American Zen tend to take it as we do.  For most of us, as far as I can tell, the precept is pretty clear:  intoxication is not a good idea.

After all, that’s what the fifth precept says:  “I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.”  Or, as Suzuki Roshi put it, “A disciple of Buddha abstains from taking harmful intoxicants or drugs.”  Or, as they say at Great Vow Monastery, “I vow not to misuse drugs or alcohol but to keep the mind clear.”

Most of the English translations of the precept have this sense, and it is only recently that I realized how skewed this “translation” is.  The precept as written in Chinese and as recited in Japanese is quite clear and quite different:  fukoshukai (不沽酒戒).  In Nishijima’s blunt transliteration, “Not to sell liquor.”  Aitken’s version is pretty clear as well, a bit updated: “No dealing in drugs.”

So “non-intoxication” is not a translation at all, but is a willful and blatant mistranslation, another entry in the vast catalog I can’t help calling American Buddhist Apocrypha.

This isn’t to say that there is no stream of temperance in Buddhism.  There are various prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in the early monastic rules.  In the novice precepts of the Pali tradition as transmitted to China, for example, “the precept to not drink alcohol” (fuinshukai 不飲酒戒) is among the first few.  But even as far back as the Brahma Net Sutra, the most important source for Mahayana precepts in China, the majorprecept – as a Bodhisattva precept – is not about personal purity but is about supporting others.  Granted there is a minor precept in the Sutra that clarifies that alcohol should be avoided personally, but the grave precept, the greater fault, lies not in intoxication but in enabling intoxication in others.

Japanese Buddhism shed the minor precepts pretty early on as I understand it, and in doing so they lost this background precept of “not drinking” (fuinshukai) and kept only the more Bodhisattvic, other-focused precept of “not selling” (fukoshukai).  And then it seems that they maybe sort of, um, forgot that the basic assumption behind the Bodhisattvic version, too, must be that alcohol is basically impure or problematic.  If it’s not a bad thing to begin with, why would it be a problem to share it?!

It’s tempting then to say that by purposely mistranslating “not selling” as “not drinking” we American Zen people are somehow correcting a medieval Japanese mistake and recovering or restoring a more original and basic sense of the precept.  It would be funny to frame our take on precepts as anything like a “return,” though, because on so many other points of discipline we are unabashedly not returning.  We’ve been way too selective in our American Zen interpretations to have any room left to claim that we’re doing a “return”!  If we’re “returning” from the point of view of alcohol, shouldn’t we “return” too to, say, “home-leaving” and avoiding high beds?  Given that we have the whole canon and all of Buddhist history laid out in front of us and that we pick as we’d like from ancient, medieval, and modern (and India, Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, etc.) we can’t really call our way a “return” just because one of our many selections happens to line up with an earlier iteration.

So from this rambly (and I assure you, unintoxicated) stew, I am left with at least two somewhat contradictory questions:

1) What’s up with Nishiari drinking all the time?!

And, 2) When, why, and how did American Buddhists decide by and large to “translate”not selling as not drinking and then basically erase the tracks of this change?
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Howard

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PostSubject: Re: More on precepts in Soto Zen - drinking, etc.   Thu Jul 14, 2016 3:41 am

Well from this plumbers view atop a Canadian zafu, which perhaps should exclude me from pontificating about American zen....or anything as seriously undertaken as a thesis on Meiji period soto zen....


1) What’s up with Nishiari drinking all the time?!


just sounds like alcohol consumption was simply the koan that was beyond Nishiari's particular ability to address.


Can the question of "What's up", really be better understood other than by a delving into whatever koan any of us are similarly still unwilling to fully face? Perhaps that won't be as comfortable an answering process as intellectual analysis might offer but I bet it might give one a more realistic feel for what he was dealing with.


And, 2) When, why, and how did American Buddhists decide by and large to “translate”not selling as not drinking and then basically erase the tracks of this change?



From the point of view of practice, seeing a difference between the not selling and the not drinking..of the wine of delusion, usually only reflects an identity bound belief in the differences between self and others.

One interpretation of this particular precept, when sincerely followed, clearly requires an equal participation of the other interpretation, just as 
either interpretation of this precept, when insincerely followed, are little more than an un knowing of suffering's cause and how to walk the path towards it's cessation.
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