Markus in Finland recently sent me a link to this post in which Muho Roshi, the abbot of Antaiji temple in Japan criticizes me and then proceeds to praise himself for how much more of a bodhisattva he is than I am.
For those who don't know, Antaiji is famous mainly for being the temple that "Homeless" Kodo Sawaki and his student Kosho Uchiyama lived in. I've always been a little vague on this because Sawaki was known for being a master without a temple. Apparently he actually had a temple of his own, but he wasn't there most of the time because he traveled around the country leading retreats and teaching zazen as well as promoting the many books he wrote. Sawaki is my teacher Nishijima Roshi's biggest influence. Shunryu Suzki was also a big fan of Sawaki.
These days Antaiji is one of the few Japanese Zen temples that a foreign person can go and train in. Often when people ask me about training in a Japanese Zen temple, I refer them to Antaiji. A few people who have come to my Zen retreats and talks have taken the bait and gone out there.
All I know about Muho, other than what I just now gleaned from a quick skim of the Wikipedia entry on him, is that he's German. I'm not sure how he got to be the abbot of Antaiji. I've read a few of his pieces on-line and I always liked them. I believe it was Muho who first shed light on the hatchet job done on Kodo Sawaki by Brian Victoria in his book Zen At War. Muho pointed out a number of places where Victoria wildly mistranslated Sawaki to make him sound like he was a blood-thirsty promoter of the Japanese war effort in WWII. Sawaki was nothing of the sort and anyone who can read Japanese can read the pieces Victoria translated and easily see that Sawaki said nothing at all like what Victoria has him saying in his book.
Muho's criticism of me comes completely out of the blue as far as I can see. But judging by the piece Muho chose to write about, the man must be quite a follower of my writing. This is the kind of thing one could only find by conducting a pretty thorough search of stuff I've written. He chose to pick on something I wrote specifically to the group in Los Angeles that I used to sit with who had asked what it would take to get me to return there as a full time teacher for the group.
I thought about it for a very long time and came up with a list of conditions under which it would be feasible for me to do so. Apparently Muho thought the conditions I stipulated proved that I was not the kind, caring individual that he (Muho) is and he decided he'd better point that out.
The piece he criticized was not really intended for public consumption, although it was not in any way secret either. It was meant to point out to the folks who were asking me about this what I, as a guy who makes his living from writing books and lecturing, would need in order to lead a group in Los Angeles. I wanted the group to have realistic expectations as to what I could and could not do for them.
I have quite a bit of difficulty with what Americans call "setting boundaries." Very often when I am leading any kind of a group, certain people will take advantage of what a total push-over I am and monopolize my time. I decided that one way to remedy this and to be available to everyone fairly was to do what college professors do and have specific "office hours" during which I'd be available by appointment.
What I'm suggesting in the letter I wrote to the people in Los Angeles is an entirely new system very specifically tailored to my own personal life. It's completely different from what happens if one steps into an established temple with an established protocol and an established way of generating income. I'm not saying that's easy to do either. But most of the problems that my letter to the people in Los Angeles addresses are already solved if one has that kind of a temple.
Muho criticizes me for suggesting that I would not be available all the time for such a group in much the same way and for much the same reasons that Kodo Sawaki was not always available all the time for the regular attendees at Antaiji. I'm sorry, Muho, but if I were to make myself available 365 days a year at such a temple, I have no idea how I could earn my keep. And I'm pretty stubborn about earning my own keep.
FYI: Just in case the reaction to this piece becomes "Brad is planning to move back to Los Angeles and lead a group," I want to point out that I have no such plans at all. I am willing to discuss such a possibility if it becomes feasible. As of now, it is not feasible at all and there is no reason to believe it will become feasible any time soon.
ANYWAY, what bums me out most about Muho's piece is that it is so utterly disappointing. There are a small handful of people out there in the Zen world who take an attitude that goes something like, "You cannot be a real Zen teacher if you didn't become a Zen teacher the way I became a Zen teacher." This is completely missing the point of what it is to be a Zen teacher. Muho's sneering remarks about me make it clear that he holds that attitude.
It's pleasantly surprising to me that I encounter very little of this type of criticism. Most Zen teachers I know are very accepting of me, even though I didn't become a Zen teacher in what is now considered to be the standard way. I think most of them understand that what is commonly thought of as the "standard way" of becoming a Zen teacher is something that developed rather recently. Dogen never did zuise. Nor did Bodhidharma. Buddha himself never did either. Nor did any of these people suggest you had to. I'm unaware of Dogen ever recommending these steps either. The head monk ceremony and all of that stuff are, at best, from the late-medieval period. Many are very recent developments.
I'm hardly the only Zen teacher out there who has come by his Zen credentials in a non-standard way. Most of the teachers ordained by Kobun Chino Roshi were also ordained in non-standard ways, as were a lot of others. So I am not writing this just to defend myself.
Oddly enough, I can think of many situations in my association with Nishijima Roshi in which he placed me in much the same position as a ceremonially appointed "head student" and in which I did things that were sort of like zuise, though it was not at Eiheiji or Sojiji temples. Also my "training period" with him, though it was never called that, lasted about seven years, which would be pretty standard at a "real" temple. It involved, in an informal form, many of the same steps one would do ceremonially at a "real" temple.
Nishijima Roshi was not a fan of Soto-shu and its bureaucracy, organizational protocols, ceremonies and rituals. He didn't think it was necessary for a Zen teacher to be recognized by Soto-shu, even though he himself is. Dogen was never recognized by any such organization, nor were any of the great masters of the past. Organizations like Soto-shu arose much later and retroactively included the great masters of the past in their ranks. One wonders if Dogen would really have wanted to be seen as the founder of contemporary Soto-shu if he'd had any choice in the matter. I imagine he would not.
Having said that, I am aware that there need to be some kind of standards as to who is and is not a legitimate Zen teacher. Otherwise you get guys like "Zen Master Rama" claiming to be Zen teachers because they had a dream in which Buddha made them a Zen teacher or some such nonsense. But the basic standard is only that you have a legitimate lineage of a living Zen teacher who recognized your qualification to teach and who himself had a living Zen teacher, and so on for at least a few generations back. I have that. So does Muho. For that matter so, unfortunately, does Genpo Roshi. Which goes to show that this, in itself, doesn't mean everything. But it does mean something.
Still, I am very firm in my conviction that official recognition by the Soto-shu corporation of Japan is not a very good final criteria for what makes one a real Zen teacher. Muho seems to be concerned about the future of Western Zen. I sincerely hope he is not suggesting that recognition by the Soto-shu is the way to solve all of our problems.