Zen Road
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Failure and rules

by Reiryu Philippe Coupey


Finally, in the end,
There is neither rule nor measure.
– Master Sosan, the Shinjinmei

[Facsimile of the opening page of The Rule of Saint Benedict from a 12th Century manuscript currently in the British Museum]
Master Deshimaru used to say that in order to carry out the ultimate on the Way, we must follow the rules. But once this ultimate is fulfilled, there are no more rules. But “no more rules” doesn’t mean that you’re more mushotoku than before; “no more rules” doesn’t mean nothing exists anymore, either.

There are many people who have stopped the practice and stopped following, even unconsciously, the rules and measures taught by the master. Maybe they practice a little at home, maybe not.


They’re a little like a boat without a pilot. The pilot is the person who shows the direction, who shows what to do to get there. Obviously, to get there you have to row together, in the same direction. But if there’s no pilot to show you the direction, you start to row towards the east, then later you row towards the west… How many times have we observed this tendency! We should always come back to the teaching that we have received.


Master Deshimaru often spoke about the Rule of Saint Benedict,(1) a contemporary of Bodhidharma. Many of these rules are similar to ours, in terms of attitude and gesture. Saint Benedict talks about how to sleep with ten or twenty people in the same room, as we do on sesshin. He talks about how to eat, and what to eat.


And he talks about confession. Sensei also used to tell us that we should confess. He liked it when we went into is room to confess. I think he preferred to hear crazy stories about our lives rather than discussions about our aches and pains during zazen.


He liked to hear us talk about our failures: how we were always broke, no money to eat, we had to find free food in the supermarket, we had no jobs, we were zero, worthless. I often spoke to him about my own failures. Maybe I was more at ease with this subject than the others. I liked to tell him about how I started so high up and fell so low. But I didn’t laugh when I talked to him about it. Neither did he.


He would listen attentively. Then he would say that the ancient bodhisattvas were not afraid of failure; but now, he was always hearing people say they were failures, they were ashamed, they were suffering. Failure was sustenance for the bodhisattvas! Of course, for the man of the Way, poverty is not poverty and failure is not failure. Some seekers of the Way even found joy in their poverty, maybe even in their failures, since “no failure” means that we have not succeeded at anything either, because we have not tried.


[Miniature of St. Benedict at Vicovaro, where hermit monks asked Bendict to lead them, but tried to poison him when they refused to follow his strict rules]

Sensei loved Saint Benedict. Here’s a passage that he often quoted at the end of his kusen: “I have written these simple rules for beginners. If you follow them, surely you will arrive at the peak, at the very top, in the high place of your celestial birth.”


Of course, rules are necessary. Saint Benedict put it this way: “These rules are not a steel chain. They are the chain of Christ, the chain of love.” We don’t often talk about Christ, or God or love; but love plays an important role in all religions. Philosophy doesn’t care, it seems to me, but this question of love is essential. Not small love, not relative love, but universal love.


So, no rules, no measures, means, I think, no rules or laws that are scientific, logical, psychological, philosophical, Buddhist or Zen. Only universal. Finally, we should avoid being trapped in categories. If we’re not careful about this, we will very quickly fall into formalism, which is empty of any teaching, wisdom, creativity and spontaneity – empty of all transmission of the Way.


Getting up in the morning to go to the dojo or to work, walking, eating – genmai or something else – this is the practice of the Way. It becomes a rule in our daily life and if we are awakened, it is transformed into ceremony. Walking becomes ceremony, eating becomes ceremony, everything becomes ceremony, unconsciously and automatically.



(1) Editor’s note: For the complete text of the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-583), see The Rule of Saint Benedict (Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998). A Buddhist (Vipassana) perspective is offered by Patrick Henry et. al. in Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict (Riverhead Books, 2001).


Excerpts of kusens given in the Halluin Dojo, January 30, 2000 and February 27, 2000.


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