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Precept Practice and Theory in Sōtō Zen

David E. Riggs
JSPS Research Fellow
Intl. Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto

Working Draft. Please do not cite or distribute.


Although precepts are basically sets of injunctions prescribing particular standards of conduct, they are also used in Buddhism in a wide variety of ceremonies which confer a spiritual benefit or involve a change of status, which can be from lay to ordained or from one level in the rankings to the next. Despite the anti-nomian rhetoric, Zen is no exception to this tendency. Zen monks usually live in an extremely complex and rule-bound society, and are also always deeply imbedded in the complex network of spiritual relationships that govern both their personal lives and their place in Buddhist society. These relationships are formalized in ceremonies of various levels, but taking the precepts in one form or another is almost always a part of these ceremonies. In this paper I will first give a general background of precepts in Zen, and then describe in some detail Tokugawa era controversies when the idea of special precepts and ordinations unique to Japanese Sōtō Zen monks and laity was fully articulated. Finally I will describe an instance of a modern precept assembly at Eiheiji and contrast this with the precept practices that have developed in Sōtō groups in the United States. My interest here is not in the question of whether or not people followed these precepts, nor in what kind of moral direction the precepts supplied. I am primarily concerned with the precept ceremony as an initiation or a consecration, and I will not be discussing the content of the precepts themselves.

In China, Ch'an monks followed the same procedures for becoming a monk as did any other Buddhist, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Japan, the Sōtō school developed its own unique set of sixteen precepts. These precept ordinations came to be the crucial ritual which established a unique identity for Sōtō clerics. The same set of sixteen precepts were also used in funerals and in lay ordination assemblies to include the lay members of the Sōtō community in the lineage of the Buddha and to engage their loyalty and continued support. In the Tokugawa period the practice arose of calling this set by the name of Zen precepts ( zenkai 禪戒 ) and the Zen precepts assembly ( zenkaie 禪戒會 ), emphasizing the special quality of the precepts in Zen. In modern times the the more universal name of receiving the precepts ( jukai 授戒 ) and precepts receiving assembly ( jukaie 授戒會 ) is used. These Sōtō precepts are regarded by the tradition as an uninterrupted transmission from the time of Dōgen, but the contemporary form of the ritual and the modern interpretation of the meaning of the precepts dates only to the middle of the Tokugawa period. For over one hundred years they were the subject of an intense debate and there was a wide variation in both the ritual and its interpretation. The position which eventually triumphed was a radical interpretation which used only a set sixteen precepts unique to Dōgen and understood the taking of these precepts to entail awakening itself. Thus the taking of the precepts was and is identified with the final goal of practice, rather than the beginning of life as a Buddhist or strengthening the commitment to the Buddhist path.

The precepts used in Sōtō Zen are related to the precepts used by the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, but the exact form and arrangement apparently originate with Dōgen (Bodiford 1993, 169-73; Faure 1996, 55-57). Modern Japanese Sōtō Zen has settled on the view that Dōgen brought back with him from China this true Zen set of only sixteen precepts, which are traced back to Bodhidharma and the Buddha himself, and that these make the other kind of precepts (such as the full 250 precepts) irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, this is a historically untenable view, and this fact was clearly understood by the Sōtō clerics taking part in the Edo period controversies . The same scholar-monks who were carefully sifting textual evidence that showed that Chinese Ch'an monks were taking the same precepts and ordinations as anyone else were also involved in the Sōtō polemics to establish the correctness and superiority of the special Dōgen precepts, received in a direct line from the Chinese teacher Ju-ching.

Leaving aside the controversy over the origin of his special set, there is no doubt that Dōgen and his disciples assumed the right to ordain monks with these precepts without approval from either the government or from the established Japanese temples, and by so doing took a major step toward controlling their own affairs. Sōtō monks also conducted lay ordinations, and beginning in the medieval period, large assemblies were held which included an elaborate ceremony in which a famous teacher conferred the precepts upon the assembled laity from all social classes. In this way people from throughout the community could establish a connection with Sōtō Zen, and with its teachers. These mass precept assemblies were a major factor in the propagation of Sōtō Zen throughout the country (Bodiford 1993, 179-84).

The precepts were more than simple admission to the Buddhist community. The ceremony and its accompanying transmission charts indicated a relationship with the Buddha and thus took on a powerful charisma (Bodiford 1993, 184; Faure 1996, 220-21). From the fourteenth century, there are frequent notices of Sōtō monks pacifying and converting local kami and spirits by administering the precepts to them (Bodiford 1993-1994; 1993, 173-79). The local spirit was understood to be converted by the power of the precepts and would then become a supporter of Buddhism, which provided a way of including the prior powers in the new order. Such tales often formed a crucial part of the conversion of a pre-existing temple of another Buddhist affiliation to a Sōtō lineage temple.

For all the importance of the precepts, it is not at all clear exactly what the precepts were and upon what traditional authority they were based. In the above mentioned cases, it is usually not specified what precepts were being administered. It is not that this was an obvious matter, and in fact the precepts were the focus of extremely heated discussion within the Buddhist community, perhaps never more so than the mid-Edo period. In modern times however, it has at least become reasonable clear what precepts Dōgen used in Japan when ordaining his monks. There are three texts that have been established as authentic which represent Dōgen's teachings concerning precepts. In order to establish a base line in this complex discussion, the following paragraphs will first outline how precepts were used in China and Japan generally, and then the general content of Dōgen's three texts will be summarized. It should be emphasized however, that in early Tokugawa there was absolutely no such clarity about Dōgen's position on precepts: the sources which enable us to now speak so confidently were not generally available or were not universally accepted as authentic. In addition there were other texts being used which now cannot be demonstrated to be authentic. To first sketch the modern understanding of Dōgen's use of precepts is an anachronistic approach, but it has the advantage of quickly setting out the basic parameters of the rather confusing situation behind the discussion which is to follow. The pre-Tokugawa Japanese part of this overview of is based primarily on William Bodiford's research and his summary of recent scholarship (Bodiford 1993, 164-173; Groner 1984; Welch 1967, 285-294).

The Chinese and Japanese Background

For Buddhist monks in China there was a standard set of precepts and procedures used to become a monk, regardless of the monk's affiliation with any particular lineage or kind of practice. A similar situation prevailed for nuns, but I will limit my discussion to male ordinations. The ordination to become a monk was based on the novice ordination, followed by the full ordination for monks as described in one of the texts of the Indian Vinaya. In China it was the norm to use the translation called the Four Part Vinaya ( Ssu-fen lu ) for the list of ten novice and 250 full ordination precepts (T 22#1428). These precepts were given in elaborate ceremonies, at fixed times and in fixed locations at major monasteries, and resulted in the special position and privileges of a Buddhist monk. The change in status was recognized by the state (which required fees and documents), the entire Buddhist establishment, and of course lay society. Although the form and the details of the precepts were taken from the Four Part Vinaya , which was regarded as not Mahāyāna, the Chinese had long accepted these precepts as an integral part of their Mahāyāna practice by taking these precepts with a Mahāyāna attitude. Quite in addition to and entirely separate from these precepts which entailed the transition to fully ordained status in the eyes of the state and the Buddhist community was another set of vows: the bodhisattva precepts. These precepts emphasize compassion and universal salvation, instead of the details of monastic life, and the Mahāyāna attitudes prescribed are appropriate for both householders and monastics (Groner 1984, 215-220; Groner 1990). There are several lists of such precepts in the sūtra literature, but apparently the most common in China, and certainly in Japan, was the list of ten major and forty-eight minor precepts as found in the Brahmā's Net Sūtra (T 24#1484). These precepts were taken at a variety of ceremonies along with other standard Buddhist expressions of devotion such as the three refuges, the three pure precepts, and ritual repentances. There was no standardization, and since these precepts had no legal role to play, there was no requirement for them to be standardized. The key point is that these sets of precepts were not used to make monks: they were devoid of the weighty social and legal implications of the full precepts of ordination. It is true that after taking the full ordination precepts, the newly ordained monks also went on to take the bodhisattva precepts, but for them, as for the laity, these were precepts to express and strengthen their religious devotion.

In Japan the same system was used until Saichō, after his return from China with new teachings, attempted to set up his own way of ordaining monks separate from the established temples. Eventually his Tendai community obtained the necessary state approval and in 823 ordained full status monks recognized by the state. Their ultimate authority was the Lotus Sūtra , and they used the detailed precepts of the Brahmā's Net Sūtra without using the full 250 precepts as was the norm in China, and in the older Japanese lineages (Groner 1984, 272). This new way was to be the normal ordination in Tendai and came to be used by other groups as well, but it continued to be opposed by many Buddhist groups. The vagueness of these bodhisattva precepts made them of little use for the guidance of the daily life of monks, and over time other rules were composed to fill the gap, but these rules lacked the universal authority of the full 250 precepts (which monks of the older Japanese Buddhist groups continued to receive).

In this confusing situation, the attitude toward the precepts of the early Japanese Zen teachers reflects the full range of possibilities. Of particular interest is Eisai's position upon his return from China in 1191, as seen in his Kōzen gokokuron (T 80#2543). Eisai was the first of the Kamakura era visitors to China to return with a Zen lineage, and he advocated strictly following the full 250 precepts as well as the bodhisattva precepts (the standard Chinese view), and stressed the importance to Zen of beginning with a thorough grounding in the precepts. This would seem unexceptional for an advocate of renewal for Japanese Buddhism, freshly returned from his trip to China. Dōgen, however, took the opposite tack in every way (Bodiford 1993, 169). Dōgen's list of precepts is contained in the “Jukai” chapter of the Genzō , and there are two other independent works now accepted as authentic that give further ceremonial details and explain the meaning of these precepts: the Busso shōden bosatsukai kyōju kaimon 佛祖正傳菩薩戒教授 戒文 and the Busso shōden bosatsukai sahō 佛祖正傳菩薩戒作法 (D 2:279-281; ZS-Shūgen). These works make clear that Dōgen not only rejected the full precepts of the Four Part Vinaya , he also regarded meditation as in effect trumping all other kinds of practices, including following the precepts. Although there is no record of the content of the ordinations Dōgen received in China, we do know from these three texts that he administered to his own monks the first ten precepts of the Brahmā's Net Sūtra , (but not the forty-eight minor ones as was the practice in Japanese Tendai), plus the three refuges and the three pure precepts (which were commonly used in various ceremonies as mentioned above). Dōgen claimed that the ceremony came from Ju-ching, but this set of sixteen precepts, although attested elsewhere individually, are apparently combined in this unique way by Dōgen himself, since no prior source has ever been discovered (Bodiford 1993, 171).

Ōbaku Influence and the Revival of Precept Assembly Practice

Although these precepts have now come to be the norm for Sōtō, at the beginning of the Tokugawa period the whole question was still very open. It was not at all clear what precepts Dōgen had in mind because there was so little reliable textual evidence, and apparently there was no standard customary practice in Sōtō Zen. Between Dōgen and the Tokugawa we know almost nothing about the details of Sōtō precept practices. Why was there such a sudden surge of interest in precepts in Sōtō Zen? As in so many other things in Japanese Zen of this period, one has to look to Ōbaku Zen to see where things got started. One might be inclined to think that since Sōtō is a separate lineage from the shared lineage of Japanese Rinzai and Ōbaku, that it was not really concerned with these Chinese monks who appeared in Nagasaki. But the Zen monks of this time were not so clearly split into Sōtō and Rinzai groups and there was a great deal of movement back and forth for teaching and learning about different practices and rituals. There were in fact many Sōtō monks that were extremely interested in whatever they could learn from the Chinese monks, and in a number of cases they studied for extended periods and then returned to their Sōtō temples bringing what they had learned. They heavily modified the Sōtō practices to bring them more into line with the Ōbaku ways, which they saw as more authentic. The influence of Ōbaku monks on the Sōtō school of Japanese Zen begins with this initial attraction and even a wide ranging adoption of many Ōbaku ideas and practices. The initial enthusiasm was followed by acrimonious struggles that continued into the nineteenth century and were an all important part of the emergence of Dōgen as the source of Sōtō orthodoxy. In most cases, and perhaps especially for precepts, the position that became the standard for Sōtō was quite in opposition to Ōbaku, but a full appreciation of that position entails its contrast to the Ōbaku starting point.

I will refer to this group of Chinese and Japanese monks as Ōbaku for convenience, but to do so is both anachronistic and perhaps inappropriate. In Japan the members of the lineage referred to themselves as the True Lineage of Lin-chi Zen ( rinzai shōshū 臨 濟正宗) until 1874, and in Sōtō writings of the period, the group is often referred to simply as the Ming Chinese monks. There are times, however, when the term Ōbaku is used to distinguish between this recent Chinese lineage and the more established Rinzai and Sōtō lineages (S-Hōgo 3:826). Be that as it may, the term Ōbaku will be used here, understanding that both the word and the connotations of a third stream of Japanese Zen in addition to Rinzai and Sōtō is problematic in many Tokugawa era contexts.

The most important figure of these Chinese teachers was Yin-yüan Lung-ch'i 隠元隆琦 (1592-1673), who was a major figure in Chinese Buddhist circles and an important reformer before coming to Japan (Wu 2002). When he arrived in 1654, the Chinese Buddhist community was already well established in Nagasaki, and Yin-yüan was known in Japan, at least in certain circles, from his writings. When Yin-yüan arrived, it seems that the practice of holding precept assemblies had fallen into abeyance, and one of the most popular things he did was to hold eight-day long precepts assemblies. In 1658 Yin-yüan printed his own set of ordination rules ( Gukaihōgi 弘法戒儀 ), in which he both prescribed the ceremonies and discussed the meaning of the precepts (TK v7). His work followed contemporary Chinese standards, and even the name he borrowed from other works about precepts which appeared in the Ming Canon. Apparently in this area Yin-yüan was not the reformer he was in other aspects, but what he was doing must have been quite different from Japanese practice judging from the distinguished crowds he attracted. When I asked about precept assemblies recently at the head temple Manpukuji, they told me that this text was still the standard for their school, and showed me hand copied guides for precept assemblies, explaining that there were no printed materials. This is in stark contrast with the volumes of materials from Sōtō clerics printed from middle Tokugawa right up through the present.

The Ōbaku assembly encourages both lay and monk participation. In the first part of the event everyone receives the three refuges, followed by the five precepts, the eight precepts and the ten novice precepts. The second main stage is for the postulant monks to receive the classic 250 precepts of mainstream Buddhism and become full monks. At the end everyone takes the ten major and 48 minor Bodhisattva precepts. In Yin-yüan's 1661 assembly the precepts were conferred on hundreds of people, and it later became a standard practice by abbots of Manpukuji and as well as its branch temples, and continues to this day, albeit in a shorter form.

Many people received these extended precepts (the standard for any kind of Chinese Buddhism) from various Ōbaku teachers, including some prominent Sōtō monks who stayed for long periods of practice and later returned to the Sōtō fold. These clerics had a profound effect on Sōtō thinking and practice. The Ōbaku abbot who was directly responsible for most of the ordination ceremonies involving Sōtō monks was Mu-an Hsing-t'ao 木菴性牝 (1611-1684), the second abbot of the head temple of Manpukuji and the man responsible for training most of the Japanese Ōbaku monks (Baroni 2000, 58-60). Shōe Dōjō 性慧道定 (1634-1713) received full precepts from Mu-an in 1668 and returned in 1674 to help with the first retreat of Gesshū Sōkō 月舟宗胡 (1618-1698) at Daijōji an extremely important Sōtō training temple. Mokugen Genjaku 黙玄元寂 (1629-1680) also was ordained with full precepts by Mu-an in 1670 before returning to Daijōji. Spurred by the Ōbaku example, in 1671 Abbot Gesshū began to build what he called a ( kechimyaku kaidan 血脈戒壇 ) at Daijōji. This practice continued at least until the next generation, as evidenced by the fact that Manzan Dōhaku 卍山道白 (1636-1741) who is well known as someone who campaigned for exclusive allegiance to the teachings of Dōgen, also receive an Ōbaku ordination. This is revealed his edition of Dōgen's Kōroku , published in 1673, which included a preface by Mu-an which indicates that Dōhaku (I will continue to call him Dōhaku just to avoid confusion with another figure with a similar name) received the full precepts from Mu-an, a fact not recorded in Dōhaku's own chronology (Ōtani Tetsuo 1991, 31). Apparently the influence was strong and persistent, because some ninety years later Menzan Zuihō 面山瑞方 (1687-1763) complained in his set of questions and answers about ordinations Tokudo wakumon 得度 或問 (1763) that most Sōtō monks were doing Ōbaku style ordinations with too many rules and ceremonies, unlike the proper Zen ordination, by which he meant the ordination passed down in his own lineage (S-Zenkai). The crucial point here is that the example of the elaborate Ōbaku ceremonies led first to imitation and then to serious research on the part of Sōtō monks into what their own lineage had to say on the subject, and they found (apparently rather to their surprise) that Dōgen held that only his unprecedented set of sixteen precepts was necessary. It was only after unearthing previously obscure manuscripts and a great deal of wrangling that this conclusion was reached, but my point here is that it was apparently due to the powerful example offered by Ōbaku that they began this research. It was not until the nineteenth century that the position that Sōtō Zen has its own special precepts came to be fully accepted.

Back to the Sources: The Development of the Sōtō Precepts

The following discussion of the Sōtō response to this challenge draws on overview articles which are not further cited, in addition to the sources cited below (Kagamishima 1961, 1980; Watanabe 1993). The first major work of the Sōtō reform movement concerned with precepts was the Taikaku kanwa 對客閑話 , written by Dōhaku and published in 1715 at the end of his life (S-Zenkai). In this text he claimed that his position came directly from his teacher, Gesshū (the abbot of Daijōji mentioned earlier), who delivered many public lectures on the topic and administered precepts in what he described as the proper manner of the direct tradition of Ju-ching and Dōgen. Dōhaku maintained that the correct precepts for Zen, for which the term zenkai 禪戒 was now being used (Dōgen did not use this term), were the one mind precepts ( isshinkai 一心戒). These had been transmitted to China by Bodhidharma and then to Japan by Saichō, as part of his Zen lineage (which he received as well as his Tendai lineage). Dōhaku maintained that this lineage of precepts, despite the different name, had the same content as the Tendai perfect-sudden precepts ( endonkai 圓頓戒). Dōhaku also held that both Rinzai and Sōtō lineages originally had the same Zen precepts, but the ceremony and precepts were lost in China sometime after Dōgen returned to Japan, which explains why the contemporary Ōbaku Zen monks do not follow this form.

Before discussing the responses to Dōhaku's (very problematic) views, it is appropriate to lay out the background for his arguments concerning the relationship between Zen precepts and Tendai, since this is the key point upon which years of dispute rests (Bodiford 1992; Bodiford 1999). Dōhaku was arguing from passages coming at the end of the Denjutsu isshinkai mon which was written around 833 by Saichō's student Kōjō (779-858) who was defending the new usage of precepts under Saichō (T 78#2379; Groner 1984, 292-298). This text mentioned Bodhidharma in connection with something called the one-vehicle precepts ( ichijōkai 一乘戒), the meaning of which was not explained. The text also referred to the bodhisattva precepts of the Brahmā's Net Sūtra as the one mind precepts. Neither of these terms figure in later Tendai precepts discussions, and in fact Bodhidharma and the Zen lineage were of little importance to Kōjō's arguments. Kōjō took the step (which Saichō did not), of entirely doing away with the full precepts even in a provisional manner, and claimed that the one-vehicle vehicle precepts allow one to dispense entirely with the other precepts. Kōjō also equated precepts with the mind which perceives things as they are ( jissōshin 實相心). This led in turn to the position that receiving the precepts entails mastery of meditation and wisdom, and thus entry into the ranks of the Buddhas.

For Kōjō, the details of following the precepts were of little importance (unlike Saichō who continued to emphasize strict adherence). Kōjō's arguments are a pastiche of quotations from Chinese writers, mostly of the T'ien-t'ai lineage, but he arrived at his own conclusions. In short, compared to Kōjō, Saichō himself was relatively conservative in that he retained more of the forms of the precepts and he emphasized their place in practice as leading toward (but not encompassing) the goal. The same differences (between Kōjō and his teacher) were still to be seen in the two sides of the precepts dispute in Sōtō of the mid Edo period. Despite strong arguments for a more conservative position, in the end the more radical position (which was apparently closer to Dōgen) prevailed. Thus zenkai in Japan continued to mean much more than simply precepts which are observed by monks of the Zen lineage. The mainstream Sōtō lineage view came to be that to receive the precepts was to enter the lineage of the Buddha, and without further endeavor to be ritually transformed to the status of the Buddhas and ancestors.

To return to Dōhaku, his position was not accepted at the time by everyone even within Sōtō. It was roundly denounced in every aspect by Sekiun Yūsen 石雲融仙 (1677-?), a student of Dokuan Genkō 獨菴玄光 (1630-1698), who had been Dōhaku's great ally in the reform movement. Sekiun's position was much closer to the standard Chinese view, which might be explained at least in part by the fact that his teacher, Dokuan, was so close to Yin-yüan's predecessor in Nagasaki, Tao-che Ch'ao-yüan 道者超元 (1602-1662), that Dokuan was entrusted with the Chinese master's ritual implements (symbolizing his teaching authority) when he returned to China in 1658. Despite the friendship of his teacher with Dōhaku, in Sekiun's Sōrin yakuju , printed in 1719, he followed the Chinese model of precepts (that is, no special precepts for Zen), and emphasized the importance of following the precepts as an integral part of progress on the path (S-Zenkai). Sekiun was a Sōtō monk but he later took full precepts with a Shingon monk who was involved in the precepts revival of Shingon. Sekiun quite correctly wrote that Dōhaku's assertion about Zen precepts being lost was untenable in view of the fact that the standard pure rules texts clearly indicate that the full precepts are to be administered, followed by bodhisattva precepts.

Another major Sōtō figure of this time, Tenkei Denson 天桂傳尊 (1648-1753), also took full precepts from the same lineage of Shingon teachers and held the same basic position as Sekiun. However, even Tenkei's own lineage did not continue to support this position, and Genrō Ōryū 玄樓奧龍 (1720-1813) though a member of the Tenkei lineage argued in his Ittsui saiga for using only Dōgen's precepts (ZS-Shitchū).

Menzan's Middle Way

Menzan is arguably the most influential, and certainly the most learned and prolific writer of the Sōtō reformers of this era. He grew up amid Sōtō priests who were strongly influenced by Ōbaku, but he never took their precepts and spent much of his life trying to eliminate Ōbaku influence which he regarded as deviations from Dōgen and hence improper for his vision of a reformed Sōtō school. Menzan presided over assemblies in which he lectured on the precepts and conferred the precepts upon hundreds of people who had assembled for that purpose. In his major work on the precepts, Busso shōden daikaiketsu 佛祖正傳大戒訣 (1724), Menzan asserted that the procedure which Dōgen received from Ju-ching was to administer the novice precepts ( shamikai 沙彌戒 ), followed by the bodhisattva precepts, and that the full precepts had never in the lineage of Ju-ching (S-Zenkai, 87-88). The precepts are also to be given a second time, with full explanation in the abbot's room, when dharma transmission is given. Menzan relied on the Busso shōden bosatsukai kyōju kaimon and the Busso shōden bosatsukai sahō mentioned above as the source of the modern consensus on Dōgen's precepts. Menzan also used, however, another much more problematic text that he had previously collated from various manuscripts, the Eihei Soshi tokudo ryaku sahō 永平祖師得度略作法 (1744), also known as the Shukke ryaku sahō mon (D 2:272-278). In 1744 Menzan published this text as Dōgen's instructions for ordination, but now it seems unlikely that the text can be accepted as coming from Dōgen. It has a different series of precepts than the other texts mentioned above and there are several different extant manuscript versions with different content, none of them are earlier than the fifteenth century (S-Kaidai 100; Bodiford 1993, 272; Kagamishima 1980, 177).

Menzan explained in his Tokudo wakumon that the novice precepts were a necessary part of the ordination of monks because the bodhisattva precepts were concerned with the mind of awakening, not with the rules of proper conduct for monks (S-Zenkai 191-192). It is also noteworthy that Menzan refers to Eisai for authority for his assertion of the importance of upholding (not just receiving) the precepts (194). He also addresses the problem of to what degree Dōgen is following the Ch'an-yüan ch'ing-kuei (193-194). As Menzan and everyone else had come to recognize, Dōgen had not explicitly directed that the novice precepts should be taken. In the “Jukai” chapter, Dōgen quoted the Ch'an-yüan ch'ing-kuei for his authority, as usual, but he ignored (even though he correctly quoted it) the part about taking the novice and full precepts (D 1:619; Kagamishima, Satō, and Kosaka 1972, 13). Dōgen's extended discussion and detailed list of precepts is only concerned with the (now standard in Sōtō) set of sixteen, inexplicably ignoring the other precepts in the passage he just quoted. Menzan's position was that Dōgen assumed that no further detail was necessary and that the precepts would be taken as usual. This was soon contested by Gyakusui Tōryū 逆水洞流 (1684-1766) of Dōhaku's lineage. In his Tokudo wakumon bengishō 得 度或問辨儀章 (1755), he claimed that there was a transmission from Jakuen (who was Chinese) which included the novice precepts and that Menzan mistook this Jakuen lineage ceremony for Dōgen's (ZS-Zenkai). At all events, unless further manuscripts come to light, the question of the authenticity of this Eihei Soshi tokudo ryaku sahō edition is doubtful, and on the basis of current evidence, it seems that in this case Menzan was following the general Buddhist tradition more closely than he was following Dōgen's teachings.

Meaning of Precepts

Up until this point, I have been concentrating on what the proper list of precept should be, and ignoring what role receiving the precepts plays in the life of practice, whether of the laity or clerics. In mainstream Chinese Buddhism, and also in Eisai's writings (for example), the precepts are an all-important part, but only a part, of Buddhist practice. They are the crucial initial step upon which the later practices of meditation and wisdom depend. The other viewpoint holds that taking the precepts in some sense completes practice, which is what came to be the Sōtō position under the name of the unity of Zen and the precepts ( zenkai itchi 禪戒一致 ). This view is very similar to the Tendai notion that precepts are expressions of innate Buddha nature. The roots of this idea date back to the time of Saichō and his student Kōjō as discussed above, and were developed in the later Tendai tradition until in Dōgen's time there are discussions of the precepts as the way to immediately realize Buddhahood, indeed a way superior to meditation (Stone 1999, 126-128). This view is also seen in Zenkaiki 禪戒規 (1325) by the celebrated Rinzai monk Kokan Shiren 虎關師錬 (1278-1346)(Bodiford 1999; TK v7). Although something like this notion can be seen as early as in the Platform Sūtra , the idea becomes of central concern to Sōtō school writers in the Edo period, who tend to equate the formless precepts of the Platform Sūtra with their current Zen precepts, as seen for example in the Jakushū Eifuku Oshō sekkai 若州永福和尚説 (1752) of Menzan (S-Zenkai 143). That is not to say however that this was a new idea in Sōtō: from the thirteenth century onwards precepts were used to ordain lay people and even ghosts, who were thereby transformed without the need for further cultivation (Bodiford 1993, 172). Despite its long pedigree, this use of precepts as a kind of initiation into a sacred lineage conveying immediate results (instead of precepts as either rules to follow or a change of status opening the opportunity for practice) was still controversial. In the Tokugawa period Sōtō writers were sharply divided on the question of whether to understand the precepts as this kind of initiation which entailed immediate results or as the basis of beginning to practice.

Although Dōhaku championed Dōgen's unique way, he did not hold the position of the unity of Zen and the precepts. He maintained that precepts were in a secondary position to Zen, that is to say they were a necessary condition but not in themselves the ultimate, and Menzan held largely the same view. In general, Menzan took the position that as important as it was to take the precepts, the taking was a confirmation of practice, not its completion. Menzan's general attitudes are plainly laid out in his Jakushū Eifuku Oshō sekkai mentioned above, which are his lectures delivered in 1752 during a seven day precepts assembly attended by six hundred people, including monks and male and female laity (S-Zenkai). Although he refers the audience to his recently printed Busso shōden daikai ketsu for the detailed evidence, he emphasizes very clearly that for all their importance, the precepts are only one of the three main parts of the triad of precepts, meditation and wisdom, likening them to the three legs of a pot (143). Menzan also emphasizes that the ceremony for monks should not be confused with the precepts assembly ceremony which is for both monks and laity of both sexes (174-175). Further, the conferring of precepts ( jukai 授 戒 ) as done in these ceremonies should not be confused with the transmission of precepts ( denkai 傳戒 ), done only in the private dharma transmission ceremony. Contrary to the tendency seen in the medieval precepts assemblies where it was believed that to receive the precepts was to attain Buddhahood, Menzan emphasizes the different uses of the precepts for the two groups of people.

After Menzan, however, the trend was strongly toward the unity of Zen and precepts, following the research of Banjin Dōtan 萬仞道坦 (1698-1775) into the the Bonmōkyōryakushō 梵網經略抄 (1309)written in the first generation after Dōgen (S-Chūkai-2). This all-important text explains Dōgen's Busso shōden kyōjukaimon in terms that make it clear that Dōgen's regarded the precepts as not being bound by textual details and moral prescriptions but entailed awakening itself (Bodiford 1993, 171-173). Banjin claimed on the basis of his reading of this commentary that Dōgen's view was that taking the precepts entailed Buddhahood and that both Zen and the precepts were the eye of the true dharma. The question of following the precepts is of little importance; it is the taking of the precepts, the ceremony, which confers the transcendent benefit. For Banjin, the transmission from the Buddha himself to Mahākāśapa was the basis for authority in the question of precepts, not Bodhidharma much less any texts of mainstream Buddhism. Banjin's key work is the Busso shōden zenkaishō 佛祖正傳禪戒鈔 (1758), which opens with an unusual list of rules, specifying that it is not to be shown outside of the group and so forth, and ends with the admonition that the blocks from which it was printed must be destroyed after fifteen years (S-Zenkai, 455). The preface opens with the statement that Zen and Precepts are but two names for the true teaching passed down from the Tathagata to our school. The content is simply parts of the Ryakushō that explain Dōgen's Kyōju kaimon , leaving out the parts which discuss the remaining forty-eight precepts of the Brahma Net Sūtra . Despite the opening prohibitions and the fact that it only a selection from a text which itself was a commentary, it was chosen to be included in the Taishō canon (T 82#2601).

The Modern Zen Precepts Assembly at Eiheiji

This transcendental view of the precepts as the text of an initiation or consecration ceremony is the view that came to prevail in Japanese Sōtō. I will skip over the intervening developments, and how this understanding was propagated in the modern era via the Shushōgi (Heine, 2003). I will turn now to describing what happened this April at the annual precepts assembly at Eiheiji, the temple most closely identified with Dōgen. For this portion of the paper I will describe events primarily from the point of view of an ordinary lay participant, bringing in comments from other participants and my own observations as a lay participant.

The precepts assembly held every year at Eiheiji lasts one full week, but in other respects is utterly different from the assemblies held by Ōbaku leaders in the seventeenth century. The precept list is the group of sixteen as taught by Dōgen, and the event is open to participants, living or dead, with very little restriction. Yes, the deceased can participate by proxy, and receive a lineage chart just as if they had been there. This year some one hundred and ninety people came, of which nearly two thirds were women. The majority of people were in their fifties and above, but the ages ranged from nineteen to seventy-seven. Most of the participants were from Sōtō temple lay families, but there were also people who were from other Buddhist denominations and at least one young man who professed no religion other than searching for meaning. For many people this is not the first time to attend a precepts assembly, and a significant minority come every year either to Eiheiji or to another Sōtō precepts assembly. Attendance is arranged by a simple application and the fee is an extremely modest $350 (all inclusive for the week), payable in cash at the reception hall.

The ordinands ( kaishi 戒弟 ) live together for the week in one room, divided roughly in half with the men on one side and the women on the other, leaving a wide gap in the middle. For sleeping, this means that there is exactly one tatami mat per person, with the mats on all four side occupied with fellow ordinands. Earplugs are highly recommended. All personal belongings are kept in rough wooden shelves around the edges of the hall. There is one toilet facility immediately adjacent shared by both men and women. The only concession to modesty was a small temporary hut to be used by women (only) for changing clothes.

This same hall is used not only for sleeping, but also for eating, and for many of the lectures given to the ordinands. All of the necessary arrangements of the room for meals, sleeping and ceremonies, as well as meal clean up, are done not by the ordinands, but by the young monks in training, the members of the great assembly ( daishū 大衆 ), who are living in the nearby training hall. Their usual routine is to eat, sleep, and meditate in one hall, the monks hall ( sōdō 僧道 ), not unlike what the ordinands do during this week. At 9 pm, when the ordinands return from their final evening lecture (held in a nearby modern Japanese style tatami room), the hall has been paved with sleeping mats and pillows. The ordinands file into the room in a parallel row of men and women and simply take the bed position they stop at. When everyone has found their place for the night, we are released to affix our sheet and pillow case. After arising before 3 am, we go to another hall for morning meditation, and the bedding is put away by the monks.

This same hall, where we sleep, eat, and have our piles of personal stuff is the dharma hall ( hattō 法堂 ), the main ceremonial hall of this most famous of Japanese training temples. This means that we get to see the daily round of ceremonies of the notables of the Sōtō school and that we (and our disorderly stacks of junk) get to be seen by the unceasing flow of tourists in their Sunday best or their latest hip-hop grunge. The center of the room is an enormous main altar, behind which are the ashes of Dōgen, and it is this altar which is the focus of the week's activities, both for the ordinands and the monks, as well as the tourists, for whom space is somehow made in the already full hall. The one hundred and thirty monks in training of course have to participate in some of the daily services, but most of their time is devoted to looking after the needs of the ordinands, meaning they have to get up even earlier than usual. There is an approximately equal number of more senior clerics who are in some way or other teaching or taking care of the ordinands, which means there there is at least two hosts for each guest. This is all taking place in the midst of the usual river of visitors to Eiheiji. It is not exactly a time of quiet retreat, but the ordinands display an impressive degree of quite discipline and attentiveness.

The daily routine begins with a 2:50 am wake-up followed by a twenty minute period of seated meditation, most of which time is taken up with explanations about how to do meditation. Most of the day is spent in the four different ways discussed below. There are talks by either the Precepts Explaining Teacher ( sekkaishi 説戒師 ) or by an invited cleric flown in for the day from as far away as Hokkaido. Although the talks were ostensibly concerned with the precepts, in fact they were mostly some variety of uplifting popular light stories with occasional Buddhist homilies and a brief summary of the life of Dōgen. Almost nothing was presented about the meaning of the ceremonies or about how to follow the precepts. Much of the remaining time is spent watching and chanting along with the usual liturgy of the dharma hall, seated along the edges. A few of the ordinands know the chants, most of them do not even try to follow along in the handbook that was presented to each at the reception area. Several times each day there is group practice in the Sōtō slow melodic chanting ( baika ryūei sanka 梅花流詠讃歌 ) which has become very popular among some Sōtō groups. We worked hard and long to learn the "Hymn to Receiving the Precepts" ( Ojukai gowasan 御受戒御和讃 ), led by young clerics who were very skilled. This is one activity where real training took place. To round out these events, all of which took place seated upon the hard tatami mats (no cushions were provided), twice a day for some twenty minutes the ordinands were led in a very slow procession around Eiheiji chanting (in baika style) "Homage to the original teacher Śākyamuni the Tathāgata" ( namu honshi shaka nyorai 南無本師釈迦如來 ). These four activities left time only for eating and a daily afternoon bath.

For the ordinands as well as the other people living and visiting Eiheiji, the focus of attention is Abbot Miyazaki, universally referred to simply as Zen Master ( Zenji sama 禪 師樣 ). He is one hundred and four years old and is rolled into the hall in an elaborate wheel chair, from which he conducts most ceremonies. He speaks slowly and softly, but with the aid of a splendid sound system he is quite audible throughout the hall. He gives short talks of up to ten minutes in the dharma hall, usually speaking to the ordinands about the meaning of what they are doing. For these talks no one is nodding off; the group is silent and still. He teaches that Zen and the precepts are one and the same and that to receive the precepts is to become a Buddha. And in the ceremonies of the last two days, he repeats this message again and again.

The evening of the next to the last full day is the repentance ceremony ( sangeshiki 懺悔式 ), for which the women make themselves up and dress in the formal clothes they have been holding in reserve. The ordinands are assembled in the dharma hall, joined by the one hundred and thirty monks in training, who will also be receiving the precepts. The hall has been completely curtained off with red cloth forming an enclosed space around the altar with a pathway to an adjoining room. The ordinands (now numbering over three hundred) are instructed in the procedure and then led in single file, in the careful order of the names in the registry, into a room adjoining the dharma hall. The entire route is lined with red cloth and dimly lit, in part with real candles. As each ordinand approachs the abbot, who is surrounded by all the major teachers of the assembly, he is handed a small slip of paper upon which is written "minor infractions are endless" ( shōzai muryō 小 罪無量 ) which he then hands to the abbot, as the ordinand chants this same phrase. This is the one time that the ordinand is required to give a solo performance. The slip of paper is added to the growing mound in front of the abbot.

After all the ordinands have made this acknowledgement of their transgressions to the abbot and reassembled in the dharma hall, the abbot returns in slow procession and climbs up onto the altar, assisted, but not carried by his attendants. The register conaining the name of the ordinands is burned before he abbot in a brazier, the teachers stirring carefully with long chopsticks to be sure all is consumed in the fire. The abbot tells us that our transgressions have been entrusted to him and that he warrents, with his full authority, that those transgressions have been consumed in this fire.

The quiet and solemn nature of the ceremony is suddenly broken by very loud chants, ringing of hand bells and shaking of staves as the assembly of clerics form a circle and circumambulate the assembly of ordinands. They stop every twenty paces or so and bow to the ordinands in the center, then take off again at a clip chanting loudly "Homage to the Original Teacher Śākyamuni Buddha" ( namu honshi shakamuni butsu 南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 ).The contrast with the solemn stillness that prevailed up until now is startling and people are clearly very moved. Several of the ordinands tell me that they feel a great weight has been taken from them by the ceremony and the abbot having taking responsibility for their transgressions.

The follow morning the abbot tells us that we have become Buddha ( jōbutsu 成仏 ) due to the connection made in this ceremony, and that he never tires of the great joy of this occasion.The morning lecture includes for the first time a few details about the precepts to a very tired but happy group of ordinands of which perhaps half are basically asleep.The mood of the group is indeed as if a cloud has been lifted. People are very cheerful and chat animatedly in the breaks for the first time. As before, people dress in their best for the final evening ceremony, the receiving of the precepts along with the lineage certificate ( kechimyaku 血脈 ) containing their Buddhist name. For those who have already participated in such a ceremony, their previous precept name ( kaimyō 戒 名 ) is used, but for others, the abbot selects a name.

The central altar is again partitioned off with red curtains and we are again presented to the abbot in the order of the name registry, separated into the usual four groups of male and female, cleric or lay. After much preliminary ceremonials, the ordinands approach the abbot who is seated upon the altar with two brushes which he dips in water and then annoints the heads of the ordinands, two at a time, leaning down from his position upon the altar. When we all have been annoited, the abbot recites the precepts, and after each group the ordinands recited together "I will preserve them well." At the end of this part the abbot tells the ordinands that from now on we begin again, living as a Buddha, and that somehow we keep the precepts even if we do not keep them.

The next action by the ordinands is to ascend to the center of the altar, in groups of thirty. The main teachers of the ceremony circumambulate each group while shaking their staff and chanting that we have entered the rank of the the Buddhas, a position equal to that of the great awakening. After this has been done for each group, the ordinands approach the altar and received their certificate, wrapped in a paper binder with their secular name on the outside. After a formal display of the lineage chart which all have just received, the ordinands repair to a nearby room where the certificates for the deceased ordinands ( mōkai 亡戒 ) are distributed to those who have arranged to have this done for their departed relatives. About one third of the participants have arranged for this. To everyone's evident relief we are told we can sleep in (until 3:40 am), which is good, because everyone is so excited and talkative that is is some time before sleep descends.

After the usual services and a round of formal thanks, the assembly is dissolved and people return to their homes with an invitation to come back again as many times as they like. This ceremony clearly follows the line of thought which flows from Banjin's teaching. The ceremony itself is a complete religious event, one which can be repeated, and yet one from which there can be no retreat, no defeat. Although the manual which was distrubed to everyone at the beginning clearly says that to receive the precepts is to become a disciple of the Buddha, the ordinands have themselves become Buddha. They go forth in a new life, unburdened by either their past transgression or the concern of trying to live up to a new standard.

North American Sōtō Zen Precept Assemblies

As might be expected, the Sōtō Mission temples in North America have precepts assemblies that follow closely the official head temple model. In 2003, Zenshūji in Los Angeles held a five day event that followed the same basic schedule as Eiheiji. According to the manual prepared for the occasion the rituals included baika chanting, burning of the registry of names and ascending the altar.

There are a number of independent Sōtō lineages that have developed in North America, and here I will be concerned with the lineage founded by Suzuki Shunryū in San Francisco. In his lectures about the precepts Suzuki followed the official Sōtō teaching. "When I say precepts, what you will think of is something like Ten Commandments or grave prohibitory precepts. But Zen precepts are not like that. To start with, Zen precepts means to understand zazen. So another interpretation of zazen is precepts."(Suzuki Shunryū 1971) The ceremony of receiving the precepts evolved however, into a practice that emphases the precepts as an aid to deepening ones commitment and expressing ones intention to follow a more Buddhist style of life. In this aspect the American Sōtō style is much closer to the practice advocated by Menzan and other more mainstream thinkers of the Tokugawa. The belief that we are already Buddha is acknowledged in the beginning of the ceremony with the phrase "In faith that we are Buddha we enter Buddha's Way", but the focus is on the meaning of the precepts and on how to follow them.

For American Sōtō Buddhists, who are seldom born into a Buddhist family with ties to a particular lineage, receiving the precepts has become more like a rite of passage. Students must first develop some kind personal relationship with a Zen teacher, and receive their permission to participate in a precepts ceremony. They must also sew their own miniature version of Buddha's robe worn hung from the neck ( ryakusu 絡子 ). This does not play a role in the mainstream Eiheiji Japanese ceremony, though other Japanese Sōtō groups follow a similar practice (Riggs 2004). Before the ceremony takes place the ordinands are expected to attend classes about the precepts and to deepen their understanding and commitment. These preparations usually take several months, though it can be even longer. The precepts assembly itself is very short, usually done in one hour or so, though it may be held at the same time as another event, such as a weekend mediation retreat. The elaborate repentance and burning of the registry is compressed into a simple recitation of the repentance verse ( sangemon 懺悔文 ), used in everyday ritual. The elaborate ritual preparations of the site mandated by the Japanese Sōtō school are absent. The repentance verse is immediately followed by the receiving of the precepts and then the ordinands are presented with both their lineage certificate (as at Eiheiji) and also with the rakusu they have sewn, which has now been inscribed with their Buddhist name. There is no mounting of the altar nor is there provision for ordination being received by the deceased.

Much of the differences can be attribute to vastly different social conditions in the two countries, but it is also striking that the American ceremony lacks the emphasis on becoming a Buddha at the conclusion of the ceremony. In addition, there is no expectation of doing the ceremony more than once as a confirmation of commitment or as a religious exercise. Just as the set of precepts used by Dōgen is both old and new, so the San Francisco Zen Center precepts practice makes something quite new out of very old elements.

References Cited

Abbreviations Used

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