Time for another installment of ...
... "POINTS FOR POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT"...
... in the traditional monastic model.
POINTS OF POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT IN THE MONASTIC INSTITUTION - No. III -: Does the system of Buddhist monasteries embody both the POSITIVE and NEGATIVE aspects of a "guild"? Instead of serving primarily as places of solid spiritual practice, or for the training of truly enlightened and gifted priests and teacher "apprentices", can the dominant purpose of the monastery as an institution come to be maintenance of the social position or monopoly, territory, 'brand name' and image exclusivity of the sponsoring religious sect?
I believe so and that, although both "solid spiritual training and practice" and "maintenance of market share/exclusivity" can go hand in hand ... often the latter has dominated in Buddhist history then and now. We should be on our guard to avoid so.
In medieval times in both Europe and Asia, craftmans' "guilds" served a variety of economic and social purposes. For example, this system of "masters" and "apprentices" served to pass down necessary skills, knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. They also served to ensure, in theory at least, the achievement and maintenance of some level of "quality standards", working to ensure that the apprentices were well trained, and were of sufficient knowledge, skill and character to serve in their trade. It is not by chance that medieval monasteries in Asia were often modeled on the "guild" structure prevalent in the traditional and medieval economies of the time, based on apprenticeship of master and disciple.
(for some fascinating reading):
http://eh.net/content/sacred-economies- ... al-china-0
However, in addition (or in substitution) of its positive points, a guild can also encompass many 'negatives'. For example, as opposed to ensuring the provision of effective and quality "goods and services" to the general population who might benefit from those services, the guild becomes primarily focused on the position and protection of the "service providers" (whether blacksmiths, stone masons, or priests offering "spiritual services" in this case) who are guild members ... making sure that their authority, income and/or social status are preserved as its central and primary goal. Further, although sometimes serving as a vehicle to pass down, generation to generation, certain time tested and proven skills and practices, the guild can also serve as a stubborn "Luddite" protector of its own prerogatives and authority by resisting ... without regard to efficacy and the greater benefit to service receivers ... any "new fangled" or simply different way of doing things which, by being merely "new" or "other", is thus a threat to the authority and monopoly of the guild (much as the Luddites fought modern textiles ... better that the few be protected ahead of the greater population being cheaply clothed and kept warm). Guilds can also become "stuck in their ways" simply because they are based on a relatively frozen vision of "how things are done, have ever been done, and must be done".
Guilds can serve to "keep out potential competitors" no matter the worth of the goods and services they may offer (much as, perhaps, Dogen was run out of Kyoto to the snowy mountains of Echizen because his "product" posed a threat to the established sects in the capital).
Buddhist Sects, like any economic corporation, become distinguished in the marketplace of spirituality by their trademarks and "brand images" (special cuts of Kesa robe and other priestly gear, unique beliefs and practices exclusive to the Sect, legendary "founders" whose mythical image must be preserved). The monastery is a vehicle ... not much different from the training programs for new company employees conducted by Mitsubishi or Sony in Japan ... to pass on this "brand identity" to the next generation of 'staff' who will serve to defend and preserve it against competing brand images (thus, for example, "WE SIT ZAZEN THIS WAY, CHANT THIS WAY, ETC." is defended ... not simply because it is necessarily the only or even best way to sit Zazen or chant ... but because it is "OUR WAY").
The guild serves to preserve the rights and privileges of guilds members, e.g., "only priests can perform this ceremony, and lay people cannot" (presumably because the priests possess some sacred power or quality that the lay person lacks).
Since the marketplace for temples is tight (especially in modern times), with parishioners being lost to age, death and disinterest, and temples are often desperately fighting to preserve the requisite quantity of "Danka" (temple parishioner families) in order to fund the temple (because someone has to pay the rent, and we can't just go out begging for it!), the "guiid" serves to keep additional potential competitors out of the market by not recognizing any but "official" temples. (At various times in Japan, the government and temples mutually benefited via the government's requiring each family to join a temple, a system which both served as a method of forced funding for temples and of close record keeping and social control for the government). The connections between "high" Zen/Chan and other Buddhist prelates and high government officials throughout Asia, right until today in many countries, are well known. At times, the fight for "territory" "property" and "government influence" has become so heated that we have seen examples such as the violent "sect riots" of recent years in South Korea over control of various key Son/Zen temples:
One proper role of a "guild" is to work to insure that "quality" is maintained in goods and services, and that the public is not presented with shoddy or defective work. At their best, the "medical society" or "bar associations" are fine modern "guilds" which serve the public in this way through their requirements for proper education and examination. In the Western Zen Buddhist world, organizations such as the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and American Zen Teachers Association are working very hard to play a like, positive role in order to prevent "quacks" and charlatans from deceiving the public, and to ensure that Zen clergy receive proper and necessary training in basic skills and traditions. It is a proper and necessary role, and they are to be saluted for their work and efforts.
However in Japan right now, it is very much questionable whether some sect organizations and their monasteries are serving primarily to "ensure quality" or simply to ensure the economic position of their member clergy. For example, as is well known, becoming a Soto Zen priest (other sects in Japan have similar systems) requires ... not that the person be spiritually inclined or necessarily eventually a quality clergyman or teacher ... but primarily that one's father be a priest with a "family owned and operated" temple that the son (sometimes daughter) is bound to take over. Anyone who can spend the required number of months at the monastery/company training school ... learning the "brand image" of the sect such as "our chants, our ceremonies, our dogma" ... almost automatically (on payment, of course, of the requisite fees to the sect, with proper forms filled out and stamps affixed) ...
... receives full ordination and "Transmission" as an "enlightened master". One is left to wonder whether the system is truly turning out so many "enlightened masters", or merely "newly minted managers" to take over local chain franchise stores of the Sect, staffed with individuals familiar with "our spiritual products" ... primarily the funeral and memorial services (and little else, maybe the odd once a month or less Zazenkai) that the temples offer. Like a marine boot camp or college fraternity initiation, the "hazing" accompanying the months of new employee trainee at Camp Pendleton, Sony or Eiheiji serves very effectively to build tremendous loyalty and dedication in the "young recruits" to their organization. Fortunately, in the process, Zazen and other spiritual study is required ... and some actual benefit may thus perhaps "rub off" on the new managers through the process (I am sure some does).
Now, the Soto Shu and other sects are working to bring their "official certification" standards to the West. One is again left to wonder whether the purpose is mainly to certify the "best Zen teachers", or to preserve territory and influence from encroachment. Many many young Western priests are running for such certification, although one is left to wonder sometimes at their reasons and motives. For example, I was recently told that one of the most widely respected Ango for Western Soto Zen priests is running short of applicants because most young western priests wishing to sit Ango are running to the "official Soto-shu" Ango needed for their certification ...
(a review emphasizing the positive aspects ... and there are many ... of the "corporate branding process" of the Official Sotoshu Ango is contained on pg 7 of the "company newsletter" here, describing what, perhaps, may be seen (from one perspective) as a merger of the AZI lineage and the head office in Japan to allow corporate expansion into European territory. Notice the emphasis on inculcating the new recruits/mergees with "our chants, our ceremonies, our dogma"):
... even though the "official Ango" does not necessarily have the strongest reputation for the nature and content of the training provided. However, getting "official recognition" (perhaps as some kind of "authorized distributor" of the "Soto" brand) is too much a desired prize in the eyes of these young priests. Fortunately again, along the way I am sure some actual spiritual benefit "rubs off" on the new managers through the process (I am sure some does).
Now, please do not misunderstand. I am -NOT- saying that all religion, including Zen religion and the Soto-sect, is driven exclusively for economic market share. No, even though there are important aspects of that, of churches thinking very much about money and gathering/keeping other assets. I want to be clear on this point.
Rather, what I am pointing to are the various ways in which a religious institution, such as any church or large religious sect, can be driven to obtain or hold "religious market share" for itself as an institution, seeking that the religion's influence expands or is maintained as a religious sect. This is what religious institutions tend to do, to maintain there position much as a 'guild' or corporation will seek to maintain market share and control. Money and property, of course, are sometimes very very much part of the equation ... but "religious influence and dominance" for the institution and its clergy is usually more the main goal in these cases.
Hopefully, in establishing a monastery or other alternative training methods in the West, we can stay focused on our main task: Providing places and opportunities for solid and profound Zen practice, for the training of deeply enlightened and enlightening, ethical and gifted Zen priests.