Hanging Out With Homeleavers

Sometimes I get called “Reverend” and it just doesn’t sit right.

You see, I don’t see myself as a minister in the Protestant mold or a priest in the Catholic/Anglican mold either. Neither molds approximate the Zen mold.

Seems to me that in American Zen we’re desperate for an English word that labels what we do but haven’t found a good one yet. In grasping for a fitting cultural paradigm for those who’ve undertaken homeleaving, we resort to minister and priest speak.

Maybe we have some belonging needs that we hope to meet by fitting into the Christian culture or want to present as professionals to legitimize what we do. Meanwhile the culture hops along in another direction – nonwhite with almost 30% of young people identifying as “none” (no religious affiliation).

Now if you follow this blog, you know that this is a regular peeve of mine. But today I’m not just fussily bitching. I actually have a proposal … which I’ll get to in a minute but first I want to say a bit more about why the minister/priest words don’t fit.

A minister is someone who ministers to somebody or some group of somebodies – that’s not what Zen practice is about. A priest is into being a “mediatory agent between humans and God” and when it comes to God, imv, you’re on your own, buddy.

My training has been in the old ways of Dogen Zen as practiced by Katagiri Roshi, including how to eat, walk, sit, intone the sutras, etc. Reflecting deeply on human life was especially important for Roshi. Which really led me to koan Zen. None of which has led me to minister or mediate.

Keizan put it this way, “Now the basic point of Zen study is to clarify the mind and awaken to reality. …Being a teacher is not merely a matter of gathering a group and looking after people – it is to make people penetrate directly to the root source and realize the fundamental.”

So what should we call people who have undertaken homeleaving (aka, priest ordination)?

A Zen guy I respect who lives in Japan and speaks the old tongue tells me that he and those he hangs out with call themselves sōryo (僧侶) or “companion of monks” (i.e., those who’ve undergone homeleaving).

I like that. It’s humble – I just hang out with homeleavers. It leaves whether I’m a homeleaver or not up to others, and because moment by moment we’re all prone to enlightened, free, homeleaving action or incredibly attached stupidity, it fits reality quite nicely.

As such, sōryo also suggests something that isn’t fixed. It’s about intimate relationship rather than ministering or mediating.

Now, sōryo is a “foreign” word – like Zen, zazen, and spaghetti – so some Roshis might not like it (warning: previous comment intended to be ironic).

And, btw, from the point of view of those who hang with homeleavers, I’m guessing that everybody is always leaving home (even in our stupidity) so we’re all included.

Like Keizan’s poem:

A solitary boat is making its way without oars in the dim moonlight.
Turning the head, one can see waterweed motionless on the old bank.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Pretty good rumination, Reverend…

    • doshoport

      What a pleasure to hang with the likes you!

  • http://JustThis(bigour.blogspot.com) Alan

    Sometimes we minister whether we like it or not just by the way we eat, walk, sleep, intone sutras and the like. So whether you like it or not buddy, I think you do minster to people. But it’s best you just don’t know it. That way it is what it is and not YOU trying to make it something.

    • doshoport


  • http://www.brightwayzen.org Domyo Burk

    Hey Dosho – can you tell me where that bit from Keizan can be found, about “Being a teacher is not merely a matter of gathering a group and looking after people – it is to make people penetrate directly to the root source and realize the fundamental”?

    • doshoport

      Hi Domyo,
      Yes, it’s on p171 of the Cook translation of Transmitting the Light – case 37 on Yun-yen. Oh but whoops I went with Cleary (p161). The poem is also from this same case, different translation. The commentary is very much “outcome-based training,” as we say these days in education circles! Further on Keizan says, “If you awaken to this realm, you will not only stop doubting your [timeless] self, you will be able to see through all the Buddhas of the three times, successive generations of [ancestors], and thoroughly ordinary path-robe monks with one glance. You will cut through them with a single blow, meet Yao-shan and Pia-chang at once, and directly see eye to eye with Yun-yen and Tao-wu.”
      Which is all very Mumon-esque – entangling eyebrows, etc – no?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Dear one,
    As you know, a subject dear to me – less the titles, although I pay attention to that, but vastly more what it is we do.
    I think the practice and for some later the teaching functions are at the heart of the matter. No doubt.
    And, there is something to serving the community in that shamanic/pastoral/priestly project.
    Now that it is possible to practice fully without ordination, I think those, as Daniel said elsewhere companions on the way, or, my Spanish is near non-existent, perhaps companions of the way are those who practice and maybe teach, but who do not take on the additional tasks that come with ordination.
    Those of us who ordain, at least within the Bodhisattva tradition we receive through Japan, I think, feel, for the most part have explicitly, or, maybe just implicitly, vowed to a life of service. We’re the ones our sisters and brothers are going to be going to when illness and death enter.
    So minister is not a bad term. And as for priest, the mediation function isn’t necessarily involving a particular deity, but rather mediation – and, let’s be honest, anyone who performs eko is mediating.
    Also, priest derives from presbyter – which simply means elder, and doesn’t even have to involve that mediating function, which I suggest we in fact carry within ordination, whether literally, or, I would say poetically.
    Dashed off, have to go to church to attend our Eighth grader’s spaghetti dinner fundraiser for their grand tour of the Holy City, Boston, of course…
    More bows,

    • doshoport

      Rev. Ford you sweetie,

      Granted that neither you nor I are as smart as Daniel :-) as you comment on FB … and yet let me fuss along here a bit.

      First, I don’t see those who have undertaken homeleaving as having a corner on the Bodhisattva Vow or life of service … and I don’t think you do either. For all of us together, the vow to carry all beings across is central in whatever lifestyle we choose. So that doesn’t seem to distinguish or justify appropriating the Christian terminology.

      I’m not denying that for some who’ve undertaken homeleaving, the ministerial life is their calling – and I’m not saying this bad. So don’t get your nickers in a knot. I’m saying that it is one path of many and it is unfortunate, imv, in our present scene that “priest ordination” = ministerial function.

      Keizan points to the most important service we can offer – delivered perhaps at bedside – but not merely looking after people.

      And despite the derivation of “priest,” the word in English has suggested a mediator function to God for the laity which is wrong in our buddhalogical context.

      In community practice, we do have one practitioner offering the Eko – returning the merit – at various points in the liturgy (often not the “priest”). The spirit of that is to verbally express what we’re doing – giving all back to the source. No mediation to a higher power there.

      But I could be wrong,


  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


    I agree that etymology only takes us so far. Much like the question of “Is Buddhism a religion?” we can’t really separate our feelings about that from our culturally conditioned definitions of “religion,” which rarely fit. “Priest” isn’t inherently problematic, but it is problematic for many.

    One note regarding the Eko–I was taught that the ino is actually providing the voice for the doshi (which is why, during the recitation of the eko, only the doshi and ino are in gassho–they’re mirroring each other). So even if it’s someone else’s voice, it’s a statement made by the priest (again, as I learned it). But whether that’s really mediation or not is another question.


    • Jeanne Desy

      Nothing is inherently problematic, right?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    My sense of the Eko is that it is the ritual act that serves the same spiritual purpose as the formal giving of gifts to the monastic sangha, whereby merit is accrued for the giver. And as with the gift to a monk, the merit generated by the Eko, which is I believe traditionally reserved to the ordained becomes the “business” or “work” of the priest, serving the laity in their generating of good karma to be used at a future date. Close enough to mediation for me. Certainly priestly work. And even if we in the Western ordained sangha don’t, at least most of us, see the rite in the same way, now, it is what was intended before it came West. I think…

    • doshoport

      I’m now more convinced that you’re right – I’m not very bright.
      My understanding of the traditional Soto eko is that it returns the merit of the wisdom of the chanting to the Buddha, Arhats and the Ancestors. This seems quite different than Christian prayer. And the role of the Ino and Doshi embody intimacy – call and response arising together. Buddha nature doesn’t need a mediator.
      And I hope you and I don’t need a mediator.
      Talk with you soon,

  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    Hi Dosho,

    A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. (A lemon by any other name is still a lemon).

    But in our Sangha, we lean to turn such as artisan, artist and minister (because we are ministering to suffering beings), and disfavor “Priest” or “Monk” (except during the period that a particular person might be training celibate in a monastery). We also favor Sōryo or “Zenchishiki” (“shanzhishi” in Chinese, 善知識, Sanskrit kalyanamitra), perhaps a “Good Wise Friend” or “Guide” (in the Dharma)”.

    I might, however, offer an alternative rendering for sōryo (僧侶) in place of “companion of monks”. The ryo (侶) certainly means “companion”. However, the sō (僧), while meaning “monk” is also the first syllable of “Sangha” (sōgya in Japanese, 僧伽, which is a phonetic rendering via Chinese of the sanskrit samgha). Sangha has come to have a wider meaning in the Mahayana than the original emphasis on monks. Thus, we have gone with “Sangha Companions”.

    Brad and I recently went on about what we do and what to call it. There are aspects of being a master craftsman or artist too, like a carpenter or musician.


    Anyway, a name is a name is a nameless name. What one does, and how one acts is more important.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • phil martin

    Your post points up for me the confusion about what to call any of us who do this dance with the fundamental. Householders and homeleavers– those categories don’t quite fit, either in old eastern or western models. We householders, as someone said, are not quite laypeople. We don’t expect you to mediate or actualize anything for us. And not quite monks either. James, your quote about the “business” of priests, reminds me of a conversation with Katagiri Roshi when he said to be ordained is to be “a spiritual professional.” So perhaps we students can call ourselves spiritual amateurs, with all the positive meaning the root of that word holds. Lovers of the practice, of the fundamental. Intimate relationship, as you say Dosho. We’re all in this (solitary) boat together.

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Whatever we call ourselves I’m glad I get to hang out with you all.
    Fortunate beyond the naming
    Even as there is a time when we have to, as one of our teachers, said, say something…
    Bows to the brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers,
    And all who must follow,

    • doshoport

      Ditto to that old guy.
      As for the “priest” thing … well, I do think it important what we call it. At the same time, I acknowledge that the horse has already left the barn but the issues that come up here are interesting to me – like is the priest/homeleaver/soryo role mediatory? – and I hope to others.
      With love,

  • Bryan

    Dosho: I resonate–at least in part–with James’ posts. My sense of those who have taken priestly ordination is that this is to formally enfranchise one’s role for service to the Dharma and Sangha.

    In some Western Zen lineages (I think of the Rochester lineage in particular), those who take priestly ordination commit themselves full-time to service and do not have employment outside the temple. Certainly, there are only a few residential centers in the West with sufficient economic support so that this is a viable alternative, though this is the sense of being a ‘priest’ with which I resonate.
    Perhaps in the future, this will be an option available to all who wish to serve the Sangha in a formal way full-time.

    Hands palm-to-palm,


  • Harry

    Jayzoob H. Crust, this ‘rosing by any other name’ is dragging on a bit…

    I’ve decided I’m going to call everyone ‘Vicar’: priests, monks, rabbis, swamis, gurus, roshis, senseis, ministers, feng shui consultants, life coaches, spiritual counselors, flower arrangers… the whole caboodle of ye; you and the Bradster included.

    Over here ‘Vicar’ is very conducive to calm discussion and the taking of tea and cucumber sandwiches. When I start getting stuff for free I might revert to ‘Master’.

    Another option I would consider offering (via Dogen in translation) is: ‘Stout Fellow’.

    Bless you, Vicar/ Stout Fellow.