Winifred (Shokai) Martin was raised in Dublin, Ireland, in an environment she tells me was “ingrained by Catholicism.” Now she is an ordained priest with the Buddhist Temple of Toledo.
Students at the Toledo Temple commit to the Precepts – the ethical guidelines of Buddhism – before they begin the wisdom teachings and koan study. I am curious about the approach in part because one of the things which drew early North American Zen inquirers to the practice was a desire to find a spiritual alternative to the intrusive moralism associated with Christianity and its imposed ethical mores.
“I can understand that,” Shokai says. “But you used the word ‘imposed.’ And I think that’s the difference. In Catholicism it was imposed; it was separate; it was a list of rules revealed to the hierarchy by God, and you just obeyed them. In Zen – to me – morality is realized. This is awakening too. The precepts are not different from awakening. This is the realization of wisdom and compassion, and ethics is how it operates in the world.”
I mention that in some Zen lineages, formal study of the precepts occurs after one completes the koan curriculum. “You’ve reversed that,” I remark.
“Very intentionally,” she tells me. “And I do see the value of it. Rinsen and Do’on [the founders of the temple] came from Zen Mountain Monastery where you did wisdom training first, and then you did precepts. So they very intentionally made that shift. And a very related shift, I’ve noticed, is the emphasis on compassion teachings. I think a lot of the Zen traditions were wisdom heavy, and they paid a price. They had big crises that were ethically related. There is a danger in the wisdom traditions. There are teachers who were actually realized and yet have done terrible things. So we have a responsibility to expose people to the moral aspects of realization. Personally, and maybe because of the training that I got at the temple, I find it inconceivable that you could be deeply realized in the wisdom teachings and not see that the compassion teachings are no different. But there are teachers who are like birds with one wing tied. I think if you emphasize one over the other, you’re really handicapping people.”
There have been difficulties with personal behaviour at many of the founding centres in North America. Shokai attributes it to the fact that not as much emphasis had been placed on the compassion teachings as on the wisdom teachings. “I’m a big fan of wisdom,” she says. “But you can’t separate them out because they’re interrelated. They’re more than interrelated.”
We discuss the Four Bodhisattva Vows which is the most frequently used chant at Zen Centers worldwide. The first vow explicitly states that one undertakes the practice not on one’s own behalf but to benefit others. In the iteration used in Toledo, the First Vow declares: “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.”
“From what?” I ask.
“From suffering. From samsara.”
“You’re going to free all beings from suffering?”
We are speaking playfully here, but there is also a sincerity in her tone that makes it clear she takes this seriously. Seriously enough, I point out, that she has chosen to be ordained, for which she had to formally re-take all of her vows.
“To free all beings from suffering,” I continue. “Realistically, how would one even begin to approach that?”
“It’s an impossible vow. And that’s what makes it possible. Rick, I was talking about operating within the system. It’s not an operation within the system. I can go out there and do great work and alleviate a lot of suffering while still working within the samsaric mind. I’m never going to free all beings. It’s not possible there. This is transcending that system. I’m going to free all beings. Totally impossible. But it’s that impossibility – making it so big and vast and maha – that actually makes this not a crazy thing.
“The vow is there and the prajna part – the wisdom part – of it was emphasized. And absolutely if the prajna part of it isn’t there, it is an impossible vow. But the prajna part of it is not separate from the compassion part of it. And, really, it can be dangerous, I think, even to make that vow without the compassion piece of it there. Because it could speak to power in an egoic mind. Whereas the compassion piece, that ‘no-separation’ which underlies all those vows, which underlines the precepts, which underlies all the vows we take in Zen, if you can’t see the compassion side of it, you’re not seeing it. You’re not seeing the prajna – the wisdom – part of it either, I don’t think.”
“So now you’re a priest,” I remark, “and as a priest you’ve made a commitment to continue this practice into the future. Part of your priestly responsibility is to carry it forward. Right?”
“So, what do you hope for this lineage that you now officially represent and the sangha it serves?”
“Well, my profound hope is that First Vow, that we will free all beings and bring ourselves and all beings to complete and full enlightenment in this lifetime.”
“Piece of cake,” I suggest.
“I want us to set a foundation that will go on for generations and generations. And that can bring happiness to our community, that can have an impact in Toledo. And that anyone who is seeking, who is suffering, who is truly seeking ‘What is this?’ can actually come into those doors and be met.”