Someone asked, “Although fame and profit are difficult to give up, since pursuing them is a great obstruction to practicing the Way, they should be abandoned. Hence, I gave them up. Although clothing and food are minor things, they are big matters for practitioners. Wearing clothes made of abandoned rags and begging for food are the practices of superior people. Moreover, that has been the custom in India. The monasteries in China have permanent property belonging to the community, so they do not need to worry about such things. However, the temples in this country have no such property and the practice of begging has not been transmitted at all. What should inferior people like me who cannot endure such practice do? If someone like me tries to gather alms from lay believers, he will be committing a sin by receiving a donation without having virtue. Earning one’s living as a farmer, merchant, warrior, or craftsman is an improper way of life for a monk. And, if I leave everything to fate, I will remain very poor as a result of inferior karma. When I suffer from hunger or am benumbed by the cold, I will be troubled and my practice will be hindered.It always amazes me how the thoughts and concerns of 13th Century Japanese monks sound so contemporary and so like our thoughts and concerns today. The exchange above occurred sometime around the year 1243 (give or take 10 years), and the questioner is asking how in his time and culture could one follow the style of practice taught by the Buddha and followed by the early sangha? I still hear the same question today. I still ask myself the same question today.
Someone advised me saying, ‘Your way of practice is extreme. You don’t understand this age and do not reflect upon your capability. Our nature is inferior and this is the degenerate-age. If you continue to practice in such a way, it will become a cause of backsliding from the Way. Seek the support of some patron, take care of your body by living in a quiet place without worrying about food or clothing, and practice the Buddha Way peacefully. This is not greed for property or belongings. You should practice after having provided for your temporal means of livelihood.’
Although I listened to his advice, I do not yet believe it. How should we consider these things?”
Dogen replied, “Just study carefully the conduct of Zen monks, along with the lifestyle of the buddhas and patriarchs. Although the customs of the three countries are different, those who truly study the Way have never practiced in the manner you have described. Just do not be attached to worldly affairs but study the Way in a straightforward manner.”
The Buddha said, “Do not keep anything except robes and a bowl. Give away any extra food you have received through begging to hungry living beings.”
Do not store up even what you have been given, nor run around searching for things. In a non-Buddhist text it is said that if we learn the Way in the morning we should not mind dying in the evening. Even if we might die of cold or starvation, we should follow the Buddha’s teaching if only for one day or one hour.
In ten thousand kalpas and thousands of lives, how many times are we born and how many times do we die? This cycle of lives is samsara, caused only by blind clinging to worldly affairs. To die of starvation following the Buddha’s teachings for this one life brings about eternal peace and joy (Nirvana). Moreover, I have never read in the collection of all the Buddhist sutras of a single buddha or patriarch who transmitted the dharma in the three countries, dying of starvation or cold. In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it. If you refrain from arousing bodhi-mind in this life, excusing yourself on the grounds that this is the degenerate-age, in what life will it be possible to attain the Way?
Even if you are not as superior as Shubhuti or Mahakashapa, you should practice to your fullest capability. In a non-Buddhist text it is said that a man who loves women will do so even though they might not be as beautiful as Mosho or Seishi, and that a person who admires horses will do likewise even if they are not as great as Hito or Rokuji. One who likes the taste (of food) will like (whatever it might be), regardless of whether or not it is as delicious as dragon’s liver or phoenix marrow. We simply have to use as much wisdom as we possess. Even laymen have this attitude. Buddhist practitioners must be like this.
Moreover, the Buddha offered twenty years of his life to us living in this degenerate-age. Consequently, the offerings and support by human and heavenly beings to the monasteries in this world have not ceased. Though the Tathagata had mighty powers and virtues and was able to use them at will, he spent a summer practice period eating wheat used for horse fodder. How can his disciples today help but look up to this example?
Followers of the Buddha in 5th Century BC India left their home and family to follow the Buddha full time. They had no home, they wore the discarded scraps of the clothes of the dead found at cemeteries and crematoriums, and they daily begged for their food. The Buddha put great value in this way of life. But begging, or as we call it now, "panhandling," is illegal in our culture and I would probably spend much of my time on line at soup kitchens waiting for food, and if I tried to wear the clothes of the dead, I would be arrested for grave robbing. Even if the police tolerated my lifestyle, I would not likely be able to spread the dharma to others and fulfill my bodhisattva vows if I were a homeless person living on the streets, a perceived burden on society. Who would listen to someone like that?
In China, Buddhism was practiced in communal monasteries. In these monasteries, land and other things were owned by the monastery since the monks worked to support themselves. Later on, as Buddhism became institutionalized in China, the monasteries were supported by the Emperor, the government, or the nobility, who endowed them with the necessary things. Therefore, the monks merely had to retreat from the lay world and rely on the monastery for their Maslovian needs.
The Japanese questioner is asking Dogen how, since Japanese monasteries were not institutionalized and endowed like those of China, should one practice, since the mendicant lifestyle was, like now, not tolerated then?
Dogen's reply was basically not to worry about the practices of the past, although they should be studied and respected, but to just practice the Way in a straight-forward, whole-hearted manner according to the ways and means available, and not be attached to worldly affairs.
It seems that the main difference (for the purposes of this discussion) between the feudal Japanese and contemporary Western society is that back then, the choice seemed to be between a monastic life of practice or a layperson's life of no practice at all. Today, although there still is a monastic tradition, a Middle Way has emerged of lay life with practice. The trick is just to not be attached to the worldly, material things, even as one is surrounded by them.
That's the koan for our time, and the dharma barrier/dharma gate through which we laypersons have to pass.