The Monastic Field of Meeting and Speaking

‘Meeting and speaking’ is a process of planting, cultivating, and harvesting Zen practices and teachings. The mutual presence established during oral teachings can be thought of as the soil of ‘meeting and speaking’. On the surface, there are the flowers and pollen of speaking, which includes the posture and presence of both the teacher and the hearers. Seeds are sown. Transplantings occur. Seeds and roots of previous teachings are watered.

Adept practitioners also gather and sew seeds from all the contexts of living: encounters with others, with teachers, with oneself, and with the flowerings of ‘the ten thousand things’ and ‘the hundred grasses’. Zazen-meditation, the monastic context, and the daily schedule compost and plow the soil.

The field of ‘meeting and speaking’ is an activity during which what can be seeded or transplanted is felt, what is germinating can be felt, what needs watering can be felt, what must be left for later can be felt. All this happens through the mutual engagement with the teachings. The components: presence, posture, energy, attention, non-conceptual openness, silences, pauses, and the sensorial tapestry of immediacy.

Why has ‘meeting and speaking’ within the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of realizational Zen Buddhist practice for fifteen centuries? This is a crucial question today, because contemporary Western Zen practice is and will likely remain primarily a lay practice. While it’s clear that there can be ‘lay-adept’ practice and even a non-residential lay-adept sangha rooted in realizational practice and integrated with daily life, the crucial question is: can such a lay-adept sangha fully embody the teachings and practices of Zen? And will such a lay-adept sangha be able to transmit the teachings and practices to successive generations?

My experience of the development of Zen Buddhism in the USA and Europe during the last fifty years has convinced me that a lay-adept sangha benefits from and probably needs a monastic component as part of its overall practice. Even if many members of the larger lay sangha do not participate in the monastic life, if they are part of a spectrum of sangha practice deeply rooted in monastic practice, their practice can mature in relationship to the overall sangha’s practice and its monastic component.

We are able to practice Zen in the West today because it has been maintained, developed, and transmitted within and through a monastic tradition. The Western lay-adept sangha is an unprecedented, historically significant experiment for Buddhism. Monasticism is an institution, a way of doing things over time that has produced results. It is not just about individuals practicing as monks; it is about what develops when monk-practitioners live together for significant lengths of time.

There is always individual practice. In the midst of monastic institutional practice, monks are engaged in their personal, individual practices. Nevertheless, both the monastic and the lay practitioner are also inescapably engaged in institutional practice. It is institutional practice which has given us practices and teachings and the sites where the practices and teachings developed. Institutional practice has created the sites of present-day practice, the sites where we meet other practitioners and where we usually find a teacher. Institutional practice creates societal support for practice and also helps establish a normative, societal identity for practitioners. And there are some teachings, like the twins of equanimity and compassion, and the Six Paramitas, which are most fruitfully developed in the context of monastic practice.

No lay (and hence no non-institutionally structured) Buddhist teaching lineage has ever survived, as far as I know, for more than a generation or two. My recognition of this led me to decide to be ordained as a Zen monk and to help Suzuki-roshi found the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, and through that a Zen teaching and practice lineage in the West. This recognition is also why I went on to found Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado and the Zen Forest Monastery in Europe.

If we in the West are to develop a lay sangha which will continue to succeed through the centuries, the question which will have to be answered is: Why has the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of Zen practice and its transmission for fifteen centuries? Investigating this question is crucial for Western practitioners individually, institutionally, generationally, and societally.

The question asks: Will you practice as a layperson or as a monk? Will you practice with a teacher, with a monastic sangha, with a lay sangha, or simply on your own? And if your decision is to practice on your own, how will you find out what are the teachings, how will you get to know the subtleties of the basic and the advanced teachings which are primarily taught orally, face-to-face, by example, enactment, bodily presence, because the subtleties often cannot be taught any other way? And how will you find ways to establish these teachings and practices within your lay life?

This question also asks – does Western society need monks and Zen lineages? In our contemporary society, a monk is not one of the definitive human beings, nor is monasticism one of the normative ways of life. Thus no intrinsic societal support for Zen monastic life exists in the West. Nor will traditional Western educational institutions, nor institutions modeled on Western educational institutions, be substitutes for monastic institutions. Western educational institutions and their offspring will not be ways in which yogic, Zen Buddhist practices can be transmitted.

In addition, nowadays, lay-life is simply more attractive, more developed and complex, than it was for ordinary persons in Asia during the ages when Buddhism was being developed. Consequently, it is not surprizing that for most Westerners, lay-life is simply more attractive than monastic life.

Perhaps, in the West, the emphasis on the incubation of the teachings within a monastic field of mutual practice will shift primarily to the ideal of the ‘Bodhisattva in everyday life’. This sounds beautiful, but can this ideal be realistically actualized? Can it be taught and passed on to others?

But then, perhaps there is an inner, embryonic logic to Zen practice, and once you start to practice zazen and mindfulness, Zen practice unfolds in your lived-life simply through continuing to practice. Perhaps all the practitioner needs is some initial seeds, and then all will flower from those seeds. Actually, in my experience, this is partly true; however, in essential ways it is not true – even though we do and we have to engage practice through our own experience. Intuition and noticing one’s experience only goes so far, and then even a small discovered or pointed-out teaching or detail of practice can open up next steps. There is even a craft to noticing one’s experience and intuitions.

The knowledge of arithmetic does not expand into modern mathematics even in a person who is extraordinarily gifted. Philosophy does not unfold in each generation in the same way. The piano requires instruction, examples, music. Embryos require parents, society, culture. Zen practice is a craft and requires a community of craftpersons.