I gave this talk on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.
This is from The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp:
A monk asked Kyōgen, “What is the inner Vinaya?”
“Wait until the venerable monk becomes a layman, then we’ll talk,” replied the master.
I came across this interesting exchange a few weeks ago, and I’ve been sitting with it since then. It’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons.
One reason is the idea of the inner Vinaya. The Vinaya is the long set of precepts and procedures that regulate Buddhist monastic life. In most parts of the world up to the present day, the term sangha has referred exclusively to the community of Buddhist monastics. Someone who does not live in a monastery—a layperson, we would call them today—is not part of the sangha and not subject to the Vinaya.
By the way, for purposes of everything I say in this talk, I’m counting most Zen priests in the West, and even most Japanese Zen temple monks, as “laypeople” in the strict sense in which I’m using that term here. In most of the Buddhist world, the bounds of sangha are stark and clear: if you don’t live as a monastic, you’re not a member of the sangha. Applying the Western word and concept of “priest” within Zen Buddhism is a modern thing; something that began to emerge in late medieval and early modern times as East met West and a clerical path outside monasteries and major temples began to emerge. Throughout most of Zen’s history, and in most of the rest of the Buddhist world even today, there weren’t laypeople and priests, as those of us acquainted with Christianity think of them. There were monks and non-monks. Most Western Zen priests today live householder lives; they don’t live in a monastery or temple. Even in Japan, almost all Zen clerics marry, eat meat, and drink. They and their families mostly live in one of the 2,000 or so local temples—think of them a bit like neighborhood churches—but they are living lives that don’t look so different than those of the families nearby. It’s an uncomfortable fact for these Japanese clerics that most monastics in other Buddhist sects throughout Asia do not regard them as part of the sangha, but as laypeople. They may have left home symbolically, but they are still living and practicing at home—still living “in the world”—from a traditional Buddhist perspective. In Japan today, most Zen clerics embrace pretty much the same vows the rest of us take in jukai and relate to them as we do. And so, happily for them I submit, I intend everything I say here to apply equally to Zen priests.
There is some variation in the Vinaya across Buddhist sects and regions, but even the shortest versions have around 250 precepts. In addition to prohibitions on marrying, eating meat, and drinking alcohol, many other activities that many people living ordinary lives must or do engage in regularly, like handling money, are prohibited.
Many of us would experience life lived according to the Vinaya as rather oppressive, I suppose. But the idea, or ideal, is that one will find liberation within these seeming constraints; discover boundlessness within boundaries. Even so, it’s not hard to imagine that some monks might come to experience adherence to so many precepts regulating so many aspects of one’s daily life in a rather “check the box” sort of way. One might eventually feel neither oppressed nor particularly liberated by these strictures. One might just feel habituated to them, and one might begin to wonder, “What’s the point?”
I imagine the monk in the vignette I just read as having just this sort of experience. His practice, including his faithful adherence to the monastic code, has begun to feel like a dead-end street. He might initially have felt he was (or was becoming) holy by adhering to scores of precepts. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in monasteries and become close to several longtime monks, and most of them have told me it’s common along the monastic path to regard oneself as holier-than-thou in this way. But the monk in this story seems to be realizing that just conforming his visible conduct to the Vinaya code isn’t what it’s all about. It’s about how one orients internally. And so he brings his question about whether there is an inner Vinaya to his teacher.
The second reason this little vignette is interesting to me is Kyōgen’s response. Kyōgen, who I regard as my Dharma namesake, was a Chinese teacher in the ninth century. When he left home and entered a monastery, his teacher Isan gave him a version of the famous koan, “What is your original face before your parents were born?” He was totally stumped by it. He was a brainy, learned person, so he did what many brainy, learned people do when they’re stumped: He started combing through books for an answer. Not finding it, he burned all the books, left the monastery, and become a wanderer for some time. He eventually settled near the neglected burial place and shrine of a famous teacher and spent his days keeping it and the surrounding area in shape. He returned to everyday life, so to speak. One day while weeding or sweeping, he sent a pebble flying into a stalk of bamboo and—pop!—he awakened.
How does Kyōgen respond to the monk’s question about the inner Vanaya? “Wait until you’re a layman, then we’ll talk,” he says. Not, when you’re a layman I’ll tell you. When you’re a layman, you’ll truly know for yourself, and then we’ll have something to talk about. You won’t find your answer confined in the four corners of this monastery anymore than you’ll find in confined in the four corners of a page in one of your books. And any answer I could give you, Kyōgen is saying, would be no good. It wouldn’t be your answer.
Kyōgen seems to be telling this monk that the monastic life is in some sense the “easier” spiritual path, at least early on. It’s like college, maybe, where some of us begin to take up a profession. But he seems to be saying lay life is like graduate school and what follows it, where the matters become murkier and we can’t always rely on received, canonical ideas as reliably. We constantly have to chart new ground. Graduate school and beyond is where we truly achieve mastery of a subject, where we truly can internalize it. In this case, of course, our subject is the Great Matter of Life and Death. Kyōgen seems to be saying that we face our comprehensive exams daily, and over the arcs of our ordinary lives, in the world, where we encounter a much broader set of opportunities, challenges, and hardships than one encounters in a monastery.
It’s not that monastics don’t experience conflict, are not tempted, and are insulated from their own greed, hatred, and ignorance. Of course, not. It’s just that they’re challenged and supported in the face of all that by a kind of personal and communal exoskeleton. The Vinaya and all the routines associated with it is designed to heighten the monastic’s awareness of the myriad ways we can wander unproductively, even tragically, along the way and to nudge one toward awakening and right relations. But at some point, and though it’s not guaranteed, it may dawn on a monk that mere compliance with the code—important as that is, especially with those precepts that cause grave harm if violated—is not all it’s about.
This vignette is another example of a Buddhist monastic—in this case Kyōgen, who eventually rejoined the sangha—somewhat surprisingly holding up householder existence as a sort of “higher” ideal and paradigm for life on the Way (though I hesitate to speak of this in terms of higher and lower, because there truly is no North or South in the Way). Other examples include the Vimalakirti Sutra; the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng; and Layman Pang. Indeed, our tradition’s poetry and metaphors about the spiritual journey, like the Ox Herding series and The Five Ranks, often point and lead us back to life in the world.
The realm of the unregulated, or less regulated, may be where an inner sense of uprightness and an inner experience wholeness, of integration, is both especially important and even harder to achieve. We Western Zen adapts, both so-called laypeople and priests-in-the-world, are part of a historical turn in Buddhism that has brought the Dharma more thoroughly into every corner of everyday life, where we are more than patrons who support cloistered monastics who pray for us as they seek spiritual attainment. We are part of an exciting and important project, for Buddhism and for the world.