As Appropriate: Buddhist Advice from Myoe

Lately, I have been enjoying a book on the Mantra of Light, and of a famous Japanese monk named Myōe (明恵, 1173 – 1232), called Shingon Refractions by Professor Mark Unno. Myoe was ordained in both the Kegon and Shingon schools of Buddhism, which at the time was not unusual as such schools functioned more like specialized study groups than overt sects found later, and became abbot of a temple named Kōzanji (高山寺).1

The book mentions a text called the Final Instructions of Myōe Shōnin (Myōe Shōnin Ikun, 明恵上人遺訓) compiled by his disciple Kōshin (高信). In the Final Instructions, Myoe offers this advice at the beginning:

People should maintain these seven characters, arubekiyōwa [阿留辺畿夜宇和, "as appropriate"]. Monks should act as appropriate to monks, lay as appropriate to lay; similarly, emperors as appropriate to emperors, vassals as appropriate to vassals. All that is bad results from turning one’s back on what is appropriate. (pg. 123, trans. Prof. Mark Unno)

I thought this was great advice, even if painfully obvious. Even in modern times, the advice is still true. If one is a father, one should act as appropriate. If one is an employee of Company X, one should act as appropriate. What’s important here is that Myoe isn’t outlining set rules to be broken, he’s instilling common sense that one should comport themselves as appropriate to their situation. In other words, if in doubt, do the right thing.

Myoe believed in the importance of arubekiyōwa so much so, that if you were to go to Kozanji temple today, there still hangs a wooden plaque supposedly inscribed by Myoe himself in the northeast corner of the Sekisui’in Hall (石水院), with the words arubekiyōwa (“As Appropriate”) as the heading. Professor Unno has kindly granted me permission to post the contents of that plaque here in full from his book.2 The plaque is a list of regulations for the monastery, as dictated by Myōe, divided into three parts, but also provides some insights into Myoe’s approach to Buddhism and life in a medieval Buddhist monastery:

As Approprate (Translation by Prof. Unno):

06:00 – 08:00 PM
Liturgy: Yuishin kangyō shiki (Manual on the Practice of Contemplating the Mind-Only)

08:00 – 10:00 PM
Practice once. Chant the Sambōrai (Revering the Three Treasures).

10:00 – 12:00 AM, midnight
Zazen (seated meditation). Count breaths.

12:00 – 06:00 AM
Rest for three [two-hour] periods.

06:00 – 08:00 AM
Walking meditation once. (Inclusion or exclusion should be appropriate to the occasion)
Liturgy: Rishukyō raisan (Ritual Repentance Based on the Sutra of the Ultimate Meaning of the Principle) and the like.

08:00 – 10:00 AM
Sambōrai. Chant scriptures for breakfast and intone the Kōmyō Shingon (Mantra of Light) forty-nine times.

10:00 – 12:00 PM, noon
Zazen. Count breaths.

12:00 – 02:00 PM
Noon meal. Chant the Goji Shingon (Mantra of the Five Syllables) five hundred times.

02:00 – 04:00 PM
Study or copy scriptures.

04:00 – 06:00 PM
Meet with the master (Myōe) and resolve essential matters.

Ettiquette in the Temple Study Hall

  • Do not leave rosaries or gloves on top of scriptures.
  • Do not leave sōshi [bound] texts on top of round meditation cushions or on the half [tatami]-size cushions [placed under round cushions].
  • During the summer, do not use day-old water for mixing ink.
  • Do not place scriptures under the desk.
  • Do not lick the tips of brushes.
  • Do not reach for something by extending one’s hand over scriptures.
  • Do not enter [the hall] wearing just the white undergarment robes.
  • Do not lie down
  • Do not count [pages] by moistening one’s fingers with saliva. Place an extra sheet of paper under each sheet of your sōshi texts.

Etiquette in the Buddha-Altar Hall

  • Keep the clothes for wiping the altar separate from that for wiping the Buddha[-statue].
  • During the summer (from the first day of the fourth month to the last day of the seventh month), obtain fresh water [from the well] morning and evening for water offerings.
  • Keep the water offerings and incense burners for buddhas and bodhisattvas separate from those for patriarchs.
  • When you are seated on the half-size cushions, do not bow with your chin up.
  • Do not place nose tissues and the like under the half-tatami size cushions.
  • Do not let your sleeves touch the offering-water bucket.
  • Do not put the [altar] rings on the wooden floor; they should be placed high.
  • Place a straw mat at your usual seat.
  • The regular sutra for recitation is one fascicle of the Flower Ornament Sutra (or half a fascicle). The three sutras should be read alternately every day.
  • When traveling, you should read them after returning.
  • The Gyōganbon (Chapter on Practice and Vow), Yuigyōkyō (Sutra of the Buddha’s Last Teachings), and Rokkankyō (Sutra in Six Fascicles) should all be read alternately one fascicle a day.

— The Kegon School Shamon Kōben [Myoe]

I believe Myoe wasn’t just being strict, but really wanted to instill proper conduct as appropriate for a monk in every facet of life in Kozanji. This may seem strange or harsh, but I am reminded of another book I read recently about Rinzai Zen, where the author Fujiwara Tōen, a monk himself, also commented on the strict regulations in a Zen monastery, and their purpose:

As we review these regulations of the monk’s hall, their meaning becomes clear. In other words, by regulating one’s behavior, one’s mind is also regulated. The Zen patriarchs were well aware of this. Moreover, the regulations enable Zen monks to concentrate at all times on zazen. (pg. 59)

So, while a monk in a Buddhist monastery, one should act as appropriate. But also, in one’s daily (lay) life, one should consider what’s appropriate for their situation. Regardless of whether you’re at that moment an employee, parent, someone’s child, spouse, whatever, the advice is the same. In many ways, this is the essence of Buddhism, or as the Buddha described it, “living the holy life”.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Kozanji has no homepage of its own, English or Japanese, but someone did a nice photo tour of the grounds here in Japanaese. The painting of a man in the tree is a rendition of Myoe.

2 Being a professor probably is a thankless job at times, but people like Professor Unno, Professor James L. Ford and Professor A.C. Muller make it possible for folks like us to learn more about Buddhism so definitely stop by their websites, say ‘hi’ and let them know how much their years of study and translation work are appreciated. :D

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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4 Responses to As Appropriate: Buddhist Advice from Myoe

  1. NellaLou says:

    This kind of daily schedule is quite useful even if one isn’t a monk. Setting out a time and method for one’s activities. One thing I particularly liked was

    02:00 – 04:00 PM
    Study or copy scriptures.

    For so many centuries scriptures have been copied out. It’s not only been due to lack of printing facilities I think. I’ve taken up a version of this myself-though not properly scheduled. I’ve been doing transcripts of video dharma talks and making those available on my blog and elsewhere. I use these myself to quote from but they are also of use to deaf people. There is a great deal of material that cannot be accessed due to it’s audio format (videos and mp3s)

    Transcribing brings a surprisingly intense interaction with the material. A lot more difficult than just listening to talks or reading. Every word requires attention and the comprehension of the material goes much more in depth. I had no idea of that when I started. I’d guess translators go through the same sort of thing too. Do you find it so when you are working in Japanese too?

    Likely many of the items you’ve listed have more underlying motivations than are immediately apparent. And only be doing these apparently ritualistic things do those motivations and their benefits appear.

  2. johnl says:

    Thanks for that perspective, NellaLou! I have appreciated the meditative quality of sutra copying, but the idea of transcribing stuff for the deaf adds a stronger bodhisattva element–I never thought about that. Also, your blog is now bookmarked! (The video about time perception is a very cool, real-time transcription–nice!)

  3. Kendall says:

    Doing what is “appropriate” is somewhat obvious, but identifying and knowing what is appropriate is harder. You list out what is appropriate for a monk while at the shrine, but what about for lay people and for fathers, emperors, etc.? As parents find out pretty quickly, their children aren’t born with manuals. Figuring out what is appropriate for taking care of them can be very difficult and stressful. Some people come to figure out what’s appropriate long the way, but as the news shows every night, there are many who don’t. I guess laws are one form of defining “appropriate” behavior for people.

  4. Doug says:

    Hi Kendall,

    I think it’s more based on common-sense intuition, rather than getting bogged down in concrete rules. In any society, people would agree that fathers should take care of their family, and not squander funds for example. Monks and priests in general should maintain good moral conduct that others can emulate. Details may vary, but obviously some behavior crosses the line anywhere.

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