Saturday, July 23, 2011

Householder Zen Lineages

I recently had my attention drawn to a blog at the Wild Fox Zen blog titled "What the Heck is a Zen Priest?" that was written just about a year ago. The topic is one that will remain current for many years to come as it is about the development of Zen in the West and the role of Zen priests or monastics in the transplantation of Zen to the West.

Here are some thoughts that blog has stimulated.

In Siddhartha Gotama's time the priests, known as Brahmins, were part of the ruling class structure that Siddhartha the Buddha walked away from. The Buddha Dharma was about stepping outside the caste structure and its hierarchy. Buddha became a wandering mendicant called a “bhikkhu” or more politely a “sramana.” The samanas would congregate around well known teachers (sattha). Siddhartha Gotama studied under several satthas and especially with two such satthas of great renown. When two wandering sramanas met on the road, their customary greeting was not to ask “How are you?” but “Who is your Master (Sattha)?” “Whose Dharma do you find most agreeable to you?” or “What is the Dharma you have adopted?”

Thus there were no sects per se, but there were networks of followers of one Master (Sattha) or Dharma or another. The wandering almsmen (Pali bhikkhus, Sanskrit bhiksus) and women (bhikkhunis, bhiksunis) would follow a teacher as long as their Dharma was agreeable and if they found it lacking they could find another teacher whose Dharma was more agreeable. This was the same pattern that Siddhartha followed when he moved from teacher to teacher, Dharma to Dharma.

When Gotama became a Buddha and so became a teacher himself, he became known as a Great Master ([i]Mahasattha[/i]) and more and more wanderers found his Dharma to be most agreeable to them and so they formed a network of samanas around him.
To other sramanas outside of his Dharma, his followers were known as the “Sramanas of the Son of the Sakyas” (Sakyaputtiya Samanas), but the Buddha’s followers called themselves by the more simple name of the “Guild (or Union) of Bhikkhus” (the Bhikkhu sangha).

Thus the Buddha did not directly challenge the caste system but instead set up an alternative “system” based on the craftsmen-guild model called the sangha. At the time, the social culture and structure was that a craft sangha was allowed to police itself so that the members of the craft’s sangha would answer for wrongdoing to the craft sangha instead of to the public authorities. As long as the craft sangha showed a real system of laws of good conduct and enforcement of those laws, the sangha was allowed to have their own separate system of keeping their members in order without being subject to civil authority. By establishing his band of followers in the sangha model the Buddha was able to set his sramana followers apart outside the jurisdiction of the usual civil authorities.

It is interesting that this development of the sangha model led to the confusion between the followers of the Buddha Dharma (i.e, the greater sangha or mahasangha) and the Bhikkhu sangha. There were four recognized groups of the followers: the male bhikkhus and female bhikkhunis (collectively referred to with the male term bhikkhus as the inclusive) and the male and female householders. The Bhikkhu sangha had to be developed as a separate institution to provide the institutional protection and insulation from the civil authorities while the householder sangha continued under the jurisdiction of the civil government (regardless of whether the civil government was a monarchy or republic). However by developing its own institutional identity the Bhikkhu sangha then came to usurp the greater sangha and to call itself “The” sangha and relegated the role of the householder side of the greater sangha to the status of merely providing physical support for “The” sangha, i.e., the Bhikkhu sangha comprised of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

So it is ironic that the Buddha Dharma in adopting the Bhikkhu sangha model in order to be free of civil laws and authority and the caste system had to establish its own internal laws and authority, and thus an internal system of hierarchy that was every bit as structured and rigid as the caste system. Of course the Buddha’s Bhikkhus sangha was patterned as a meritocratic seniority system rather than the inherited birthright caste system. The Bhikkhu sangha system with its two values of meritocracy and seniority has a built-in tension between the seniority rights and privileges of the members of the Bhikkhu sangha and the recognition of the meritocracy of a member’s personal awakening to the Buddha Dharma.

In our current societies, this irony is now represented by a priestly caste within the greater sangha in the same way. One response to this dilemma as it was recognized in Japan in the 20th century, was by Yatsutani Hakuun Roshi, who, with the blessing of his teacher Harada Sogaku Roshi, set up a Zen lineage outside the priestly caste system called the Sanbo Kyodan. One of the hallmarks of this new branch of the Zen lineage was that it was not controlled by the modern version of the Bhikkhu sangha found in the Japanese priest system but was to be a wing of the greater sangha that is “of, by, and for” the householder or so-called “lay” sangha. This was the creation of a householder sangha that recognized that the religious aspirations and realizations of householders was every bit the equal to those of the “ordained” when it comes to maintaining the true Buddha Dharma. In the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage the ideal is that teachers become recognized purely on the meritorious basis of their realization and ability to teach, not on their seniority as a priest or monastic.

This new Zen lineage was accepted widely in the West by and through the numerous authorization and certification of Westerners as Roshis (literally “old teachers”). Though in this process, some lineages, such as the Diamond Sangha stemming from Robert Aiken Roshi and others, became institutionally independent of the Sanbo Kyodan, all lineages stemming from the Sanbo Kyodan continue to maintain the practice of being a householder Zen lineage not dominated by a priest or bhikkhu class.

This does not mean that the new householder Zen lineage is inherently disparaging of the priest or bhikkhu sangha, but that there is an assertion of independent equality for householders. This independent but equal status was actualized by Yatsutani Roshi himself when, at the same time that he established the Sanbo Kyodan for housholder Zen, he continued to work with Zen priests such as Taizan Maezumi Roshi whom he certified (inka) as a lineage holder of his koan practice lineage.

Zen in the West is developing on these two separate but related tracks that have crisscrossed, that of the priest controlled lineages of traditional Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese Zen and the lay or householder controlled lineages. In this new Western context, some of the priestly or bhikku ordained teachers or roshis of the most conservatively priest or monastic dominated Zen lineages have actually authorized lay or non-priest teachers within their lineages, such as Chan Master Sheng Yen who, prior to his death in 2009, had authorized both monastic and lay Dharma heirs.

In this continuing Western evolution of householder-centric Zen lineages alongside monastic- or priest-centered Zen lineages, how the two branches will grow in relation to each other and whether they become synergistic or competitive is yet to be determined. At the present time the competitive aspect of these two branches of Zen lineages is minimal, but given our human proclivity for discriminating the One Mind into sectarian competition, it remains to be seen whether the stress of developing resources and organizing students affects the continuing relationships between monastic-centered Zen and householder-centered Zen.

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