Rev. Master Haryo Young
(This is based on a transcription of a talk given at the Lay Ministers’ retreat at Shasta Abbey in 2017 and was recently published in the Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.)
[Rev. Master Haryo asks] “Would someone get me some water, please?” [A glass of water is brought]. “Hmm… I asked for just water, not a glass as well. Please give me just the water – in my hand.” (Water is poured into Rev. Master Haryo’s open hand, spilling onto the floor). “Oh dear, we are losing most of it, let me give you some back.” [Most is gone, there is little to pass back. After a quick cleaning up, the talk continues.]
Now that I’ve got your attention, the point I was trying to make is that even the purest of water needs a vessel to transport it. I’ve often heard people say “I’m spiritual but not religious”, and that they aren’t interested in the form, or formality. If Rev. Master Jiyu’s teacher had lived elsewhere, rather than at Soji-ji, where they had been evolving a form over hundreds of years, would she have met him? Would she have been able to pass on the teaching that she has? It’s a question.
Forms aid in the perpetuation and transmission of what the form is about, what the form is pointing to; the contents of the vessel, which is the important thing. Everyone has forms, things we do or don’t do depending on our culture. We stop at a stop light – that’s a form. We have hairstyles, or lack thereof, and that’s a form. Fashion is a form. We can’t escape forms. And as human beings we like forms. We appreciate stability. We don’t like things changing underneath our feet. We tend to like to know what’s ahead; we don’t like surprises. We don’t like to feel out of place; we like to fit in, not stick out. Forms – how we do certain things that are familiar and that we can come back to with others – help that aspect of our humanity.
Forms also interact with our human nature in positive ways – music can inspire us and draw things out of us that we might otherwise unknowingly keep under wraps. Forms can have inspiring beauty; this cup I’m holding has lotuses on it that may remind us of the liquid contents, but we don’t drink the cup. Yet it helps with the transmission of what is inside.
Form can reflect the processes that are going on within us when we practice. The Jukai ceremonies are a good example of that. Sange in particular is a very powerful ceremony given the concentration of the mind that happens with the procession and reciting the mantras. We have put aside guilt, judgement, dwelling on the past, worrying about the future; we are just there in the present with the mantra. And if conditions are ripe, the kwatz [a loud cry] can blow away the last bit of self involved in the process. The ceremony of Following where the Precepts Lead shows how to keep going through what comes in life, whether it be an easy road or a rocky climb.
So forms have a role. They are not an end in themselves, but are a skilful means. They point to something beyond themselves; something with which they are inextricably mixed. But there has to be a balance, that’s part of the skill of skill in means. The form itself is not magical. The Buddha cautioned against rites and rituals: but what he spoke against was not the rituals themselves, but the belief that just going through the motions could bring about purification without the effort within oneself to purify one’s heart and mind. For us what matters is how we do something more than what we do.
Within meditation we don’t do something mindlessly or distractedly, everything being a form of meditation. There’s no job that’s lower than another; everything is the work of a Buddha, although we tend to rate those people who appear to be more productive than we are as doing better training. But productivity can be an obsession, an expression of attachment, especially if it’s something we’re good at; a distraction from looking at something within that needs looking at, and a vehicle for self.
One of the things that happens in a monastery is that someone who’s good at something, or might have professional experience of it, is probably initially not put in a position where they can draw on that experience, just because of the potential for it becoming a further expression of self. So you may end up bumbling through things that you wish you didn’t have to do. Rev. Master Jiyu used to say that a monastery should never be too efficient! Which points to the fact that we’re not here for efficiency; we’re here to work on something; we’re here to work on ourselves. And I’ve seen over the years a few people who were really good at something get distracted by it, and go off, continuing to be really good at it, but no longer as a monk.
So the Sōtō way is just meditating throughout the day. There’s no real fundamental difference between sitting on your cushion or walking, or sweeping, or figuring out your income tax: it’s not limited to …[Continue Reading]