SOKEI-AN SHIGETSU SASAKI, a Japanese Zen pioneer in the West, describes some of the many differences between his American lay followers and the monks back home. From a lecture given on February 21, 1942, as published in issue #1 of Zen Notes, January 1954.


Peaceful in body, peaceful in speech,
The bhikkhu peaceful and well-concentrated
Who has rejected the world’s bait
Is called “one at peace.”
-The Buddha, Dhammapada 378

 

©Istockphoto/Jinyoung Lee
©Istockphoto/Jinyoung Lee

 

PERHAPS YOU CANNOT imagine such a practice as that which has been current among my people. In China or Japan, monasteries are built on a mountaintop or on the edge of a cliff. From there you can see a thousand miles before your eyes. In winter, when the valley is covered with snow, you feel you are in a world of silver. No color is before your eyes. In the valley it is so quiet. In the daytime when the monks are meditating, if there is any sound in the temple it will be only that of a mouse or a rat.

Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki (1882-1945) ©First Zen Institute, New York City
Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki (1882-1945) ©First Zen Institute, New York City

These monks are not retiring from the world; they are trying to find quietude in their minds. This state is longed for by oriental students. They try frantically to find it. Occasionally they renounce their home, or separate from wife and children to pass their lives in such a quiet place. You could not dream of men like this until you meet them. They value highly their quiet way of life. They cannot see the value of the life we are in daily contact with, our present civilization, where men hold a cigar in the right hand and a glass of whiskey in the left hand, listen to music, watch dancing, and eat delicious food. We might say that these are the two extremes of human life.

Perhaps you will ask, what value is there in that quiet and aloof way of life? The monks would ask the same question of you. What value is there in passing your nights in a nightclub?

Reprinted by arrangement with First Zen Institute of America, firstzen.org.

 

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