What the Heck is a Zen Priest?

What the Heck is a Zen Priest? August 21, 2010

I’ve been reflecting on a couple dharma things lately. One is sex and dharma because I’ve been reading an advance copy of Brad Warner’s new book, Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, but the book isn’t out until after Labor Day so I’ll save my thoughts on that for a while. 

The other is about this thing called a “Zen priest,” prompted in part by my recent anniversary (see previous post) and the comments that came up there.  Also in part due to a student who is on the verge of requesting priest ordination and the necessity of deciding what to do with that so what follows are some rambling thoughts on an amorphous subject.

The picture above shows where I’m at with all of this. The present is the interface with between shore and water and the tree is the path of priest practice.

In words, in the past and in the Theravada particularly, with Vinaya ordination and celibate monks and nuns, it was/is really clear. Priest practice got less clear with the Mahayana and then in Japan with priests being able to marry, eat meat and booze it up for the last 140 years, the differences between lay and priest has become more blurry.

Importantly and mostly positively, during the Japanese period, training as a priest followed the apprentice-master model.

But now we’re here in the postmodern global culture and on the edge of some huge transitions (yes, peak oil, global warming, a few hundred years of China being the sole super power, etc.) and so where we’re going gets misty and the main part of the path is submerged with just the branches showing.

Also now-a-days, fyi, there’s a pretty strong movement in Soto Zen toward making Zen priests into a profession which I think is a pretty bad idea. Basically I recoil at the prospect of a Zen priest being trained like any old Protestant minister or Catholic priest (not that they aren’t wonderful, just that a Zen priest is a different kind of creature, imv).  

Entering the apprentice-master relationship with Katagiri Roshi was so pivotal in my life and in how I understand priest practice that it seems to me to be a big loss to build seminaries and equate dharma transmission with getting an MDiv. And the heart of priest practice isn’t about giving sermons on Sundays or doing weddings in June.

I’ll reserve more comments on that for another time because this post is already long.

Another difficult issue is (“home leaving,” aka, “priest ordination”) let alone the other parts of the process (head monk and dharma transmission).

Brad Warner refers to himself as a monk. But Merriam-Webster says a monk is “…a man who is a member of a religious order and lives in a monastery.”

As far as I know, Brad, like 90% of us, doesn’t live in a monastery.

Even though I’ve been using the word “priest” and “ordination,” I don’t think they fit all that well. Of course, translating these terms is always going to be problematic but the main thing about being a Zen priest is not “…one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God,” again as Merriam-Webster defines “priest.”

I’m not a mediator between humans and God or the relative and absolute for that matter. Sure, fully ordained Zen priests have a ceremonial role that is an important service to people at times of transition and in daily practice too, but that doesn’t capture much of the significance for me.

It’s more like being a dance instructor and partner than a go-between.

Other terms aren’t much closer than “priest” and I could go on about other possibilities and how they do and don’t fit – minster, alter boy or girl, teacher, sojourner, etc – but will spare you for now.

I’m thinking we should drop all these mostly highfalutin terms and just say “Zen practitioner” and be free from the inaccuracies that arise with the various other words along with sundry projections and head trips. Being a practitioner who has undertaken tokudo seems to me to be simple, descriptive and to the point.

Wearing the clothing of a monastic, then, would fit for those who have done monastic practice (and know how to wear the robes, etc.) and are continuing that spirit in daily life in the whirl.

Finally, what is the purpose of tokudo and why do it? Imv, the primary thing is the vow to continue the practice under whatever circumstances arise.

What practice? Here’s the lead into the chapter, “Dainin’s Four Essential Points,” from my book:

Katagiri Roshi taught four essential points for Soto Zen practice: (1) The oneness of practice and enlightenment, (2) that shikantaza is to bring wholehearted harmony to the self without attaching to enlightenment or delusion, (3) the Mahayana spirit to help others to live with others in peace and harmony, (4) finding life worth living under any circumstances.

He was really talking about four essential points for priest practice but clearly they also apply to any settled Zen practitioner.

My main point, however, is this: undertaking a life of tokudo in the postmodern global culture need not have any fixed form. This is leaving the home of home leaving.

It is something that can be done collaboratively without throwing out the tradition or getting absurdly dogmatic about it. As such,is an ongoing creative endeavor.

The lifestyle of a person living the life of leaving home, though, is not any-thing-goes or nothing. The traceless trace should be be palpable.

Apart from somebody calling themselves something, how can you see if somebody’s doing this?
Practicing these points in whatever circumstances a person finds themselves in will lead to living a life of simplicity and clarity, traditionally defined in terms of food, clothing, and housing, but in our context it would include a person’s whole lifestyle, including relationships and work, of course.

If someone is presenting as a Zen priest and clearly not living a simple, clear life, imv, something might well be rotten somewhere.

Your thoughts welcome.

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