Living in the Sōdō

by Seidō Suzuki

I can define life in the sōdō this way: it’s a life that follows the description written by Dōgen Zenji in the Bendoho in the Eihei Shingi. There’s a very important writing at the beginning of the Bendoho:

All buddhas and all ancestors are within the Way and engage it; without the Way they would not engage it. The dharma exists and they appear; without the dharma they do not appear. Therefore, when the assembly is sitting, sit together with them; as the assembly [gradually] lies down, lie down also. In activity and stillness at one with the community, throughout deaths and rebirths do not separate from the monastery. Standing out has no benefit; being different from others is not our conduct. This is the buddhas’ and ancestors’ skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, and also one’s own body and mind dropped off. [tr. Leighton and Okumura]

When Dōgen Zenji held an ango 安居 (practice period) for the first time, he appointed Ejo as the shuso (head monk). Nowdays the shuso is often just a formality, but at that time the shuso was selected from among the assembly as a person who had the capacity to lead the group and give a sermon in place of the master. At that time, Ejo did give a sermon.

To distinguish him or her from the group, the shuso puts a white cloth at the edge of the okesa. It is called hassan, which means the person has completed sanzen and has proven to be enlightened. When the shuso wears hassan at the edge of his okesa, it means that the master has acknowledged that this person has completed sanzen.

sodo (2)I don’t think there were so many practitioners at Koshoji [Dōgen’s temple] at that time; it was a small group. Dōgen Zenji mentioned that we should not call a sōrin 叢林 (Zen sangha; the term takes its meaning from “a group of different kinds of trees”) big or small depending on how many monks are practicing there. It’s not a matter of number. Daisōrin 大叢林( “great sōrin“) means that there is even a small number of people who have the real authentic spirit of the Way. This spirit is the most important thing.

Muju was a contemporary of Dōgen Zenji.  He tried to build the first sōdō in Japan, and in his fundraising campaign (kanjin 勧進 ) materials, he explained that he wanted to construct a building about 12 meters wide and put the Shoso Monju statue at center of room with the monks sitting around it. He mentioned that the monks would live and sleep there, which means that he already had the image that monks would spend their lives within the sōdō.  He wrote the kanjin materials to ask for help and also to share his vision for the kind of building it would be and life that was going to happen there.

Entering the sōdō means not to take “myself” into the space. If we put “ourselves” into the practice, it makes the practice of knowing who we really are more difficult. The Way of Tea is largely based on Zen. I once visited a certain tea house and was guided by a tea master who explained about the nijiriguchi 躙り口, the small entrance to the tea house. It’s the same size as a coffin. In the past we did not cremate the body, so when someone died we arranged the body in the zazen posture in the coffin, called zakan 座棺 (“sitting coffin”), and buried it under the ground.

The tearoom door is the same size as a coffin. The nijiriguchi implies that even the samurai has to take off his sword and set it aside when entering the tea ceremony room. For samurai, the sword is their life, so a samurai putting down the sword implies death. We die once and then enter the tea room. Only after this can we receive the tea freshly. There is the expression ichigo ichie (“one time, one meeting”). Master and guest become completely one through drinking tea. I’ve also practiced tea ceremony, and I used to visit my tea master’s house the day before my lesson to completely clean it. Then I smoothed the ash for the charcoal and cleaned the wooden frames on the shōji. To clean everything was to clean my heart/mind. It made me ready for the lesson. The tea ceremony is not just drinking tea, it’s following the many detailed manners. It includes cleaning, and it’s a very important activity in the Zen temple.

sodo altarI’d like to talk about sōji (cleaning).  One of my favorite books is Zenmonhōkun (Zen Gate Jeweled Instructions), which I often re-read. In the second volume of this book there is a story of Setsudō Dōgō Zenji, a Chinese Zen master who was jūshoku of Senpokuji, a very big temple. As he got older, he had a thought of retiring. When he had this thought, a traveling monk visited his temple. Setsudo Zenji asked this traveling monk, “Where are you from?” He answered, “I came from Fukushu in China.” Setsudou asked, “On the way to my temple, did you meet someone who impressed you?” “Even though I did not meet this person face to face, there is one person who impressed me.” The Zen master asked, “How do you know that this person is impressive if you didn’t meet him? Who is this person?” “This person is named Gohon Zenji and he is living in Hakusan. First of all, although I didn’t see him when I visited his temple, the pathway was very clean and neat. Then, walking along the pathway, I saw the hondo and there was a candle there. I could feel the wonderful fragrance. Also, the monks there received me very carefully and guided me around the temple. The sound of the bell was also very moving. Everything I experienced there was so beautiful and impressive. That’s how I knew that Gohon Zenji, who is in charge of this temple, is impressive even though I didn’t see him.”

There is an expression, sōji wa soji. Sōji is cleaning, but there is another word soji that means “creating self.” Cleaning is creating self. Ji can also mean “temple,” so cleaning is also creating the temple.

Through cleaning we can clarify who we are. Cleaning outside is cleaning inside. In the Way of Tea we let go of all attachment and then we can receive the tea offered. The occasions in which we can give and receive the tea are unrepeatable. We cannot have them any more, so we have to take them more seriously. The same thing can be said of our life and death. It’s a matter of how to live and how to die. That’s a very important matter in the Way of Tea and the Way of Zen.

This is what Dōgen Zenji said about birth and death: “You should know this. Life and death are the activity of the Buddha Way. Life and death are the essential furnishing of the Buddha house. It is useful when it is needed. It is clear when clarity is attained.”

roshi chair and tanThis means we have to be clear about whether each and every activity of our practice in a daily situation is in accordance with the Way or not. Zen should be understood through the practice just as you know the warmth or cold of water by putting your hand into it. What I said is not enough, and eventually you have to go to the sōdō, live there under the guidance of the master, and know what I have been talking about by yourself.  When lovers each carry a piece of a pendant cut in half, it symbolizes that they are perfectly matched. Acknowledgment of enlightenment by the master is something like this, and without it the Way cannot be correctly transmitted, according to Dōgen.

Learning at the sōdō through ango is different than the learning we have at school – it’s not a scholastic learning. The important point is being checked by the master. What we believe is right through our rational thinking is not always correct. Maybe psychologically we can be content with rational understanding, but it’s only a psychological contentment. Our learning at the sōdō is something beyond rational understanding, so it’s very important for us to follow what the master says without inserting “my idea” into the practice.  It’s particularly important not to live like this for a short period but to continue to live this way for a long time. If you spend your life this way with your master, in one year you learn one year’s amount. If you spend ten years, you learn ten years’ amount. If fifteen, fifteen years’ amount.

I’ve touched on many topics, but everything I mentioned I’d like you to understand experientially by putting on your okesa and living in the sōdō. Rational thinking is like digging a hole in the ground, and then you fall in. Buddha’s teaching and practice is going beyond this rational thinking. Maybe some of you might have a mini-breakthrough, but if you stay there, that’s not enough. We have to embody the Buddha’s teaching in everyday situations. That’s what we should do; every action is Buddha’s activity, but also we have to embody it in the daily life of each of us. That’s how we can radiate the illumination cultivated by the practice. The founder of Kenchoji in Kamakura, Daigaku Zenji, wrote an article in which he said that even though we are not awakened, each time we do zazen we create one Buddha. The zazen of one day is a Buddha of one day. The zazen of one lifetime is the Buddha of one lifetime.

Seidō Suzuki

Seido roshi by Bill Johnson www.mro.orgmrarchive21-4articlesusenjipracticeSeidō Suzuki is the abbot of Funakizan Tōshōji and Unsenji, both in Okayama, Japan. He trained at Eiheiji and Zuioji and spent two years at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. This article is excerpted from a talk given on 30 September 2015 at the annual North America Sōtō Zen conference at Zenshuji in Los Angeles.

Photo by Bill Johnson