Considering how Japanese Buddhism eventually abandoned the Vinaya Discipline as a formal requirement for monastic training – I was pleasantly surprised to read Master Dogen’s view on this matter as contained in his extraordinary Shobogenzo (正法眼蔵 - Zheng Fa Yan Zang) text - literally ‘Correct Dharma-Eye Storehouse’. As Dogen expresses more than one dimension of reality at the same time – it is prudent not to jump to conclusions. For instance, he states that the status of monastic ordination is far-superior to that of lay-existence on the grounds that all impurity has been abandoned through the ordination process. Dogen further criticises as ‘wrong’ all those Ch’an Masters he met in China who said that there is no difference between a Buddhist monastic and a lay-person – but is Dogen correct? He certainly makes a very powerful argument that is difficult to uproot rhetorically.
Obviously, a Buddhist monastic who commits themselves to the over-two hundred Vinaya Discipline Rules is most certainly worthy of respect – particularly as they also commit themselves to follow the numerous (similar) Bodhisattva Vows! Theravada and Mahayana monastics give-up all direct connection with the household and the worlds of politics and work. For Vajrayana monastics, however, the situation is slightly different as the Tantri School begins and ends from the position of complete enlightenment, and work from the premise that the empty mind ground (Buddha-Nature) underlies all phenomena evenly – including the monastic and lay worlds of existence. Although many Tantrikas can spend decades in isolation practicing their ‘methods’ of self-purification – it is also true that some monks and nuns of this tradition marry one another sand use the machinations of married-life as yet another type of ‘yogic practice’ seeking unity in the one and oneness in the unity.
Dogen states that not one single lay-person ever realised enlightenment during the Buddha's lifetime – but this is a mistaken notion as there are at least twenty-one examples spread throughout the Pali Buddhist Suttas recording the attainment of full enlightenment by both male and female ‘lay’ followers of the Buddha! Some were enlightened by being in the presence of the Buddha, some were enlightened when he looked directly at them, whilst others were enlightened when they heard the Buddha’s voice (and/or put his teachings into practice)! The Buddha explained this by saying that these lay-people had built extraordinarily positive karma in their previous existences which meant that their lifestyle in this existence merely needed a slight nudge for the ridge-pole of ignorance to be thoroughly smashed! Of course, this is not the typical situation for humanity as many ordain and find the life very difficult due to the very heavy and negative karma they have to carry and attempt to uproot through Buddhist practice.
Dogen does not seem to be that impressed with the example of the enlightened lay-man – Vimalakirti – despite the Buddha explaining that Vimalakirti was a thoroughly enlightened Bodhisattva who took various forms merely to ‘liberate’ those he was destined to encounter during each lifetime. Furthermore, Hiu Neng was a layman when he inherited the Ch’an Dharma and became the Sixth Patriarch (although he was ordained many years later). Within the Ch’an Records in China it is stated that men, women, children, animals and even trees and inanimate objects have experienced enlightenment! As the empty mind ground (Buddha-Nature) underlies all phenomena, and given that the enlightened mind is expansive and all-embracing, there is no situation, person, living-being or object that exists outside of it. As this is the case, how can a monastic be ‘superior’ to a lay-person'?
Although I follow the Vinaya Discipline and the Bodhisattva Vows as a married layman – when I was a cloistered Ch’an monk I was continuously reminded of the need to practice ‘humility’. A Buddhist monastic is nothing but a ‘beggar’ - albeit a beggar who has direct access to the sublime teachings of the Dharma! A beggar owns nothing, controls nothing and drifts from place to place when not anchored by a regular monastic routine. He or she has no worries because the world of worries has been thoroughly renounced. There is nothing ‘superior’ about being socially useless. Furthermore, the hexagrams of the ‘Yijing’ (Classic of Change) are built line by line from the base upwards. Whether or not the hexagram is ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ depends on the first two lines! It is these two foundational lines that hold and secure the other four lines in place and give the entire hexagram meaning. As the Buddhist monastic is the foundational support for Chinese society, he or she must comprise the lowest two lines of the six-lined structure. This is how the four higher lines that constitute Chinese culture are supported and ‘lifted-up’ by the bottom two lines which gain their broad and universal power through a complete and humble attitude with no wants or fears. Within the Yijing – lines always move upwards from the base so if a Buddhist monastic comprised the upper two-lines there is no ‘supporting’ action for the underlying four lines - as these two lines above are moving forever upward on their own and will soon be out of the picture!
Buddhist monastics are empowered because they are ‘humble’ and voluntarily take the weight of society upon their shoulders! However, this should not fall into an ‘elitist’ position that nullifies the very purpose of ‘humility’! Given the correct conditions, a good teacher and an effective method – anyone can realise complete and total enlightenment. Even today in China, Ch’an monastics are always humble and unassuming. They always possess the attitude that they are ‘nothing’ and that they exist to support and serve society. As there is no ego involved, none of this has anything to do with money or status. It is just the next thing to do. Having said all this, I believe Dogen may be protesting about the ‘dishonest’ mind often found within lay-society which pretends it is enlightened and contrives to exploit others and make profit out of seeming to help! These people are making hellish karma for themselves and are their own worst enemy.
Author’s Note: The battle against greed, hatred and delusion in the human mind (and body) is ongoing and eternal. Within Buddhist self-cultivation there must be a rigid and uncompromising ‘honesty’ with yourselves and others. Furthermore, such ‘honesty’ must also be ‘impartial’ and ‘indifferent’. As it is the expected ‘norm’ within the practice of ‘Dhamma’ - it is not considered anything ‘special’ once established and maintained. If a practitioner either mistakenly (or purposely) believes themselves ‘Enlightened’ when still held firmly in the grip of the three taints – then hellish inner and outer karma is not just generated but is magnified through its association with a malfunctioning Dhamma! This form of destructive self-delusion (and pseudo-enlightenment) is exactly what the Buddha and his disciples warned about through their teaching! This means that the empty mind ground only underlies good, bad and neutral conditions when it is directly experienced as doing so – and NOT before. For a person whose mind is still clouded by these three taints – then the empty mind ground is NOT yet known to be a) present and b) underlying all conditioned and non-conditioned states. Without first DIRECTLY experiencing and merging with the empty mind ground – a practitioner cannot claim to be ‘Enlightened’ simply by intellectually ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ that the empty mind ground exists in theory behind ALL material states. For a genuine experience of ‘Enlightenment’ to occur, the Dhamma must be properly followed and its fruits of practice gathered in a honest manner. Only strict discipline on the psychological and physical planes will gather enough purified inner energy for a genuine breakthrough in understanding to take place. The Mahasiddhis in the Tantric tradition, for instance, often dedicate their lives to nearly impossible tasks of spiritual discipline and purification that take twelve, twenty-four (or even longer) years to achieve! Many Mahayana practitioners ‘delay’ their entry into Nibbana over many lives in order to ‘rescue’ and ‘sae’ as many beings as possible from suffering! Those of the Theravada Scholl often dedicate decades of their lives quietly sitting in the depths of the forest until their individual minds are cleared of all impurities! Again, ‘honesty’ is the key to progression. ACW (31.8.2021)
As a follower of the Dharma, I see no contradictions in any of three contemporary schools – the Theravada, the Mahayana and Vajra (Tantra)-yana – methods of achieving Enlightenment. The Dhammapada Sutta is a prime example of the Buddha’s early (and over-all) teaching – which sees the conservative Theravada School quote frequently from it (see the Visuddhimagga) - whilst completely ignoring its Mahayana and Vajrayana content – most of which contradicts the central tenants of the ‘Hinayana’ movement! Certainly, this type of ‘Sutta’ preserved in the old Pali Cannon appears to contain the seeds of both Mahayana and Vajrayana practice. This means that these pathways cannot be ‘later’ diversions from the Buddha’s orthodox teachings – but must have been present in his ‘original’ expression of the Dhamma. This suggests that there were other trends or traits of Buddhist teaching that existed side by side with the Theravada and which taught far broader and more comprehensive Dhamma-theories. As these schools did not compete or seek worldly influence and power – and given their practitioners often withdrew for years (or decades) from the world of common interaction – their presence in the historical record did not develop until much later on, when the dialectical conditions within society favoured a more comprehensive definition of the Dhamma and what it means to be ‘Enlightened’.
Although sound academic claims have been made which present the Mahayana and Vajrayana as being ‘corruptions’ of the Buddha’s original teaching – suggesting that Hinduism, Jainism and even Islamic ideas infiltrated the interpretation of the Dhamma – this model does not hold when the Dhammapada Sutta is taken into account. As the Dhammapada Sutta emanates from the ‘Word of the Buddha’, then it is his solemn expression of the Dhamma with no outside influences. Of course, the Theravada ideologues often counter this assertion by stating extracts from ultra-conservative Suttas – with each implying that only monks can achieve enlightenment who live in a forest – and no one else! The problem here, is that much of this material is now proven as being the product of additions, omissions and clever monkish editing to justify the ethos of the Theravada School. The Theravada School could get away with this in a time-period when only Buddhist monastics could read and write and the laity had to take their word for what the Buddha taught. Today, through the science of ‘Philology’, it is clear that the Dhammapada Sutta contains unaltered (ancient) content which has proven to be an embarrassment to the conservatism of the Theravada School! Indeed, evidence suggests that the Dhammapada Sutta was a much more prominent Buddhist text until the laity started using its content to ‘doubt’ the ‘conservativism’ of the Theravada School – whose editors ‘hid’ the Sutta away and started to emphasis more one-sided Dhamma-expressions.
Even at the time of the Buddha’s Parinibbana (all-round and thorough ‘extinction’) - not all the elder monks (or groups of monks) who had learned directly from him - accepted the Theravada School as being entirely correct. This is not to say that the Theravada School is ‘wrong’ - but that its claim to an ‘exclusive’ legitimacy is not fully supported by the known facts. The conservative approach of the Theravada School is suitable for those individuals who require that type of approach to learning the Dhamma. However, it is also true that the Buddha also taught a number of other interpretations of his path – each extending the depth and broadness of the concept of ‘Enlightenment’ and how it is to be applied to the world. All pathways are of equal validity and it is probably the case that most people will at one time or another in their lives – explore all three pathways. For the Theravada School a Buddhist monastic living deep in the forest (away from ALL worldly contact) occupies the ideal situation for Dhamma-study. The six senses are ‘purified’ by ‘breaking’ ALL contact with worldly interaction whilst living in a meditation hut and following the Vinaya Discipline. Overtime, the six senses are thoroughly cleaned-out as the ridge-pole of ignorance is broken through a continuous practice of seated meditation. This is achieved by permanently uprooting greed, hatred and delusion. Once nibbana is attained, no more volitional karma is produced, but the continued existence of the physical body symbolises the accumulative effects of past karma – although after the realisation of ‘Enlightenment’ - all previously bad karma is greatly reduced. When the karmic force that powers each physical existence is exhausted – then the five aggregates (physical matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and consciousness) dissolve and fall away never to ‘re-combine’.
Interestingly, the Theravada model implies that only monks can realise ‘Enlightenment’ even though numerous Pali Suttas clearly state that a number of lay-men and women also realised complete ‘Enlightenment’ during the Buddha’s lifetime. This openly contradicts the Theravada School – which suggests that if an ‘Enlightened’ monk were to return to lay-life – then his ‘Enlightened’ state would regress as his six senses would once again be ‘sullied’ through interaction with the world. The Pali Suttas that the Theravada School preserve contradict most of the accrued dogma that this school preserves. Obviously, men and women can attain ‘Enlightenment’ even if they live within the pollution of everyday society, and according to the Dhammapada Sutta - ‘Enlightenment’ can be attained in places other than a forest – with the realisers not suffering any regression by changing their living conditions. This does not mean that the over-all methodology of the Theravada School is ‘incorrect’ - but rather that as a method it fits into a broader scheme designed by the Buddha. Somewhere along the line a group of monks seeking political (worldly) power established a number of outrageous claims that have gone unchallenged. The Mahayana School (which is a collection of Sects all teaching a variant upon a theme), also states that it might be in the interests of the individual to withdraw from the sensory stimulus of the everyday world to get to grips with the unruly mind. This is not the ‘end’ of the matter by any means – but merely the beginning of an ongoing and arduous process of self-purification. Much of the Mahayana pathway is premised upon ‘Compassion’ for other beings and includes methods of wise and loving modes of behaviour whilst interacting within the ordinary world. This means that even when living within the world of delusion, the Dhamma can be followed in such a manner that benefits others whilst pursuing a much slower path of purification.
As Hui Neng (the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an) states in his Altar Sutra – once the six senses are thoroughly purged of ALL dualistic and inverted (volitional) karma, then greed, hatred and desire are PERMANENTLY uprooted never to re-appear again regardless of the situations such ‘Enlightened’ individuals are forced to exist within. (Hui Neng had to live in the hills with bandits for sixteen years but only ate the vegetables they cooked alongside their meat). Herein lies a major interpretative difference between the Theravada and Mahayana Schools. Other than this, however, the experience of ‘Enlightenment’ is essentially the same. An ‘Enlightened’ Mahayana practitioner CANNOT regress regardless of circumstances – which he or she merely adjusts themselves to (neither attached to the inner void or hindered by external phenomena). Whereas Chinese Ch’an Masters were often reticent to discuss the post-enlightenment state (to prevent pointless mimicry and ego-boosting) - the Vajrayana School of Tantra explains this process over and over again within the literature associated with the ‘Mahasiddhis’ - or ‘Enlightened’ Indian men and women all from very different backgrounds! Again, the root essence of this can be found in the Dhammapada Sutta where the Buddha explains who and what a ‘monk’ and a ‘Brahmin’ actually are! In reality, there is no difference in the experience of ‘Enlightenment’ as taught in the Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra Schools, as the experience being explained is exactly the same. It is the experience of the underlying and empty mind ground, which is the accumulation of bodily discipline and ‘stilling’ of the mind so that the karmically conditioned taints of greed, hatred and delusion are permanently uprooted.
The differences lie in how each school teaches the path to the attainment of ‘Enlightenment’ and the accumulated dogma that has manifested due to historical conditions many hundreds of years after the passing of the Buddha. The Theravada offers a narrow gate, the Mahayana advocates a wide gate and the Tantrayana states that the ‘gate’ is ‘everywhere’ and ‘wherever’ a practitioner happens to be. This is because the empty mind ground underlies all phenomena and is not limited to a forest. Whereas the Mahayana emphasises the ‘path’ over the ‘destination’ - the Tantrayana offers the ‘destination’ over the ‘path’! However, things are not always this clear in demarcation, as some Theravada teachers offer a distinctly ‘Mahayana’ approach to their conservativism, whilst a number of Mahayana teachers are so strict that they come across as typical of the Theravada School. On occasion, there are Chinese Ch’an Masters who begin with ‘Enlightenment’ (just like the Tantrayana Masters), and will not compromise, negotiate or explain what they are doing. In reality we should study all three schools and make use of their experience and expertise in the matter of freeing humanity from its ongoing and accumulated suffering! A genuine experience of the empty mind ground unleashes an uncommon wisdom which sheds light on all this and demonstrates the genuine way ahead!
Although certain modern trends within Asian Buddhism appears to suggest that a Buddhist monastic follows a path that is ‘superior’ to that of the dedicated ‘lay’ Buddhist practitioner – a close and careful reading of the Pali Suttas (and their Sanskrit counter-parts) reveals a very different picture. Yes – obviously a Buddhist monastic leads an infinitely more ‘virtuous’ life than a lay-person who does not follow the Dharma and lives just for sensory stimulation and superficial emotional gratification. This the argument that the ‘morality’ of the monastic is more worthwhile than the ‘hedonism’ of the lay-person. Of course, people are free to reject this analysis and conclusion. The two alternative views are that the ‘hedonist’ is ‘equal’ or at least ‘superior’ to the ‘Monastic’ - but these different interpretations tenable? There is something ‘instinctive’ about the ‘hedonist’ - as if they have not yet evolved the ‘wisdom’ to a) ‘manage’, and b) ‘elevate’ the data received from their sensory-organs to a higher plane of existence!
A ‘hedonist’ is someone who lives in the world of greed, hatred and delusion and see no problem with this natural arrangement. As this is the situation that the Buddha states generates all of humanity’s suffering – he rejects it out of hand. This is the world of the cess-pit of dirty sensationalism that the Buddhist monastic leaves behind and it is in this sense that the lifestyle of the Buddhist monastic is said to be morally and virtuously ‘superior’ to that of the uncontrolled, undisciplined, lazy and selfish ‘hedonist’. Although the human-beings within both categories make use of ‘sensory’ stimulus, the ‘hedonist’ is entrapped by what he or she ‘feels’ and cannot ‘breakout’ of the cycle of pointless repetition – whereas the ‘monastic’ takes exactly the same ‘sensory’ stimulus and uses this data to ‘uproot’ greed, hatred and delusion, and ‘break’ free of the cycle of pointless ‘sensory’ stimulation! This is why it is untenable to suggest that within this context, the ‘hedonist’ (as a lay-person) is the ‘equal’ or ‘superior’ to the Buddhist monastic! From this point of view, it is obvious that the ‘hedonist’ lives an ‘inferior’ lifestyle to that of the Buddhist monastic.
Things are not so clear-cut when devout individuals follow the Dharma with determination and yet still live within the world of everyday concerns. This type of lay-person is very different to the ‘hedonist’ as they apply to their lives the very same Dharma that the Buddhist monastics make use of, with many such lay-people even choosing to voluntarily abide by the Vinaya Discipline to the best of their ability within the circumstances they live within. When Buddhist monastics give Dharma-Talks in China to audiences of robe-clad lay-people, he or she usually takes a humble position as within their ‘cloistered’ life, it far easier to apply the Dharma and to discipline their minds and bodies with the minimum of distractions or cares. For the devout lay-person, however, their life is full of distractions and cares that have nothing to do with the Dharma and often get in the way of its practice! Despite this, these dedicated lay-people persevere with the disciplining of their minds and bodies and apply the Ch’an method within all circumstance, good, bad and indifferent.
Despite these hindrances inherent within everyday life, both male and female lay-practitioners of the Dharma realise full and complete enlightenment! This is even mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, and was a well-known occurrence during the Buddha’s lifetime. Although the worldly use of the senses creates obscuring barriers between the surface mind and the empty mind ground – the lay-person applies the gong-an, hua tou or chanting practice too such a high degree of commitment that the surface mind of obstruction (klesa) is smashed to pieces forever! This suggests that the sheer practice of the committed lay-person became so full of inner potential that it drilled-through the klesic obscuration and achieved full and total comprehension of the empty mind ground! In the Pali Suttas the Buddha clearly states that when the enlightened mind is realised – there is no difference between a lay-person and a monastic.
Although both may occupy very different stations in life that demand certain rules of interaction and polite communication, the essences of each individual’s understanding remain exactly the same! Both the ‘monastic’ and the ‘lay’ person are looking at and integrating with exactly the same empty mind ground so that the only differences in their lives is the social status each occupies. Vimalakirti was a very wealthy Indian who possessed a number of wives and countless children, and yet he ‘saw through’ the obscuring veil if the world and perceived the empty mind ground. Hui Neng – the Sixth Patriotic of Ch’an - was a lay-person when he inherited the Dharma (only ordaining at a later date). The Chinese Ch’an Records record a number of examples of how ordinary men, women and even children achieved full and total enlightenment! As Buddhist monasticism is premised upon humility – many such practitioners believe that the ‘lay’ path to enlightenment is by far the much harder path to take (as everything about it serves to turn away from, and obscure the empty mind ground). This is why many Chinese Buddhist monastics today, habitually place themselves ‘below’ the status of the laity. It may be that such humility contains the inherent power to encourage the ‘hedonist’ to change their lives for the better and follow the Dharma, whilst supporting, empower and ‘lifting-up’ those lay people who are already making good progress in their self-cultivation!
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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