I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on March 25, 2021. A video follows the text.
Once, a certain nun asked:
“Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma. As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma. What do you think?”
“That is not the correct view. Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are. However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home. This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma. There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home. A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara. A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults. Their attitudes should be quite different. It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely. I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”
This reading comes from one of Dōgen’s lesser-known texts, Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki. Dōgen, as you know, is the 13th century founder of the Sōtō Zen school in Japan. He left us four texts. This one is the first, at least in terms of when the material in it was produced during his teaching career.
The names of all of Dōgen’s texts begin with Shōbōgenzō, which means “treasury of the true Dharma eye.” It’s a reference to the transmission of the Dharma—the teachings; insight—between Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa, his first successor. In a famous sermon, Shakyamuni simply held up a flower and twirled it. Most people seemed confused, but Mahākāśyapa flashed a knowing smile. In Zen lore, this is when Zen began: with that first, teacher-to-student transmission.
Zuimonki, the second word in the title of this Dōgen text, means something like “easy to understand,” or “simplified.” One translation of the text goes by the title A Primer of Sōtō Zen. It consists of short, straightforward talks Dōgen gave to monks, nuns and laypeople in the first few years after the creation of Eihiji, the monastery he founded in Japan.
The passage I just read is remarkable in a couple of ways. First, he’s addressing nuns: female monastics. There were women in Dōgen’s community, which, sadly, was radical at the time. Second, Dōgen is correcting one of these monastics’ view regarding distinctions between monks and laypeople. It’s this second remarkable aspect of this passage that I want to focus on tonight.
In Dōgen’s time—and long before, and long after, and even still, in some parts of the world today—to be a serious Zen practitioner, or Buddhist of any stripe, meant to be a monastic. It was thought that you really couldn’t “attain the Way,” the phrase Dōgen uses here for enlightenment, unless you were a monastic.
The nun in this passage is clearly starting from the premise that she occupies a higher spiritual status than a layperson, simply because she is a monastic. This might appear arrogant to many of us today, but she was expressing a widely-held view at the time. And, remember: she’s at Dōgen’s monastery. Dōgen himself also clearly thinks being a monk is the typical way to be “all in” on the Zen path, as he makes clear elsewhere in this text.
But the nun’s question really goes beyond this point. She essentially asks, “Even if we’re screwing up as monastics, maybe by breaking a few rules or not always practicing with great diligence, aren’t we better than laypeople simply because we live in this monastery? We get spiritual brownie points because of the clothes we wear, because we beg for our meals, because we pray for others much of the day—just by going through the motions—don’t we?”
Dōgen makes clear that attaining the Way is not about that. He says, “no monk or nun attains [the Way] unless he has the mind of one who has left home.” Home-leaving refers superficially to leaving one’s home to enter a monastery, but Dōgen makes clear that physically moving your quarters is not really what home-leaving is about. The word “monk”—from the word mono—implies a mind and heart that is focused on just one thing. Focused upon, and completely centered in, the Way. If you enter this monastery without that frame of mind and heart, without that intention and aspiration, you have not truly left home, Dōgen is saying. In fact, he says, “A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara.”
Being released from samsara and attaining the Way are the same thing, Dōgen makes clear later in the passage. In classical Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of birth and death. Viewed from the perspective of everyday awareness, before attaining the Way, it is the world of our suffering—the world people take up the path hoping, in some sense, to escape. It is the world in which we are subject to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. For our purposes here, their alternate translations may be more useful: Greed is grasping for that which we desire; that which we think will enhance the self. Aversion is pushing away that which we don’t want; that which we think will diminish the self. Delusion is a specific sort of ignorance: not seeing the world as it is.
So what is attaining the Way, exactly? Dōgen gives us a pointer. “It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult]. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.” And here’s the key bit: “Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world”—if you leave home; if you give your heart to this—”you should abandon [the world] completely.”
The opposite of ignorance—of seeing oneself and the world in the wrong way, as a realm in which the goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever—is to see the world and one’s life as they are—impermanent—and to appreciate one’s life accordingly. Dōgen makes clear it’s our mindset and heart-set that matter, not where we live, nor labels like monk and layperson.
For Dōgen, aspiration for the Way is the key thing. We all can and should have the mind and heart of a monastic, whether or not we live in a monastery. To have the mind and heart of a monastic is to have a mind and a heart that is not divided; that is “all in.” In other words, we must submit. If we live in a monastery—and, I should add, if we’re a layperson and we go to a Zen center—and if we practice for, or expect, self-aggrandizement, we will not attain the Way. It’s the nature of our practice to discover, our self-aggrandizement projects again, and again and again—they get more and more subtle, and barely perceptible.
We can’t serve two masters, as the saying goes. We can’t attain the way with a mind and heart divided. Having the mind and heart Dōgen speaks of, or at least the deep desire to have this mind and heart, is what Zen practice is about. Plain and simple.