AUTHORIZATION, ORDINATION, AND TRANSMISSION Spiritual Leadership Within the Boundless Way Zen Commmunity

Authorization, Ordination, and Transmission

Spiritual Leadership Within the Boundless Way Zen Community

Josh Munen Bartok
Melissa Myzoen Blacker
James Myoun Ford
David DaeAn Rynick

Guiding Teachers Council, Boundless Way Zen

The Zen way is about awakening.

The shape and various disciplines of the Zen way are all upaya (skillful means), helping us to see through self and other and to find lives of liberation for ourselves and for all beings.

The Zen school has developed some powerful means to assist us on our way toward awakening. With endless bows to our teachers and ancestors along this ancient path, the Boundless Way project is focused on how best to bring forward the Zen that we’ve inherited into this time and in this place, allowing the transmission to find its most useful expressions, as best we see it.

Traditionally, authority within Zen has been binary, on or off, all or nothing. A person has a great realization, is confirmed by the teacher, and then teaches. Everyone else is a student. Of course this is a myth, in all senses of that word. Among the shadows within Zen as it has come West has been a lack of clarity about what awakening and leadership really are. In fact people train for many years, following a variety of paths encompassed within Zen’s disciplines, have many small and large openings, and offer what they have found in a variety of ways. The Boundless Way project is committed to encouraging people on this path, or more accurately, on these paths, and at various places to hold up the gifts that are being offered, while at the same time fostering and transmitting the traditional forms of authority.

There are many reasons for opening our understanding of who is offering wisdom and guidance. Sadly, one consequence of the binary understanding of enlightened/unenlightened has been that people have felt that “graduation,” fully manifesting the path, necessarily means becoming a teacher. This has been reinforced by the literature, which in large part was carried forward through stories specifically focused on the awakening of our ancestral teachers. We want to underscore that teaching is a particular function within the Great Way, and that in reality people who do not go on to teach in any formal sense may in fact be the wisest and most integrated among us.

We’ve found that teaching and ordination are each particular “callings” within the Zen way, manifestations of personality and inclination as well as insight, training, and disposition. They are a manifestation of the mysterious workings of karma, the interplay of numberless causes and conditions. And they are simply part of the larger web of relationships that make up our Way.

So, within the Boundless Way we have also felt it important to acknowledge teaching as teaching even when in the hands of people who have not received Dharma transmission. In the document that follows we acknowledge a number of such teaching responsibilities and what they mean, as well as how we understand the basic requirements for the more traditional forms of authority.

Another binary distinction that has historically been present in the Buddhist tradition, including Zen in its Chinese form, has been between renunciate practitioners and their nonpracticing lay supporters. The renunciates, monastics adhering to the hundreds of strictures in the Vinaya code, constituted the ordained sangha—and for many centuries it was the Vinaya-ordained sangha that was the principle means through which the Buddhist tradition was maintained and transmitted. In Japan, an additional mode of ordination emerged—one involving a much smaller number of precepts, held compassionately in the service of all beings. Notably absent from this form of ordination was a vow of celibacy. This mode can be called Bodhisattva ordination—and is the form of ordination maintained in Boundless Way and much if not all of the other Japanese-derived Zen lineages. The shifts in focus from Vinaya ordination to Bodhisattva ordination reflects our vision of the fullness of the Zen way. This document will also spell out what Bodhisattva ordination means in the context of Boundless Way Zen.


The following teaching authorizations are given in trust to individuals through the Guiding Teachers Council: Practice Leader, Dharma Teacher, and Senior Dharma Teacher. The latter two titles are borrowed from the Kwan Um School of Zen. There is some ongoing concern that the titles are inflated. And they are. For instance, Dharma Teacher and Senior Dharma Teacher are nearly the same titles given to very senior teachers within one of the largest convert Zen communities in the West: the San Francisco Zen Center. But for now we feel that the need to hold up the importance of non-transmitted teaching has trumped any concern with confusion about titles. We spell out the restrictions here. These teaching authorizations do not represent Dharma transmission in the sense used normatively in the Zen world. These appointed positions may be rescinded by the Guiding Teachers Council. The authority granted is strictly derivative, held only as long as the Guiding Teachers Council or the individuals themselves feel it helpful for the individual leader and the community.

Practice Leader: A Practice Leader holds responsibility for a Boundless Way group or a part of a larger Boundless Way center or temple. They are familiar with the forms of practice in Boundless Way Zen, and may give basic practice instruction. They are people with a stable meditation practice and some basic understanding of the Dharma and the Boundless Way sangha.

Dharma Teacher: A Dharma Teacher is a mature practitioner who has been given permission to give talks within the community. In general, five years of practice and substantial sesshin experience are expected of anyone advanced to this position.

Senior Dharma Teacher: A Senior Dharma Teacher may give talks, and may meet individually with students in private interviews (dokusan/sanzen). Within parameters set by their Shoken teachers, Senior Dharma Teachers may also work with students on koans. In general eight to ten years of practice and extensive sesshin training are expected of anyone advanced to this position.


Dharma transmission teaching authorizations are given by one of the Guiding Teachers through the authority of her/his own transmission, in consultation with the Guiding Teachers Council.

Boundless Way transmits three traditional Zen lineages. We transmit the Korean derived Linji lineage received by George Bowman from Seung Sahn. We transmit the reformed Japanese derived Soto lineage, emphasizing koans, received by John Tarrant from Robert Aitken. And we transmit the Japanese-derived Soto priestly transmission received by Jiyu Kennett from Chisan Koho. All our priests are ordained within the Kennett transmission, and are registered as clergy with the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

Dharma Entrustment/Denkai
Dharma Entrustment (for lay practitioners) or Denkai (for priests)

This is the beginning of formal Dharma transmission, the acknowledgment of deep insight into great matter of Zen in alignment with one’s teacher. The formal title is Dharma Holder and for priests, also Osho.

A Dharma holder may give the precepts and receive formal students through the rite of shoken. For priests this is full ordination, and an Osho may ordain others up to and through this rank. A Dharma holder may not transmit their own successors.

Among other expectations a Dharma holder is usually expected to have sat for a minimum of two hundred days of sesshin or zazenkai. If a koan practitioner, a Dharma holder is expected to have advanced significantly through the Harada Yasutani curriculum.

As acknowledgment of Precepts transmission, the first of the San Motsu documents passed on in Japanese Soto Zen, the kechimiyaku is given. Priests will also receive the kiragami. There is a private ceremony followed by a public acknowledgement where the new teacher is given a kotsu, a lay teacher will also receive a colored rakusu and a priest a colored kesa.

A Dharma holder is eligible to join the American Zen Teachers Association. A priest is eligible to join the Soto Zen Buddhists Association, a lay teacher the Lay Zen Teachers Association.

Dharma Transmission
(also Denbo, also Inka Shomei)

This is full transmission, acknowledgement of mastery on the Zen way. The title for a Dharma successor is Sensei.

A sensei is free to function as a Zen teacher in any way they find appropriate.

Among other expectations a sensei is usually expected to have sat for a minimum of three hundred days of sesshin or zazenkai. If a koan practitioner, a sensei is usually expected to have completed the Harada Yasutani curriculum.

As recognition of Dharma transmission, a Dharma successor is given the other two San Matsu documents in a private ceremony, followed by a public ceremony where another lineage document is presented.

A sensei is eligible to be elected to the Boundless Way Zen Guiding Teachers Council, upon nomination by a guiding teacher and election by the Leadership council.

Five years from Dharma transmission there will be a public ceremony where a teacher’s seniority is acknowledged and after which they may use the title roshi.

ORDINATION (Unsui Tokudo)

Ordination, becoming a Zen priest, is a path of vow.

Ordination is not itself a path to teaching authorization. Ordination is a vow to service, to holding the forms, and reflects a commitment and stability of heart and practice. Ordination publicly affirms the significance and prominence of the role of the Dharma in one’s life, in the same way that a marriage ceremony might be said to publicly affirm a commitment and relationship to one’s long-time partner; nothing changes, and everything.

Ordination is conferred by one of the Guiding Teachers through the authority of her or his own ordination and precepts transmission, in consultation with the Guiding Teachers Council.

Upon being ordained one becomes an unsui priest. The term unsui means “clouds and water”—evoking the image of person flowing freely and unattached even in the middle of worldly life. The ceremony in which one becomes an unsui is called Unsui Tokudo, or simply ordination. In other Zen traditions, ordination is sometimes referred to as “home-leaving” and ordainees, if married, are encouraged to regard their ordination vows as more important than their marriage vows. In Boundless Way, priests maintain their householder lives, keeping a job, maintaining an intimate relationship, and raising their children even after ordination. Accordingly, we find a more useful metaphor to be that when one undertakes the way of ordination, the vows of service to the Dharma should be as precious to us as one of our children. A subtle difference, perhaps, but one we find very important.

Priests vow to manifest the life of the sangha. Ordination is a commitment not only to Zen and Buddhism, but also to our particular manifestation of the Path within the Boundless Way sangha. This means taking on tasks of support and leadership that can range from the possibility of shoveling snow at the temple to being a member of the Leadership Council, from leading a sitting group to being a chaplain in the larger community.

Ordination vows are seen as life vows, and should be approached with respect and some hesitation.

We do not have a set formula leading to ordination, although there are some prerequisites to candidacy and an expectation that one will acquire certain competencies prior to ordination.

Unsui Tokudo (or Shukke Tokudo, which means “home leaving”) is in some ways full ordination. An Unsui (clouds-and-water) priest may perform all the rites of the Boundless Way, including performing marriages and conducting funerals. An Unsui priest may also serve in the larger community in a variety of ministerial capacities.

And in some ways Unsui Tokudo is a novice ordination. An Unsui priest may not give the precepts and may not ordain others. These authorizations come with Denkai transmission, which is described above. And, because these things need to be explicit, full Dharma transmission and authorization to teach only comes with Denbo, also described above.

Candidacy for Ordination

Those who wish to be ordained must first discuss their intentions with their shoken teacher. If they do not have a shoken teacher, they need to establish that relationship, as the shoken teacher must approve advancing to candidacy for ordination. This is the person who will serve as their preceptor. Should one’s shoken teacher be a layperson, an ordained preceptor must be found who will work together with the shoken teacher.

There are many ways to manifest the priesthood and the gate to walk through ordination is wide. Nonetheless there are broad parameters to be noted that mark out the likelihood of success on this way. Ordination is not an excuse to avoid living life. Indeed, we feel that ordination is a way to live the fullness of one’s life in service of the Dharma. What follows are guidelines for doing that. If someone considering ordination feels that they don’t fully meet these guidelines, and still feels a strong calling to this path, they should not be dissuaded from discussing the matter with their shoken teacher.

A candidate for ordination should be liked by children and dogs.

A candidate should be committed to the ideal of service. They should be stable in their life or well on the way to becoming so. They should have substantial experience within the Zen Way.

There is a general expectation that a candidate will have some life experience and a sense of the larger world—such as, undergraduate degree, extensive work experience, service in the military, raising a family.

Ordination Candidacy Committee –
Once accepted into candidacy by their preceptor, an Ordination Candidacy Committee (OCC) will be formed. It will consist of three people plus the candidate. One will be the shoken teacher. Another will be a well-established lay member of the sangha selected by the shoken teacher. If the shoken teacher is a lay person the preceptor and the shoken teacher will both serve on this committee. The third member of the committee will be selected by the shoken teacher and the Candidate in consultation.

As a Candidate one is expected to demonstrate proficiency in a number of skill sets and experiences. Specifics will be agreed to by the Candidate and the Ordination Candidacy Committee and a written covenant and time-line will be composed that lays out a path of study and practice leading to Ordination. This document will be submitted by the OCC to the Guiding Teachers Council for review and suggestions.

The competencies leading to Ordination will normally include the following:

• Pastoral Skills. These can be acquired in a number of ways: coursework, so long as there is also a practicum; guided reading; volunteer or related experience; and/or a Clinical Pastoral Education unit.

• An ability to perform all the standard Zen ceremonies as observed within the Boundless Way. The expectation is that the Candidate will come to understand the forms and the underlying assumptions and to manifest them with some grace, and will be able to modify or create rites as necessary.

• The Candidate must come to have a basic understanding of Buddhism, Soto and Linji Zen, and historic and contemporary modes of Zen practice, as well as the evolving ethos of the Boundless Way. This competency is primarily established through a reading list and demonstrated either through dialogue with the Ordination Candidacy Committee or possibly through a written report/reflection.

• The Candidate must continue to be a regular participant in the life of the sangha and to attend most sesshin.

• The Candidate must demonstrate a capacity to meet people as they are and must demonstrate self-awareness.

• The Candidate must acquire general leadership skills and demonstrate a capacity to use the energies of time and space. Specific skills to cultivate may include public speaking, leading groups in discussion and organizing and leading a committee.

• The Candidate must have fallen on their butt in public at least once. This may be accomplished literally or figuratively.

• The Candidate must come to show a “priestly presence”—difficult to describe, but recognizable by others. This critical pre-requisite will be determined by the Ordination Candidacy Committee .

• Anyone ordained within the Boundless Way will have a way to support themselves. This might be a professional degree, a skilled trade, or some other manifestation of right livelihood consonant with being a Zen Buddhist priest.

• The candidate is expected to sit retreat within other Buddhist traditions as determined by the Ordination Candidacy Committee.

• Prior to ordination, a Candidate will be expected to have sat a minimum of one hundred days of sesshin or zazenkai. When possible one ninety-day Ango is recommended.

• Candidate is expected to sew their own kesa and zagu over the course of their candidacy in alignment with BoWZ standard patterns.

While not our direct tradition, this video clip with Roshi Bernie Glassman & Krishna Das sings to the heart of our project at the Boundless Way. And it seems a good way to conclude this.

Endless bows to all who walk the way. Endless bows to the project of the calling heart and the great way

May any merit accrued go to feed the hungry spirits

All buddhas throught space and time,
All honored ones, bodhisattva-mahasattvas,
Wisdom beyond wisdom, Maha Prajna Paramita


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