Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Quiet Life

Sokei-An Shigetsu Sasaki

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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

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.

© First Zen Institute, New York cityThese 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,

Image 1: ©Istockphoto/Jinyoung Lee

Image 2: Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki (1882-1945) ©First Zen Institute, New York City

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What value is there in panning for gold in the Rockies.

jackelope65's picture

There have been enlightened lay and monastic people and I think you have a right to choose. When you are poor, and have a wife and child(ren), deserting them to go hungry is not an enlightened course, unless you have a king's ransom.
But if they suffer, still, is it wise?

melcher's picture

When I hear the story of 'the Buddha leaving his family' what I hear is an allegorical narrative in which 'the family' represents all of the attachments we have to things, people and situations in this world. Whether one leaves these behind literally is not the point. In order to enter a state of enlightenment and freedom we must drop our attachment to all that is ephemeral and which inevitably passes away. It doesn't imply shirking our responsibilities, but rather than identifying with them to regard them from another perspective, that which is the ground of pure awareness.

echevallier1's picture

Excuse me BUT... Since the very beginning the Buddhist tradition didn't understood the story of the Buddha as an "allegorical" narrative as you sweetly and conveniantly put it. You will not make me believe that people for THOUSANDS of years, who had stuff and families too, misunderstood the teachings of the Buddha about monasticism (including the Buddha himself who set up the Sangha!!!!). Then, lo and behold, after 40 years of presence in the West, we just realize the true essence of the Teaching : it's just an allegory!!! Hahaha! The Truth is that Westerners just cling to their way of life and do NOT want to change. They love their things(responsibilities !!! as you put it) so they downgrade monasticism (a very Protestant thing to do by the way). The Buddha taught clearly a distinction between the monastics and the laity. Accept it. You don't want to be a monk? Fine. Keep your stuff and "responsabilities" but do not belittle the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism has zero future in the West, as long as people do not accept the fact that monasticism is a central part of the teachings. Whithout it, Bouddhism is just a "feel good" pop philosophy, whithout any depth.

stking49's picture

Thank you for this explanation. Sigh of relief.

tara123's picture

Have to agree with Dominic. To even spend and hour uninterrupted is a pleasure in today's world - or at least in the sprawling apartment and housing complexes in which many of us find ourselves. We should be beholden to the Asian teachers who come here and try to help us with Western ways find the Buddhist path, and I'm not sure every road to Buddhism includes bodhicitta. It sounds cruel to us -- and let us hope families are left with financial stability. That's the reason Buddhism teaches non-attachment. For the time of death, and for the times when "goodbye" is the only word. We don't have the same discipline. We also don't have the same freedom. So in our Western way of life, we have trials and temptations quite different from an Asian monastic. To fight greed, mean-spirit, temper, anger, gluttony takes a similar courage, To STAY takes a special kind of courage, when one has made the life choice to marry and bear children. There are always two sides to every way of living - not black and white,, there are always shades of gray. For me, bodhicitta is the answer, and I use the hour I'm given as if it were 10. My speech is peaceful, I live a quiet life with disability and pain, and it isn't easy, but Buddhism raises me up and out of samsara. How can we judge ourselves positive or negative compared to cultures where Buddhism begins with birth? We are all doing our best - or trying.

bodhi143's picture

What is the motivation for the monks to leave their homes into retreated lives?

Monastics aren't rejecting or denigrating worldly life. It is a complete commitment to the Path in which every moment of one's existence is used with undivided attention. For those whose lives are full of samsaric activities, it may seem ideal, like heaven, but try to devote yourself to practice completely for just a week with no distractions and romantic notions of monastic life might change. Monastics have a very real daily existence. Much more "real" than those who distract their minds with endless samsaric activities cleverly disguised as "responsibility."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Can't this commitment to faith be one's daily life such as it is?

kuukan's picture

My guess is that it all depends on motivation. What is the motivation for the monks to leave their homes into retreated lives?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The belief that the reality of daily life is NOT enlightenment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism accords with the times. Values 3,000 years ago in India were quite different. But the bodhisattva vow remains: to work for the happiness of others.

safwan's picture

Well put, Dominic: "Buddhism accords with the times".

To show that some teachings of early Buddhism are preparatory and can develop in time, Nichiren says that a candle is useful at night but it would be meaningless to use a candle while the sun is in the sky - to find one's way. Buddhism accords with the times and reason.

Human values, however, and working for the happiness of others, are timeless, they are part of our humaity whenever we are born.

jayne's picture

I crave that soltitude and I often imagine living the contemplative life. But I have a family and purposeful work so the challenge for me is how to find the quite times and how to continue mindfully while I'm in the busy, noisy world. I remember when I was still in my early years of meditating and my children were young. As they grew older it became more and more difficult to maintain my uninterrupted meditation time. I was complaining to an older, wiser friend about this and she just said 'maybe you are ready to learn how to meditate without the silence'. She was right and I learned a lot from that.
Now I have my quite times at home and I try and be mindful during the daily busyness of life. But I also am making time to go on regular retreats, so I can have that extended period of withdrawing from the world. An old teacher once told me when i expressed my wish to be able to just walk away that 'we are here to experience the world, not escape it" and for me, my daily life is where I must practise. Others may be on a different path and thats OK, we each have to work it out for ourselves.

flyrcairplanes's picture

Thank you for posting this Jayne. It is very helpful.

dlee494's picture

The Buddha left his wife and son (I think his son was 8 years old at the time) in search of the Truth/enlightenment, and there are many, including myself that are thankful he did. I think each person has their own destiny...their own path they must follow. I lean towards Advaita Vendanta--no control, the body will do what the body will do. Kind of like there was a play that was written a long time ago and we're here just acting out our parts. I still feel "someone" within efforting at things, but it makes it easier at times to stop judging myself and others believing in only One Substance and no free will of personalities. I think Siddhartha, I believe Buddha's name was before he attained enlightenment, did a totally selfless act by leaving his family and a tremendous (understatement) service to humanity, actually to all that exists.

safwan's picture

Don't you think that the view about the Buddha leaving his family (as an examplary selfless act) - deprives the Buddha from being a role model for humanity?

The technique of meditation which the Buddha followed was derived from Hinduism. Meditation and austerities for a long time required leaving the family. This is a fact. But here we see a problem as Buddhism was accused of bias and discrimination aganist women. Women have family and social obligations and it is out of question to leave their children or functions in life to meditate in a forest. Well, OK, some nuns can do that but they are handful, and not a role model for other (millions) of women. Early Buddhism realised this failure and offered a compensation by rebirth in man's body.

The Lotus Sutra came to the rescue: it offered the teaching of Attaining Buddhahood in one's current Form, in this lifetime, for all people, and its practice (of chanting the Lotus Dharma) is applicable to all in daily life. A busy mother can be chanting in her mind while preparing food, for example, and a man going to a work-interview can chant to reveal his highest Buddha nature - while in the bus. Meditation - undeniably - has its great benefits and also limitations. The same effect of meditation is achieved by chanting. So majestic a feeling of harmony with the Universal Life, and that's why the Lotus Sutra is regarded as having a universal capacity.

Daisymom's picture

I would totally agree, jackelope63 that just up and leaving ones family would be totally selfish and not and 8 fold path life. What would be the diff of the self centered world we all live in that this goes on all the time anyhow, for another partner, for whatever!
I think the goal is in asking 'how the goal of quietude in what is the cacophony of sounds, internet, driven daily 'do this, do that, hurry hurry' lifestyles we live in here in the West' could be changed to incorporate quietude in our life. It feels like lunacy a lot, doesnt it in our society? But to eat slower, talk more focused, live more mindfully is sanity. And all of us taking time to meditate and make better choices is the best route. Thats how we make sense of the 'leaving home' bit in the story. Leaving home, while staying in the home.......

jackelope65's picture

When you make a commitment to a wife and children, it can only be selfish to renounce them for you own attachment to enlightenment. What becomes of the children? What is a Bodhisattva vow?