What is Shugyo 修行 (aka "Cultivating Conduct")?

"Shugyo refers to training the whole being in the most profound manner by taking the wisdom of awakening itself as the basis of training."

What is Shugyo 修行 (aka "Cultivating Conduct")?
Photo by Thomas Kinto: The universe as a tea bowl; a tea bowl as the universe.

In this post I offer you a basket of riffs that I've gathered together on an essential pointer to what Zen is really about. Hint: Zen isn't a philosophical or psychological reframe.

The characters for this key term, shugyo, are these: 修行. Very literally they mean "cultivating conduct." Shugyo suggests applying oneself vigorously to the methods of training within the container of the precepts. Shugyo is synonym for "practice awakening."

The prompt for gathering this basket of riffs is a sentence from our present Vine study of The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor.

One should understand that cultivating conduct [shugyo] does not exist in argumentation.

Huineng highlights shugyo often in his teaching, raising it eighteen times in The Platform Sutra. McRae's translation, our default, has: "One should understand that spiritual cultivation does not exist in argumentation."

Now, I don't want to argue about this point, of course (no, not me), but just to say that there is an important difference in nuance between cultivating conduct and spiritual cultivation. The later term seems like the object of cultivation is something ethereal or other worldly. In a similar vein, these characters are often translated simply as practice, but that too lacks much sense of embodied action.

Instead, shugyo is the very down-to-earth actualization of the heart of Buddha in the nitty-gritty details of life, in doing itself, attending to all so-called relationships with humans and nonhumans in the light of wisdom. It is a vital pointer to actually doing Zen rather than just wagging one's mouth or mind about it.

Meido Moore Roshi expresses shugyo vividly in his book The Rinzai Zen Way (see link below). Shugyo, he writes, is:

[...] a way to approach all activities and life circumstances and bring them within the sphere of awakening. When we are able to apply the qualities developed through our practice to the conflicts and challenges of daily life, then we will begin to understand how life itself may function as the supreme practice method. This is what is meant by shugyo: deep physical and spiritual training [...].

"Physical and spiritual training" is important, as is Meido's emphasis on shugyo as the practice of awakening. "Spiritual" can be misconstrued as I've said above, but I'll give Meido a pass on that for now. He continues:

Shugyo, however, refers to training the whole being in the most profound manner by taking the wisdom of awakening itself as the basis of training. This manifests ultimately as a training in which there is nothing in our lives that is not encompassed within practice. Everyone we encounter is a realized being teaching us. Every circumstance we enter is a dojo in which we endlessly refine ourselves. As Zen practitioners, we should all wish to become true shugyosha—“shugyo persons”—by bringing our lives to fruition in this manner. Shido Bunan Zenji’s words regarding the way to approach such a path are direct and very kind: “If you think of everything as training, your suffering will disappear.”
The Rinzai Zen Way
The recognition of the true nature of oneself and the universe is the aim of Rinzai Zen—but that experience, known as kensho, is really just the beginning of a life of refining that discovery and putting it into practice in the world. Rinzai, with its famed discipline and its emphasis on koan practice, is one of two main forms of Zen practiced in the West, but it is less familiar than the more prominent Soto school. Meido Moore here remedies that situation by providing this compact and complete introduction to Zen philosophy and practice from the Rinzai perspective. It’s an excellent entrée to a venerable tradition that goes back through the renowned Hakuin Ekaku in eighteenth-century Japan to its origins in Tang dynasty China—and that offers a path to living with insight and compassion for people today.

Shido Munan (or Bunan) was a 71st generation successor in the continuing Rinzai Zen line and a successor of the great master and national teacher, Gudo Toshoku. Here is a wild calligraphy of his name that drips with shugyo:

Shido Munan (至道無難) meaning "Great Way Not Difficult" by Gorō Tagawa

At a recent talk at Iron City Rinzai, Genryo Jones Osho shared how his teacher compares shugyo to forging the steal for the blade of a sword. Here's my paraphrase of what Genryo said:

The hammer striking the sword represents the difficulties that come from Zen training and life generally. However, if the sword that's being forged is cold, the hammer blows will eventually just break the sword rather than transform the chunk of metal into a blade for giving life and taking life. Where does the heat come from that makes the metal malleable and strong? Two sources. First, from working with the breath and posture in zazen and in daily life. And second, from bodhicitta, the vow to awaken to benefit all beings. When those elements are red hot, then the blows of the hammer can be transformative.
Erik Koku after a recent sesshin

And for more on the blade metaphor, here's how Erik Koku, a Vine student and Nanadan (7th Dan), Kaiden Shihan - Nihon Aiki Jujutsu, describes shugyo in the budo tradition:

Shugyo, which in budo traditions is defined as "austere training," goes well beyond standard practice (keiko). It is engaging in a deep practice that is a forging of the body and heart/mind, a purification process likened to the process of refining ore into a sword of the finest steel. It is total immersion in demanding training, cutting through the duality of self and practice in which one strives to overcome internal doubt, resistance, and despair, cutting through it all as one strives relentlessly towards mastery. Through the process of shugyo, the self falls away and the higher goal of kenshin taiichi (sword mind and body are one) can be realized, as well as heijoshin, a peaceful mind that is calm in all circumstances. A historic aspect of shugyo in budo is Musha Shugyo, when a warrior would embark on a training pilgrimage, testing and purifying themselves through spiritual practices, training with highly respected teachers, and engaging in face-to-face challenges and even duels.

For more about Erik Koku:

Shindokan Dojo is a traditional dojo located on the southern New England shoreline, serving eastern Connecticut, southern Rhode Island, and beyond. Aiki Jujutsu; Aikijujutsu; Jujutsu; Jujitsu; Jiu Jitsu; Goshinjutsu; Dentokan; Hakko-ryu; Daito-ryu; Iaijutsu; Iaido; Kenjutsu; Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu; Ono-ha Itto-ryu; Jodo; Jojutsu; Shindo Muso-ryu; Japanese Martial Arts; Japanese Sword Arts; Japanese Swordsmanship; Koryu; Bujutsu, Rhode Island Martial Arts, Connecticut Martial Arts, CT Martial Arts, RI Martial Arts

Dogen and Shugyo

Dogen was also big into shugyo and teaching about it. I've pulled together just a few passages from Shobogenzo to give you a taste. I've replaced the various translations for shugyo, mostly "practice," with shugyo because it is a specialized term that translations just don't reach. If you insist, though, I'd recommend going with "cultivating conduct."

In "Self-fulfilment Samadhi "(Jijuyu zanmei), Dogen raises the original shugyo and connects it to the "original face," a term that seems to have been first used by the Sixth Ancestor:

Hundreds of dharmas all manifest original shugyo from the original face; it is impossible to measure.

Impossible to measure, and yet, from "Dogen’s Inspirational Vow" (Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon):

Revealing and disclosing one’s lack of faith and shugyo before the Buddha, the power of this revelation melts away the root of transgressions. This is the pure and simple color of shugyo, of the true mind of faith, and the true body of faith.

And finally for Dogen, below you'll find a passage from his Shobogenzo "Great Shugyo" (Daishugyo), one of his commentaries on the wild fox koan. In that nasty piece of work an old man/wild fox asks Baizhang, "Does even a person of great shugyo fall under karma or not?"

When we get hold of the “great shugyo,” it is great “cause and effect.” Since this cause and effect is always the perfect cause and the complete effect, there has never been an issue of “falling” or “not falling,” nor words about “in the dark” or “not in the dark.”

Finally, Shugyo in Pali is paṭipatti

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism has this:

Pāli, “practice”; one of the two principal monastic vocations noted in the Pāli commentarial literature, along with pariyatti (scriptural mastery). Paṭipatti is the application in practice of the teachings outlined in the scriptures, as distinguished from a purely theoretical understanding of the teachings. Monks in the contemporary Southeast Asian traditions who are primarily engaged in meditative practice, rather than study of the Pāli scriptures, are referred to as paṭipatti monks; thus the term means a “meditation monk.”

If you aren't yet a paid subscriber, but are inspired to support our work - doing what we can to circulate the buddhadharma through Vine of Obstacles Zen - one way (if you're not already) would be to become a paid subscriber. Free subscriptions are also available. We won't inundate you with email or share your info with anyone. Ever. And you will not receive fundraising solicitations from us. You can expect a couple posts about Zen training in your email each month. To sign-up in any way, click the button below and to the right.