Zen Buddhist monk tells ‘lies’ to audience

By Chris Chapman, Olean Times Herald, December 4, 2009

ST. BONAVENTURE, New York (USA) -- “Truth cannot be spoken.” That was the first piece of information Zen Buddhist monk John Sojun Godfrey imparted to a near-capacity auditorium in the William F. Walsh Science Center on the St. Bonaventure campus Tuesday.

The Olean native has been home since April after spending eight years in the Daitoku-ji, a Rinzai monastery in Kyoto, where he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk.

The life of a student in the monastery in Japan, he said, was different from that of a student at St. Bonaventure University, he said.

“Learning in a monastery is not the same as it is in the university setting,” he told those assembled. “It is not an oral tradition.”

The lecture was a plenary session as part of the senior curriculum in the Claire College courses of the university, but not only seniors were in attendance. Several members of the Olean and school community came together to learn more about life in a Zen Buddhist monastery.

“I really wish I came here with something to say,” the lecture began. “Unfortunately, I come from a tradition where talking is not looked upon favorably. I found that it is really quite an irony that I’d spend eight years of my life, more or less in silence. When I come back to the United States the first thing people want me to do is speak.”

In several sects of Buddhism, to speak is to lie, Mr. Godfrey said, and in Zen, it is traditional to apologize to an audience before speaking.

“I’m sorry for speaking,” he said. “If I came here with the intention of showing you the truth, of telling you the truth, I would stand here and say nothing at all, but since you won’t let me not talk, I am forced to tell you lies. It is a long-held principle in East Asian traditions, that the truth cannot be spoken.”

The tradition is backed by sacred texts, such as the Tao Te Ching, which even begins with a warning of falsehood, as pointed out by Mr. Godfrey.

“The first line in the Tao Te Ching is the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao,” he said. “The speech that can be spoken is not the true speech. So, I have no recourse but to lie to you.”

Learning in Buddhism is based on experiential lessons. Because of this, meditations play a key role; a technique not lost on Mr. Godfrey, as he led those assembled, his students, into a guided meditation.

He continued by saying that that there are virtually no discussions held within the monastery about Buddhist philosophy and thought. The monks really offer no true explanation of the reasons behind the actions.

“I think the assumption is that if you are interested enough in Buddhism to become a monk that you are going to do this (learn the philosophy) anyway,” he said. “I also really feel that they (other monks) don’t think it’s important. I don’t feel that it is necessary to be able to explain what we are doing in able to do it right. We don’t have to know why we are doing it.”

The journey to the Buddhist philosophy struck Mr. Godfrey as an older teenager, he said.

Growing up in the area, Mr. Godfrey reached a point that he felt like the historic Buddha early in his life. The Buddha started his life as prince in a province of what is now Nepal. Still going by his birth name, Siddhartha Gautama, as a prince he had all the riches and excesses of life, but he was still not happy. He knew that he would suffer. He knew that he would get sick, and he knew that he would die.

At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his life of luxury to search for a way to release himself from the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.

After trying several different approaches to alleviation of those sufferings (called duka, in the Buddhist traditions). Each method proved to be the wrong path for the former prince. He decided to sit on the ground, under a bodhi tree and meditate on the problems that face all living beings.

At the age of 35, and after 49 days of meditation, the Buddha (a word meaning the Awakened One in the Pali language) found the way to remove all duka. He later laid out the path in The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, practiced to this day by those who adhere to the Buddhist philosophy.

It is believed by adherents of Buddhism that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha on Dec. 8.

Mr. Godfrey told those in attendance that he felt that something was missing from his life, and that, much like Siddhartha, he would go on a journey to find it.

“Something was off in my life,” he said. “I came from a great family life. I had everything I could have wanted.”

After taking students and residents alike through meditation and reciting part of a sutra, a story similar to those of Christian teachings, but in ancient Chinese, Mr. Godfrey exposed his path.

“While at the monastery, I found myself becoming not Christian,” he said, “but, after more time, I found that I will always carry part of that faith in me. I was born into it.”

But how does that influence the Zen monk he has worked for nearly a decade to become?

“I found in my training, the way to find what was missing, stop looking for it,” he said. “I traveled around the world to figure out that what I was looking for was not there. I think it was worth it.”

Now that he is living back in Olean, Mr. Godfrey said he still does practice Zen Buddhism.

“I practice it because it feels good,” he said.