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On Commitment in Practice

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 08/24/2003
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

Zoketsu examines the meaning of lay and priest ordinations in our lineage.Today we’re going to do Jukai (Taking the Precepts) ceremony so it’s a good occasion to talk about commitment in our practice, and about our ceremonies of vowing.

As many of you know, I grew up in a religious household of observant Jews. We were part of a tight knit Jewish community. We kept a kosher home and went to synagogue regularly, observed Shabbat and the cycle of holidays. Unlike many people who find this kind of background oppressive and restrictive, I enjoyed it. To me it made perfect sense that there would be a way of life that you would follow, a path you’d be on, an alternative to your own whims and impulses. I took our way of life for granted and never thought about it much. I was not alone in this: no one in our community as far as I knew thought much about how we lived and what our religious practice was all about. There wasn’t even an idea of “religious practice.” We just did what we did because that was what Jews had always done. If it was sometimes troublesome we just dealt with it.

I don’t necessarily recommend this attitude, but there was something good about it. The feeling that, like a squirrel who just hides nuts because that is what squirrels do, or a bird who flies south for the winter because that is what birds do, you just do your practice because that is what you do, what you are. This still seems to me the strongest way to practice. Of course we all have our desires and impulses- and our doubts and confusion. We are all many-sided people, and it’s no good to deny that. But still, underneath it all there’s the person who just goes on practicing no matter what. Suzuki roshi mentions this attitude many times. Once he said that even if the sun were to rise in the west the path of the bodhisattva just would go on straight ahead anyway, like a railroad track going on and on into the horizon. I don’t say we’re all supposed to be like that and that we’re falling down on the job if we’re not. We all need to be the way we are. I am only saying that this life of total commitment is a wonderful way to live; I suppose my favorite way.

In some spiritual paths there is a notion of a graduated way, many steps and stages, many levels and heights to ascend. Such paths can be very exciting. You have plenty to do, plenty to keep you interested. Even in Rinzai Zen, with its koan tradition, you have a lot of excitement as you pass the various koans, and advance closer and closer to the clear completion of your study. But our practice isn’t like that. It’s very basic and simple minded. There isn’t any accomplishment or completion. There are no stages to pass through so that you know where you are. Suzuki roshi once said our practice is like walking along in the fog- you are never sure exactly where you are. But you do gradually get wet through and through. Your whole life changes, but not so you’d notice particularly. One day you just think, Oh I suppose it is all quite different for me now. Or maybe you never think that. The method is just to go on practicing in the same way day by day. Who would want to do this? And yet there’s joy in it.

So this is our commitment- not some emotional spectacular flame of experience or accomplishment or even faith, but a quiet feeling of growing certainty that this way is right for us, that the practice is important to us, and will see us through our lives, all the way out to death and beyond. This comes usually with time. Even if we feel it from the beginning, we will feel it differently, and more firmly and truly, with time.

In our tradition we have occasions that mark this sense of commitment, ceremonies we practice that will help us to recognize the commitment we already have, and to deepen that commitment. Jukai ceremony- properly called Zeikei Tokudo, Staying at Home, Entering the Way – is the main such occasion. We study the precepts seriously and personally for some time, making sure that yes we are already in harmony with them, we do see them as the way of life we are living and want to continue to live, knowing that they are deeper than we can understand now, but that we will some day understand more. And then we sew the rakesu, Buddha’s robe, putting into each stitch our vow to be one with Buddha, to return to Buddha, as the essential archetype of our lives. And then the day comes for the ceremony, and, just like any other day, we do what there is to do, we practice in the ceremony, receive the rakesu, put it on, and bow. And we wear it from then on, and it reminds us of our vow, it is an embodiment of it, as our own body and mind are too.

The truest understanding is that the jukai ceremony takes place for us on each and every moment of our lives. Every moment is a time to commit ourselves to our lives, and every recommitment is a deepening and a mellowing. We are letting go just a little bit more. Finally, at the end of our lives, we let go all the way. All the ceremonies we have- jukai, tokudo (priest ordination, or Shukke Tokudo, Leaving Home, Entering the Way), Shuso ceremony, (Head Monk Questioning Ceremony), and Dharma Transmission – all these ceremonies are symbols of the commitment of letting go that is happening every moment. These ceremonies mean nothing at all if we don’t see that they stand for the commitment that we are being called to make moment after moment. If we don’t see them that way then we are just accumulating ornaments when we receive a rakesu or an okesa, and we would be better off not receiving them.

Our American Soto Zen tradition, transmitted from Japan, has an inherent confusion about the difference between priest and lay practitioners. Fundamentally there really is no difference: basically, all Zen practitioners are priests. In fact, all human beings are priests, people on the road to full awakening and full commitment, no matter how far they get in this particular lifetime. Yet, at the same time, there are differences in dress and in a few details of the practice (only priests can officiate at services and rituals).

In all other schools of Buddhism the difference between lay and priest practitioners is not confusing, because it is a lifestyle difference that is clearly visible. Priests vow to be celibate monks- to follow the Vinaya Rules of not eating after noon, not having money, always wearing robes, and so on. You can easily see the difference between a priest and a lay person, and the reasons to choose or not choose one or another lifestyle are clear. In our tradition, which is considered strange and almost suspect by the rest of the Buddhist world, there is confusion because the vows and commitments of priests and lay practitioners are the same. The only difference is that priests make what feels like a more solemn commitment to practice for and with others forever. And because of this, priests are more obligated to do this. But often lay people make these solemn commitments too, and feel within themselves the same obligation to practice that a priest should feel.

All religious commitments are inner commitments and are therefore hard to discern. But often, as with Buddhist priests in traditions other than ours, these inner commitments have an outward sign, a lifestyle change that is easily identifiable. In our tradition the commitments are mainly inner ones, so it is more difficult to be definite about what we are doing. The only outward signs are the wearing of the okesa or rakesu, and most of the time we are not wearing them. This essential inwardness of our commitment can seem a little vague sometimes, and this might be a problem. But on the whole I think it is a good thing. It is more foggy, in Suzuki roshi’s sense. But, whether it is a good thing or not it is what we have. Much as we might sometimes think we’d like to, we can’t make up our own rules or bend the tradition according to our needs. Traditions are strong because they are traditions – they are venerable, stubborn, larger than we are, with a grander sense of history than we have. Traditions do change of course, but always too slowly to suit us.

Our tradition tells us that the ceremony we call Dharma Transmission can only be received by priests, that is people who have received Shukke Tokudo ordination and wear the okesa. This may seem to denigrate the status of lay practitioners but I do not feel this way. It’s just the way the tradition and its the ritual path works, and when you understand it you can see the logic in it. For years at Zen Center there has been talk of making a Dharma Transmission ceremony for lay people and a few experiments have been tried, but none of them have managed to transmit the entire process of the Dharma Transmission ceremony. The ceremony is simply resistant to that. In other lineages of Zen there are various styles of what’s called Lay Transmission, but I am not sure how it’s done, and, in any case, our own lineage seems to be conservative on this point. But to me it doesn't really matter. Since anyone who wants to receive Shukke Tokudo, wear the okesa, and obligate themselves to uphold the tradition, is eligible to do so, with no one barred from doing so by reason of race, gender, age, intelligence, physical ability, skill, lifestyle, or talent from doing so, it seems as if there is no need to create an alternative.

In any case, lay practitioners can be empowered in various ways to teach Zen, and lay practitioners do teach Zen even if no one empowers them. Anyway, everyone already is teaching Zen. As I said, our tradition is very simple minded. It values above all steadiness and faithfulness. So anyone who is steady and faithful and matures in practice over a long time can and does teach Zen regardless of empowerments and rituals. There are many ways to teach Zen and what looks like teaching Zen may or may not be teaching Zen.

Personally I do not think any practitioners are more important than any others. I follow the tradition in honoring seniority; after all, if you respect the practice and believe in it, then you respect and believe in those who have faithfully practiced it for a long time. But this has nothing to do with rank or ordination, only with time and experience, regardless of wisdom or skill. Whether we are senior or junior, we are all trying our best, given our circumstances, and we are all valuable, all manifestations of Buddha Nature, all worthy of being heard. Priests are good. They inspire me. Lay disciples are good. They inspire me just as much – maybe more. And people who aren't Zen students – but just devote themselves to their practice as Jews or Christians, fathers or mothers, artists, musicians, helpers, and so on – these may be the most inspiring of all, because they are just practicing for practice’s own sake. They don’t even call it Zen, and so are not so susceptible to being fooled by a robe or a ceremony. As you know, to me openness and tolerance are the most important values. Not to hold onto your own role or your own truth as better than someone else’s but to be humble, to always be ready to listen and learn – for me this is the essence of Buddha’s teaching. Insofar as our ritual path of commitment tempts us to be arrogant and close-minded I am wary of it. We have to be careful. But arrogance and close mindedness are problems not of our tradition but of our minds. Even if we had no ordinations at all we’d still have hierarchy, jealousy, resentment, and so on.

When we practice together for a long time we feel obligated to one another, and that’s a good thing I think. You take care of me- and I am grateful for that. And I take care of you- at least as best I can. I feel responsible for you, I worry about you, I suffer with your sufferings, and I know you do the same for me. But I always remind myself that the path of the Buddha is the path of release, of freedom. The obligations we feel for each other are not stickiness and confusion between separate people who share interests and values. The source of our mutual obligation and connection is the freedom that our appreciation of the empty open nature of phenomena brings. We know we don’t need to stick to each other, get entangled with each other. In the end we release each other. Our job is to let go of each other – to trust each other that much.

When I ordain priests I always tell them there are three practices priests have to do: first, to see everyone as Buddha; second, to help everyone; and third, to be humble. Priests are not special people with deep understanding. In the Western traditions when someone becomes a priest minister or rabbi it means that they have completed their training and are professionals. But Buddhist priests are not professionals. They are just practicing. They have taken ordination not because their practice is professional grade but because they need the help that ordination will afford them. The same is true of lay practitioners. And they too should do their best to follow the three practices of seeing everyone as Buddha, helping others, and being humble. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit a lot by taking on these three practices.

It is a curious thing to me how powerful religion is, especially considering that it isn’t anything at all. What are we doing when we do zazen? Nothing! What do we do when we perform jukai ceremony- nothing! All religions are like this- much ado about nothing. And yet there’s a power in them. That power can be a healing power- or it can be toxic. Over the years I have had so many troublesome conversations about the question of ordination ceremonies that I have gotten weary of them. There are no answers to any of our questions about all this and none of it makes sense and all of it is just nothing. So it is better, when you have such questions, just to look at your own mind and try to let go than to think that you are going to figure out the meaning of any of it. Lets simply make use the best we can of the tradition that has been given to us, and appreciate it.

Human beings have imagination: we can imagine perfection within ourselves and in the world around us. And we want to strive for that even though we will never reach it. To me this seems noble and good- and even necessary. Someone who is not developing, not trying for a more beautiful and true life seems a sad person to me. How could such a person look forward to an ongoing life, especially when things go wrong, and when the body ages and fails? This possibility of vowing and commitment, of walking the path and going on ahead no matter what, from the first moment of life until the last, seems the only way to me. We are lucky to have these ancient ways of realizing this human dream.

® 2003, Norman Fischer