Living by Vow - Preface

A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts


320 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614290100

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ISBN 9781614290216

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Editor’s Preface

On their first encounter with the sutras many Zen beginners are perplexed. A few words might look familiar from other reading. Perhaps the overall gist seems apparent.

But on first reading many sutras are an impenetrable mixture of meaningless foreign phrases and illogical paradoxes. To the experienced student, sutras can present another sort of problem. After years of study and practice, many of us fall into narrow, knee-jerk interpretations of the sutras we’ve recited so often. This book is aimed directly at both problems. As an experienced practitioner of Zen, Shohaku Okumura speaks clearly and directly of the personal meaning and implications of Zen practice. He uses his own life experiences to illustrate the practical significance of the sutras to the beginning student. As a scholar of Buddhist literature he reveals the subtle, intricate web of culture and history that surrounds the words so familiar to the longtime student. The net effect is of a sympathetic friend who has practiced Zen for decades (and also happens to be a Buddhist scholar) patiently explaining, annotating, and illuminating eight of the most important sutras. Esoteric Sanskrit terms take on vivid, personal meaning. Worn-out, empty phrases gain rich new poetic resonance. Both the neophyte and the experienced practitioner will come away with a richer appreciation of these sutras.

 For instance, take the word “vow.” Many modern readers, scientists, skeptics, and secular humanists might find this concept distinctly uncomfortable. Some may feel it carries the taint of ancient dogma draped in musty, jewel-encrusted robes. It hints of rigid rules for diet, sexual practices, clothing, and social hierarchies. Okumura Roshi uses the teachings and poetry of the Buddha, Dōgen, Katagiri Roshi, Uchiyama Roshi, and others to elucidate the central role of vow in Zen practice. In the process he gives fresh meaning to the word. Instead of a static pledge, vow is shown to be a dynamic, day-to-day expression of the most fundamental aspect of our true nature. He shows how our sitting practice, our Zen community, and our livelihood can all be animated and illuminated by vow.

Emptiness, or śūnyatā, like many concepts in Zen, is slippery and paradoxical. In his chapter on the Heart Sutra, Okumura Roshi uses the words of masters selected from the twenty-five-hundred-year tradition of Zen to elucidate this challenging but crucial reality. The result is multilayered, cross-cultural, philosophical, and at the same time personal. His interpretation of the five skandhas can be read as a paraphrase of a modern neuroscience text. He quotes Nāgārjuna, who lived nearly two thousand years ago, to demonstrate how awareness of emptiness leads naturally to a more peaceful, stable life in our modern world. Impermanence and interdependence are not merely philosophical abstractions. They are fundamental aspects of our daily existence. Ongoing recognition of this reality leads naturally to generosity, egolessness, and inner calm. The appreciation and application of this concept is a very practical antidote to the pervasive angst of our modern consumer society.

This book offers the thoughtful reader an opportunity to apply the cumulative insights of twenty-five hundred years of disciplined spiritual research to their own everyday existence. It is neither a quick, effort less panacea nor an abstract metaphysical treatise, but rather a series of signposts to guide and inspire the determined seeker.

Dave Ellison

Author’s Preface

This book is based on a series of lectures I gave as the interim head teacher at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center (MZMC) in Minneapolis from September 1993 to August 1996. The center was founded by Dainin Katagiri Roshi. He originally came to the United States in 1963 to serve at Zenshū Sōtōji, the Sōtō Zen temple for the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles. A few years later, he moved to Sōkōji to assist Shunryū Suzuki Roshi, the resident priest at Sōkōji and the founding teacher of the San Francisco Zen Center. He practiced and taught there as the assistant teacher until Suzuki Roshi’s death in 1971. The next year he moved to Minneapolis and founded the MZMC, where he served as abbot until his death in March 1990 at the age of sixty-three.

The MZMC is located on the eastern shore of Lake Calhoun in South Minneapolis near the Uptown neighborhood. The center was named Kōun-zan Ganshōji by Katagiri Roshi. The mountain (zan) name Kōun means “cultivating the clouds” and is taken from one of Dōgen’s well-known poems. The temple name Gansho means “living by vow” and alludes to one of the definitions of a bodhisattva: “Ordinary people are those who live being pulled by their karma (gosshō no bonpu); bodhisattvas are those who live led by their vows (ganshō no bosatsu).”

 I had the opportunity to practice with Katagiri Roshi  for  one month at Daijōji monastery in Kanazawa, Japan, in 1988. He was the head teacher of the one-month special training period sponsored by Sōtōshū Shūmuchō for Western Sōtō Zen teachers. I was one of the assistants during the training period. Katagiri Roshi gave lectures on the Shōbōgenzō chapter Kūge (Flower of Emptiness) in English to the Western teachers. When I listened to his lectures, I was astonished and very inspired. I already had some experience giving dharma talks in English to Westerners, but until then I did not think I could give lectures on Shōbōgenzō. Later I had several opportunities to visit the MZMC to lecture his students while he was sick with cancer. That was why I was invited to be the interim head teacher three years after Katagiri Roshi’s death.

When I accepted the invitation from the MZMC I resolved to continue Katagiri Roshi’s style of practice and transmit the same essential spirit of bodhisattva practice, or living by vow (ganshō), to his students. Therefore, when I started to teach, my first seven talks were on the bodhisattva vows.

Some of the differences and similarities between Katagiri Roshi’s style of practice and my own can be understood in terms of the history of our lineages. From Shakyamuni Buddha until the seventy-fifth ancestor, Gangoku Kankei Daioshō (1683–1767), our lineage is exactly the same. Katagiri Roshi was the sixth generation and I am the eighth generation from Gangoku Kankei Daioshō. Soon after he was ordained as a Sōtō Zen priest, Katagiri Roshi practiced for three years with Hashimoto Ekō Roshi, who was the godō (instructor for training monks) at Eiheiji monastery. Hashimoto Roshi was a close friend of Sawaki Kōdō Roshi, and my teacher, Uchiyama Kōshō Roshi, was a disciple of Sawaki Roshi. They both emphasized nyohō-e, traditional sewing of the okesa and the rakusu worn by priests and laypeople who receive the Buddha’s pre cepts. Hashimoto Roshi and Sawaki Roshi practiced together under Oka Sōtan Roshi’s guidance at Shuzenji monastery. Another student of Oka Roshi was Kishizawa Ian Roshi, with whom Shunryū Suzuki Roshi studied in Japan. The lineages of Kishizawa Roshi, Hashimoto Roshi, and Sawaki Roshi are thus closely related. In the United States the influence of these three roshis continues through the lineages of Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and Uchiyama Roshi.

Although Hashimoto Roshi and Sawaki Roshi were good friends, their styles of practice were quite different. Hashimoto Roshi empha sized the importance of maintaining the details of Dōgen Zenji’s monastic practice. Narasaki Ikkō Roshi and Tsūgen Roshi, the abbots of Zuiōji, retained Hashimoto Roshi’s style in Japan. Narasaki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi were very close. Katagiri Roshi also adhered to Hashimoto Roshi’s very traditional monastic practice and sent some of his disciples to Zuiōji. Together, Narasaki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi planned to create an international monastery at Shōgoji, in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyūshū. Katagiri Roshi was going to lead the interna tional summer practice period when the construction of the monks’ hall (sodo) was completed. Unfortunately he passed away before that happened.

Sawaki Roshi never had his own temple or monastery. He was a professor at Komazawa University for more than thirty years. He also traveled throughout Japan to teach. Many laypeople started to practice zazen because of his efforts. Sawaki Roshi was called “homeless” Kōdō because he did not have a monastery or temple but instead traveled all over Japan. He called his teaching style a moving monastery. My teacher Kōshō Uchiyama Roshi was ordained by Sawaki Roshi and practiced only with him. After Sawaki Roshi passed away, Uchiyama Roshi became the abbot of Antaiji. He focused on zazen practice with minimal ceremony, ritual, and formality. Uchiyama Roshi started five-day “sesshins without toys,” during which we simply sat fourteen fifty-minute periods of zazen. I was ordained by Uchiyama Roshi and practiced at Antaiji until he retired in 1975.

After Uchiyama Roshi’s retirement I practiced at Zuiōji, where Narasaki Ikkō Roshi was abbot. There, for a short period of time, I experienced Hashimoto Roshi’s style of practice. I learned firsthand that Katagiri Roshi’s style of practice and the style taught by Uchiyama Roshi were quite different.

Recently Arthur Braverman, a friend of mine from Antaiji, wrote an article about Uchiyama Roshi in Buddhadharma magazine. In it he said:

While Shunryū Suzuki was igniting a Zen revolution in San Francisco in the late sixties, Kōshō Uchiyama was trying to foster a Zen reformation in Japan. It was perhaps an even more imposing challenge when one considers the power of the traditional Sōtō Zen sect in Japan.

Both masters believed greatly in the power of meditation, and both did a masterful job of transmitting the importance of zazen to their students. While Suzuki Roshi was attempt ing to get his American students to see the importance of many of the Japanese forms, Uchiyama was trying to teach his Japanese students not to be attached to the forms, but to let the forms grow out of the practice.

This is a very clear explanation of both the difference and the under lying unity of Uchiyama Roshi’s style and that of Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. Katagiri Roshi also put emphasis on traditional formal Sōtō Zen monastic practice. For me, the decision to follow Katagiri Roshi’s style was a big one. For all Dōgen Zenji’s descendants, of course, the basic spirit of the bodhisattva practice is the same. I feel that the essence of bodhisattva practice and the common ground of various styles of practice is living by vow.

Katagiri Roshi often spoke about living by vow. In his book Each Moment Is the Universe, he says that wholehearted practice of zazen is itself living by vow.

In zazen many things come up: thoughts, emotions, some times anger and hatred. But all you have to do is take care of zazen in eternal possibility. It’s completely beyond good or bad, right or wrong, so put aside all kinds of imagination fabricated by your consciousness. Don’t attach to thoughts and emotions, just let them return to emptiness. Just be present there and swim in buddha-nature. This is living the bodhisattva vow to help all beings. Then the great energy of the universe supports you and you take one step toward the future with all beings.

Katagiri Roshi wrote his yuige (bequeathed verse) a few weeks before his death:

Living in Vow, silently sitting
Sixty-three years
Plum blossoms begin to bloom
The jeweled mirror reflects truth as it is.

While my practice and understanding were greatly enriched by my study of Katagiri Roshi’s style of practice, I also learned from him how to teach Americans. For that I am very grateful. For twenty years I prac ticed Uchiyama Roshi’s style of sesshin with no activities other than zazen. At MZMC I gave lectures and had dokusan (private interviews) during sesshins. It was a challenge, but I learned a great deal.

After lecturing on “living by vow,” I spoke on the verses and sutras in the MZMC sutra book. Since these are chanted regularly, they are the Buddhist literature most familiar to Sōtō Zen practitioners, both in Japan and in the West. Many people memorize them. But the meaning of these verses and sutras is rarely explained. That is why I gave lectures on them. I talked about them on Saturday mornings for about three years until 1996, when I finished my term as the interim head teacher at MZMC.

Most of the lectures included in this book were transcribed by José Escobar and Dave Ellison. Some lectures were not recorded and a few tapes were missing. I rewrote these sections to fill the gaps. My talks on the Heart Sutra were transcribed and edited by Dave and printed in the MZMC newsletter. Tom Goodell, one of the practitioners at MZMC, was the first person who worked on this project. Since both Tom and I were very busy, especially after I moved to California to work for Sōtōshū North America Education Center (currently Sōtōshū Interna tional Center), the project could not be completed. A few years later, Dave kindly took over the project and patiently continued to work on it for more than ten years. I gave these lectures more than fifteen years ago, right after I moved to Minneapolis from Japan. Even though I had lived in the United States for five years, my English was not fluent. I had a limited vocabulary with which to express my thoughts. I am sure that it was difficult for Dave to understand what I wanted to say. I deeply appreciate his hard work, which “translated” my very Japanese English into readable English.

I would like to express my appreciation to Jōkei Molly Whitehead, a disciple of mine at Sanshinji. While she was busy for preparing for her ordination ceremony, she worked hard on the final stages of this book and gave us many helpful suggestions. I also express my gratitude to Andrea Martin, who allowed me to read a draft of her book Ceaseless Effort: The Life of Dainin Katagiri and gave me permission to quote Katagiri Roshi’s yuige. Finally I am extremely delighted to have Eiji Imao’s beautiful painting “Tsukinohikari (Moonlight)” on the cover of this book. I appreciate his generous permission to use a painting of his again, as we did on Realizing Genjokoan.

Katagiri Roshi’s dharma heirs and their students fulfilled his vow to transmit Dōgen Zenji’s teaching and practice to America. The tree of Dharma transplanted by Katagiri Roshi continues to grow as its roots spread and deepen in the soil of American spiritual culture in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. I deeply appreciate their continuous efforts and their friendship.

Shohaku Okumura


How to cite this document:
© Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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