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The Eight Gates of ZenSpiritual Training in an American Zen Monastery
By John Daido Loori
Dharma CommunicationsCopyright © 1992 John Daido Loori
All right reserved.
The Teachings of
Mountains and Rivers
Several years ago while I was practicing at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, my teacher and I worked on a book entitled The Way of Everyday Life. It consisted of commentaries on one of Master Dogen's major essays. We wanted to create a book that resonated with and fit the content and the spirit of the commentaries, so we put a lot of attention into the design, illustrating it with photographs that came out of my line-by-line study of the text. The result was a book that was nicely received, and we started talking about publishing a second volume, this time using as the central theme Dogen's The Mountains and Rivers Sutra. This sutra is a clear and profound expression of the interpenetration and mutual non-hindrance of all dualities.
The Mountains and Rivers Sutra was at the time a very obscure text; the only translation then available was a doctoral thesis done by Carl Bielefeldt, who had been a student of Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco. I got a copy of it from the library of a local graduate school and started to read and digest it. After working on it for just a very short period of time, my Dharma brother left for New York City and my teacher asked me to go along with him and help him set up a Zen Center there. The work on the book had to be put on the back burner.
A little later I moved to Mt. Tremper and established another center, starting up a sangha using the arts as a skillful means for teaching and understanding the Dharma. It happened that the building we purchased was located in a spot where there is a mountain in the back and two rivers meeting in front. According to Chinese legends such a landscape configuration denotes a place of great power and is particularly suited as a place for a monastery.
The auspicious nature of the setting recalled for me the Mountains and Rivers work that I had been doing with my teacher. The project took on a whole new perspective when, after being here for about a week, one morning I was in town relaxing with a copy of the Woodstock Times and all of a sudden I saw, printed in bold type across the top of the second page, the headline: "These mountains and rivers of the present are the manifestation of the Way of ancient Buddhas." Following that was a full page or page-and-a-half story about Dogen Zenji's The Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Needless to say, I was stunned, since this was a very esoteric and unknown text. How it got into the Woodstock Times, I had no idea. I got so excited that I didn't even read any further. I just inquired where the newspaper office was and went there immediately. Asking about the author of the article, I found out that it was the editor himself. I asked to see him and burst into his office. He said, "Can I help you?" And I blurted out, "How did you find out about Dogen Zenji?" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Doesn't everybody know about Dogen Zenji?" As it turned out, a book entitled Mountain Spirit had been published by a local press, and in it was the Bielefeldt translation.
Following that incident, I began to study The Mountains and Rivers Sutra with renewed enthusiasm, coming back to it regularly as I encountered problems and questions that surfaced during the early years of teaching. It became a koan for me as we were organizing this place and as its shape changed from an Arts Center into a monastery.
Dogen, in bringing Zen from China to Japan, faced many of the same problems and questions that we were facing in establishing a genuine, American monastic order and training program. He was very successful in making Zen Japanese. He didn't import Chinese Zen, but rather created it for his students in a form that was essentially indigenous and contemporary. Dogen and his struggles became a model and an inspiration for me, and as I continued to dig into the sutra more and more, it became obvious that what was emerging out of it was a training matrix that covered all aspects of daily living.
In Dogen's work, when he speaks of mountains and rivers, he is not speaking just of the mountains and rivers of nature. In a way, it is about nature, the immediate landscape that surrounds us, but the mountains and rivers are not strictly the mountains and rivers of a naturalist or a field biologist. They are not the mountains and rivers of poetry and metaphor. They are not even the mountains and rivers of samsara, the ups and downs of life-but the mountains and rivers of the true Dharma, the true Dharma eye. In a sense, when you really go deeply into it you begin to realize that The Mountains and Rivers Sutra is not a sutra about mountains and rivers, but rather that the mountains and rivers are themselves the sutra. This is the way Dogen appreciates the mountains and rivers.
In his subtle and profound way, Dogen talks about encounters between a master and a disciple, expressing the depth and range that can exist in the teacher-student relationship. He speaks on liturgy, on body and mind unity, on how "practice and enlightenment are one." He has an extraordinary way of bringing the teachings forward, using images such as "the birth of the mountain child," "the stone woman giving birth," and "Zen fishing." Dogen's liturgy wasn't the liturgy that was common throughout thirteenth century Japan, with brocade robes and elaborate ceremonies. He emphasized the liturgy of everyday life-of washing the face, using the lavatory, cooking a meal, brushing the teeth. These activities became his liturgy, his body practice.
His appreciation of the importance of academic study as being vital to complete training also became a relevant teaching for us here at Zen Mountain Monastery. Since most of us enter Zen training knowing nothing about Buddhism, we must attend to that shortcoming and pursue the heart of the Way in academic study along with meditation. Little by little, Dogen's zazen, morality, liturgy, began to leap off the pages of The Mountains and Rivers Sutra, and inspire our practice, which ultimately evolved into the ten stages and the eight areas of training that are presented in this book.
This method of training and studying deals directly and experientially with the array of dualities and conflicts that have appeared in American Zen. I refer to the distinctions between monk and lay practice, social engagement and introspective isolation, men and women practicing together. The remarkable teaching of The Mountains and Rivers Sutra is the totally encompassing interpenetration of all dualities. These dualities have begun to be addressed in our training and form the basis of the Mountains and Rivers Order.
One of the problems that we face with Zen in America is that it has no continuity of tradition or standards. The Zen that arrived in this country has come from several places and cultures: from China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea. It has been taught by scores of teachers, and out of this evolved a real mixture of what is called Zen training. Today the training is very different as you go from center to center. There are no agreed upon guidelines of practice, no standards of transmission. There are a number of authentic lineages and a large group of unsanctioned teachers. The distinction between monks and lay practitioners has almost completely dissolved, to the point that at most centers the idea of a Zen monk has become just that-only an idea. Lay practitioners are practicing and living precisely the same as the monks. Why call one group "monks" and the other group "lay students" when there is virtually no difference between them?
What does it mean when someone has been practicing for ten years? It depends upon where he or she has practiced. Where the training center is, who the teacher is, makes a big difference in what the training is. One person who has been a monk for ten years will have done a full week's sesshin each month during that period of time. That's 120 sesshins. They will have done two 90-day intensive training periods each year. That's twenty intensive training periods during the ten-year period. They will have done hundreds of koans, lived in full-time residency, and had contact with the teacher each day, working side-by-side with him or her. This can be contrasted to another monk at another center who, during the same period of time, will have maintained a household and a full-time job, visited the teacher perhaps once a week, and done a couple of sesshins each year. When you look at these two people and say that they both have ten years of training as a monk, on the surface it appears the same, yet there is a tremendous difference between the two.
In most instances, the thrust of what Zen in America was and continues to be is zazen and the teacher-student relationship, which is the basis of the mind-to-mind transmission, common to both the Rinzai and Soto Schools. Not a lot of attention is given to other aspects of practice, particularly to the area of moral and ethical teachings, the Precepts. People "take the Precepts," but how much real training goes on in living the Precepts? Are the Precepts actually read, understood, engaged, lived? Are they a spiritual status symbol or the very substance of this life? There seems to be a real danger of stylizing and diluting this ageless practice to fit our fleeting fancies, to remain relatively comfortable and miss the opportunity to realize our true nature.
Throughout the history of the development of the Buddhadharma in Asia, there emerged various schools or styles of teaching that emphasized different aspects of the Dharma that was received from India. Although essentially every school and style included some sort of meditation as a basis, special emphasis was sometimes placed on other specific aspects of the training. For example, the Vinaya school emphasized the Precepts. It argued that in practicing and maintaining the Precepts and leading a moral and ethical life, one would attain enlightenment. Other schools emphasized the study of the sutras and a more academic approach to Buddhism. There were schools that emphasized the liturgy and devotional aspects of the religion, such as recitation of the Buddha's name. Some schools, such as the Obaku School of Zen, included the arts, particularly brush painting, as a way of training the monks. At Shao-lin Monastery in China, around the time of Bodhidharma, monks trained with kung-fu masters, as well as with Zen masters.
Western practitioners come to Zen with virtually no background in Buddhism. Their Japanese counterparts entering a monastery, in most cases, would have the equivalent of a Master's degree in Buddhist studies prior to beginning their monastic training. In setting up a training matrix for students at Zen Mountain Monastery and for the Mountains and Rivers Order, it was felt necessary to employ a broader spectrum of skillful means than just the traditional meditation and teacher-student relationship. As a result, what we call the "Eight Gates" of training evolved, and each of these areas of training are pursued over ten stages of spiritual development, from the very beginning with a novice student, to the final stages where formal training is completed.
With zazen at the core as the first gate, a strong teacher-student relationship is developed in the face-to-face teachings as the second gate. The third gate, academic study, explores, in addition to the sutras particularly related to Zen training, other schools of Buddhism, Buddhist history, philosophy, and psychology. The fourth gate of liturgy not only involves rites and rituals themselves, but also includes study of these practices as a direct pointing to the human mind. The fifth gate, the Precepts, is concerned not only with the ceremony of receiving the Precepts, but the continuum of ethical practice and training throughout the entire ten stages of spiritual development. In the sixth gate, art practice, not only are the traditional arts of Zen explored but also modern emerging Western Zen arts. The seventh gate, body practice, includes not only physical development of the body through exercise and martial arts, but also the teachings of Master Dogen on body and mind unity. Because the preponderance of practitioners in American Zen are lay practitioners, work practice, the eighth gate, has come to play an especially important role in training. Work is yet another way to take that which is realized and actualize it in every aspect of daily life.
Students of the Mountains and Rivers Order are expected to train and demonstrate proficiency in each of these eight areas throughout the progressive ten stages of development in order to complete formal training in the Mountains and Rivers Order. Carefully annotated training records are maintained for each student so that the question of developing proficiency is not an arbitrary one but rather a carefully tested and documented process.
This volume is an attempt to make clear the kind of training that is taking place at this particular monastery and its affiliate groups, to define the scope and depth of the training matrix and training standards of the Mountains and Rivers Order. We want to clarify the different paths of training for monks and lay practitioners, and underline the vital importance of the Buddhist Precepts within one's practice. The Mountains and Rivers Order is a spiritual organization that is designed to maintain and monitor the integrity of Zen practice for the future generations of its sangha, making it available to all those who are interested in attaining self-realization.
There are many different ways to manifest the Dharma. There are distinct religious groups that practice varied degrees of social involvement or contemplative withdrawal. Within the Christian tradition there are the Trappist cenobites living in strict isolation, the Franciscans concentrating on charity work, the Jesuits stressing the importance of education. Among Buddhists, there have been hermits living in meditative focus for years in Himalayan caves, as well as political and social activists. In establishing the Mountains and Rivers Order, we kept an open dialogue with the Christian monastics, studying the varied forms and appreciating their long history and relationship with western culture. Through the mind-to-mind transmission of the lineage holders, the Mountains and Rivers Order represents a unique interweaving of the Soto and Rinzai Zen traditions as they come to be expressed in a modern way. The training framework that is offered encourages and supports a very thorough and serious lay practice amidst present day conflicts and confusions. It also responds to the imperative and creates the possibility of a totally committed American Buddhist monastic practice.
Excerpted from The Eight Gates of Zen by John Daido Loori Copyright © 1992 by John Daido Loori. Excerpted by permission.
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