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 'Flies in winter' questions

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Iain

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PostSubject: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Nov 13, 2010 9:20 am

I think several of the topics aired on this site are related to a more basic issue which has not been discussed here much. It is one which is fundamental in a 'practical' way to the long term health of both the OBC and to other Buddhist traditions migrating from Asian cultures into Western society.

I think of it as a kind of 'where do flies go in winter' question.

Few monks and even fewer lay Buddhists I know appear to realise that undergoing full time 'monastic training' here in Japan for the majority of Japanese monks, lasts no more than two or three years. The usual pattern now is to take a degree at a university with affiliations with their sect (at Sojiji, Komazawa), and then move on to a large training temple afterwards. This is much closer to the process in the West of training in a Catholic seminary. Most of the annual intake of postulants consists of 22-24 year old men who will spend two or three years at the spiritual equivalent of the most rigorous military 'boot camp'. The majority of the intake - I think now still around 80% at Sojiji - are the sons of existing monks expecting to follow fathers in the 'family trade'. Those who come to such training with only a spiritual vocation and without family links with temple life are relatively few. And I would guess very carefully screened before acceptance for mental and physical stamina for their own benefit.

On entry to the temple annual intakes are thrown into to a spartan 100 day sesshin. Even 'luxuries' such as family photographs are confiscated and trainees are still told to bring only sufficient cash to cover the cost of their funeral if they don't make it through the training term.

I'm not passing any judgement or comparative comment here, simply recognising what was the practice in Rev. Master Jiyu's day and continues to be so now. This is the standard training she received.

But the really important difference then comes afterwards. Once basic training is complete, in their mid twenties nearly all these young monks return to a temple in the community. Most of the rest of their lives will be spent primarily concerned with funerals and memorials and pastoral work with their 'parishioners'. Only the few progress far along the spiritual, intellectual and 'political' institutional road to recognition as senior officers and teachers, and even they have their own temple as a 'home base'.

Lay involvement in meditation practice is separate and secondary at training temples and usually marginal or non-existent in local temples. In my Prefecture with a population of 5 million only around half a dozen of the 300 or so Soto temples advertise any regular weekly lay meditation sessions.

In other words there is a defined and flexible pattern of monastic 'career structure' involving only a short fixed term of intensive monastic life, and lay training is not an important aspect of the routine of most training temples.

In the OBC by contrast monastic training has few institutionalised paths leading out of the Abbey gate. In form it resembles the practices found in Christian monasticism. But Christian monastic traditions operate in tandem with a much larger network of ordained priests out in the community and even monks and nuns in orders are often involved in active educational and pastoral work. Perhaps only a relatively few senior OBC priests will succeed in founding a local temple later in their lives, the 'entry cost' of establishing one is high. In some respects Western temples are currently experiencing similar institutional problems to those in contemporary mainland China, but at least the Chinese have ancient models in their own culture to refer to.

That is a long detour to arrive at my original 'where do flies go in winter?' question by which I mean of course where do monks go and what do they do in their mature years to 'return to the world with bliss bestowing hands'? There already seems to be a range of possible outcomes. Some continue to blossom as exceptional formal teachers of Buddhism in temples, and others train within a more peripatetic, subtle and informal kind of 'friar' role. Some serve as 'priors' or in other ways as community priests, some jump the track and head for the ditch, some stagnate, and some blow up and/or blow out. In addition to this limited range of options for monks lay trainees play a completely different role in the sangha here which is also confusing. I'm sure there are no instant answers, and especially not the evisceration on Zen teaching to conform with conventional behaviours in Western culture. Why do that? Most of us arrived at Zen for quite the contrary reason.

To sum it up in one word I don't think that most Western Buddhist traditions including the OBC have yet arrived at a place where they are practically sustainable as anything like 'steady state' institutions within a new culture. There are not enough options nor safety valves nor checks and balances.

I don't think these can be 'legislated for' to any great degree, nor successfully packaged and shipped from culture to culture. They can only evolve through experience, some of which is bound to be bitter. It isn't new. Institutional life was pretty tough in the first three generations after Dogen arrived back in Japan from Song China so full of enthusiasm and I can think of no reason why it will be any easier this time around.
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Isan
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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Nov 13, 2010 11:49 am

Iain wrote:

To sum it up in one word I don't think that most Western Buddhist traditions including the OBC have yet arrived at a place where they are practically sustainable as anything like 'steady state' institutions within a new culture. There are not enough options nor safety valves nor checks and balances.

I don't think these can be 'legislated for' to any great degree, nor successfully packaged and shipped from culture to culture. They can only evolve through experience, some of which is bound to be bitter. It isn't new. Institutional life was pretty tough in the first three generations after Dogen arrived back in Japan from Song China so full of enthusiasm and I can think of no reason why it will be any easier this time around.

That was very detailed and informative, thank you. Actually RMJK did explain the Japanese Soto Zen model to us quite clearly, ie we knew that monks in Japan entered Sojiji for a relatively short time during which they endured an intense period of "boot camp" style training and afterward returned home to eventually run the family temple. Unfortunately this wasn't presented as part of a larger functional framework that we could learn something from, but only as an example of how practice had become institutionalized and unauthentic. You are also correct that RMJK eventually turned to a more Christian monastic model where people were expected to stay "cloistered" indefinitely and it was rarely, if ever, considered a good thing to leave. I think you're right that the OBC has yet to reach a sustainable state, but I'm not sure what you mean when you say solutions can't be "legislated". I believe what is occurring in this forum is very organic. Since virtually everyone participating here has practiced within the OBC this forum in effect is the organization providing feedback to itself so it can (hopefully) find a more sustainable state.
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Robert
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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Nov 13, 2010 12:21 pm

Thanks Iain, it's useful and interesting to know more about the background and practicalities to training in Japan.
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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Wed Nov 17, 2010 5:39 pm

Iain wrote:
I don't think that most Western Buddhist traditions including the OBC have yet arrived at a place where they are practically sustainable as anything like 'steady state' institutions within a new culture. There are not enough options nor safety valves nor checks and balances.

I don't think these can be 'legislated for' to any great degree, nor successfully packaged and shipped from culture to culture. They can only evolve through experience, some of which is bound to be bitter. It isn't new. Institutional life was pretty tough in the first three generations after Dogen arrived back in Japan from Song China so full of enthusiasm and I can think of no reason why it will be any easier this time around.

That's a really interesting point which to my mind puts the OBC and this forum in a much bigger and more understandable perspective.
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Ol'ga

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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Jun 25, 2011 10:37 am

What is a Dharma heir? It seems not every transmitted disciple is one.
Did Roshi (Jiyu) have any female Dharma heirs? Is the list of her heirs public domain?
Ol'ga
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Isan
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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Jun 25, 2011 10:55 am

Ol'ga wrote:
What is a Dharma heir? It seems not every transmitted disciple is one.
Did Roshi (Jiyu) have any female Dharma heirs? Is the list of her heirs public domain?
Ol'ga

To my knowledge RMJK never explained what a Dharma Heir was. She simply gave some monks that secondary title over time, and in retrospect it seems like it was about status and little else. I don't know if there's a list and don't remember specifically if the title was given to any female monks.
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Jun 25, 2011 3:39 pm

For those who want to read up on Zen history in Japan and China, some books:

Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice - edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright

Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism - John R. McRae

Zen Buddhism: A History. Japan -- Heinrich Dumoulin

Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning - Heinrich Dumoulin

Did Dogen Go to China?: What he wrote3 and When he wrote it - Steven Heine

Zen Masters - Edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright

and the two Zen at War books by Brian Victoria
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: 'Flies in winter' questions   Sat Jun 25, 2011 4:18 pm

According to Steven Heine, the Soto sect has over 15,000 temples, by far the largest of any Buddhist sect in Japan. 95% of them are affiliated with Sojiji - so Sojiji's main function is to staff all these temples with priests. And as Iain points out, the overwhelming role of these priests is to conduct daily chanting, nearly constant memorial services or one kind or another and some funerals, not to teach or promote meditation.

As Iain noted, most lay Japanese Buddhists (actually this is true of Buddhism all over Asia, not just Japan) - don't practice meditation very much, but support the monks, "make merit", sponsor memorial services, etc. Based on my reading -- and Iain will I am sure know much more -- the servicing of the dead has been the main job of these Soto temples for hundreds of years.

Useful to read Zen Ritual - noted in the previous post -- there is a chapter on how zen rituals were seen as protecting the country from harm, strengthening the country, protecting the Emperor, and so on.

So you can see why Sojiji has developed a system that turns out priests in a few years - they just don't have time / luxury to train priests for longer periods. Also, the priests don't need to be enlightened to do their job, they need to know the basic Soto teachings of Dogen / Keizan, know how to perform the Soto memorial and funeral rites and manage their local parishioners / temple elders / families.

And since almost all of them are the sons of priests, I have to wonder about the spiritual health / dedication of many of them. Probably most of these young men have no choice but to run their father's temple and it probably is a safe, but very boring job if you are not into it. Are young people coming to the temples or just the older folks? Who is actually doing zazen? I assume there are still some very dedicated and sincere meditation practitioners.

A friend of mine went on a trip to Japan earlier this year and visited Eiheiji - and said there were almost no monks there. I said she probably visited when there wasn't a training session going on - or maybe she only saw a few of the big public halls that tourists are taken to. She said she visited many temples and said, "No one seems to meditate in Japan." I still said that in many cases, as a visitor, you would not see where most of the monks were practicing or living.

On a side note, a few years ago I did a book project with the Shin Buddhist tradition here in the U.S. When I was a Shasta monk, we would occasionally visit the Buddhist Churches of America bookstore in San Francisco and i stuck my head into their temple a few times. And I remember that back in the 70's, the Shin church in the U.S. had something like 250,000 followers. When I started the book project, I mentioned this number and the Shin representative said they only had something like 15,000 - 20,000 members now. That is like a 90% decline. He told me that only the old people are now going to the temples for Sunday services, memorials and funerals, and that young Japanese are just not interested. Also, they attracted very few American adherents. Even though their temples were trying to seem very western and church-like, Americans weren't interested in Pure Land Japanese Buddhism. In another generation, would this organization still even exist in the U.S.?
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