The Eight Gates of Zen: Spiritual Training in an American Zen Monastery

The Eight Gates of Zen: Spiritual Training in an American Zen Monastery

by John Daido Loori
Dharma Communications: Mt. Tremper, New York, 1992; paperback.

If you still don't know what Zen is, it's your own fault. Library shelves are stuffed with books a bout Zen, and we probably don't need more of the kind that describe what Zen is. But a new kind of book has made its appearance in recent years and it is of equal or greater interest. That is the kind of book that reflects the actual experience of the first generation of Western Buddhist teachers. Such books are display cases for Zen students who have practiced for several decades, achieved some degree of spiritual realization, and have received Dharma transmission and permission to teach from their teachers. These books are valuable for not only the teaching we read but also for their tacit witness to the fact that spiritual attainment is still a reality.

John Loori has been a student of Taizan Maezumi Roshi of the Zen Center of Los Angeles for many years. He is now the teacher and abbot of his own monastery at Mount Tremper, in the Cat skill Mountains in southern New York. The Eight Gates of Zen is not a “this-is-what-Zen-is” kind of book but rat her is ostensibly a description of what spiritual t raining involves at a no-nonsense monastery run by a teacher who knows that Zen is a religious path and not a hobby. His monastery is hard to get into and the life there is challenging once one is accepted. For those who are accepted and who settle in for long-term practice, the monastery offers eight “gates,” or entrances into the spiritual life of Zen. These are Zen meditation (zazen), individual study with the teacher, liturgy, ethical and moral self-education, art practice, body practice, academic study of Buddhism, and work as spiritual practice. These approaches to, and expressions of, Zen are followed over ten stages, which Loori likens to the ten stages of the well-known “Ten Ox-herding Pictures.” The structure of the eight gates and ten stages, which includes the elaborate and rigorous koan study that is part of this form of Buddhism, leaves no doubt as to the rigor of practice at Mount Tremper.

But The Eight Gates of Zen is more than a mere description of the course of practice at one American Buddhist community, as interesting as that may be for students of religion , sociologists, and the like. Loori uses the structure of the eight gates as a device for exploring and commenting on the importance and relevance of each of the eight gates from the perspective of his own under-standing. To mention just three of the gates, I find that he speaks convincingly of the necessity of liturgical practice, academic study of Buddhism, and moral and ethical grounding. This is particularly important because Americans (and perhaps Europeans) who follow Buddhism are, as a group, abysmally ignorant of the teachings of Buddhism, and don't see the relevance of bowing, chanting, and other practices. They do not practice Buddhism as a spiritual path and often lack authoritative guidelines for conduct. It is little wonder that fundamentalist Christian preachers see Zen as cultlike and a refuge for hippies.

Another area of discussion that will interest members of the Buddhist community is that of the nature of monk and nun practice and its relationship to lay practice. Loori insists on making a sharp distinction between the two forms of practice, observing correctly that in our culture we don't really know what a Buddhist monk or nun is, with the result that in many communities, “monks” have families, work in the secular world part or full time, accumulate property, and so on, so that beyond the robes that they wear, they are indistinguishable from lay students. Loori makes the distinct ion and discusses the importance of both kinds of practice and their interdependence.

Still, Loori's permitting couples to live together or at least have a physical relationship as long as the couple does not have children, leads me to question whether he has completely settled the question of what a monastic is as opposed to a lay person. Should renunciation of worldly cares and attractions be extended to the greatest of all distraction s and attract ions? Is sex incompatible with a true commitment to a spiritual way? (Ancient Buddhism thought so.) Is the traditional Buddhist negative attitude towards sex simply outmoded and irrelevant today? And if it is all right to have a satisfying sex life, why can't one also own a Mercedes? Eventually the American Buddhist community needs to settle this issue.

Loori 's book will be of interest to American Buddhists and to scholars and professionals who are interested in American religion. The book is well written and produced, thanks both to the literacy of the author and the excellent editorial work by Bonnie Myotai Treace and Conrad Ryushin Marchaj.


Autumn 1993