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Zen Rule-Bending and the Training for Pure Hearts

Taigen Dan Leighton
From the book, Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions, edited by Bruno Barnhart and Joseph Wong, Continuum, 2001. Reprinted by permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Originally presented as a paper for a Monastic Dialogue Conference, New Camaldolese Hermitage, June 2000


This essay is inspired in part by my observation some years ago that the “ancient ones” in my extended spiritual community of the San Francisco Zen Center, those who have twenty-five to thirty-five years of steady practice experience, seem distinctive in that they are most truly “themselves.” Sometimes this takes the form of their being eccentric or even peculiar, but somehow also particularly true to themselves in some deep, and often inspiring way. The fruits of long-term spiritual practice do not seem to be homogenized uniformity of character, but rather the uniqueness of each person’s sincere expression of that which goes beyond egoistic personality, but which might appear quite quirky and individual.

What are the qualities of the sincere, pure-hearted adept? Does the training in monastic, or semi-monastic, practice communities help develop pure hearts and open minds? And if so, how? The following essay explores these questions within the context of the East Asian Zen Buddhist tradition.

I will begin by examining how monastic forms in the Zen tradition might serve to grow this pure wholeheartedness, focusing on the writings of the pioneering Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), from his Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, in Japanese, Eihei Shingi.[1]As well as being a manual for procedures in the monastery, with instructions for everything from how to brush teeth to how to receive and eat food in the meditation hall, in this work Dogen emphasizes attitudinal instructions and the psychology for taking appropriate responsibility for community well-being. His choice of illustrative stories and exemplars is often unexpected and startling.

Then I will look at prominent examples of the pure of heart in the Zen tradition through the lens of the archetypal bodhisattva of loving kindness, the future buddha, Maitreya. Also known for his foolishness, this figure provides one primary pattern for the pure of heart in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

One typology of historical figures who in some ways have manifested this Maitreya energy can be seen in the hermit adepts who have “graduated” from Zen monasteries, such as Hotei, Hanshan, and Ryokan. These three in particular will be discussed, but many more of such historical “Zen Fools” might be mentioned. Many of these apparently foolish characters were actually accomplished poets, such as Hanshan and Ryokan, and left us some record of their inner sentiments and deep sincerity. But all of them are cherished in the Zen tradition as exemplars of true, pure heart.

The Role of Monastic Regulations

The Zen monastic regulations (Qinggui in Chinese; Shingi in Japanese) are an outgrowth of the early Buddhist Vinaya, the ethical injunctions dispensed by the Buddha. The first legendary Zen monastic rules are traditionally attributed to Baizhang Huaihai (749-814; Hyakujo Ekai in Japanese).[2]Baizhang is widely regarded in the tradition as the founder of the Zen work ethic, for example with his famous statement, “A day without work is a day without eating.”[3]Dogen cites Baizhang as an inspiration for his own Shingi, which for procedural instructions liberally quotes both the old Vinaya attributed directly to Shakyamuni Buddha, and also passages from the Chanyuan Qinggui (Zen’en Shingiin Japanese), the most comprehensive Chinese collection of Zen monastic regulations, compiled in 1103.[4]

The communal institution has been an important element of Buddhism since Shakyamuni Buddha began his monastic order twenty-five hundred years ago in Northern India. The monastic enclosure developed during the Indian rainy season, when the monks halted their wandering mendicant practice to reside together for a few months of practice. This fellowship of practitioners, or sangha, has functioned ever since as a radical contrast to existing social conventions and conditioning. The Buddhist monastic community has offered an alternative or counterculture to the status quo of exploitative societies that disregarded individual human potential.

The common designation of Buddhist monks as “home-leavers” implies the physical act of renouncing worldly ambition to join the monastic community, and also the inner work of letting go of attachments from the bonds of social and personal psychological conditioning. In accord with this liberative purpose, monastic community life becomes an opportunity for its participants to develop their capacity for enacting the universal principles of awakening in the concrete affairs of their individual lives. The monastic procedural forms are designed to provide the monks a congenial space conducive to inner contemplation. Each ordinary, daily life function, from cleaning the temple to taking care of personal hygiene, is treated as a tool for enhancing mindfulness of one’s moment to moment state of awareness and innermost intention. The monastic lifestyle, procedures, and forms act as supports for practitioners’ immersion in the process of deepening personal experience of the nonalienated, integrated nature of reality described as the basis for Buddhist awakening. These monastic forms allow the psychic and physical space for self-reflection, a harmonious realm for supportive interaction with fellow contemplatives, and also function as practices with which to enact the fundamental teachings arising naturally out of meditation.

While Dogen does offer in his Shingi detailed procedural instructions, often borrowed from the Vinaya or previous monastic regulations, his clear emphasis is attitudinal instruction and the psychology of spiritually beneficial community interaction. Zen monastic regulations function as a latticework for ethical conduct. The rules may be upheld and consequences enforced, but they are seen as guidelines rather than restrictive regulations or rigid proscriptions.

A major paradigm of Mahayana Buddhist monasticism has been oscillation between periods of training in the monastic container and reentry into the marketplace. Monks test their practice by returning to interact with conventional society, and also help fulfill the developmental function of the Buddhist order by sharing with the ordinary world whatever they have learned of self-awareness, composure, and compassion during their monastic training. In Japan, from Dogen’s time to the present, monks finish a period of training and go out to function as temple priests, ministering to the laity. Some later return to the monastery for further development, or to help train younger monks. Traditionally, monks would also leave their monastic community to wander around to other teachers and test their practice and understanding.

The essential insight of Buddhist awakening affirms the fundamental rightness and interconnectedness of the whole of creation, just as it is. But along with its effect on individual trainees, the sangha has also served at times as an historical instrument to perform the long-term work of civilizing and developing human awareness so as eventually to actualize and fulfill for all beings the vision of our world as a pure land, informed by wisdom and compassion. This effect has been accomplished both by the inspiration of exemplary individuals, and on a wider societal level. Despite its sometimes compromised relationships and accommodations to the ruling powers throughout Asian history, in fact the Buddhist spiritual institution has had, from time to time, a civilizing effect on Asian societies, moderating the brutal tendencies of various rulers.

Until the twentieth century popularization of his voluminous philosophical and poetic writings, Eihei Dogen was more important historically for establishing a monastic order that became the basis for the Japanese Soto Zen school. In Dogen’s Pure Standards (Eihei Shingi), written to instruct his monk disciples, he presents exemplary models of Chinese monks who had taken on the responsibility of administrative positions in Chan monastic communities. Dogen emphasizes the importance of these positions, such as the administrative director, and the chief cook of the monasteries. People who hold these positions need to be devoted to the well-being of all the practitioners, and at the same time be exemplary in their own practice directed toward mastering the teaching, and realizing and expressing full spiritual awakening.

Given the emphasis Dogen places on these administrative positions, it is remarkable how many of Dogen’s exemplars are involved in rule-breaking or at least rule-bending, precisely in the example or story that Dogen cites. In the Chiji Shingi “The Pure Standards for the Temple Administrators,” the final essay which takes up nearly half of the full text of Eihei Shingi, Dogen talks about great historical Zen figures and their conduct in the monastic roles, specifically the roles of Director, Supervisor of Monks (Ino), Chief Cook (Tenzo), and Work Leader, as well as some of the other supervisory positions.

Of the twenty exemplary anecdotes that Dogen cites, ten of them involve actions by the exemplar in which he does something that would be seen from conventional morality as improper and a violation of monastic regulations. A number of them threaten to beat up their teachers or some other practitioner, and one actually does physically beat his teacher. One sets a fire in the monastery, another throws away the community’s food. A few are shunned or even expelled from the community. After each of these stories the protagonist is praised by Dogen for his sincere spirit of inquiry, dedication to practice, or commitment to the monastic community.

A Tenacious Tenzo

Dogen especially elaborates the importance of the position of the chief cook or tenzo, which he describes as equal in importance to the abbot’s role. Dogen dedicates a whole essay, the celebrated “Instructions for the Cook” (Tenzokyokun) to the virtues of this position. In “The Pure Standards for the Temple Administrators,” of all the tenzos he acclaims, Dogen most lavishly praises Fushan Fayuan (991-1067; Fusan Hoen in Japanese). After recounting stories about the virtue of a number of tenzos, Dogen says, “Especially, we cannot fail to study the tenzo [Fushan] Fayuan’s faithful heart, which can be met only once in a thousand years. . . . If tenzos do not experience dedication like Fayuan’s, how can their study of the Way penetrate the innermost precincts of the buddhas and ancestors?”[5]And yet in the story told by Dogen, Fayuan committed thievery while tenzo, and was expelled from the monastery.

The story begins with a demonstration of the physical and spiritual toughness expected in the monastery in question. Fushan Fayuan and a monk comrade, Tianyi Yihuai, traveled to visit and train with [Shexian] Guisheng, a master with a reputation for being “cold and severe, tough and frugal. Patchrobed monks respected and feared him.”[6] Fayuan and his friend, “arrived in the middle of a snowy winter,” and joined the other travelling monks sitting in the monastery visitors’ room while awaiting admittance. Guisheng abusively scolded the monks and poured cold water on them, so that the other monks left. When Guisheng further threatened Fushan Fayuan and his friend, [Tianyi] Yihuai replied, “The two of us have come a thousand miles just to study Zen with you, how could we leave from just one scoop of water dumped on us? Even if you beat us to death, we will not go.”[7] Guisheng thereupon laughed and accepted them into the monastery.

After some time Fushan Fayuan was promoted to the position of tenzo. But the monastery was poor and the spartan diet coarse, and Fayuan was finally moved by his sympathy for the monks to commit a grave offense. Once Guisheng left for the village and:

Fayuan stole the key [to the storehouse], and took some wheat flour to prepare a special flavorful gruel. Guisheng suddenly returned and went to the hall. After eating, he sat in the outer hall and sent for Fayuan. Guisheng said, “Is it true that you stole flour to cook the gruel?” [Fayuan] admitted it, and implored Guisheng to punish him. Guisheng had him calculate the price [of the flour], and sell his robes and bowls to repay it. Then Guisheng struck Fayuan thirty blows with his staff and expelled him from the temple.[8]

Fayuan’s offense was motivated only by concern for the monks’ health and comfort. Shexian Guisheng instantly tasted the difference in the gruel, and Fushan was not spared prompt and severe consequences for his actions. However, the story continues that Fayuan remained in the nearby town, repeatedly making efforts to gain readmittance into Shexian Guisheng’s monastery, but all were rebuffed by Guisheng. “Fayuan was not bothered, but carried his begging bowl through the city and sent the money he received [to the temple to repay his debt].”

Eventually, one day “Guisheng went to the town and saw Fayuan holding his bowl. Guisheng returned to the assembly and said, ‘Fayuan truly has the determination to study Zen.'”[9] So finally Fushan Fayuan was readmitted to the monastery, and later became a Dharma successor of Shexian Guisheng.

Fushan Fayuan’s sympathy for the monks’ lack of food may have been misplaced, and his unswerving persistence after his expulsion may appear foolish or perhaps even obsessive. But it is precisely this kindness, and selfless dedication, even in the face of disgrace and loss of reputation, that seems especially to endear him to Dogen. Fayuan violated the precepts and monastic rules, but never abandoned his intention to express the Way. His teacher Guisheng seems to have consciously used the rules, not for the sake of moral propriety, but to test and more fully mold Fayuan’s commitment. The monastic regulations and precepts are at the service of the dual priorities of total dedication to one’s own investigation of spiritual reality, and of commitment to caring for the practice community’s well-being.

Another exemplary monk who Dogen esteems most highly, Wuzu Fayan (1024-1104; Goso Hoen in Japanese), was shunned by his fellow monks for the monastic violations of drinking wine, eating meat, and entertaining women. The story goes that Wuzu Fayan had “settled his investigation of the great matter and deeply penetrated the bones and marrow,”[10]and was manager of the monastery’s mill down the mountain. Wuzu Fayan devoted himself to the task of increasing the monastery’s resources, but somehow encurred the enmity of some of the monks. As even modern monks can testify, in the cauldron of monastic practice supposedly “worldly” human jealousy and pettiness can still arise. When Wuzu heard about the accusations, “He intentionally bought meat and alcohol and hung them out in front of the mill, and also bought cosmetics and makeup for his women friends. Whenever Zen monks came around the mill, [Wuzu] Fayan would touch the women and laughingly banter and tease them, completely without restraint.” When his teacher finally questioned him, Wuzu Fayan made no explanation and accepted expulsion. But when he submitted the mill’s accounts, including unusual profits for the monastery, his teacher was impressed, “and understood that petty people had just been jealous [of Wuzu Fayan].”[11]

Dogen praises Wuzu Fayan for his dedication to accomplishing his task of managing the monastery’s business so as to best benefit the community and its assets. That he did this without any concern for his own personal reputation and standing in the eyes of his teacher is especially admirable for Dogen. Wuzu was willing to accept the blame and punishment of his teacher, as had Fushan Fayuan, without becoming defensive or trying to protect or explain himself.

I discuss these anecdotes of Zen rule-bending and Zen fools not to support an erroneous and misleading stereotype of Zen iconoclasm. In the initial importation of Zen to America, and its reception by what has been called “Beat Zen,” the image of Zen “wild men” was provocative and attractive to many. But the history of Zen throughout East Asia has been very predominantly that of sincere practitioners quietly engaged in devotional rituals and contemplative practices. Both Dogen’s rule-bending exemplars of temple administrators and most of the “sacred fools” I describe below were veteran monks steeped in conventional monastic practice and decorum.

However, in considering Dogen’s description of Zen training, and its relation to the pure sincere heart as its goal, it is notable that Dogen does not hold to a literal interpretation of the regulations. This is so even though Dogen is noted for his own emphasis on monastic forms. He includes in his Eihei Shingi a short essay with sixty-two specific instructions for the manners and etiquette with which monks should defer to their seniors. Dogen never advocates bending the monastic rules just for the sake of iconoclasm, and strongly criticizes those who mistakenly believed that Buddhist liberation means freedom from ethical concern and proper demeanor.[12]Nevertheless, it is clear from his exemplars that Dogen sees the purpose of monastic training not as the rigid alignment with some code of conduct, but as the development of kindly concern for the whole community, and sincere, intent, persistent inquiry into the deep mysteries of awakening.

The Meditations of the Foolish Maitreya

The figure of the archetypal, cosmic Bodhisattva Maitreya was based on a disciple predicted by Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, to be the next future buddha, or perfected awakened one.[13]Many of the accounts describe Maitreya as a novice, or relatively junior disciple. Buddha’s other disciples were perplexed when this monk was predicted as the next future buddha, as he was not particularly distinguished for rigorous practice or insightful wisdom. Indeed he seemed fairly naive, even more than a bit foolish.

But Maitreya, whose name means “Loving One,” had a caring and generous character, and was known for his great kindness. So Maitreya is an apt emblem for the pure of heart in Mahayana Buddhism, and also to some extent in pre-Mahayana Buddhism, since he appears in the early Pali suttas (as Metteya in Pali). Delineating the central aspects of the Maitreya archetype can serve as one major framework for clarifying the qualities of the pure heart in the Mahayana tradition. Maitreya is also associated with three different strands of Buddhist meditation -loving kindness, patience, and Yogacara consciousness study- so we can see this figure as demonstrating specific relationships between Buddhist contemplation and kind heartedness.

Maitreya’s ambiguous, foolish character is evident in some of the early Mahayana sutras. In the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, for example, Shakyamuni Buddha emits a light from between his eyebrows that puzzles Maitreya, who questions Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.[14]Manjushri reminds Maitreya that in former lives in a remotely past buddha land, they together had witnessed a similar light emitted by a previous buddha, heralding the teaching of the Lotus Sutra on behalf of that buddha by Bodhisattva Fine Luster, who was Manjushri himself in that lifetime. Among Fine Luster’s eight hundred disciples was Fame Seeker Bodhisattva, actually Maitreya in that former life, who was named Fame Seeker because he sought after personal profit and advantage. Although he read and memorized numerous sutras he derived no benefit at all and quickly forgot most of them. Maitreya, or at least his past life, is thus discredited by Manjushri, but the bodhisattva of wisdom goes on to add that this lazy Fame Seeker also had done many kind deeds. His kindness helped him to be able to train with numerous buddhas over many lifetimes, until now he was finally Maitreya Bodhisattva, destined to be the next buddha. This early, humorous image of Maitreya as a spiritually immature monk with many deficiencies in his practice if anything heightens the prime importance of his one strong positive quality, his loving kindness, which seemingly alone qualified Maitreya to be predicted as the next buddha.

Maitreya’s loving kindness relates to a specific, traditional meditation practice still widespread in much of Buddhism. The Metta or loving kindness after which Maitreya (Metteya in Pali) is named is a mindfulness exercise in which the practitioner emanates good wishes and loving thoughts towards particular beings. Although the eventual aim of such practice is to mentally bestow blessings on all beings, beginners are advised to start with family and other intimates, for whom loving thoughts are already present. Gradually these thoughts can then be extended to unknown beings and perhaps finally, after some craft in the practice has developed, even towards one’s supposed enemies. As in the case of Western prayer, this metta practice is reported to have benefits for both the practitioner, and for the objects of the loving thoughts.

While facing the unknown future, Maitreya’s primary meditative practice is patience, which also could be described as tolerance or forbearance.[15] Among the best known images of Maitreya Bodhisattva are delicate Korean and Japanese statues of Maitreya, fingers to chin, pondering how to save all sentient beings. Maitreya just sits and waits. Supposedly he currently inhabits one of the meditative heavenly realms until he can claim his buddhahood. Based on the sutras and early commentaries, calculations as to the amount of time that will pass between Shakyamuni’s prediction of Maitreya’s buddhahood and his final arrival at that state vary widely. Current estimates of Maitreya’s final enlightenment range from the date 4,456 C.E., to thirty thousand years in the future, to seven billion, five hundred sixty million years after Shakyamuni.

As the predicted next buddha, Maitreya has long been an Asian symbol for the possibility of a future enlightened age. Enduring messianic yearning for Maitreya is still scrawled on Himalayan rocks, pleading, “Come, Maitreya, come.” Nobody knows when Maitreya will appear. Through the past fifteen hundred years of Chinese history, there have been rulers and rebels alike who claimed to be incarnations of Maitreya, or of avatars preparing the way for this new World-Honored One. And there are persons active in the world today who claim to be Maitreya manifested. It may be so; we just don’t know.

Not-knowing is a very beneficial element of the practice of patience especially fostered by the Maitreya archetype. Sitting up in his meditation realm heaven, Maitreya Bodhisattva considers the unknown future knowing only that he is destined to be a buddha, and that he will eventually constellate an awakened buddha land. Envisioning such a future unavoidably implies recognizing the unsatisfactory qualities of present conditions. Maitreya gazes toward the future and holds in his heart all the beings of future generations, despite not knowing their names and faces. The simple willingness to include in our thoughts both near and distant future is an enriching aspect of Maitreya’s practice of patience.

During difficult situations, perhaps the most helpful thing to do is just to sit and wait. This practice of patience is not passivity, but rather the active observation of whatever circumstances we meet, with readiness to respond to opportunities for helpfulness when they appear. When we don’t know what to do about problems, forbearance and on-going attention can offer calm and spaciousness that allow us to realize possible helpful responses.

Along with his loving kindness and meditations on patience, the Maitreya figure is closely associated with the Yogacara teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, and with the Yogacara meditative investigation of the phenomenology of consciousness. The Yogacara psychological system describes eight levels of consciousness, and presents an elaborate model for understanding the mental workings of karma. An extended description of this and other Yogacara psychological teachings are beyond the scope of this essay, but briefly, the eight consciousnesses include as the first six consciousnesses the awarenesses of the five sense fields (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physicalities), with the awareness of mental objects, i.e. thoughts, as the sixth consciousness. Thus our normal mental activity, which we usually tend to identify with and cherish, is defined as simply another conjunction of sense faculty (cognition) with sense objects (thoughts). This understanding can be very helpful in developing nonattachment to our preconceptions and thought habits.

The seventh consciousness, manas, is the faculty for imagining the self as separated and alienated from the external “objective” world, existing externally as a dead container. This alienating faculty might be termed the Buddhist “original sin,” which can be seen through and transformed with practice. The eighth consciousness, the alaya-vijnana or storehouse consciousness, acts metaphorically as a repository for all mental habit energies and predilections, in Buddhist terms karma. Within the parameters of formerly embedded potentialities, an individual is free to act to support and develop, or instead weaken, these psychological tendencies, which may be positive or negative. Sustained awareness of the whole mental process may foster transformation of the storehouse consciousness, and support beneficial conduct.

Yogacara psychology was developed out of contemplation, and promotes meditative self-study, a useful practice for facing difficult situations. Despite his foolishness and simple kindness, Maitreya was a prevalent motif historically for the practitioners of this subtle psychological system and its practices. When it seems that there is nothing to be done, we can actively engage our interest and clearly observe whatever appears before us. Such yogic study of awareness and its interaction with the world supports patience, and may reveal new perspectives and possibilities for responding to immediate problems. The fundamental Maitreyan orientation is future-looking, both individually and collectively. From this perspective we can see the monastic community or sangha as a training ground for future buddhas, and also in society, as potentially promoting future buddha fields.

Hotei as Jolly Maitreya

In the Zen tradition there is a whole genre of eccentric exemplars of the pure hearted “fool.” One of the best recognized examples of these eccentric Zen fools is the historical tenth century Chinese Zen monk, Budai, whose Japanese name Hotei is more familiar in the West, and who is considered an incarnation of Maitreya Bodhisattva. Known for his divine foolishness, in China Hotei came to be identified with Maitreya to such a degree that Chinese images of him are now simply labeled Maitreya (Milo-fe in Chinese), and in popular Chinese awareness they are virtually synonymous.

Hotei was a legendary sage with supernatural powers who wandered through village streets, avoiding the security of temples. Apparently Hotei had completed his monastic training, and was happy to express his awareness by living as a homeless vagabond. He is familiar as the disheveled, fat, jolly, “Laughing Buddha” whose statue is ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants and in Chinese Buddhist temples. Hotei’s name means “cloth bag,” after the sack he carried full of candy and toys for the children, with whom he often played. This scruffy Buddhist Santa Claus broadens our image of Maitreya’s warmth and loving-kindness.

The Zen tradition’s ten ox-herding pictures depict the deepening of practice and awakening with the metaphor of searching for and then taming an ox. In the final picture, the ox has been forgotten and spiritual practice is integrated with caring for the world. This picture is named, “Returning to the market place with empty, bliss-bestowing hands,” and many versions show fat, jolly Hotei sack over his back, greeting a townsman.

In one story about Hotei, attesting to his deep insight, he was stopped on the street by a more orthodox monk (possibly critical of Hotei’s idiosyncrasies), who questioned Hotei about the essential meaning of Buddhism. Hotei instantly dropped his sack. When the monk asked about the actualization of the teaching, Hotei picked up the sack and continued on his way.

Some stories describe Hotei as a reliable weather prognosticator. Everyone knew if it was going to rain, according to whether or not Hotei wore shoes and head cover. Just before passing away, Hotei recited a verse expressing sadness that even though Maitreya appears in the world sometimes, people do not recognize him. Thereafter the association of Hotei with Maitreya has persisted.

Hanshan Cooling out the Mountain

Hanshan “Cold Mountain” is the quintessential Zen mountain recluse poet. He is equally legendary as Hotei, and apparently was a layman who lived near a monastery high up in the temple-filled Tiantai mountains, probably in the ninth or tenth century. His poems, celebrated in American as well as Asian Zen, set the mold for the foolish, carefree mountain hermit, apart from the world, indulging in immersion in nature, but not without occasional acknowledgments of loneliness. Many of Hanshan’s poems sing of the rustic life.

While Hanshan is presented as the icon of the unconventional, liberated recluse, and apparently he was never an official monk trainee, it is significant that the story about him is of someone hanging out near the monastery kitchen with his equally spirited monk friend Shide. Hanshan seems to represent a possibility of clear awareness still related to the monastic forms, even if free of them.

I have experienced in contemporary Zen monasteries, both in America and Asia, persons in proximity but with similar ambiguous relationships to the monastic rule. They may support the temple in various ways, or even be ordained members of the order, but such characters also function, often through unconventional behavior, to remind the serious monks of the context of their liberative endeavor. The goal of the monastic training, the true “pure heart,” is enacted with non-attachment and freedom from worldly concern and grasping, even if this seems foolish or outrageous from conventional perspectives. This echoes writings by Thomas Merton about the monastic as the marginal person who points to the true heart without concern for social standing. [16]

Ryokan and the Simple Life

Ryokan (1758-1831), the Japanese Zen monk and spiritual poet, was fully trained in a Soto Zen monastery, but instead of becoming a temple priest and teaching formally, he returned to a hermit’s life of meditation in a hut near his home village, and made a modest livelihood through begging rounds in nearby towns. Ryokan was consciously inspired in his own writing by Hanshan’s poems. Still a deeply beloved figure in modern Japan, Ryokan chose the spiritual name Daigu, or “Great Fool,” even though he was intelligent, well-read, a skilled meditator, and an elegant calligrapher, whose brushwork was already valuable and sought after during his own life.

Ryokan is known for kindly playing with children, like Hotei. Ryokan carried balls or other toys in his robe sleeves, and often took breaks from his mendicant practice to join the neighborhood children’s games. One favorite of the many stories about him tells how Ryokan once hid in a barn while playing hide and seek. It got late and the children were called to dinner. When he entered the barn the next morning, the surprised farmer asked Ryokan what he was doing. Ryokan said, “Shh!! Be quiet. The children will hear.” Ryokan may have been absorbed in samadhi and unaware of the night’s passage, but such utter foolishness expresses a charming naiveté and innocence.

Ryokan cared even for humble creatures. Upon coming out to sun himself in the morning by his hut, he would carefully pick the lice from his robe and gently place them on a nearby rock. Before getting up he would just as carefully place the lice back in his robe. Donald Keene, the great Western scholar of Japanese literature, after relating this story, stated that no Westerner could take such a person seriously.[17]However, Ryokan’s loving care even for insects illustrates the full extent of Maitreya’s loving kindness, as Maitreyan figures have often been associated historically with vegetarianism and kindness to animals, as well as to members of their own species.

A more “human,” less disconcerting example of loving kindness practice occurred when a cousin asked Ryokan to help deal with his son, who was becoming a delinquent. Ryokan came for a visit and stayed the night without saying anything to the boy. The next morning as he got ready to depart, Ryokan asked the lad to help him tie up his sandals. When the boy looked up from tying the sandals, he saw a tear rolling down Ryokan’s cheek. Nothing at all was said, but after that the boy completely reformed. The friendliness and attention to young people shown by Maitreya figures such as Ryokan and Hotei demonstrates Maitreya’s concern for the future, through the ensuing generation.

Ryokan’s remarkable poetic legacy intimately conveys the sincerity and simplicity of the way of life of the pure hearted Zen adept. For example:

Without desire everything is sufficient.

With seeking myriad things are impoverished.

Plain vegetables can soothe hunger.

A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.

Alone I hike with a deer.

Cheerfully I sing with village children.

The stream beneath the cliff cleanses my ears.

The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.[18]

Ryokan’s simple lifestyle of voluntary poverty and extensive meditation was obviously grounded in a deep dedication to awakening practice. The integrity of Ryokan’s awareness and devotion is also apparent in the following poem.

Spring wind feels rather soft.

Ringing a monk’s staff I enter the eastern town.

So green, willows in the garden;

So restless, floating grass over the pond.

My bowl is fragrant with rice of a thousand homes.

My heart has abandoned splendor of ten thousand carriages.

Yearning for traces of ancient buddhas

Step by step I walk begging.[19]

In this poem we can hear Ryokan’s pure conduct and his clear appreciation for a life of simple, unpretentious devotion. Ryokan unashamedly expresses the joys of his life of foolish simplicity, but in some poems he admits the loneliness and even perhaps regret at the difficulties of such a life.

Foolish Conclusions

My approach to interfaith dialogue is to stand on my own Buddhist side of the discussion, presenting my understanding of issues from my Japanese Soto Zen/ Mahayana perspective. At its best, engaging in interfaith dialogue I experience fresh perspectives from the other tradition that help clarify aspects of my own practice tradition. So it is only tentatively that I offer the following suggestion of a Christian figure who correlates with the Maitreyan model of kind heartedness.

Saint Francis of Assisi shares with Maitreyan exemplars a number of obvious parallels. He is emblematic of Christian kindness, and even the image of his “foolish” speaking to birds and other animals echoes the Maitreyan motif of extreme kindness to animals. Like Ryokan he accepted a life of simplicity and voluntary poverty, and became an inspiration to many through the ages. Saint Francis also left his monastic order for a rustic life of personal contemplation like Zen characters such as Hotei, Hanshan, and Ryokan. But unlike the latter, Saint Francis was more like Dogen in establishing a new monastic order to help train others in a life of simple, pure-hearted dedication.

The exemplars and stories of pure heart mentioned above obviously just scratch the surface, and only begin to suggest some aspects of one Zen Buddhist ideal. The qualities of the pure heart implied in the Maitreya archetype and through characters such as Hotei and Ryokan include lack of pretension or worldly ambition, simplicity of means and demeanor, and a kindly engagement with children and humble folk generally. The Maitreya archetype further stresses concern for the future of the world and for the problems of future beings; the cultivation of patience and calm; and careful meditative study of the self, of one’s own mental processes.

The Maitreyan model, and many of the examples of the pure-hearted spiritual practitioner we might cite in connection with it, also exhibit an intentional kindness to animals. This nonanthropocentric quality expresses the inclusivity and outgoing nature of the open heart that relates to going out of the monastery or training ground into the world of creation.

Such innocence and kindness are often considered innate traits. Yet the effort to cultivate and train practitioners toward such openness and dedication seems to be part of the intention of Dogen’s pure standards, and of the Buddhist monastic enterprise generally. Yet Dogen’s chosen exemplars clarify that the training of pure hearts cannot proceed simply by following some prescribed routine or program. These monastic procedures rather serve as a cauldron for guiding the practitioner toward actualizing the inner spirit of the pure heart. Nevertheless, specific practices to cultivate such devotion and kindness can be discerned from the Maitreya archetype’s meditations on loving kindness, on patience, and on the obstructions of habitual consciousness and attachment.

These reflections on the meaning and training of the pure heart in the Zen tradition are offered in the spirit of interfaith inquiry into the heart of kindness. I look forward to learning about parallels to these spiritual patterns in the Christian traditions.


[1] See Taigen Daniel Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans., Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

[2] For full translation and comment see Steven Heine, Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Koan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), pp. 217-222.

[3] Thomas Cleary, trans., Sayings and Doings of Pai-Chang (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), p. 26.

[4] See Yifa. “The Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan qingui. Yale University Ph.D. Dissertation, 1996.

[5] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, p. 141.

[6] Ibid., p. 139.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 140.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 147.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dogen criticized, for example, the view that it is enough to understand about Buddha nature without practice or observance of precepts in his writing Bendowa in 1231. See Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton, trans., The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s “Bendowa” with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (Boston: Charles Tuttle and Co., 1997), pp. 32-34. Late in his career, Dogen again emphasized the importance of ethics, for example in his essay Jinshin Inga “Deep Faith in Cause and Effect.” See Francis Cook, How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen’s “Shobogenzo” (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1978), pp. 159-169.

[13] For a treatment of the seven major archetypal bodhisattvas of East Asian Buddhism, including much more detail on Maitreya, see Taigen Daniel Leighton, Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and Their Modern Expression (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1998). These bodhisattva figures are of questionable historicity, but have pervaded Mahayana Buddhism as objects of veneration, and also as archetypal models of approach to awakening to be incorporated and expressed by devotees.

[14] See Watson, Burton, trans. The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 14-21.

[15] This material on Maitreya’s practice of patience is adapted, in different form and context, from the article, “Facing the Millenial Daze,” by Taigen Dan Leighton, in “Turning Wheel,” Winter, 2000, pp. 27-28.

[16] See Thomas Merton, “Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism,” in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1975), pp. 305-307.

[17] I heard this in a wonderful course by Dr. Keene on Japanese literature that I attended at Columbia College in 1976. Perhaps a few Westerners may have transcended their anthropocentrism since then.

[18] Taigen Daniel Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi, translations of poems by Ryokan in Essential Zen, edited by Tanahashi and Tensho David Schneider. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 132.

[19] Taigen Dan Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi, translators, “Poetry of Ryokan,” in “Udumbara,” Vol. 3, no. 1, 1985, p. 27.