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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

A few famous masters have been known to wander about aimlessly, but then assume a position as head of a monastery. For example, Ikkyu (1394-1481) protested against Zen hypocrisy and its association with the government. He was said to have refused a certificate of enlightenment from his teacher, and after his enlightenment he led an atypical life—drinking, visiting brothels, writing poetry, and carousing with friends among the nobility, and perhaps even marrying for a time and fathering a child. He was also known for occasional bizarre public behavior. Yet after nearly fifty years of this kind of life, he agreed to accept the role of abbot of Daitokuji and raise funds for its restoration following a destructive civil war.

While the abbot may be engaged in fund raising or other activities as the public face of a monastery, one of his most important duties is to direct novices toward enlightenment. It is he who conducts interviews with students who are doing koan study, and who declares an individual to have achieved enlightenment—that is, he is the only one who can convey dharma transmission. He also has an assistant who is his designated heir, able to assume many of his duties but not that of directing koan study, and a personal assistant as well.

Monasteries also have a head who is responsible for the administration of the facility. The role of the head monk is practical; he must oversee every aspect of the life of the monastery. He has an assistant as well. Sometimes there is a separate administrator in charge of the monastery's finances. There are a number of rotating positions of responsibility, including leadership of intensive training sessions, chief cook, head gardener, time-keeper, and so on.

Study Questions:
1.     How are new priests appointed within the family temples?
2.     What is the role of the priest’s wife?
3.     How do abbots differ from masters? What is the role of each?
4.     Who was Ikkyu? Why was his behavior unusual?


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