01
Feb
07

“THE FORTUNATE AND ONGOING DISASTER OF LAY LIFE”


a teisho by John Tarrant, Roshi
Originally published in: Mind Moon Circle, Autumn 1994, pp.1-3.
 
Good Buddhists know that the thing to do is to renounce the world,
attain enlightenment and lead other beings to safety. But if you are a
Zen person, you don’t get off so easily. We find Buddha in the heart
of delusion, we find stars in the deepest night. When Hakuin said,
"This very body is the Buddha," he didn’t mean after we’ve gained
enlightenment or taken vows, he meant right now, in the chaos.

I think of the old story of the warrior who did zazen with such energy
that all the mice in the house grew still until he had finished. His
wife remarked on this and he said, "Well, this won’t do, I’ll have to
try harder." His zazen deepened and soon, as he sat, the mice came out
and played all over him, completely unafraid.

This story tells about inclusion. It implies that even mice have their
contribution and worth and that we don’t want to shut too much of
their world out. This means not only the outer world as the field of
enlightenment but also the inner world – the disturbed zazen, the
immense proliferation of fantasies, the distractions. If lay life has
a virtue, it is in this inclusiveness.

In the Indian world that Buddhism grew from there seems to have been a
fairly clear distinction between lay and monastic lives. One was a
householder for the first part of life and then, when family
obligations were finished, one was free to seek enlightenment. But
nothing is really this orderly and Shakyamuni fractured this way of
seeing things by abandoning his obligations before they were completed
and so making lay life somehow second class. Primeval Buddhism
certainly saw things this way. There was a split between the pure
monastic world and the contaminated householder world.

It was the advent of the Mahayana that clouded this view once more.
Vimalakirti, a layman, became a hero, and the Bodhisattva ideal was of
one who had compassion, who saved others and who did so by walking
unharmed through the fires of the world. Now this is quite a different
path. The image of enlightenment has changed. The original idea of
nirvana was a cessation, extinction, a snuffing out, as of a lamp.
Perhaps we should call it endarkment. It implies a stoic view of
things. Life was seen as so contaminated that the end of it was the
best thing of all. The Mahayana, and the Zen image is more optimistic:
to light a lamp and pass it on. Beings are worth saving, even stones
are beings, and consciousness is a great project.

The monastic life then becomes less a way station on the path out of
life and more of a matter of practical choice within life, a skilful
means. We put a fence around the training hall to get containment, so
that the energy we pour in does not leak out. The training hall is a
kind of alchemical vessel. Only if it is in some degree sealed off can
we get enough heat to change the lead into gold. This is the great
virtue of monastic life. All transformation needs its guardians and
monastic life provides them. But its project enlightenment and
compassion – is no longer different from the lay project.

Both lay and monastic worlds have their pathologies. The pathologies
of the monastic life seem to be about clinging to purity. Purity is
not a natural thing and needs to be guarded. Another way to say this
is that monasteries tend towards monotheism – a single and orthodox
view of reality. The monastic consciousness doesn’t believe in
fantasies or in the arts because it doesn’t like the confusion of
multiple views. Monasteries like rules because when we make a rule we
gain the illusion that we have dealt with the problem. This monotheism
relates to the inner life as well. Samadhi and concentration states
are often highly valued. This is what the Chinese masters called the
sword that kills – the koan that drives all thoughts away,
annihilating every other content in the mind. Then enlightenment will
come and there will be no more real problems.

The status of women and children always seems to suffer in
monasteries. This is because they always bring in more real problems.
Women have a special role as distractions, human affections being the
one thing most difficult to put boundaries around. Women have been
excluded, or they are included but asked to act like men, or they’re
asked to act like women, but to not have children, or they’re asked to
not bring their children around the sesshin. Even women’s monasteries
seem to have a patriarchal air – rigid and hostile to the obligations
of the heart. Women in temples are often given the archetypal task of
representing the world and its weight, its messiness. Naturally a
woman will object because her real developmental task is something
independent of the way a man reacts to her.

The pathologies of a lay life relate to a kind of getting lost, a
forgetting of the quest, an unconscious immersion in the world. So
much time is spent changing diapers or watching the stock market
ticker that zazen never gets up enough steam to bring about a real
change. We are so close to the greed, the sadness, the anger and the
ignorance that it’s impossible not to get stained by them. We come
home from the hospital and can’t stop thinking about the baby who
died. The world penetrates us.

But this wounding of consciousness can be the essence of the
Bodhisattva life. The Bodhisattva legend is of one who puts off her
own enlightenment in order to save others. On the face of it, this is
an absurdity, but like many absurdities it contains a very deep story.
An old koan goes like this: "Why is it that perfectly accomplished
Bodhisattvas are attached to the vermilion line?" The red line is the
line of passion- of sorrow and the love of the world. Our perfection
cannot connect with others. Only through our weaknesses do we grow. It
is the field of our failures and problems that is the place of
Bodhisattva action and the development of character after
enlightenment. The Bodhistttva’s enlightenment is not something that
makes her invulnerable to the world but open to it. It is closely
linked to love. This weakness, this permeability, is the strength of
the lay life.

The lay view asks itself unanswerable questions such as, "What does
enlightenment mean?", trying to link the experience of eternity to the
smell of the morning coffee. It assumes there will always be problems
and failures. It wonders what its dreams mean and always misinterprets
them. It gets lost in symbol and metaphor. The monastic view is
uninterested in meaning and tends to think enlightened people don’t
dream.

Obviously there are people in monasteries who are immersed in the
world and people outside of monasteries who try to stay unsullied by
the world. Most of the Western monasteries today have some degree of
what I am calling lay consciousness,. And yet it is the monastic
consciousness that has preserved Buddhism down through the ages and
this is a powerful argument in its favour.

The virtue of the lay point of view is that it brings a fertilizing
muddle into the serenity of the temple. Blackberry pie, sex, a new
car, lessons for the little girl, these distractions and frivolities
are themselves the Buddha Way. A coherent temple existence seems, at
least from the outside, to be difficult. Fortunately, a coherent lay
existence is impossible.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/laylife.txt

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