The Buddhist Priest Myoe

A Life of DreamsTaigen Daniel Leighton

Hayao Kawai
Translated and edited by Mark Unno.
The Lapis Press: California, 1992.
259 pp., $30.00 (cloth).

Returning in 1992 to my California sangha after two years in Japan, I was struck by the strong disjunction in approach to practice in the different cultures. I came to feel this shift as being from Japanese Faith Buddhism to an American Jungian Buddhism, informed by unavoidable therapeutic preoccupations. The Buddhist Priest Myoe: A Life of Dreams, a psychological biography of the Japanese monk Myoe Koben (1173-1232) written by the prominent Japanese Jungian psychoanalyst Hayao Kawai, bridges this cultural gap by focusing on Myoe's extraordinary dream diary.

Myoe is fully worthy of being noted alongside his more famous contemporaries of the Kamakura Period, such as Pure Land founders Honen, Shinran, and Ippen; Zen founders Eisai and Dogen; and Nichiren; as well as with other great figures of Japanese Buddhism before and since. Unlike his contemporaries who founded new schools and lineages in a period of social and religious upheaval, Myoe's allegiance lay in revitalizing both the traditional Shingon School (Japanese Vajrayana) and also the Kegon School based on the Flower Ornament Sutra (Sanskrit, Avatamsaka; Chinese, Huayen). This sutra, emphasizing interconnectedness, has received due attention from Western Buddhists for its visionary power and relevance to ecological concerns. Much of Myoe's writing focuses on making the wonder and richness of its teaching practical for everyday life. His love of nature is exemplified by a famous picture of him on his meditation seat up in a tree near his temple, and by the letter he addressed to a favorite island, which he had a disciple deliver by casting it to the wind upon reaching shore.

Myoe is best remembered in Japan as a model monk who impeccably demonstrated total devotion. His motto, summarizing all Buddhist precepts and practice, was, "To be as one should be" or "To act appropriately." His final words, the culmination of a serene deathwatch surrounded by loving disciples: "I come from among those who maintained the precepts."

Most important, from Kawai's Jungian perspective, Myoe kept a dream diary for forty years, from age nineteen until his death at fifty-nine. An important dream, about his wet-nurse's corpse, was even recorded at the age of eight, after he entered temple life the year after his parents died. Kawai calls this diary "a rare phenomenon in the spiritual legacy of humanity." Although others have kept extended dream records, Myoe added commentary, uniquely demonstrating insight into the dreams' continuity and relationship. He was able to confront his dream material directly and use it to further his own spiritual development, even reevaluating dreams years later. The dream record, including some visions arising during meditation, clearly reveals to Kawai a process of psychological integration, or individuation, to use Jung's term.

Kawai depicts Myoe's Buddhist practice in the context of personal psychological fulfillment, notable in that Buddhist awakening experience and personality maturation do not always seem to coincide. Through detailed analysis of Myoe's dreams, continuing themes are traced, especially the development of relatedness to female figures, as well as a progression of visions of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other spiritual Images.

Kawai provides helpful background in the use and understanding of dreams in Buddhism and in Japanese culture, as well as some historical overview of Myoe's time and Buddhist doctrinal context. He also discusses basic principles of modern dream analysis and dynamics, acknowledging the limitations of his analysis of Myoe, necessarily based on historical records without personal interviews. Occasionally, he quite confidently offers generalizations and neat interpretations of dreams to support his thesis, when the material might suggest differing viewpoints. Although Kawai's interest in Buddhism is relatively recent, inspired by Myoe, his assurance in his dream interpretations is based on many years of analytical work with patients. Despite its conjectural nature, his argument as a whole seems productive.

Kawai describes Japanese culture as maternal: all-embracing, receptive, and unifying, while the West is paternal: discriminating, categorizing, and conceptual. He considers Myoe a rare example of someone who has integrated both principles. Butsugen-Butsumo, "Buddha Eye, Mother of the Buddhas," a female deity, was Myoe's object of devotional practice, along with Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. They acted as mother and father in Myoe's psyche, replacing the parents lost in childhood.

Myoe's devotion first took the form of desire for self-abandonment in his early teens. He lay overnight in a charnel ground contemplating Buddha, vainly waiting for wolves to devour him as an offering, a wish later fulfilled in a vivid dream. At age twenty-three, Myoe's drive to prove his sincere dedication led him to cut off his right ear. Unlike Van Gogh, Myoe did not act impulsively: after deliberating, he decided that his ability to study and practice the dharma would not be impaired, as it would with alternative sacrifices: eye, nose, or hand. This resolute self-initiation expressed his sorrow at not being able to hear the teachings of Shakyamuni directly. Later, he twice unsuccessfully tried to arrange pilgrimages to India.

Kawai traces the development of Myoe's "feminine side," using the maternal/anima schema of female archetypes used by the Jungian analyst Eric Neumann. Myoe's female dream images gradually changed from maternal to younger anima figures, with increasing physical and emotional intimacy. This psychic partnership with women is highly unusual among Japanese men, who Kawai states are oriented strongly to the maternal. While strictly maintaining the traditional celibacy precept, Myoe did not reject sexuality or the feminine. In a dream, Myoe was transmitted a sutra affirming sexual desire as part of the bodhisattva realm. He wrote of the necessity of "familial" love based on desire, as a foundation for mature love of the Teaching. Myoe "had a deep and authentic relation with women in his inner life," and dreamed of the cosmic Buddha Vairochana as a dignified, beautiful queen. Outwardly, he also had many women students and supporters, and built a temple as a sanctuary for widows on the losing side in his era's bloody civil wars.

Kawai stresses that Myoe's erotic dreams while maintaining celibacy bespeak not repressed sexuality but rather full acknowledgement of women alongside his commitment to traditional precepts. Most Japanese monks, earlier and at Myoe's time, either had covert sexual relations or completely rejected both sexuality and women. For Kawai, the latter monks' souls had died; they had not truly maintained the precepts since they did not need them.

Fascinatingly, Kawai compares Myoe's attitude toward women with that of his contemporary Shinran, the Pure Land founder. After his own spiritual crisis over sexual desire, Shinran's solution, inspired by a vision of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, was an intense transcendent faith that allowed him to establish an openly married clergy. Eventually all of Japanese Buddhism has followed suit. Although their responses seem diametrically opposed, Kawai highly praises Myoe and Shinran as the two Japanese Buddhist leaders of their time who evidently faced the issue of sexuality directly. However, while this matter was much more central to Myoe and Shinran, one may note that others of their contemporaries had women students, and some (e.g. Dogen) even wrote of women's equal capacity for awakening.

Kawai's detailed Jungian outlook helps further our understanding of the possible relationship between personality development and the bodhisattva path. Though Kawai examines Myoe's inspiring life and dreams somewhat from the standpoint of Huayen dialectics, much more study would be welcomed.

George Tanabe Jr.'s recent Myoe the Dreamkeeper: Fantasy and Knowledge in Early Kamakura Buddhism (Harvard University Press, 1992) includes a complete translation of the substantial extant portions of Myoe's "dream diary," as well as details of the history of his time and Huayen philosophical context. Tanabe focuses on Myoe's dreaming, but from the standpoint of fantasy as the basis of Buddhist hermeneutics and literature, seeing dreams and meditative visions as expressions of emotion rather than objects for psychological interpretation. Myoe's extraordinary career included many fascinating aspects, beyond what can be noted here. These books provide a rich introduction.

 

Taigen Daniel Leighton, a Zen priest, is co-translator of Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi (Northpoint Press)

© Ed Subitsky

Image: © Ed Subitsky.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.