The Zen Monk's Life - Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki - ebook

Dr. Suzuki is generally regarded as the outstanding spokesman for Zen Buddhism in the West. A master stylist in the English language, he writes of Zen with the directness and concreteness that characterize Zen itself. As he describes the training of the monk, he is as the same time bringing this rigid mental discipline to life in a manner no conventional explanation could. Dr. Suzuki's book is enhanced by 43 drawings from another Zen monk, Zenchu Sato, depicting the latter's own experiences as a novice. This is a major work that must be read by any Westerner who is interested in understanding Eastern thought.

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Table of Contents
The Zen Monk's Life

The Zen Monk's Life

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki

This page copyright © 2006 Silk Pagoda.

Dr. Suzuki is generally regarded as the outstanding spokesman for Zen Buddhism in the West. A master stylist in the English language, he writes of Zen with the directness and concreteness that characterize Zen itself.

As he describes the training of the monk, he is as the same time bringing this rigid mental discipline to life in a manner no conventional explanation could. Dr. Suzuki's book is enhanced by 43 drawings from another Zen monk, Zenchu Sato, depicting the latter's own experiences as a novice. This is a major work that must be read by any Westerner who is interested in understanding Eastern thought.



The training of the Zen monk takes place at the Semmon Dojo which is the “seat of perfect wisdom” (bodhimanda) specifically built for the purpose. While Dojo has lost its original meaning and is nowadays used to designate any place of training, it still retains its primary connotation when it is applied to the Zen monastery. Attached generally to all the principal Zen temples in Japan we find such a training station for the monks. A Zen monk is no Zen monk unless he goes through at least a few years of severe discipline at this institute. All the monks, therefore, who are ordained after the rite of the Zen school of Buddhism are supposed once in their life to enter here; with all their higher modern college education, no monks can have any ecclesiastical standing in their own circles if they were not once students of Zen here. They have thus every reason to come to the Semmon Dojo and to submit themselves to its disciplinary curriculum.

As the writer at this moment of writing is living in the grounds of Engakuji, Kamakura, which is one of the main Zen monasteries in Japan, let him describe the Dojo here. The monastery is surrounded by hills, and in one of the valleys along which one walks up to the higher and inner part of the grounds there is a temple called Shozoku-in. The Semmon Dojo is inside the gate of this temple, which comprises, as we have it at present, the tomb of the founder of Engakuji, the hall dedicated to him, the hall enshrining the Buddha's Sarlra (in the classical style of Sung architecture), the Zendo (i.e., meditation hall), the Shozoku-in itself (constituting the Joju part of the monastery), the belfry, and the residential quarters of the Master known as Zempan-ryo or Inryo. Most buildings here are reconstructions since the earthquake of 1923. Let us imagine that all the scenes to be depicted in the following pages are with more or less exactitude referred to a Semmon Dojo somewhat resembling the one in the Engakuji monastery, while the pictures themselves may often remind the reader of one of the Kyoto Semmon Dojo if he has ever been resident there.

The life at the Semmon Dojo, which, by way of abbreviation, will be later spoken of as the Zendo life, is something altogether out of keeping with modern life. We can almost say that anything modern and many things ordinarily regarded as symbolic of a pious life are absent here. Instead of labour-saving machinery, what may appear as labour-wasting is encouraged. Commercialism and self-advertisement are banned. Scientific, intellectual education is interdicted. Comfort, luxury, and womanly kindness are conspicuous for their absence. There is, however, a spirit of grim earnestness, with which higher truths are sought; there is determined devotion to the attainment of superior wisdom, which will help to put an end to all the woes and ailments of human life, and also to the acquirement of the fundamental social virtues, which quietly pave the way to world-peace and the promotion of the general welfare of all humankind. The Zen life thus aims, besides maturing the monk's spiritual development, at turning out good citizens as social members as well as individuals.

The Zendo life may be roughly analysed into (1) life of humility, (2) life of labour, (3) life of service, (4) life of prayer and gratitude, and (5) life of meditation. After his initiation to the Brotherhood, the monk is to be trained along these lines.

By “initiation” is meant a monk's being taken into the communal body of a Zen Brotherhood connected with a given monastery. This presenting himself as a noviciate requires some preliminary steps. He must first be provided with a certificate as a regularly ordained disciple of a Zen priest, and then he is to be equipped with all the articles which belong to the make-up of a monk travelling for the study of Zen. The articles a monk needs are very few in number, and easily carried by him over the shoulders. With a bamboo hat, deep and large, over his head and a pair of straw-sandals and cotton leggings securely protecting his legs and feet, the monk appears before the porch of the Dojo.

This travelling or pilgriming1 which is technically known as angya (hsing-chiao, “going on foot")2 has a special significance for the monk, and even when every form of modern transportation is available, he has to dress himself in the complete travelling attire as in ancient days and thus to present himself before the Dojo authorities. (Plate 1.) Here is the “Song of Angya” composed by Shan-chao of Fen-yang, (Punnyo Zensho), one of the noted Chinese Zen masters of the early Sung:

1 It is possible that the usage originally started from Sudhana's visits, as related in the Gandavyuha, to more than fifty masters in various walks of life.


“Determined to leave his parents, what does he want to accomplish?

He is a Buddhist, a homeless monk now, and no more a man of the world;

His mind is ever intent on the mastery of the Dharma.


“His conduct is to be as transparent as ice or a crystal,

His is not to seek fame and wealth,

He is to rid himself of defilements of all sorts.

“He has no other way open to him but to go about and inquire;

Let him be trained in mind and body by walking over the mountains and fording the rivers;

Let him befriend wise men in the Dharma and pay them

Respect wherever he may accost them;

Let him brave the snow, tread on the frosty roads, not minding the severity of the weather;

Let him cross the waves and penetrate the clouds, chasing away dragons and evil spirits.


“His iron staff accompanies him wherever he travels and his copper pitcher is well filled,

Let him not then be annoyed with the longs and shorts of worldly affairs,

His friends are those in the monastery with whom he may weigh the Dharma,

Trimming off once for all the four propositions and one hundred negations.


“Beware of being led astray by others to no purpose whatever;

Now that you are in the monastery your business is to walk the great path,

And not to get attached to the world, but to be empty of all trivialities;

Holding fast on to the ultimate truth do not refuse hard working in any form;

Cutting yourself away from noise and crowds, stop all your toiling and craving.


“Thinking of the one who threw himself down the precipice, and the one who stood all night in the snow, gather up all your fortitude,

So that you may keep the glory of your Dharma-king manifested all the time;

Be ever studious in the pursuit of the Truth, be ever reverential towards the Elders;

You are asked to stand the cold and the heat and privations,

Because you have not yet come to the abode of peace;

Cherish no envious thoughts for worldly prosperity, be not depressed just because you are slighted;

But endeavour to see directly into your own nature, not depending on others.


“Over the five lakes and the four seas you pilgrim from monastery to monastery;

To walk thousands of miles over hundreds of mountains is indeed no easy task;

May you finally intimately interview the master in the Dharma and be led to see into your own nature,

When you will no more take weeds for the medicinal



Travelling nowadays is done by railways or air-line, and all the charm, all the experience, and all the education one gets from travelling on foot as in ancient days are entirely lost—which is one of the great moral losses we moderns sustain in this mechanical age. When mountain-climbing is made too easy, the spiritual effect the mountain exercises vanishes into the air. The moral benefit the modern monk thus forgoes together with the picturesqueness of his life is to be greatly regretted. We must somehow find ways—the sooner the better—to compensate all such losses inevitably arising from science, machine, and capitalism.


In whichever way we may travel, on foot or by train, life itself is a form of angya-. “Whence?” is the name of our starting station and “Whither?” is that of the arrival. Hence this admonition by Ta-hui 1 given to one of his lay-disciples:

“Whence is birth? Whither is death? He who knows this 'Whence and Whither' is said to be the true Buddhist. But who is the one that knows birth and death? Who is the one that suffers birth and death? Who is the one that does not know whence birth is and whither death is? Who is the one that suddenly comes to the realisation of this 'Whence and Whither'? When this is not thoroughly understood, the eyes rove, the heart palpitates, the viscera writhe, as if a fire-ball were rolling up and down inside the body. And who is the one, again, that undergoes this torture? If you want to know who this one is, dive down into the depths of your being, where no intellection is possible to reach; and when you know it, you know that there is a place where neither birth nor death can touch.”

1 Ta-hui was one of the greatest characters in the Sung history of Zen.

The object of the Zen monk's pilgrimage as well as that of our life-angya, is to come to the understanding of all these questions set up by Ta-hui; for this is “seeing into one's own nature.” Mere visiting one holy sight after another is not in the programme of the Zen travelling, angya.

As Life carries its own bundle in the form of the body, so does the monk carry a travelling bundle over his shoulders. How happy we might be—so we imagine quite frequently indeed—if we were freed from this inevitable “bundle” known as the body or the flesh! As this is impossible, all we could do is perhaps to reduce the amount and weight of the bundle to a minimum. The less the bundle the freer will be our movement. For this reason, the monk limits his luggage to the contents of a papier-mache box about 13 x 10 x 31/2 inches called kesa-bunko. In it we find a priestly robe (kesa-kashaya), a razor, the home address, some money (which is to be used for burial in case of his unexpected death), a book or two, a set of bowls (which are tied outside to the box), and other little miscellaneous things.

The worst passion we mortals cherish is the desire to possess. Even when we know that our final destination is a hole not more than three feet square, we have the strongest craving for accumulation, which we cannot ourselves make any use of after death. The monk mutely protests against this human passion by limiting his possessions to the last degree.

3 In ancient days when there was yet no railway travelling, the monk had to pass many nights on his way to the monastery where he decided to study Zen. Since he had no money, those nights were to be spent under any shelter he would come across, generally in a Buddhist temple where hospitality was most generously extended, but, if such was not available, in the open field or in a lonely roadside shrine. This was indeed a good practical education for the young monk who has now decided to give final solution to the questions, as were formulated by Ta-hui, but which, really, have been stirred deep in his own heart. For the questions are to be solved, if they are at all solved, by keeping a close contact with life. When this contact is lost, the questions become subjects of intellection. The young monk must, therefore, experience life in its hardest and toughest aspects; unless he suffers he cannot probe into the depths of his own being. Travelling teaches this, and it was well for him to be prepared for all that might be coming to him in his monkish pilgrimage.

He has now arrived at his destination. The picture (Plate 2) shows the entrance to the temple which is attached to the Zendo. One of the monk-officials has come out to see the new applicant. The latter respectfully presents his letter of introduction and a certificate from his master by whom he was ordained. But he is politely but firmly refused acceptance to the Brotherhood. The plea is conventional these days: the Zendo is too full, or the temple is too poor, and no more admittance is possible. If the monk-novice accepts this quietly and tries another monastery, there will be no Zendo where he can find entrance; for he will everywhere meet this form of refusal.

The refusal is given once and the official withdraws. Being left alone, the monk has now nothing else to do but to continue his supplication in the same attitude as was assumed in the beginning: he leans over his baggage with his head down. He is fortunate if he is left to himself thus undisturbed. For he is sometimes forcibly ejected as an obstinate monk who refuses to accept the decision given out to him by the Brotherhood.


When the Zen monks want to be rude, they can be so.

The new persistent applicant is now rejected by force from the entrance and pushed outside the gate which is closed behind him. He will not, however, be dismayed; he spreads his seat, lets down his bundle, and begins to sit cross-legged; before long he may be found apparently deeply absorbed in meditation. The night advances, and the moon is seen going down between the branches of a tree. (Plate 3.)

It seems as if no soft spots were left in the heart of the Zen master. What he generally doles out to his monks is “hot invective and angry fist-shaking.” For the Zen truth is something which must be snatched away from the hands of the master; he will never be too ready to bestow it mildly on those who beg. He is to be made willy-nilly to hand it to them. This is where the Zen discipline differs from other religious trainings. We will have further occasions to see how this is.


As is mostly the ease, the “new arrival” (shin-to) will be invited in when the evening comes. He is then at least for one night assured of being sheltered from exposure; but if he expects to sleep under a warm bedding, he will be terribly disappointed. No such accommodations are waiting him, and he is ready to stand all trials. He has been informed of all these inconveniences before he started on this pilgrimage. Zen monks are not supposed to pass their nights lying comfortably in bed; when the questions baffling all intellectual attempts at solution are still harassing them, how can they hope to have any kind of rest? There were many examples in the annals of Zen, which they may follow if they really want to be enlightened. Tzu-ming (Jimyo) of the Sung pierced his thigh with a drill when he felt sleepy while meditating. The new arrival passes his nights facing the wall in the posture of meditation. (Plate 4.) When the morning comes, he puts on his straw-sandals, goes out, and nods his head over his own baggage as he did on the previous day.

This period of probation, otherwise called niwa-dzume, “occupying the entrance court,” may last at least two or three days—which formerly extended even to a week. This spending all day with the head down on the bundle is, to say the least, a most tiresome and trying procedure. How high his ideal and how exalted his aspirations, the Zen monk without the sense of humility and self-abnegation is not expected to attain the highest degree of purification. This niwa-dzume is the first practical lesson given to him as soon as he arrives at the Zendo.

After the niwa-dzume comes what is known as tangwa-dzume. Tangwa literally means “to leave in the morning” and is the name given to the room where travelling monks are given a night's lodging; they are not allowed to stay for a second night, hence the name. The monk-novice is now allowed to come inside and pass another three days' probation period in this room. Thus left in solitary confinement, as it were, he passes all day in meditation.


When about five days are passed since the arrival at the monastery, the novice monk gets a notice from the office known as Shika-ryo, which is the directing centre of the whole Brotherhood. According to the notice, he is to be at last permitted into the Zendo. He is told about the regulations, and good sound advice is given to him by the head-monk. In the following morning after breakfast he is transferred from the lodging room to the Zendo. He puts on his kesa,