Tuesday, December 19, 2006


priest factory
time to pack up, move on

I suppose I wanted to say I had no expectations of Eihei-ji. It was, after all, founded back in 1244 by the chief turkey himself, Dogen Zenji. I know it is the ‘mother’ Soto-Zen centre. I know Buddhism in Japan, like any ‘religion’ in any country, has a socio-political role. I know temples have to have priests and they have to be trained. I know the temples are passed down the male line – if your dad’s a priest you may have to ditch your career in the big city when he dies and come home to take up the family trade. I know someone has to look after the temples and parishioners, officiate at ceremonies for the dead, polish the Buddha's nose, replenish the incense, see to the accounts… I know the priest has to keep body and soul together, probably support his family, too. I know all this, but what has dancing with sutra stands to do with The Matter?

The historical Buddha. And Dogen Zenji. Completely revolutionary thinkers. But they spawned institutions, power structures, hierarchies, systems. Or didn’t they want to and we did? Perhaps it’s the fate of all revolutionaries. Maybe true revolutionaries just vanish without trace. Tradition, fine. ‘Doing-what-you're-doing’, fine. But sometime, somewhere, somehow along the line, the whole point slips away and you’re left dancing with sutra stands.

At Eihei-ji they dance with sutra stands. In the Joyoden, the Mausoleum where Dogen's (and his successors') ashes are preserved, two senior monks are teaching the novices the correct way to carry a sutra stand around.

You approach it, poise with one foot back, toes arched on the ground, the forward knee bent, so you bend with a straight back. Then you pick up the stand with your left hand about half-way down, fold the other hand - just so - across your left shoulder blade, elevate your body, swivel on your heel, glide soundlessly towards the door with one foot exactly in line with the other, turn left, glide, put the stand down. Two monks with 3 novices each. I come back 1/2 hour later and they're still at it.

It has, perhaps, a certain charm. But did Dogen really come back from China to teach monks how to dance with sutra stands? Undoubtedly I contradict myself. I can be moved to tears by four dancing girls in Takayama, and those intricate, flowing, easy movements will have taken years to learn to such perfection.

Still something jars. That's not the same. Here all has become form. I know that the way of the East is that you first learn The Art, then you transcend The Art. First you learn Zen, then you transcend Zen. But in Zen there is nothing to learn; and there is nothing to transcend.

Feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water


Blogger PA said...

Ah, I remember those dancing Zen monks with the sutra stands - like ninja zen monks! They're cool~
Ah, memories~
Thanks for the ongoing view of your journey!

4:52 pm  

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