"Bamboo", Taiho, 1724, ink on paper, courtesy of private collection.
“Bamboo”, Taiho, 1724, ink on paper, courtesy of private collection.

THE BODHISATIVA NAGARJUNA [2nd-century Indian adept] asked himself, “If we follow even the [Buddhist] precepts for laymen we can be born in the celestial world, attain the way of Bodhisattvas, and realize enlightenment. Why, then, is there any need to follow the precepts for monks?” In answer to his own question he replied, “Although it is true that both laymen and monks can realize enlightenment, there is a difference in the relative difficulty each encounters. Because laymen have to make a living, it’s difficult for them to devote themselves completely to Buddhist training. If they attempt to do so, their livelihood will be endangered, while if they do the opposite, they must necessarily neglect their practice of the Way. To attempt to do both at the same time is not an easy matter. On the other hand, it is much easier for monks, being free of worldly responsibilities, anger and various distractions, to devote themselves to the practice of Buddhism. The same thing is true in regard to the realization of enlightenment.

“Laymen find it difficult to realize enlightenment because of the great amount of work they must do, the disorder and clamor in their lives, and the fact that they must live among worldly desires. Monks, on the other hand, are able to go out and meditate in deserted fields, thereby controlling their minds and realizing the essential emptiness of all things. When they pass beyond the realm of discriminative thinking they leave the world of outer causation behind them as well.

“The following verse describes the monk’s life:

Monks sit peacefully among the trees,
Ridding themselves of illusion with a calm mind.
Quietly realizing enlightenment,
They experience a joy that is beyond that of heaven.
Laymen seek fame and profit,
Or fine robes, seats, and bedding.
Though the joy in getting them is only fleeting,
They are untiring in their quest.
Monks, however, beg for food in humble robes,
Their daily actions being one with the Way.
With their Wisdom-eye opened
They realize the essence of the Law.
Gathering all together to listen
To the countless Buddhist teachings,
They leave behind the world of illusion,
Quietly enveloped in enlightenment’s Wisdom.

“As this verse shows, it is much easier to observe the Buddhist precepts and practice the Way if one enters the monkhood. Furthermore, by entering the monkhood and observing the precepts it is possible to fully make these noble precepts a part of oneself. For this reason laymen should definitely enter the monkhood and follow the precepts.”

Excerpted from Zen Master Dagen: An Introduction with Selected Writings, by Yuho Yokoi. Reprinted with permission  from John Weatherhill, Inc.

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