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Grave Mistakes, Monasticism, and Zen

First let me apologize (see Shitsurei Itashimasu!) for commenting on Brad Warner's practice. That's not my place. Next, let me express that I want to proceed from the ground of inquiry about obejective acts and statements toward the heart of the practioner. Let me judge no one. However, let me offer my humble and flawed feedback, as I have to say something if silence is acceptance when it's not appropriate response.

Nathan, over at Dangerous Harvests picked up on more than I wrote when I commented that Brad Warner had never done a monastic practice period. Stuck again! The self carried itself forward. Nathan took it to mean that monks are superior to lay people. I don't mean that, not ever.  I don't mean to praise self at the expense of others. But I do love this life and I do champion it. 

And I mean our practice comes from our monastic ancestor Dogen, who wrote: 

"To train constantly...requires unstinting support. The structure of the Practice Period provides such support. It is the head and face of Buddha Ancestors. It has been intimately transmitted as their skin, flesh, bones, and marrow."

A practice period is made of monastic forms. I believe that every small Zen center is practicing at least one monastic form, with or without "monks."

I said over at Dangerous Harvests, "... the term monk in my tradition is self applicable, with or without ordination, and that term is usually someone who is at Tassajara and may end when they leave Tassajara, even if they lived there for 20 years. I use the handle farmermonk carefully; it's playful for me and helpful for me to live my life. I may look like a monk, and feel like a monk, but I can't live up to the title."

And for another record, we would never get through a sesshin without our householding monks. Not only do they bring the party (financial support), most fill zendo roles, lead serving crews, and opperate with senior staff, like work leader for general labor. We say lay or monastic, but I prefer to think of the trinity of giver, reiciever, and gift. We endevor as sangha to keep the monastic forms. 

So what are monastic forms?

Is it robes? Is it incense? Is it chanting? Is it sitting? Is it celebrating Parinirvana?Almost every sangha has that or could have it in a jiff.

Zaike Tokudo and Shukke Tokudo; staying at home and attaing the way or leaving home and attaining the way. These are just titles; we have priests who wear the brown and black O'kesa who work nine to five, commuting from Green Gulch. We have monks who are so at home in the monastary, they have the red tape of bureauacracy in a baby boomer death grip. We have blue robed "lay" people who have lived here over 30 years and are in their 70s. And we have priests and lay people who have never lived here full time, but have done more practice periods than some long time residents, who are invited to be head monk, like my great friend Albert, who's a lawyer in his 50s, who has had a dedicated practice for the last 20 years and was Shuso just last fall. All of these come with or without hair.

To clarify, I don't consider people who practice monastic forms outside from monasticism, be them lay or ordained, big centered or small centered.

 I'm not considered a monk on many levels, perhaps most by my dharma brothers and sisters at Tassajara, who get up earlier, sit longer, sit colder, and sometimes get giardia together. Theres a zen history of beef about who trains harder. There's the beef between Sojiji and Eheji. And there's the beef that Nathan points at here:

"Amount of practice and location of said practice doesn't = level of enlightenment or awareness."

I disagree, but not in the sense of Green Gulch v.s Tassajara. Maybe in Dogen's sense of practice realization and who's on the teacher end of the warm hand to warm hand tradition. I'm not looking for dharma heavy weights here, like Joan Halifax Roshi. I mean someone who has trained closely, next door close, for some period of time. I mean so close you can watch how she eats, wears her robes, offers incense, talks to guests, talks to her husband, go for walks every day and receive the teaching that is beyond words. I mean to meet the teacher and be met by the teacher.

I do think it would be hard to separate Buddhism from monastic forms and maybe impossible to separate Dogen's Zen from monastic forms. These forms are empty and in being empty they are reliable vessels of Buddha Dharma. We are accountable to the forms, as we are to the teachers who transmit them. When we take the chop sticks out before the spoon, we learn something about ourselves in that moment; learning something about yourself from standards you have not set up for yourself is what I would call practicing monastic forms.

Finally, the most important thing about monastic training is the aspect of living and dying together; Lulu and I live in room 14 of Cloud Hall, and everyone knows it. We get cake as a community once a week. They hear us cry, they hear us fight, they see us in the zendo, in the fields and in the kitchen. We have teachers and practice leaders who in one moment may comfort you like a grandmother and in the next become a stone faced temple guardian of discipline. There is accountability every day and there is being met. There are less places to hide.

I ask this: Would Brad Warner benefit from the unstinting support of a practice period, so he could better transmit the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow? And how is Brad Warner doing? What is in his heart?


  1. Your Tenzo Steph was a dharma sister of mine at Clouds in Water, my zen center here in Minnesota. We only practiced together a few years. I was quite the rookie back then, but you all are fortunate to have her.

  2. I thought that might be the case. Gyokuden is wonderful. She was my crew leader in the guest program, too. She helps a lot of people sew rakusu and Okesa.

  3. I'm doing fine. Thanks for asking!

    I might benefit from a practice period. But I'm not sure Tassajara is the place for it. I know for certain Green Gulch is not (personal reasons). I could go back to Japan, I suppose. But that's probably not a realistic option at this point in my life. That leaves... where? Maybe Jikoji would work. Or maybe I open my own center and do one there. In any case, it's not out of the question. But when it comes to nuts & bolts it gets tricky.

    Even though SFZC is Soto it's not my lineage. It is, in fact, very different in some important ways that I have great difficulty reconciling. This has nothing to do with its policies on sex either, which are fine with me. There are deeper philosophical issues and attitude differences that don't sit well with me.

    As for what's in my heart... who knows? Sometimes it seems like everyone but me!


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