July 10, 2011 – After the 2011 Tendai-shu New York Betsuin Gyo and a short rest.
He’s ba-a-ack . . . there was a hiatus on publishing a blog entry upon returning to the states from Japan. It is expected that the blog should come out every three or four days. Thank you for your patience. We completed the 2011 Tendai-shu New York Betsuin gyo on July 3rd. This is a yearly event in which people from North America and Europe come together for training to be Buddhist priests. It is 10 days of intense practices and instruction intended for people who are, or will be, Sangha leaders and people responsible for the organization of Tendai-shu outside of Japan.
This blog entry is a glimpse into the gyo. The gyo itself is very much like the training on Mt. Hiei, Japan, center of Tendai Buddhism. There are differences in the gyo in Japan and the one at the Betsuin. Most of those differences settle around the uniqueness of Japanese culture contrasted with a Western postmodern world. A gyo is not a retreat or a set of workshops. It Is a very intense monastic training that includes practices, teachings and discipline that exemplifies Sanmitsu (body speech and mind). Because it is specifically fashioned to train people who intend to be Buddhist priests some people might think it is like seminary. While I’ve never been to a seminary for study, my impression is that gyo and seminary bear little resemblance to each other. The gyo is, like much of the Buddhist Path, experiential. There are intellectual facets to being a Tendai Buddhist priest, but very little of that occurs during gyo. The day begins at 3:30 AM with a water purification, followed in turn by a two mile walking meditation on a dirt road in the dark, 108 prostrations, morning service, cleaning tasks, Evening Prostrations” morning gruel meal, a one hour meditation period (this is open to the public), cleaning tasks, morning instruction, etc. There are three periods of 108 prostrations altogether, work periods, several hours of instruction, tests, sutra chanting, copying and study, shomyo practice, and more services. It is a very full day. The formal activities end about 8 PM. That means that with the exception of meals, which are taken silently and with great formality, it is at least a 15 hour day. The Soryo and Doshu must create their own morning and evening services, typically after lights out. There are no real breaks. The only free time is half an hour after the Kokorodo.
In addition to this general schedule there are several all day activities; one full day each of meditation, circumambulating Nembutsu, prostrations to the 3,000 buddhas (every three years this takes three days), and a 27 km or 17 miles Kokorodo (devotional meditation walk – similar to kaihogyo). Whether it is a regular schedule or an all day activity the program can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically grueling. To those who complete the three to six years of training it is also satisfying.
Spiritual development during the gyo is a result of the practices and the challenges presented to the impermanent self. There is nothing to hide behind, nothing to grasp. For those who want to intellectually engage Buddhism without practices and devotion the gyo will be an exercise in frustration and disappointment.
As a leader of a sangha or contributing to Tendai-shu gyo provides training into the nature of reality that forces the participant to face their fears and examine their motives for wishing to be a priest. It also teaches some basic skills, such as leading meditations. It is part of the process whereby a person learns important lessons that can then be used in leading others.
To be sure gyo is not a fool proof process, there are those who undergo the training who may somehow successfully evade the inner lessons offered. Such people have formidable barriers to gaining insight into themselves and the Buddha Dharma. As I often say, humans have an infinite capacity for delusion. Ideally those leading the gyo will discover these well-meaning, but self-defeating people, before they become sangha leaders. However, there is no guarantee.
Taken as a whole the gyo process is a difficult, exhausting, challenging method of priests training. It is not for everyone. It is intended to develop personal character, promote spiritual development and instill in the participants compassion, wisdom and guidance in ways that a classroom cannot. While it is probably not unique, it is remarkable in what it offers and what it demands. For the people who totally engage the gyo without reservation it can be a seminal spiritual experience. It is not coincidentally Tendai’s means of doing what can be done to ensure that sangha are lead by competent, skillful and dedicated people.
To those who completed the 14th Tendai-shu New York Betsuin gyo, congratulations. To the sangha who support Tendai Buddhist Institute and their individual sangha, a heartfelt thank you for your patience and generosity.
Gassho . . . Monshin