Monks, Nuns & Priests in Western Zen


Among the listservs to which I belong is one for Zen teachers in the West. Right now there is a bit of a debate going on over the usage of monk (nun) or priest for those ordained within the Japanese inheritance. This is a bone of contention because “normative” ordained Buddhist leadership follows the vinaya tradition established by the Buddha himself. A heavy claim and a heavy load for those who believe there are other reliable models of leadership on the Buddha way.

Principal among the upstart traditions are the Japanese ordination models, which built upon a set of precepts found in the Brahmajala, a Chinese apocraphal sutra that had and actually continues to have an enormous following throughout East Asia. In much of East Asia these vows are taken by monks, nuns and laypeople. However through a somewhat complicated set of circumstances variations on these vows become, first how monastics were ordained in Japan, starting from the thirteenth century, and, as the essay below details, morphed into what I suggest is best called a priestly model. Those ordained in this model defend their ordination (I should say we who are ordained in this model defend our ordination) as fully equal to monastic ordination.(1) In my book Zen Master Who? I explore this a bit further. The relevant chapter is copied below…


Bodhisattva Ordination, Leadership Reform, and the Role of Zen Clerics in Japan

James Ishmael Ford

To understand the presentation of Zen in the West, it’s essential to understand the leadership within Japanese Zen and the way it has marked Western institutions. Perhaps the most significant institutional shift in Japanese Buddhism is the introduction of a new vision of ordination.

Throughout Buddhist history and across the Asian continent, monastics ordained in the Vinaya were the traditional holders – or perhaps better – guardians of the Dharma. Formal Buddhist leadership has been held by Vinaya-ordained monks and occasionally, but rarely, nuns.

Only in Japan did the principal, means of formal spiritual leadership shift to a new pattern. Japanese Buddhism is led by clerics who hold what is perhaps best called “Bodhisattva ordination.” Understanding this shift in ordination patterns among the Japanese is critical for understanding Zen transmission in the West, as Japanese Zen was the first and continues to be the leading stream of Zen practice among Westerners.

I’m using the term Bodhisattva ordination to mean the ordination derived form the ten major and forty-eight minor precepts found in the Chinese Brahmajala Sutra. This form is recapitulated as the sixteen-precept form in Japanese Soto and its corollary, the ten precepts, in Japanese Rinzai. To most Vinaya monastics, however, those holding Bodhisattva ordination are simply “pious laypeople,” who wear the outer forms of monastic ordination without actually being monks or nun.

The evolution of Japanese Bodhisattva ordination is a story of fits and starts, and of politics as well as spiritual innovation. It is a story marked by confusion, conflict, and occasionally self-deception. It is also the story of a remarkable ordination model, one that might well be the best for the continuance of the Dharma forward in Western culture.

By the end of the twelfth century, the monk Eisai, who eventually introduced the Rinzai school to Japan, received Bodhisattva precepts at Mount Hiei.(2) While departing from Chinese practice, these precepts were still considered essentially monastic in any conventional sense of the term. This continued to be the case into the early thirteenth century, when Eisai’s successor, Myozen, ordained Dogen, who would found the Soto school in Japan.

With regard to ordination, Dogen’s rhetorical position was one of “radical conservativism.” However, throughout his life he demonstrated a willingness to change even the most traditional forms, if doing so served his purpose of establishing a vital tradition of Dharma within the forms of the Zen school in Japan.

As the centuries passed in Japan, various innovations to ordained practices were introduced. The monastic ordination that people first thought of as an exclusively celibate state slowly began to change. As early as the thirteenth century, one of Dogen’s contemporaries, the Pure Land Buddhism reformer Shinran, openly married without renouncing his clerical state. And – while no prominent early Zen monastics took this position – from early on, many Zen teachers also challenged the norms of celibate, monastic life.

It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that throughout Zen’s history in Japan, there are accounts of monks living with women in some form of intimate relationship. Often what we know of this is inferential, found in reports complaining of how hard it was to enforce celibacy among temple priests. This conflict eventually came to a head in the mid-nineteenth century, during the Meiji era. All laws concerning whether monastics could or could not grow their hair, eat meat, and, most importantly, marry were repealed. This was partially inspired by the government’s desire to diminish the authority of clerics by letting them become more like laypeople, and partially a simple acknowledgment of the way things really were.

In the first extended English-language study of Bodhisattva ordination, Neither Monk nor Layman, Richard Jaffe cites some significant numbers regarding the Soto school, the only Zen school with readily available statistics on such things as numbers of temples and clerics. We know today that there are 14,000 Soto temples in Japan. Of these, only thirty-one are reserved for “strict monastic training.”

Given its Japanese history, the Western reading of “monastic” is complicated. Revealing contemporary cultural norms, Jaffe records that in a 1993 survey of Soto laity in Japan, only five percent preferred celibate clerics. Indeed, seventy-three percent stated a preference for married clergy to serve as priests in their temples. He also reports that the statistics are not significantly different for adherents of the Rinzai school.

The bottom line is that today, no matter what school they belong to, the overwhelming majority of Zen clerics in Japan are married. The principal exception is among ordained women, almost all of whom appear to remain celibate following ordination. While there is no formal prohibition against ordained women being married in the Zen schools, few have availed themselves of this possibility.

Today in Japanese Zen, men and women continue to give the whole of their lives to pursue awakening for the benefit of all beings. But few become permanent monastics, professional meditators, or full-time celibate residents of communities dedicated to Zen practice. For the vast majority, the monastic aspect of practice is a period of training, the duration of which differs among schools and lineages.

Those seeking ordination often ultimately become temple priests, taking on roles not very dissimilar to Western parish ministers or priests. The rituals are different – there is no mass or Western-style worship service in Japanese Buddhism – but there is a regular and full liturgical life to which priests attend, and many see the patterns of the liturgical life of Japanese Zen as near-mirrors of its essence.

What to call such people remains an open question. The terms used within the ordained Sangha are traditional monastic terms. The incumbent of a temple, celibate or not, is called a monk; the term nun is generally rejected, at least in contemporary Western Zen. Jaffe suggests that a more neutral term such as cleric or minister might be better. Preferred usage suggest the term priest is well on its way to becoming the normative English term for an ordained Zen practitioner, at least of the Japanese traditions.

While priest may be associated with ceremonial functions – which cause many Western Zen practitioners to balk – there is another way to read the term, simply as a “technologist of the spirit.” Within the Zen tradition, this would suggest a certain mastery of one or more of the Zen arts of contemplation. If we consider the word priest literally means “elder,” from the Latin presbyter, a Zen priest would be both a trained technologist of the spirit and an elder with the community.

The real question, of course, is not what bodhisattva ordination is called, but what it is for. As T. Griffith Foulk writes in Soto School Scriptures for Daily Service and Practice: “To summarize, the three most important… functions of Soto Zen liturgy are the production and dedication of merit, the commemoration of ancestral teachers, and the sanctification of routine activities in the daily lives of Zen practitioners.”

I suggest that in the West – while ordination may well include these functions – the broader expectation of those coming to Zen is for the ordained person to be a proficient guide on the way of awakening. There is another peculiarity of Japanese Zen, at least in the Soto school, which is both the largest Zen school in Japan and the most widely represented in the West. It has to do with the Soto understanding of Dharma transmission.

Throughout Zen’s history – while Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese monks and nuns and later Japanese priests were the normative leaders of Zen schools – acknowledgment of awakening itself remained separate form monastic leadership.

In Japanese Rinzai this acknowledgment is called Inka or Inka Shomei, the “legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof.” Conferred on the one being acknowledged, it is the formal recognition of Zen’s deepest realization – though, as the story of Huineng(3) first shows, it ahs nothing to do with ordination. In fact, laypeople may and occasionally do receive Inka, or the seal of awakening.

In Japanese-derived Soto, however, this recognition has always been part of the ceremonies for ordination as an osho, or full priest. Many, perhaps most, Soto priests see no distinction between ordination and Dharma transmission. As the Japanese-derived Soto lines dominate Western Zen, this view that ordination and transmission are one and the same is quite common. The rise of lay lineages in the West has led to considerable debate around this topic.

The term full priest also calls for some examination. Those ordained in the West generally see the rank of osho as the culmination of formal training. Only an osho may ordain others, which is a critical distinction. In Japan, one receives unsui ordination at the beginning of formal ordained practice, and this is often perceived as “novice ordination.” But many scholars point out that this “home-leaving” ordination is actually “full ordination.” Thus unsui is the ordination most analogous to Vinaya’s bhikkshu ordinations. This fact is not generally understood among Western Zen clerics.

The lack of common understanding among Zen teachers about the purpose and nature of unsui ordination points to a significant weakness of the proto-institutions of Zen in the West. A conscious separation of formal religious leadership, with its ordinations and trainings, from the acknowledgment of insight, or spiritual mastery on the Zen way, makes a great deal of sense. As Zen matures in the West, these distinctions will hopefully become clearer.

(1) the turning issue is the creation and tranference of merit. it is claimed in classical Buddhism that a gift given to a monk or nun generates greater merit than a similar gift given to any other person. Various rituals have arisen out of this basic understanding in all schools of Buddhism. In Japan priests regularly perform rituals that are believed to generate merit and ritually tranfer that merit to others. This aspect of Zen continues in the West but at no where near the central place it holds in Asia. Still, the assertion of the Japanese inheritance ordained is that their (our) clerics have the same status regarding merit as do the Vinaya ordained. The Vinaya ordained generally reject this assertion. As a Westerner of a skeptical turn of mind, I simply assert that the Japanese-inheritance ordination and the Vinaya ordination generates the same status, one for a priest the other for a monk or nun.

(2) following the reforms advocated by the Tendai monk Saicho, who advocated relentlessly for the new ordination model. Shortly after his death in 822, the government authorzied this new ordiantion model and the creation of a new ordination platform for it.

(3) the great “Sixth Ancestor” of Chinese Zen through whom all living Zen lineages flow. According to the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, the great mythical document of the Zen way, Huineng was acknowleged and received his Dharma transmission while a layman and did not ordain until years later.

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