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Thread: Zen Women, Chapter 8, Pages 165-174

  1. #1

    Zen Women, Chapter 8, Pages 165-174

    Hello everyone!

    Today we are continuing chapter 8.

    The first portion discusses some men who made a point to practice without leaving home. Do you feel that Treeleaf shares their sentiment in the same way? And what about Dongshan leaving his mother? His story is considered to be a great example of non-attachment. Do you think perhaps that sometimes practitioners look at these stories through rose-colored glasses, assuming that because they were great teachers, they must have done the right thing at all times? Do you feel that perhaps there is a large chunk of lineage missing by not formally including householders, many of them women?

    Please continue to read, and post your thoughts or questions.

    I was particularly struck by the story of Shenyi, and the poem there.

    Schireson says that many nuns consider the sangha to be their surrogate, or I would even say extended, family. I also feel the same way. Sangha in all its forms, from Treeleaf itself, to the larger Buddhist community, to the whole world, greatly motivates my practice.

    Sat, lah
    求道芸化 Kyūdō Geika
    I am just a priest-in-training, please do not take anything I say as a teaching.

  2. #2
    To be blunt, I think Dongshan was simply wrong. Abandoning his dependent elderly mother was cruel and heartless. The Buddha left his wife and child but they were embedded in a large and wealthy extended family, so their material and probably emotional needs were well taken care of. Dongshan had been supporting his mother and so had taken on that responsibility, he should have either stayed with her or found a way to ensure that she was cared for.

    Parallel with this, I'm reading, 'Just Enough' - Gesshin Greenwood's memories and recipes from their time in the Nagoya convent that is mentioned in the text. They describe a much more egalitarian set up that the impression I have of Eiheiji. They describe how all the nuns rotate through functions on a three month rota and rotate who will be in charge as well. So, you end up with all the nuns having done all the tasks and led the teams that do those tasks over time. Tenzo for a day, rather than an established post. This seems a far more family like atmosphere in which to live and practice.


  3. #3
    I also found the story of Dongshan abandoning his mother really odd - I've been pondering this all day and other than the explanation Schireson gives about adopting Zen over Confucian fillial duties, the only other reason is that maybe we're viewing this through a modernist lens and real compassion in 9th century China providing the conditions for a good rebirth or a one way ticket to the pure land? I still don't find it that convincing though.




  4. #4
    I am going to pop in on this one briefly. I am writing my sequel to Zen Master's Dance (The Zen Master Dances on ... ), and I deal with a passage by Dogen in Zuimonki in which he advises a young monk to leave his poor mother, even saying that her being hungry and starving is worth it in exchange for having a son on the path.

    I call it a fumble by Dogen (we don't have to think that our teachers, ancient or modern, have to be right on everything), but maybe it was just a different time and a different way of seeing the value of life from our present society? I am sorry that this is long ...

    Gassho, J


    Dogen was a complex man, and it is important that we not expect our religious heroes to be perfect, especially when viewed in modern terms with 21st century western values. There are plenty of places in Dogen’s writing where he expresses a viewpoint that might be shocking to our sensibilities. However, if we look at things from the values of his time and culture, it is somewhat easier to understand. One example is my personal, least favorite Dogen teaching of all time, in which Dogen advises a young man to become a monk even if it means his poor mother will starve:

    A monk asked Dogen, “My aged mother is still alive. I am her only son. She lives solely by my support. Her love for me is especially deep and my desire to fulfill my filial duties is also deep. I am somewhat engaged in worldly affairs and have relationships with people; with their help I obtain clothing and food for my mother. If I leave the world and live alone in a hermitage, my mother cannot expect to live for even one day. Yet it is difficult for me to stay in the secular world without being able to enter the Buddha-Way completely because of the necessity of taking care of her. Still, if there is some reason I should abandon her and enter the Way, what might it be?”

    Dogen instructed, “This is a difficult matter. No one else can decide for you. After carefully considering it, if you truly aspire to practice the Buddha-Way it would be good for both you and your mother to somehow prepare or find a means to ensure your mother’s livelihood and enter the Buddha-Way. What you earnestly wish for you will definitely attain. If you wish to beat a strong enemy, to gain favor with some noble lady, or to obtain some precious treasure, if your desire is strong enough you will surely find some means to attain your wish. It will certainly be completed with the unseen help of the beneficent deities of Heaven and Earth. The Sixth Patriarch [Hui-neng] was a woodcutter in Shinshu Prefecture. He sold firewood to support his mother. One day at the market place he aroused bodhi-mind while listening to a customer recite the Diamond-Sutra. He left his mother and went to Obai. It is said that he obtained ten ounces of silver and used it to supply clothing and food for his mother. I think this was given from Heaven because of the sincerity of his aspiration. Ponder this thoroughly. This is most reasonable. Taking care of your mother until she dies and afterwards entering the Buddha-Way without any problems would seem to be the natural order of events and the ideal way of fulfilling your true aspiration. Yet no one knows what will happen, since there is no certainty that an old person will die sooner than a younger person. Your mother may live a long time and you may die before she does. In such a case, since your plan did not work, you would regret not having entered the Buddha-Way and your mother would feel guilty for not having permitted you to do so. There would be no merit for either of you and both of you would feel guilty. Would that be of any value? If you abandon your present life and enter the Buddha-Way, even if your mother dies of starvation, wouldn’t it be better for you to form a connection with the Way and for her to permit her only son to enter the Way? Although it is most difficult to cast aside filial love even over aeons and many lifetimes, if, having being born in a human body you give it up in this lifetime, when you encounter the Buddha’s teachings you will be truly fulfilling your debt of gratitude. Why wouldn’t this be in accordance with the Buddha’s will? It is said that if one child leaves home to become a monk, seven generations of parents will attain the Way. How can you waste an opportunity for eternal peace and joy by clinging to your body in this uncertain ephemeral world? Consider this and ponder these points thoroughly on your own. (SZ 3-14)
    I had a hard time digesting this for a long time. I still do. I do not have Dogen’s confidence that heaven will somehow provide, nor do I see the worth and benefits of becoming a monk as somehow outweighing the life of one’s grey haired mother. If it were today, I might ask if there was a way for the monk to train part time, or find his training in caring for an old, sick woman. Does not Dogen’s perceptual vow to “preserve life” mean that risking someone’s life like this is just wrong?

    Frankly, I still feel that Dogen should have thought more outside the box here, and he could have worked out some arrangement to bring the old lady near the temple (Dogen’s later successor, Keizan, did that with his own mother a century later). Of course, they did not have online conferencing in those days, or even a phone for a son to call home once in awhile. Still, there must have been a better way!

    But my attitude changed a little when I encountered another section of Dogen’s lectures, in which he pontificates on his view of “filial piety,” honoring one’s parents. Of course, filial piety is an ancient and cherished value in countries such as China, Korea and Japan, strongly influenced by Confucian values. The very idea of leaving home as a monk, and not getting married and having children, is an afront to such values, leading to Buddhist monks in those societies having to defend themselves time and again from charges of destroying the very fabric of society. Dogen expresses his view that monkhood is, in fact, an even greater form of filial piety, and serves a higher calling:

    Filial piety is most important. Yet there is a difference between lay people and monks in how to fulfill it. Lay people follow the teachings in the Kokyo2 etc. and serve their parents in life and in death. All people in the world know that. Monks abandon their debt of gratitude and enter the realm of non-doing (mui)3. Our manner of paying off the debt of gratitude should not be limited to one particular person. Considering that we have debts of gratitude to all living beings equal to our own fathers and mothers, we must transmit all the merits of our good deeds to the whole dharma-world. If we limit it specifically to our own parents in this lifetime, we go against the Way of non-doing. In our day-to-day practice and time-to-time study, following the Buddha-Way continuously is the only true way of fulfilling our filial piety.
    He says much the same thing to the first monk, emphasizing that becoming a monk will earn Karmic merit that will benefit the mother for lifetimes, not only one life, and other ancestors too. It benefits the whole world, in fact, and is a sacrifice for a greater good. Everyone dies sometimes, sooner or later, but Dogen was not thinking only in terms of a single life. Do we not see people who sacrifice themselves, and their families, for higher callings even in modern times? The soldier who enlists to defend the nation, the doctor who risks his own life to treat infectious diseases that she might bring home to her own family, the police and prosecutor who put themselves and their families in danger to fight organized crime. Dogen felt that the work of a priest was a calling to save all sentient beings, not only one’s own parent.

    A similar attitude is expressed by Dogen later, concerning a story about a Zen priest who had a chance to travel to China for Buddhist study, but had been requested to delay the trip in order to nurse his sick teacher. The teacher had said: (EZ 5-12)

    “I am old and sick; my death must be near at hand. Please put off going to China for a while, take care of me as I am very sick, and conduct a funeral service for me when I die. After I have passed away, carry out what you really wish to do.”
    However, the Student refused, explaining his reasons for going anyway, without delay:

    “Since the time I left my parents’ home in my childhood, I have been brought up by this teacher and now I have grown up. My debt of gratitude for his raising me is very great. Also, due solely to his upbringing I learned the dharma-gate which is beyond the ordinary realm of the verbal teachings of mahayana and hinayana, or the provisional and the real. Thanks to him, I came to understand causality, learned right from wrong, surpassed my fellow monks and gained honor, and now I aspire to go to China to seek the dharma because I understand the truth of the buddha-dharma. But this year he has become seriously ill due to old age, and is lying on his death bed. He will not live much longer and he cannot expect to see me again. Therefore, he strongly urges me to postpone my trip. It is difficult to go against my teacher’s request. … [But my] resolution is different. Even if I put off my trip for the time being, one who is certain to die will die. My remaining here won’t help to prolong his life. Even if I stay to nurse him, his pain will not cease. Also, it would not be possible to escape from life-and-death because I took care of him before his death. It would just be following his request and comforting his feelings for a while. It is entirely useless for gaining emancipation and attaining the Way. To mistakenly allow him to hinder my aspiration to seek the dharma would be a cause of evil deeds. However, if I carry out my aspiration to go to China to seek the dharma, and gain a bit of enlightenment, although it goes against one person’s deluded feelings, it would become a cause for attaining the Way of many people.
    Other monks disagreed with the student’s reasoning:

    “What is wrong with going to China half a year or a year from now? It wouldn’t go against the bond between master and disciple, and still you would be able to carry out your wish to go to China. …

    For the sake of truly seeking the dharma, we must eliminate the hindrance caused by our obligation to our parents or teachers, existing only in the realm of delusion. … And yet, even if we completely renounce our obligation and affection for our parents or our teachers, when we aspire to the practice of a bodhisattva [to save all sentient beings], we should put aside personal benefit and put primary importance on benefiting others. If so, when the aged teacher was seriously ill, and no one but Myozen could nurse him, if he was only thinking in terms of his own practice without helping his teacher, it would seem to go against the bodhisattva practice, wouldn’t it ?
    But Dogen supported the student’s decision to go to China without delay:

    “Whether acting for the benefit of others or acting for your own benefit, if you abandon the inferior one and take the superior one it should be the good practice of the mahasattva. To care for infirm aged parents in poverty is only the temporary pleasure of illusory love and deluded sentiment of this brief life. If you go against your deluded sentiments and learn the Way of no-defilement, even though you may receive some resentment, it will become a positive factor [in entering the buddhadharma which is] beyond the world. Consider this well.”
    Personally, I see both sides to this. If Myozen had stayed, his practice could be found in the act of nursing. However. I also see Dogen and the student’s point of view, for they firmly believed that going would serve the greater good, ultimately benefitting the greater number of sentient beings. Dogen criticized the teacher for even asking. They both have a point.

    We should not expect Dogen, the Buddha or any ancient sage to be wholly who we want them to be. They lived in their times, had their reasons and beliefs. Perhaps, if they were alive today, they might think differently, but perhaps not. It is hard to say. In any case, when a 21st century monk or mommy has a hard choice to make … nurse a sick teacher or child, or head to back to college for a graduate degree or just back to work to pay the bills … we all have to make our choices. We make the best choices that we can.

    Would you have gone to China?
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-12-2021 at 08:59 PM.

  5. #5
    Ooh, new book! Thanks Jundo, that's really interesting, I'd forgotten about Myozen being in a similar situation before they went to China.



  6. #6
    It's very difficult to ascertain the motivations behind the choices. It does seem a bit selfish to leave old mothers and sick teachers to care for themselves, but if it's believed to be for the greater good does that make it better? What cost are we willing to pay to benefit the greater good? I like the idea of practice being found in the compassionate care, but as Jundo mentions, it was a different time with different beliefs. If I believed I could save seven generations of ancestors by sacrificing one, I may feel a little differently, but this day in age some of the more fantastical religious claims are a tough carrot to dangle.


    SatToday/ LaH

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