Issue 18;

At Home With What Is


Lay Practice My Experience - ‘Can You hear the Dharma on the Wind?’ - (Tenshin Reb Anderson Gaia House 2006)

By Michael Elsmere Kogan Muju

Soto Zen Lay Practice; Experiences, Questions and No Answers!

Firstly to place the subject in perspective. Lay practitioners have always been an important part of Buddhism. In legend this goes back to the time of the Buddha. The lay practitioner Vimalakirti was said to be as realized as the Buddha and recognized by Shakyamuni as an enlightened teacher. With this precedent was set the tradition of lay practice that has continued with many eminent lay teachers emerging over the centuries. In China the tradition and importance of lay practice was exemplified by Layman P’ang, his wife, and their daughter who were all realized Zen practitioners.   However although their is this occasional emphasis on the laity I infer from my reading that more often than not their practice was seen as having a lesser status than that of the monks. 

Despite the history of Zen in India, China, Japan and Korea with the emphasis on a monastic way of life for most of us this is not an option. How then are we as lay practitioners to aspire to Eihei Dogen’s advice of holding firm to Buddha, Dharma and sangha? Despite Zen having settled its roots in the west for little over 50 years there is still no widespread culture of monastic Zen especially in England. It often seems that by the time many of us awaken to the dharma we have other responsibilities in our lives. Despite this no system to fully support lay sanghas and lay training seems to have emerged. Yet there will always be a majority for whom practicing in daily life with families and colleagues is the only reasonable path. In my experience it appears that there are few, if any, templates or examples from the past that we can use to rectify this. It seems to be a classic case of ‘being a lamp unto ourselves’ as remarked by the Buddha himself.

Until a short time ago I often found myself yearning to be in a monastery. This understandably, I think, grew out of a perception that a monastic setting was the only place where I could be as deeply involved as I wanted to be, a place where the real ‘Buddhist professionals,’ were and where I could obtain teachings regularly! As stated above even though Zen has moved to the west its old eastern traditions still trail behind it! It is only recently that I have committed myself more fully to practicing in the place where I find myself right now. This is not to say that when I read of Practice Periods at Green Gulch and long retreats at Tassajara I do not have some moments of yearning! It is also clear that such periods of deep immersion are an important part of any lay practitioners life.

Another of my regrets although these days I try not to cling to it too tightly is that sometimes I have felt I needed a close relationship with a teacher who was accessible to me. Someone that is, who understood the day to day problems I was encountering in some detail and depth. This even though I recognise the great support and wisdom I have received from within Dancing Mountains and other sanghas. For most of my practice then I have not had a teacher present to whom I could go on this regular basis with questions and for teachings. My first teacher in Sweden was a pupil of Deshimaru and had trained for many years in Korea but only came to the community in which I lived twice a year for two months at a time. Tenshin Reb Anderson who I was inspired, even ‘electrified,’ by on a visit to Green Gulch in 2001 has only visited England annually. I realise that some would argue that a teacher does not need to be actually present.

It is certainly true that in some ineffable manner I have been supported by both Reb and Suzuki Roshi whose photograph on the back cover of an early edition of ‘Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind,’ opened up to me the vast and pure world of Soto Zen. Neither of them has been physically present in UK or, in the case of Suzuki, not in the physical realm at all! There is however little doubt that having an accessible teacher is one of the greatest treasures that lay practitioners could possess. The teacher/pupil relationship is often seen as being at the heart of practice. Indeed the Buddha declared that it was of greatest benefit to have a good teacher. In this respect the positive developments over the past four years in Dancing Mountains have been nourishing. In addition to Tenshin Reb Anderson we have directly experienced the dharma face to face with many fine teachers from our lineage and others and this trend continues to grow and blossom. Even as  I write  there are major retreats being planned in August (led by Ingen Breen) and a Rohatsu retreat 1st to 8th December co-led by Ingen Breen and Catherine Gammon whom it is a great delight to welcome to our shores once again. It does seem that after many years of practice my dream of having a teacher close by will be at least partly realised! But even as I attain this desirable situation another question I have long pondered arises. Should we in the future, in the absence of having a recognised teacher near, look to the possibility of having teachers who are also lay practitioners? But then there is the matter of protecting our lineage. Respect for lineage has protected the transmission of the Dharma from corruption and is perhaps essential to keep the blood line of the tradition pure and true. To do this it may be argued a long and perhaps arduous training that might take ten years or more mostly in a monastic setting is necessary. But in my view the danger is that this traditional defence might also contain within itself justifications for hierarchy, status and a certain elitism. There have been and continue to be examples of fine lay teachers in many other traditions, but in Zen the lineage has always been passed on through a monastic line. As stated above there are good practical reasons for this but does it need to continue in this fashion? Lay teachers would not necessarily be second- rate. Could lay practitioners perhaps under certain circumstances receive transmission when appropriate?  I recall the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-Neng. Although the legend relates that he was pounding rice in a monastery kitchen for many months, he received transmission when he was still a lay man and was not ordained until many years later. I have recently learned much about Tibetan Buddhism from a lay practitioner whose deep knowledge, pragmatic manner and long experience has given me considerable insight and a much better understanding and appreciation of this ancient tradition.

The digital revolution that has occurred over the last few years has also opened up bountiful other possibilities to receive the dharma. Teachings and teachers are available at the touch of a screen and a practitioner can hear them in any place or situation they wish. Whether teachings given under such conditions are as beneficial as those presented within the context of a sessin, retreat or zendo may be debatable but, I believe, this modern way of presenting the dharma is an invaluable resource for our world. The developments that are taking place at San Francisco Zen Center whereby ceremonies such as the Full Moon Ceremony are streamed will provide much needed support and inspiration for all lay practitioners.

 Whilst a teacher is seen as desirable to support our lay practice another essential is that of sangha. Dancing Mountain’s followers are spread out over the UK but the way that energy for practice has bubbled up in the various regions and then been utilised has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of our development over the past few years.

Sangha meetings which avoid dharma discussion/teaching/training out of a rigid respect for lineage can be superficial. Leadership within local sanghas may also be variable and as there are no defined guidelines laid down relating to the running and governance of such sanghas the potential for problems to arise is obvious. In the absence of a teacher who is deeply in touch the solutions to problems in such groups may be protracted, ignored or even denied to the detriment of all. Despite all this it is clear that Dancing Mountain’s local sangha groups are becoming a firm foundation for the wider sangha in the UK. Having a fully authorised teacher or lay teacher in close touch with each of these would, in my view, give them a strength, purpose and influence which they otherwise would not possess. If DM is to fully flower this thorny question of lay training should be discussed and debated.

It will probably be some years before we have the resources to found our own temple or practice place. Here we would have a space devoted to Soto Zen practice in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki  Roshi. This is  certainly part of my vision for DM. At a time of increasing environmental stress the costs and ethics of us or our teachers flying to and from U.S.A. might seem increasingly inappropriate.  Happily in the light of recent developments in DM I do see the possibility of having a permanent teacher here being realised. But what then? As our sangha develops, as I have faith it will, how do we offer teachings to a new generation of seekers? Will we of necessity have to found our own monastery so that our teachers can be trained here? Or is it time to “master the limitless approaches to the Dharma” and discover the capability to deliver teaching and training to the lay practitioner in novel ways that supersede the traditional and yet respect and protect it? Whatever the answer to these dilemmas as Eihei Dogen the founder of the Soto Zen Tradition taught “pure zazen must be practiced.”


In preparation for the writing of this article two articles one Lay Zen Buddhist Practice by Robert Aitken Roshi (27 April 2009) and another by Simon Child 1996 The New Chan Forum were most helpful.


Michael Elsmere

Kogan Muju


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