Zen Monasticism as Seen through the Lens of the Rule of Benedict
Hélène L. Mercier, OSB
The participants at Ehei-ji: Sister Hélène Mercier, Suor Clelia Ruffinengo, Soeur Gaëtane Seulen, Fra Matteo Nicolini-Zani, and Frère Irénée Jonnart.
The participants at Ehei-ji: Sister Hélène Mercier, Suor Clelia Ruffinengo, Soeur Gaëtane Seulen, Fra Matteo Nicolini-Zani, and Frère Irénée Jonnart.

The last three weeks have deepened my conviction that the monastic heart is an archetype. The question then arises: What is it in the heart of both Asian and Western women and men that longs and seeks for “one,” either satori for the Buddhist or mystical union for the Christian? I do not pretend to have an answer to the question, but I do know that our stay in three different Buddhist monasteries these past three weeks has shown me that those of us who live in Western monasteries are not all that different from those who live in Asian monasteries, except perhaps that our monastic brothers and sisters in Japan live their lives with greater discipline and intentionality.

At the beginning of a book entitled Benedict’s Dharma one reads:

Why it is the Buddhists find the Rule of Benedict, even if they have not read it before, strikingly familiar? It has something to do with this trellis image. Dharma is usually translated as “teaching” but one root meaning of the word in Pali or Sanskrit, the classical Buddhist languages, is “to support.” In some ways, then, the Dharma is a kind of trellis that supports the awakened life. Both the Rule of Benedict and the Dharma of the Buddha are, as Norman Fisher says, “general guidelines for an inner journey.” [1]

That is probably the reason why I have found the life in the Buddhist monasteries strikingly familiar.

My report, therefore, will consist of a series of citations from the Rule of Benedict. They will be the “lens” through which I will look at my experiences here in Japan.

Prologue of the Rule of Benedict: Let us get up, then, at long last, for the Scripture rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep. The theme of “being awake” is very prominent in the Zen Buddhist tradition.

The Prologue of the Rule: We will establish a school of the Lord’s service. Having been made aware that most who live in Zen Buddhist monasteries are there only for a limited amount of years, it was evident to me that these men and women are people in training. In many cases they are being formed to become priests. In other words, they are unlike their Western counterparts who join a monastery for life—although we too join a school.

Chapter 5 – On Obedience: Not living according to their own choice nor obeying their own desires and pleasures but walking by another’s judgment and command, they will dwell in monasteries and desire to have an abbot over them. Allow me a humorous illustration: on our second or third evening at Sogen-ji we joined the community for zazen at 5:30 pm, and these sittings last until 9 pm. That evening I was tired from a long day and was finding it very difficult to sit for that length of time. I therefore made the decision to leave the zendo at one of the breaks and go to bed. Good decision, thought I, as I prepared for bed. I quickly fell into a deep sleep when one of our mentors awakened me. She informed me that I was not to leave the zendo in the middle of zazen and that the Roshi was coming back soon; I was to be there in my place in the zendo by the time he returned. No one less than half my age had told me what to do in a very long time. There was a moment of inner struggle, but then I went back to the zendo. It will be for me a classic example of obedience by renouncing my own will.

Chapter 6 – On the Spirit of Silence: For speaking and teaching belong to the Abbot; the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen. At Ten’ne-ji not only did we experience silence at meals or when walking back and forth to the zendo or to Morning Service, but also during samu in the morning and the afternoon. Whether we were pulling weeds with ten other nuns around us or doing a sewing project all together in one room, there was no conversation except what was necessary. On our last afternoon we drove to the Gifu castle in three cars. There was conversation in the car, but only for informational purposes, such as what time we would have supper or take our bath later that afternoon.

Chapter 22 – On How Monks are to Sleep: If possible let all sleep in one place. Let them sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords and thus always ready to rise without delay when the signal is given and hasten to be before one another at the Work of God [Morning Prayer]. We saw this with our own eyes at Ten’ne-ji. Because the three of us stood outside the zendo about five minutes before the wakeup call, we observed the residents, who had slept clothed, running to make a quick bathroom stop, splash water on their faces and put on the rest of the habit before hurrying back to the zendo.
         

Sewing at Ten'ne-ji
Sewing at Ten'ne-ji
Chapter 48 – On the Daily Manual Labor: Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the Sisters should be occupied at certain times in manual labor. Then they are truly monastics when they live by the labor of their hands. I must humbly admit that for me, doing manual labor for three hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon was a challenge, mostly physical, but also as an exercise in obedience. Yet, as I look back I realize that I learned a lot about myself, and I can certainly see the benefits of doing something together in silence. Community at Ten’ne-ji is extremely important, and doing projects together builds the sense of community. Everyone works for the same cause, which is the life of the community. Unfortunately, in my monastery, at least, we have lost something in giving up doing manual labor together. We do some manual labor, but rarely together as a community. One of the reasons, of course, is that we are a very large group (280), but I believe that there is a communion of spirit when we are engaged in a project together. I am thinking of some of our Sisters who work together in the garden in the evening.

Chapter 53 – Reception of Guests: As soon as a guest is announced, therefore, let the superior or the brethren meet him and first of all let them pray together. In salutation of all guests let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ who indeed is received in their persons. When we arrived at Ten’ne-ji, Shika-san first of all welcomed us by prostrating on the floor, and then, when all the community had gathered, we had tea. When we visited Hozumi Roshi, he welcomed us, led us into his temple, took a few minutes to show us around and then we gathered in the zendo for zazen.

Chapter 63 – On the Order of the Community: Let all keep their place in the monastery established by their date of entrance, the merit of their lives and the decision of the Abbot. Part of our initiation at Ten’ne-ji was deciding in what order we would walk and sit. Who was the senior amongst us? It was quite evident at both Sogen-ji and Ten’ne-ji that where people sat at table, for example, was very important. There was an order to follow, and people needed to be reminded of this from time to time.

Chapter 63 (continued): The juniors should honor their seniors, and the seniors love their juniors and whenever the brethren meet one another, the junior shall ask the senior for his blessing.  I saw two illustrations of this at Eihei-ji. At zazen one evening I witnessed a junior monk assisting a senior monk as he prepared to sit. The junior monk straightened out his sandals for him, and when zazen was over the young monk came back and helped the elder with his sandals. It was a touching moment, as it is when I witness those moments in my monastery as well. I also observed at Eihei-ji that if we passed by monks when we were walking, they would bow and do gassho. Although we do not do that at my monastery in Minnesota I have noticed that at a men’s Benedictine monastery in Canada the monks would bow as they passed you in the hallways. On a personal note I suspected that many times I was helped during these weeks because I was “senior” to the younger members of the communities.

I will finish these observations and comments with one final story. At the conclusion of a Morning Service at Eihei-ji, young monks came forward to ask questions of Suzuki Roshi, who was presiding. I found the questions simple but very touching, like the question about what to do when you are sleepy during zazen. I was immediately reminded of a story from the sayings of the first Christian monks, men and women, who lived in the Egyptian desert in the fourth and fifth centuries. With perseverance many of them became holy men and women and. in time, were joined by disciples. Their disciples would come to their abba or amma regularly and ask for a “good word.” Here is the story of one such "good word":

Some old men came to Abba Poemen and said to him, “When we see brothers who are dozing at the Liturgy of Hours shall we rouse them so that they will be watchful?” He said to them, “For my part, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.”

In conclusion, I am convinced that in the weeks and months ahead as I continue to reflect on this most extraordinary experience the pearls will become evident one by one. Meanwhile, I have learned a lot about life in Zen Buddhist monasteries, but almost more important, I have experienced a deepening of my monastic heart. I return to my home monastery with renewed vigor, in fidelity to the life to which I have been called and to which I have responded.



[1] Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Benedict, ed. Patrick Henry (Riverhead, 2001), p. 1.

 
 
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