Conduct First, Practice Second

Note: this is a repost from the old blog, with minor edits. Original post was made in 2016.

Lately, I’ve been re-reading a biography of the Japanese Zen monk Tetsugen Dōkō (鉄眼道光, 1630-1682). He was a monk of the lesser-known Obaku Zen sect in Japan,1 and is best-known for his efforts to standardize and print a complete Buddhist sutra collection (the “Obaku Tripitaka”) for Japanese Buddhism. However, Tetsugen was also an accomplished monk in his own time and his writings are preserved in Obaku Zen literature even today.

Originally, Tetsugen had been a Jodo Shinshu sect priest, just as I have been aspiring towards. However, for reasons not well-understood he left and took up Zen instead. As a Zen monk, Tetsugen became devoted to the Shurangama Sutra in particular, which is not widespread in Japanese Buddhism, but remains very popular in Chinese Buddhism. The origins of the sutra are somewhat unclear (some theories say it was composed in China, but lately scholarship places it back in India) but it emphasizes the importance of conduct first as a foundation for one’s practice. Tetsugen would often travel the country delivering lectures on this and other sutras (e.g. the Lotus Sutra), while collecting funds for the scripture printing project mentioned above.

In one poignant example in the Dharma Debate in Mori in 1674 (known as mori no hōnan 森の法難), the Jodo Shinshu priests in Higo Province there felt threatened by Tetsugen’s lectures and petitioned the local lord insisting on a Dharma debate.2 Jodo Shinshu teaches complete reliance on Amida Buddha, and thus the Buddhist precepts are not observed even by the Shinshu priesthood.  According to Tetsugen’s own affadavit called the “Affadavit Concerning the Dharma Debate in Mori” (mori no hōnan ni kansuru kōjōgaki 森の法難に関する口上書), he wrote:

Those who practice without keeping the precepts set out by the Buddha all represent False Dharma. The reason for this [is as follows:] Although practices such as chanting the nembutsu, seated meditation, and reciting the sutras are each practiced differently depending on the abilities of the believer, the precepts against taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and the like are absolute, regardless of the sect.

This is similar to a much older, the Dhammapada, where the Buddha teaches:

9. Whoever being depraved, devoid of self-control and truthfulness, should don the monk’s yellow robe, he surely is not worthy of the robe.

10. But whoever is purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness, he indeed is worthy of the yellow robe.

In other words, one’s virtue and self-discipline provide substance to one’s practice. Tetsugen discusses this later in the affidavit:

Thieves don the robes of the Thus Come One [the Buddha], take on the appearance of a monk or nun, and so turn the Buddha into an object for sale and make him into a source of their livelihood. They create all sorts of [bad] karma, and say that it is all the teachings of the Buddha Dharma. Instead, they malign those monks who keep the precepts as followers of the Lesser Vehicle.

The important thing I think is to appreciate what Tetsugen and the Dhammapada are saying: not everyone who wears robes, who has a lineage or teaches a temple (or meditation center) is necessarily a true monk. The quality of a teacher or monk is in how they conduct themselves. 

Intuitively, I think we all know this, but it’s easy to think that we can forgive a teacher for misconduct if his teachings are good, especially where qualified teachers are few and far between. What Tetsugen and the Dhammapada are saying, though, is the opposite: conduct should be the cornerstone of a teacher or monk’s quality, the teachings and practice second.

P.S. Interestingly, Tetsugen never actually criticized the Jodo Shinshu school specifically.  His lectures on the importance of precepts was directed to monastics and lay-followers of all schools equally.  Why Jodo Shinshu followers felt threatened enough to resort to violence is beyond me but might be a leftover from the earlier ikko-ikki peasant uprisings a century earlier.

1 Obaku Zen is descended in China from the same lineage as Rinzai Zen, but Rinzai had come to Japan during the Chinese Song Dynasty, while Obaku had come during the Qing Dynasty, or 500+ years later. In that time, Zen (or “Chan”) in China had changed quite a bit.  However, in Japan, Obaku has been influenced by it’s larger Rinzai cousin to the point that they closely resemble one another again.

2 Historical documents show that Jodo Shinshu followers from nearby towns gathered in a mob outside the temple and threatened to seize him by force, even while under the protection of the local lord. Not wanting to incite violence, and for practical reasons not wanting to bring down the wrath of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tetsugen and other monks quietly withdrew the following morning and the lecture was cancelled.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: