In the chapter “Gyoji” (Continuous Practice) of the Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji says, “The whole universe is the monastery.” This implies that wherever we go and whatever situation we face, we find ourselves in a monastery, a place of practice. Yet Buddhism would not have survived throughout the ages without physical monasteries. And of course Dogen Zenji himself is famed for establishing Eihei-ji, still one of the main temples in Japan.
The functions of monasteries vary and adapt across times and cultures. At Zen River most people who participate in the training programme also make short-term commitments to full-time residential practice. They enter the monastery in order to charge their batteries and benefit their lives at home and at work. The monastery is obviously not some island separate and apart from the rest of society, but a spiritual center from which awareness can spread in all directions.
So we may need a physical monastery in order to discover that we actually don’t need one! The whole universe becomes the monastery, so ideally any place will do. But practice has to begin at an actual place and time, and a place with well-articulated elements of training certainly helps. Otherwise it can become vague and abstract. With such a place as a springboard, our perspective is meant to become broader and broader, radiating out to the whole universe, every village, town, and country.
This model of training also gives the team of long-term resident monastics a clear and integrated role. They are treasure keepers, maintaining the continuity of the temple and its function. And however small their number is, they are of vital importance in providing a practical and inspirational context for those who join for shorter periods of time. Practice can show us our bodhisattva role in life, and for some it turns out to be this one.
Tenkei Coppens, January 2013