I would like to propose that what is the important about the Shusho-gi is not found within its content, but rather, is in its intent. Its content is basic, a rudimentary summary of Dogen’s larger work (the Shobogenzo)–maybe even a poor one at that, but they reason why it was produced is in and of itself extraordinary. We are talking about a time and a practice where in order to be a true follower of the Way (or Buddhism) one was expected to take on the vows and training of a monk and live a monastic lifestyle. It was not for the common-people, and there was a bit of a monopoly going on where only those of wealth or noble birth were really “making it” into the higher ranks of the religion. Yes there were exceptions, but it was not the norm.
Soto Zen monks and Masters began teaching the practice to commoners, to those outside of the monasteries, and began encouraging regular people to take up a home practice. They also began to treat these lay workers as valid members of their Buddhist community. When the other Buddhist sects in the region took notice of this they began to scorn the Soto Priests, calling it “farmer zen” and calling out for them to correct the mistake of taking Buddhism outside of the walls of the monasteriesand into the streets. Now, how did the Soto Zen leaders respond? How did they respond to the scorn and the ridicule? They decided to embrace the lay-worker, they decided to validate the commoner and the home-practice. Instead of shying away from it, they opted to start producing reading materials and teachings that they commoners could understand and that they could take home with them to read, outside of the libraries of the monasteries which were normally off-limits to the common people. They decided to officially open the practice up to and embrace the lay-worker and the non-monk Buddhist.
Do I like or agree with everything in the Shusho-gi? No. I know that they were trying to unify all the different people in the Soto school with a standard set of teaching that they all could agree on. I know that they had spread so much and had allowed so many people to teach and practice outside of the monasteries that they were trying to re-establish a common set of beliefs. I also know that there was some pressure to do so from the government at the time. As a Westerner, some of it seems a bit dated or foreign to me (like the references to reincarnation and so-forth), but this does not change for me how wonderful and important the intent of the document was. This does not change the fact that, although it was not the birth of the lay-monk in Japan, it was the beginning of fully embracing and validating it, of making it an official part of the practice and of Zen.
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