Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's a "Shokai"?

To study the Way is to study the Self.
To study the Self is to study the names of the Self.
To study the names of the Self is to drive to Chattanooga with your Zen teacher while he shows you the manuscript from which your dharma name was selected.

Okay, so it's not quite Dogen, but it does summarize my experience today.

There was an initiation ceremony in Chattanooga for two new Zen Buddhists today, and Arthur, my Zen teacher (who's moving to Switzerland soon), and I drove up to officiate. Part of the initiation is the assignment of a dharma name. At my ceremony in 2002, I was given the name Shokai and told that it meant "state of accord." I wasn't told what it was supposed to be in accordance with, but since the -kai in Shokai sounded like the -kai in jukai (receiving of the precepts, part of the initiation ceremony), I assumed my new name meant "state of accordance with the precepts."

A word about the precepts: they sound like commandments - there's even a list of 10 "grave precepts" - but the Buddhist precepts are very different from Judeo-Christian commandments. The precepts aren't considered to be rules handed down from some divine being that must be obeyed in order to please Her, but are instead common-sense guidelines on how to live a life on the spiritual path. First, there are the three "pure precepts:"

  1. Not creating evil - do no harm.
  2. Practicing goodness - do only good.
  3. Purifying intentions - do good for others.
The three pure precepts are more positive that the "thou shalt nots" of the 10 Commandments. Additionally, they're sufficiently vague so that the practitioner has to use judgement in how to maintain them. However, the 10 grave precepts are more specific. The first five of the 10 grave precepts are given at the initiate's jukai ceremony:
  1. Affirm life - do not kill.
  2. Be giving - do not take what is not freely given.
  3. Honor the body - do not engage is sexual misconduct.
  4. Manifest truth - do not speak falsely.
  5. Proceed clearly - do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.
As you can see, they're expressed both in positive and negative terms - they tell you what to do and also what not to do. During the jukai ceremony, after the precepts are read to and repeated by the initiates, they are asked, "Will you observe these precepts until you realize Buddhahood?" In Zen, it is recognized that we observe the precepts by breaking them - not that we have a "licence to sin," but when we find ourselves, say, telling a lie, we may think, "Aha! I am not manifesting truth," and this realization allows us to right our conduct accordingly.

So, anyway, those are the precepts given by initiates. I had thought the name Shokai meant "State of Accord (with the precepts)," and although the roshi (Abbott) of our Center always insisted that I consider it to mean "State of Accord (with the teacher)," I stuck to my belief.

Until today. For today's ceremony in Chattanooga, Arthur had to select names for the two new initiates. He picked good ones: Shinkan ("Mind Gate") and Dojin ("Childlike Compassion"). But in going through his notes on the drive up, I found the notes from the older ceremonies, including those from my 2002 initiation. According to the notes, the meaning of "Shokai" can be found in the footnotes of Chapter 48 of the Nishijima translation of Zen Master Dogen's master work, Shobogenzo.

As soon as I got home, I looked up the chapter ("Expounding the Mind and Expounding the Nature") in Shobogenzo. According to note 14 on page 53, "sho-" means experience and "-kai" means pledge, promise, accord, or binding agreement. So according to Nishijima, "shokai" means "the state which is exactly the same as the state of Gautama Buddha."

I can always understand terms better when I hear them used in a sentence. In Chapter 16 ("The Certificate of Succession") of Shobogenzo, Dogen writes,

"Buddhas, without exception, receive the Dharma from buddhas, buddha-to-buddha, and patriarchs, without exception, receive the Dharma from patriarchs, patriarch-to-patriarch; this is experience of the Buddha's state [shokai], this is the one-to-one transmission, and for this reason it is the supreme state of bodhi."

So, the term Shokai refers neither to a state in accordance with the precepts nor to a state in accordance with the teachers, but instead to the direct experience of the Buddha's supreme state of wisdom (bodhi). Based on that, there is a big difference between the name and the one who carries the name. But then, dharma names are meant to be aspirational, something to live up to, big shoes to fill.

1 comment:

Mettai Cherry said...

If you are in accord with Bodhi, how can you not be in accord with the precepts or the teacher?