I Ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist Priest

James 1970
It was just pointed out to me that yesterday was the forty-seventh anniversary of my undergoing shukke tokudo, also called unsui tokudo, ordination as a novice Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

It actually began the year before in 1969. Okay, who is to say when it began. But the immediate events leading up to my ordination – those began in 1969.

I’d been practicing for a couple of years. And I decided I wanted to be a Zen priest. But I was young and callow and ill educated, and, truthfully, wasn’t content to buckle down to the system set up at the San Francisco Zen Center. So, I thought it a godsend (I rather doubt I used such a term at the time) that the British Zen master Jiyu Kennett came to town.

She’d been in Japan for a number of years and was on her way to London to start a new Zen center there. She stopped at San Francisco and fell in love with California. Instead of returning to England she moved to a flat on Potrero Hill and announced she would now accept students.

Peggy Teresa Nancy Kennett was born in Sussex, England, in 1924. She studied medieval music at Durham University and later at Trinity College of Music in London. She was attracted to the church but the misogyny of the institution turned her gaze in other directions. In 1954 she joined the London Buddhist Society led by Christmas Humphries. At first she focused on Theravada Buddhism, but after meeting a number of visiting scholars and teachers including D. T. Suzuki, she began to focus on Zen.

When in 1960 Chisan Koho, abbot of Sojiji, one of the two principal training temples of the Soto school in Japan visited as part of a tour of America and Europe she took him up on an invitation to come to study with him.

It took two years to get her affairs in order, but sailed in 1962, stopping in Malaysia where she was ordained a novice in the Chinese sangha. She studied both with the abbot and as her principal teacher his assistant Suigan Yogo. In the following year she was fully ordained and received Dharma transmission from both her teachers. She continued training and eventually was installed as abbess of a country temple.

In 1969 she obtained a charter to start a temple in London, and stopped in San Francisco to learn about the wild success of the Shunryu Suzuki’s center. She decided to stay, moved to a flat on Potrero Hill with Mokurai Cherlin and Myozen Delport, disciples who had come with her from Japan, and announced she was receiving potential students.

I became Kennett Roshi’s first student in America. Although I do like to note that Josh Baron says it was he. But I distinctly remember showing up on a Wednesday and he coming the next day on a Thursday. Some claim it was the other way around. But they’re wrong.

When the rosh said she had to go to England to wind up her parent’s estate, my girlfriend and I agreed to move into the flat on Potrero Hill that was the Zen Mission Society. However the roshi then insisted that we marry before we moved in. I felt trapped. I told my girl friend I wanted to break up. She said she would kill herself. We married, the Kennet Roshi officiating. And then we moved into the temple.

My principal job with the nascent temple was to pay the rent, which I did through a couple of jobs. The first one working as a shipping clerk at the San Francisco branch of Tiffany’s.

Meanwhile I lived in the small community and threw myself into Zen’s practice. Here in my practice I began to lose everything. I’d been counting my breath. That ended. Then my hope ended. Then my doubt ended. It drove me forward. It drove me inward. It focused everything on just sitting. Things began, as we would say in my youth, to percolate.

When the roshi returned from England she brought a dozen people with her. We moved the temple to Oakland, where we were organized as the Zen Mission Society.

There on the 5th of July 1970, along with five others I was ordained an unsui, a “clouds and water” person, a novice Zen priest.

It was a tad shy of two weeks before I turned twenty-one.

James ordination picture with Jiyu Kennett 1970

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