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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Rinzai Zen

Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism: Myoshinji, a Living Religion by Jorn Borup  (Numen Book Series:Brill Academic Publishers) Zen Buddhist ideas and practices in many ways are unique within the study of religion, and artists, poets and Buddhists practitioners worldwide have found inspiration from this tradition. Until recent years, representations of Zen Buddhism have focussed almost entirely on philosophical, historical or "spiritual" aspects. This book investigates the contemporary living reality of the largest Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhist group, Myöshinji. Drawing on textual studies and ethnographic fieldwork, Jørn Borup analyses how its practitioners use and understand their religion, how they practice their religiosity and how different kinds of Zen Buddhists (monks, nuns, priest, lay people) interact and define themselves within the religious organization. Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism portrays a living Zen Buddhism being both uniquely interesting and interestingly typical for common Buddhist and Japanese religiosity.

Excerpt: All writings, including academic ones, to a large extent mirror the writers' personal storytelling, itself being a reflection of social and intellectual contexts. Study and analysis is never absolutely objective, though academic ideals also within the study of religion can be upheld as such. Paradigms and academic turnings of the wheel are natural devices in relativizing milestones of truth, and the last couple of decades of post-Orientalist self-reflection, sometimes bordering on purgatory atonement, is only sound within the study of Buddhism too; and clarifying who wrote and thought what, inspiring whom, is an interesting part of the archaeology and sociology of knowledge within the network of describers writing and also constructing the stories of the others.'

When I first went to Japan, I was looking for Zen—the real Zen. Upon finding only its traces—e.g., the moon's reflections in the water—the decisive turn was to seek deeper, presuming that gems and true treasures never reveal themselves for surface riders and doubtful agnostics. Though never having really entered the way, academic insights the kind that in some Zen circles would be termed barriers led me to other hermeneutical struggles and new possible fields of merit. Speculating whether the real Zen of earlier Zen writers was actually more than invented traditions with a twist of Americanism, (reversed) Oriental-isms and flavored pizza-effects, obscuring factors such as essentialisms, protestantisms, spiritualisms, psychologisms, and textualisms appeared to be part of that container of misrepresentations triggering great balls of doubt and deconstructive catharsis, with which Post-Suzuki Zen scholars have shown the path to many of the younger generations of Zen scholars, including myself.'

Only hardcore deconstructivists have an interest in totally deconstructing their empirical fields of investigation. New maps of the territories are necessarily to be reconstructed to justify academic disciplines and scholarly projects. With a corrupted Zen metaphor, one could claim that changes of perspective reveal that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, exactly the way one perceives them to be. Later fieldtrips simply made me look for something different: popular Zen, funeral Zen, ritual and institutional Zen, strategic and very human Zen, or as Dogen said, that which is right under our feet.

Focusing on the plural manifestations of Zen not only acknowledges geographical and historical diversity, but also the fact that there are social, institutional, and cognitive diversities of representation within the field of Zen Buddhism as well. Though such focus in the eyes of "essentialist" interpretations might seem to obscure any substantial object, this need not be the case. "Zen" understood as an institutionally sanctioned subcategory of the Buddhist religion can be used pragmatically by both scholars and officials (e.g., Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Ministry of Education) as well as an analytical category whose users, beliefs, practices, etc. naturally are plural, but which nevertheless also by Wittgensteinian family resemblance empirically share some distinctive features. The interesting perspectives of managing such diverse clusters of resemblance not only invite discussions of definitions and categorizations, but also of interactions and apparent paradoxical relations. How does a traditional strict monastic Buddhist religion relate to living religiosity among different kinds of lay religiosity? How do contemporary Zen Buddhists cope with modern conditions, what kinds of beliefs and practices are relevant, how are they used? How does Buddha nature relate to ancestors, monks to grandmothers, texts to practice, ideals to realities, individuals to institution?

In such landscapes of living religion Suzuki Zen and spiritualized invented traditions are natural parts. Normative encouragements of having to "go native" or acknowledging the mantra "I am one, so I know" to see it "from the inside" as a monoepistemological truth being the criteria of sound scholarship are thus also part of the religious discourses on which to focus on a broader perspective of representations of a living religiosity. Pointing to the moon is an ambitious project, but rethinking Zen as self-reflectively pointing to the fingers pointing to the moon is both a relevant and humbly sufficient parameter within the academic study of religion.

Such plural pointing necessarily invites methodological pluralism, to which I personally also subscribe. This does not mean that all individual approaches need be plural, only that the multidimensional reality is ideally approached through several channels. Not only have recent years of (Zen) Buddhist studies complemented the methodological tools of earlier generations—anthropology, literature, sociology, discourse analysis, etc. are as natural today as historical, philosophical, and philological approaches but also the objects of research have changed content. Institutions, ritual practices, power relations, hermeneutical strategies, folk culture, material culture, etc. are today as relevant to Zen studies as enlightenment and "the art of..." stories were earlier, though there is still a need for, especially, empirical studies of the living traditions as well as the traditional Buddhist realities of modern Japan.'

This book investigates a contemporary Japanese Zen Buddhist sect. I will focus on what I see as important "living" aspects of the religion: the human beings, the religious institution, and the religious practice. Myoshinji is the largest of the fifteen Rinzai sects. I chose it not only because of its size but also because of its relevance as a major representative of Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism, the kind that Suzuki favored but which nevertheless compared to the Soto sect has scarcely been studied.

The history and structure of the Myoshinji sect is described in chapter one. Legendary beginnings with the patriarchs and notions such as lineage, tradition, and transmission are interpreted as still relevant and legitimate concepts of a sacred kinship, before the religious and sociopolitical history is outlined from the institutional foundations in the fourteenth century to modern time, focusing particularly on the important epistemological and social changes around the Meiji restoration. The development of postwar and contemporary Myoshinji Zen is described through juridical, institutional, and economic aspects, with a focus on the structure and function of the temple.

Initially I wanted to compare monastic and lay Zen Buddhism, but subsequently I found these concepts too narrow both because monastic Buddhism in Japan is typically only a periodical phase in the clerical process, and because the concepts "monk" and "lay" (or the indigenous shukke and zaike, renouncer and householder) are more complex than a dichotomous pair expresses. I broadened the perspective to include all those kinds of persons involved in the religion, categorizing them into different roles and types such as priests, priest wives, temple sons, monks, nuns, devoted believers, members, householders, confraternities, and "mixed categories" all being the object of chapter two.

Chapter three, on religious practice, is the largest chapter. It describes different concepts related to practice (i.e., ideas and ideals, objects of belief and cultural values, and the terminology of religious practice) and discusses important missionary and educational strategies within the institutional framework, functioning both as frames within which rituals and practice are generated and interpreted as well as a kind of institutional practice itself. Ritualized activities distinguish between monastic and lay rituals, the former including a general analysis of monastic life and the clerical rites of passage, the latter being descriptions and analyses of selected rituals with either a temporal (daily, calendrical, passage) or thematic (texts, zazen, "folk") relation. Descriptions and interpretations of religious practice are continuously related to textual and normative hermeneutics and strategies within the Myoshinji institutional context.

The concluding chapter four sums up and synthesizes the individual chapters, giving a conclusive discussion on the relationship between Zen Buddhists, institution, and religious practice within the contemporary Myoshinji sect. It is argued that a double-sided strategy of both exclusive, hierarchical Zen and inclusive, "umbrella Zen" necessarily must be recognized and legitimated by the institution in a context of pluralism and secularism, and that the laity as religious practitioners on the one hand are both ascribed static roles by the institution and on the other hand themselves have the power through levels and kinds of affiliation, engagement, belief, and practice to influence the overall institution.

The bibliography contains primary and secondary sources, the former being annotated and defined as material published (and supposedly used) by the sect (and its members). An appendix is attached, containing data from surveys.

My approaches are plural. First of all, I have had access to most of the relevant publications from the institution addressed to the clergy and the laity. These include manuals and guidebooks (addressed to priests, their wives, or lay members), periodicals (especially Hanazono and Shoborin), the official constitution of the sect, and pamphlets, research volumes, and white papers from the head office's Religious Education Centre (Kyoka Senta). I have not included specialist commentaries or translations of classical texts, but focused on material having "practical" relevance to its contemporary users. The source material will be further presented in the following chapters, and an annotated bibliography will shortly describe each of the primary sources.

Complementarily, I have spent much of my time in Japan doing fieldwork. After my initial stay as a student in 1991, I spent a whole year from 1996-97 followed by two months in 2000 and shorter stays in 2002 and 2004. I chose Kyoto mainly because of its abundance of religious life, (Zen) temples, and especially the presence of the headquarters, the Hanazono University and religious and/or academic institutions (primarily the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions and the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism), where I could get access to texts, make contacts with people, and network in and outside of Kyoto. Apart from a general interest in observing any kind of ritual or religious practice, I have tried to follow as many gatherings, rites of passage, and yearly rituals conducted at the main temple complex in Kyoto as possible. I have also attended several zazenkai (meditation sessions) both within and outside Myoshinji affiliated contexts; visited, stayed in, and made pilgrimages to many individual Myoshinji temples; and talked to Myoshinji (and other sect-affiliated) priests and laypersons. Though I have only seen and encountered a minority of the Myoshinji world, I have acquired what I consider a fairly solid general impression of the sect as a living religion.'

Finally, I have used surveys to quantify the voices of the individual agents within the institution.

MYOSHINJI INSTITUTION, HISTORY, AND STRUCTURE chapter served as a general outline of the history and structure of the Myöshinji sect. The legendary beginnings with Sakyamuni Buddha and the Chan/Zen patriarchs were described as expressions and means of constituting the institutional network. In these, transmission, tradition, and the sacred kinship have a legitimating role in defining the sect as well as being correlative models of and for both temple relations and agent genealogies. The establishment of the temple Myoshinji by the cloistered emperor Hanazono and the Zen master Kanzan Egen was the beginning of a turbulent history spanning from military government control and cooperation, war and destruction, to the rise of the largest independent Rinzai Zen sect in Japan. Monks, masters, priests, and lay adherents as well as the temple complex, subtemples, and branch-temples all over the country in the Tokugawa period were locked in a rigid feudal system. But the strict regulations of the "main-branch system" and the "household system" also meant increased power of the institution and its priests in being part of the de facto state religion. This was severely criticized in the Meiji restoration, a period introducing modernity, internationalization, nationalism, anti-feudal, and anti-Buddhist campaigns. Different responses from the Buddhist world managed to become legitimate elements of the new times, embodying Buddhist modernity, purifying and inventing traditions, and finally becoming martyrs. Also Myoshinji had to adjust, and later contributed to nationalist discourses and war propaganda, only to realize a postwar deprivation of power, influence, and legitimacy. Post-Meiji, postwar and contemporary Zen Buddhism has had to redefine its roles and positions both according to the judicial framework regulating the scope of religious organizations and to the general trends of (post-) modernity. The main temple complex in Kyoto is the center of the Myoshinji sect and a symbolic focus constructed around the "seven buildings" and surrounded by forty-six local temples, making it an important site and being the "root temple" of the institution. As such it is also the leading mother temple of the 3,500 local temples around the country, being of different kind and rank. Myoshinji has become more international and oriented toward the laity, with educational and research institutions and training halls for lay meditation. Different kinds of lay movements and assemblies have been established, and the sect has truly become a modern bureaucratic institution. But a certain degree of democratization and power shifts challenge deeper functional and structural aspects of the institution as well. How should it continue to be a shukke religion when most of its priests are married? How can it in an increasingly individualistic modern society justify itself as a traditional religion? How should it balance between the image of being a funeral religion and a progressive organization caring for social rights, spiritual cultivation, and institutional legitimacy? These questions will be further addressed in the next chapters.

ZEN BUDDHISTS chapter investigated the different ideal roles, semantic fields, and socioreligious realities of the individual agents within the Myoshinji institution. These include the monk, nun, priest, priest wife, Zen master, abbot, temple son, danka, danshinto ("believer"), user, ko-member, foreigner, and different persons within the broader "mixed categories." From a freeze-frame perspective these can all be classified under the conceptual opposites shukke and zaike, or clerical and lay Buddhism. These relational categories are also empirically legitimate as social facts (inheritance of status and profession) and sometimes essentialized as unchanging ideals to keep separate ("once a shukke always a shukke"). Hierarchical structures exist as gradations within the categories (titles, ranks, grades, and offices) and as dichotomic pairs (shukke/ zaike, male/ female, institution/noninstitution, believer/nonbeliever, Japanese/foreigner), somehow being arranged correlatively (shukke is related to zaike as male is related to female, etc.). Expanding the dichotomy into complexity reveals not only the blurred status of some of the agents (e.g., the priest wife, the enlightened lay person, the foreigner) and the significance of domain contextuality (e.g., the priest and his wife balancing between being both a married couple and representatives of an institutional temple family); it also reveals the processual relationships of the clerical (the monk-priest agency as a ritual and institutional process involving both shukke and zaike aspects) and the lay categories (zaike can become shukke through ango-e, and shukke-like as koji). Both bounded and graded categories can find legitimacy in (Zen) Buddhist doctrines and institutional tradition. In light of the historical presentation of the last chapter, the difference between shukke and zaike in modernity has, on the one hand, become less distinct. Monastic renouncing to the majority is only a passage, most priests live as lay family fathers, and the laity has more direct possibilities of practicing as "renouncers in the world." On the other hand, the difference has been expanded; secularizing tendencies, freedom of belief and affiliation, and though the inheritance system guarantee a certain stability—a monastic career attracting fewer people in fewer temples have also further isolated and marginalized the shukke dimension of the clerical career. The paradigmatic symbol of the (Myoshinji) Zen institution being a religion of meditating shukke patriarchs is a living image only partly reflected in reality This, as well as strategies of approaching, identifying, and keeping boundaries between these institutional categories in religious practice will be discussed later. The next chapter on religious space moves from agency to place.

ZEN RELIGIOUS PRACTICE Earlier, I argued for categorizing rituals as a special kind of religious practice, the latter including also nonritualized actions, gatherings, education, cultivation, and institutional practices. I differentiated these into clerical and laity oriented contexts, the former subdivided into general monastic practice and rites of passage, and the latter according to temporal divisions: daily and recurrent rituals (worship, zazen, texts), calendrical rituals (seasonal, sectarian), local rituals, and rites of passage (ordination, rituals of sociocultural and biological order, rituals of death), some of the categories supplied with descriptions and analyses of concrete cases. Rituals as events and as processes were seen to be important aspects of both lay and clerical practice, as was the ideal of total ritualizing and sanctification of all aspects of life.

Kyoka (religious education, or "cultivation") I interpreted to be both a general hermeneutical strategy underlying all aspects of religious practice and a religious practice itself in accomplishing aims and generating ideas and practices of the institution. Both publication of texts, arranging and establishing rituals, gatherings and subinstitutions (movements, assemblies), as well as training monks, educating priests and priest wives, educating and training laypersons in becoming priests (ango-e), doing missionary work to attract new members (within the dilemma of not combatting too obviously with other sects), and cultivating the laity in becoming more sincere and actively affiliated "believers" (shinto) rather than just passive members or users (danka) are parts of the institutional arena of "cultivation." Propagating "same belief, same practice" (doshin dogyo) is not only directed at unifying the laity as a distinct and common category of agents in which institutional habitus is streamlined by canonized ideas (satori, Buddha nature, gratefulness), formalized and refined actions and behavior (sugata) and sincere belief (shinjin) and commitment to a totalized Zen world. It is also an ideal of approaching the laity and clergy by ritualized actions identifying these categories, especially expressed through texts (democratizing doctrines and knowledge), zazen (becoming a one-time Buddha by one-time meditation), and lay ordinations in life (jukai-e) and after death, the latter two effectuating and declaring the person to become monk, Buddha's child, Buddha, and ancestor. As such, ritual events, processes, and totalized ritualization of life are within the sphere of kyoka practice.

However, rituals and kyoka strategy simultaneously ratifies existing bonds and strengthens hierarchies. This goes for both the monastery where monks are taught discipline (rank and pecking) order, for the clerical system where ranks, titles, emblems, and certificates secure a symbolic order in an institutionalized process, and for the relation between clerics and laity. In rituals at temples in general, and at clerical rites of passage and in large ceremonies at the main temple complex in particular, priests perform as religious specialists, identifying themselves with the patriarchs and the Buddha, just as the laity confirm their identity of being essentially of a different category, exemplified also by the periodic alms-rounds of the monasteries, where the exchange between the laity and the clergy is performed.

Not all priests agree with or even read the publications sent from the honzan, and not all representatives of the clergy and the laity act and think according to the prescribed ideals. Few practice zazen, though nearly all have a firm conviction of this (and the idea of satori) being true Zen. In spite of being paradigmatic to the sect, most seem to treat it as a cyclical ritual performed in memory of the time spent in the training hall or in performing legendary narratives from the past. A few "elitarian" priests as well as lay practitioners ("truth seekers") keep this as an ideal practice, the latter often being only slightly interested in strong institutional affiliation and rituals of another kind. Other groups seem to focus on one practice e.g., the goeikakai, though the members are generally more committed to the institution, valuing different kinds of rituals (memorial services, attending family grave, worship) and with a high frequency and permanency of attendance. The type of religious affiliation and practice of this group, which constitute a rather large percentage of the "active members," can be related to their gender (women, who, except for zazenkai, generally are the most active participants in Japan) and age (mostly elderly with a long relationship to the local temple and with a more personal relation to death through the sheer number of deceased persons within their family and among associates). But commitment to "doing the right thing" (and hopefully receiving the fruits of the merit of having done so) and to their interests in social gatherings are also important aspects of such practices, including the ones conducted by/through Myoshinji groups such as local fujinkai or the central Hanazonokai. Other active members include the temple sons, priest wives, and individuals who have a strong sense of commitment and/or sense of "meaning to mean it" as "firm believers" (danshinto). Although they may, as opposed to those with only particular interests (some zazenkai participants, many students at the university sesshin, and a lot of those danka hardly knowing to which sect they belong), also favor different kinds of rituals (e.g., funerals, dharma talks), there is a general tendency for certain rituals to be more popular than others. Seasonal and "common" (e.g., nonsectarian) rituals are much more frequently attended than sectarian rituals (memorials for Buddha and the patriarchs), just as rituals related to death and afterlife are frequented more often than "cultivating activities" within the sect (zazen, dharma talks, study groups). This is reflected also in the activities of temples, some of which (especially at the honzan) are not even intended to include active participation from lay people. In a spectrum extending from activities and rituals related directly to the Myoshinji sect, to Zen, to Buddhist, and to common rituals and activities, institutional importance and relevance seem inversely proportional to the frequency of attendance.

Some rituals are more formal and canonical than others. The form (sugata) and prescribed meaning of zazen is more restricted and refined and often kept as a single or central ritual, framed or "wrapped" by minor rites pointing toward it. Zazen is paradigmatic of true Zen and on the same level of "seriousness" as rituals related to death. Like calendrical rituals, rituals related to funerals, memorials, and daily worship at the temple or in front of the butsudan are through kyoka hermeneutics ascribed (Zen) Buddhist relevance. This is achieved both through holding dharma talks at funerals or through publications spiritualizing death, but also through correlating different kinds of practices at specific periods—e.g., conducting children's assemblies at Buddha's birthday or having a zazenkai in the week up to Buddha's bodhi day, or by creating ritual complexes (e.g., niso sambutsuki or the whole ritual calendrical year). Also, what I termed cultural values are buddhized, especially those related to repaying received favors by expressing gratitude to the ancestors, patriarchs, and Buddha(s) and thus by showing commitment to the institution. In principle, all religious practice is prescribed as Zen practice, though some ritual contexts are more open to individual interpretation and performance. Rituals and practices conducted at local temples and at home are less restricted and formal than the ones performed at the honzan. Local festivals extending beyond institutional framework, as exemplified by two cases, are even more open to less formality and more "folk" elements—though the priest might have an overall buddhized hermeneutical position with which to legitimate them.

That some rituals are more semantically and functionally "fixed" than others does not contradict the fact that they are also polyvalent. Meditation is also a social event, and chanting sutras or showing gratitude is also seen as rituals of purification on the Buddha way. Texts are means of exegetic analysis but also means of magical instrumentalism, just as pilgrimage is both tourism and means of achieving or attracting otherworldly powers. Craving for merit and/or this-worldly merits may itself be an aspect of a soteriological process of purifying oneself and contributing to the salvation of all sentient beings, just as rituals of death might be sorrowful or joyous, a social burden and a source of financial income, whether called "true Zen" or not. Priests and laity alike will often characterize rituals as "merely symbolic" or "just tradition." This should not be seen as a "Protestant Buddhist" rejection of rituals nor as a humble expression of not having integrated the correct understanding or "essence." Particularly for calendrical rituals and rites of passage, a certain element of social gathering and play to some seem to be the major reason for joining rituals. This does not make participation nonreligious. Following Humphrey and Laidlaw, it is merely a position within the spectrum of possible grades of ascriptions of commitment, form, feeling, meaning, and belief, just as it is one of the aspects of kyoka strategy and activities for the institution to both sort out and combine these kinds of practices and (lack of) interests into one great narrative or a multiple vehicle of legitimate "skillful means." This will be further discussed in the concluding chapter.


Postmodern disenchantment is a valid frame of reference explaining the presumable loss of meaning in former religious meaning systems. Apparent discrepancy between ideal and real, between textual and practical religiosity, also needs reference to the structural nature of religious behavior and human mentality. Religion and religiosity are domains within a broader field of culture and behavior that might be compartmentalized or integrated, ascribed deep meaning or overbearing neglect. There is thus no genealogical or transcendental attributes marking out either Zen or the Japanese to have any essential bonds tying them together. Most Japanese women are more engaged in shopping and most young men in reading manga and listening to J-pop, and few would ascribe autumn moon-viewing in a Zen temple to be especially "Zen." Japanese Buddhist priests are trained in being both socially robust and religiously fluent. Compared to other Asian Buddhist countries they are relatively well-educated and secularized, respected as religious experts and ordinary citizens. They are not wild, crazy, or refractory, they do not tear apart holy scriptures or say dirty things (in public). Zen Buddhists are neither (all) enlightened, nor (all) totally passive and ignorant funeral Buddhists. Although Japanese culture is not essentially "Zen," and Zen Buddhism is not essentially Japanese, most living Japanese Zen Buddhism can still be said to be a typical expression of Japanese religiosity, and Japanese religion typically represented in Zen Buddhist sects and practice. Representing Zen by 'wan, shouts, tea ceremonies, meditating masters, empty circles, and as a tradition beyond words are naturally still valid expressions of what make Zen Buddhism interestingly different from other religious traditions and discourses. Representing Zen naturally depends on focus and aim. Recent years' research on its living traditions in all its complexity has shown that ( Japanese Zen) Buddhism is (also) a "common" religion with ideas and practices comparable to other living manifestations of human religious thought and behavior. Oscillating between different levels of representations is always an ongoing and "extended practice" in a never-ending process of drawing the maps of the territories we are interested in drawing.


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