- Aquinas and Dōgen on Entrance into the Religious Life
Comparative studies of Christianity and Buddhism have the potential to draw on a wide array of dialogic partners from their respective histories. Two promising candidates are Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and Dōgen (1200–1253). Aquinas was the angelic doctor whose theological thinking became normative for Roman Catholicism; Dōgen was the prominent Zen master whose influence on the intellectual development of Zen Buddhism is unsurpassed. As it happens, both men "entered into the religious life," and within their respective collected works we see considerable attention to the topic. If we seek to explore what they had to say on the subject, we might benefit by identifying some texts from both thinkers that could serve as focal points for a comparative analysis. Of the massive accumulated writings of both men, the largest are Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō. So it seems logical to start our search by turning our attention to these monumental works.
Let us begin with the Summa Theologiae. In the secunda secundae Aquinas addresses a total of 189 topics presented in a question-and-answer format. The first 170 topics concern "themes related to all stations of life"; questions 171–189 explore "details related to particular callings" (2a2ae, Prologus). Question 189, hereinafter identified as 2a2ae q. 189, is specifically devoted to the topic of "entering the religious life" (de ingressu religionis).1
When we turn to the Shōbōgenzō, we find a work titled Shukke Kudoku. "Kudoku" means "merit"; "shukke," commonly translated as "leaving home," denotes a person who has renounced home and family in order to enter monastic life. Thus "Shukke Kudoku" can be rendered in English as "The Merit of Entering the Religious Life."2
Given that these texts are relatively accessible and substantive presentations of comparable length on issues pertaining to the religious life, they seem to be good focal points for this discussion. At the same time, both thinkers addressed the subject in other venues also, and we can briefly refer to this material as well. But in this article I will primarily concentrate on how a comparative analysis of these two texts illuminates the subject. Defining the discussion in this fashion has the advantage of presenting Aquinas's and Dōgen's views in a particular time and place, leaving aside the more complex issue of how their views may have changed over time. [End Page 109]
Let us begin with Aquinas. Aquinas begins 2a2ae q. 189 by outlining ten points of inquiry to be pursued, in effect dividing the question into ten subquestions. The first on the list is "whether those alone should enter religious life who are practiced in keeping the commandments." The commandments he means, of course, are the precepts of the decalogue, the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:17 and Deut. 5:6–21.
Aquinas's standard modus operandi was to first entertain arguments leading to aconclusion opposing his own. In this question he outlines five lines of argument, and in each instance the arguments lead to the assertion that one should not practice the counsels "until one is practiced in keeping the commandments" (nisi prius sit exercitatus in praeceptis); by "counsels" Aquinas means the observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience that are undertaken by those who enter the religious life. As he had explained previously, "The difference between a counsel and a precept lies in this, that a precept implies necessity, while a counsel is left to the choice of the one to whom it is given" (1a2ae q. 108.4).3 Precepts such as the commandments, in other words, enjoin an obligation; counsels are optional.
We will discover Aquinas's own answer soon, but we should first note how Aquinas begins his discussion of entrance into the religious life. He begins by posing a question about whether or not one practiced in keeping the commandments should enter the religious life. In the course of answering his own question, he essentially reframes it, seeking to explore whether or not one should practice the counsels before one has become adept at keeping the commandments. For Aquinas, both formulations...