Monastic Practice for Zen Priests?

You might be surprised to learn that many Zen priests in West haven’t done monastic practice and that a number haven’t done a seven-day sesshin. 
Some people with dharma transmission have done hundreds of sesshin and years of monastic practice. Others have worked through hundreds of koans and/or studied the Shobogenzo exhaustively. Some have not. Dharma transmission is completely up to a teacher who has received dharma transmission so the range of training among those with dharma transmission varies widely, with some relationship to lineage customs. 
In addition, some lineages regard an awakening experience as important and others don’t. 

Zen consumer of dharma beware! and don’t assume anything about a Zen teacher. Ask lots of questions about the person’s training and experience. 

Imv, thorough training is a necessary but insufficient condition for teaching. Personality variables are also important. Not everyone with thorough training is going to be the right type to teach or to be a minister.
The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SBZA) board recently proposed to the membership to consider adding a requirment for full membership of six months of ango (literally, “peaceful dwelling,” i.e., monastic practice). It seems that the majority of the responses on the listserve have been against this.
James Ford and Kyogen Carlson have posted a discussion on this topic at Monkey Mind. I read through the venerables’ blog posts and want to thank James and Kyogen for the intelligent and respectful conversation. 

Here I’d like to add my <2 cents with a roughly edited version of what I posted on the SBZA listserve.

First, imv, ango is about awakening and investigating “dharma” in the sense of “the way to live an awakened life.” Obviously, adaption is needed now to the global culture but one essential element is giving oneself over to it and not doing it on one’s own terms. And even in the modern world, some long period of time set aside for this seems incredibly important – it has been for me. A few 10-day retreats (one of the alternate proposals) could in no way approximate an extended period of steeping oneself in an ango.

Although contemporary Soto has drifted from the importance of verification in the practice-verification standard, imv, from Dogen to Keizan and even Bokusan in the 19th century (disparaged as the old boy was by Yasutani) all were clear about the importance of the “deep settled mind of the Soto school” for which verification is essential and all lived much of their lives in ango.

Zen has always been conservative in that sense – conservatively pointing to the essential for future generations (even if not so popular at any given time), so the conservative grey-hairs (and hairless one’s too) on the board are in long-standing good company.

From my experience of various styles of practice, it seems that deep settled mind is so much more salient in ango that I feel sad to see ango sometimes dismissed in contemporary Zen discourse, often by those who have not had the experience.

“Awakening” in lay life is much like dry insight in Vipassana – what’s seen is the same but the deep settled mind allows insight to penetrate more thoroughly. Ango provides guidance, also, in how to live that awakening. Not that such a person is necessarily a good minister.

I agree with Kyogen in the hope that there will be young people, especially in the post-peak oil collapse, that will find ango living to be profoundly meaningful and inexpensive too!
At the same time, I agree with those who suggest that for the formation of ministers, other forms of practice are probably more effective and should also be strongly encouraged or even required (including undertaking psychotherapy to investigate one’s own issues and programs like the Sogaku Institute). However, if we are only about training ministers, I think we miss a lot.

I suggest that having different recognized “tracks” – minister, monastic-dharma transmitter, cyber-trained priest, etc. (but with nicer names) – would be one way through this conundrum for SBZA that would also open the doors to those who identify as lay teachers and live lives virtually identical to those who identify as priests.

BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
  • BD

    As a newbie to Zen I find this debate quite intriguing. I have a family , wife, 2 children and there would be no way for me to fall off the map for 6 months. (Not that it's not appealing)At the same time I have to say that I would expect that if I find a teacher that had never practiced in a monastic setting before , perhaps I would see his or her qualifications as dubious and yet due to work and home responsibilities I find myself needing to use the internet for Sangha , dharma and the like.Also perhaps not everyone needs to be a priest.

  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,What, in your view, are the requirements of the ango?I'm currently observing an 'ango' period at home with increased zazen and study time; but I wouldn't claim that it is any sort of brilliantly-authentic-and-complete Ango (TM)… it's just making some extra commitment for a time, 'working the edge' to use a phrase that you sometimes employ. At the same time (maybe for my sins) I don't mind using the word to suggest the flavour of what I'm doing in my shaky layman's way.Regards,Harry.

  • Dosho Port

    Harry, I think it's fine to use the word to convey the spirit of what you're doing. I've also used the word for nonresidential training periods. That's one of the adaptations that Katagiri Roshi, I believe, made in bringing the spirit of monastic practice to lay practitioners. What I'm talking about in this post though is residential practice. The SBZA proposal defined it in this way:1.90 days in length2.Has at least 5 Ango trainees.3.Is consciously organized as an Ango, marked by opening and closingceremonies.4.Ango trainees are present for the entire 90 day period.5.Has adequate staffing by SZBA recognized teachers, including butnot limited to: Abbot, Head of Training, Head of the Tan,Venerable Teacher, Tenzo.6.Has a shuso with accompanying ceremonies.7.Schedule and training program is in accordance with the Soto Zentradition as outlined in the Eiheishingi, the Ango chapter of theShobogenzo and other writings by ancestral teachers.8.There is substantial and ubiquitous use of traditional Soto Zen forms such as chanting services, ceremony and ritual, use of robes, and oryoki.9.There is a full 24-hour compulsory schedule for at least 4 out of 5 days, followed by all full-time trainees, in which a majority of time is spent in silence.10.Full-time trainees submit, for the period in question, to theguidance of the leading teacher and to other senior practitionersas indicated by formal hierarchy.

  • Dosho Port

    BD and Harry,Another thought about your comments – although monastic practice has great virtues, you can live a Zen life in the life you have. Don't sucker for "monastic nostalgia," missing the life you have. Fortunately, there are people for whom monastic ango is possible. Is their practice the same as people who live at home? I hope not, although some monasteries also busy everybody up with workshops, businesses, multi-tasking, etc. Ideally, monastery life is much less hectic than lay life – peaceful dwelling. I think that a sign of maturity in Western Zen communities is to celebrate the depth of practice that can come from monastic practice while at the same time respecting the great intention and creativity of home-based lotus in fire practitioners.

  • gniz

    Just a small point. I agree that students need to "ask lots of questions about the person's training and experience."But it's also worthwhile to note that some teachers even resort to lying and exaggerating their experience. At the end of the day, if the student lacks an adequate ability to discern a teacher who "knows their stuff" from a wannabe zen master, asking a million questions probably won't be of much help.Still, I agree that we should ask questions and check on these teachers, which is part of why I have the blog that I have.

  • Trevor

    Hi Dosho,Interesting post. Thanks. Although I've not thought about it too much, I would say that some kind of intensive or ango-ish training needs to happen for Zen priests. But how much? I wonder sometimes. I spent two and half years at Tassajara, which was invaluable; lots of zazen, bunches of sesshin, a life contained by formal practice and training. Then I spent three years at SFZC, a much looser practice container, and it was clear to me how much the training I received at Tassajara had sunk into my bones. And it's still clear to me. Now, nine months into residency at Austin Zen Center, I am looking to go out and get a normal job ( That makes about six and a half years of residential training, including the two and a half in what you might call an "ango setting." Is this enough? And how would one tell if it is enough?All the best,Trevor.

  • David Clark

    Dosho,As a fellow Blogspot blogger, I've been watching the new format blog pages may are now using. Your site became very difficult and slow loading for a while when you up-dated your look. It now seems to load a lot faster and seems easier to access. I've put off up-dating my look because of these loading problems. Any comment?Just an observation

  • Dosho Port

    David,Didn't know it was slow. It works well from my end….