Confession of a Married Monk: A Small Zen Meditation Without a Clear Conclusion

Confession of a Married Monk: A Small Zen Meditation Without a Clear Conclusion October 17, 2017

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For me the whole project of Zen has been about awakening.

A bit more than fifty years ago I began Zen practice knowing almost nothing of what I was getting myself into. Other than one thing. Not even twenty, already my life was a shamble. I felt the pain of a world spinning out of control. I felt the pain of my own heart.

I’d read some of the few things available about Zen at the time, mostly Alan Watts‘ interpretation of D. T. Suzuki’s pioneering English language introductions. While today we have a more nuanced understanding of Zen and what it brings to us, complete with some serious criticisms of Professor Suzuki’s narrow focus, and particularly Dr Watts’ framing, there was a promise made. And, with all my heart I grasped after that promise.

The promise was simple. We can wake from the nightmare.

I began my practice with Mel Sojun Weitsman, sitting at the Berkeley Zendo. But when Houn Jiyu Kennett arrived in the United States, I became her student, then disciple, and then on the 5th of July, 1970 I ordained as an unsui with her. Later, she gave me her dharma transmission. I would leave her, cast about for several years, and then launch into a decades long program of koan introspection practice with John Tarrant and other teachers of the Soto reform koan curriculum introduced by Daiun Sogaku Harada.

For fifteen years I worked with some amazing collaborators, particularly Melissa Myozen Blacker, David Rynick, and Josh Bartok, in creating Boundless Way Zen, a collective focused on offering authentic Zen practices adapted to our Western culture. Along that way we saw a need for a ministerial function within our community, and introduced a program leading to ordination using the Soto Bodhisattva ordination system I’d inherited from Kennett Roshi. At the time we all, me included, saw it principally as a way to offer ministry.

But then something began to happen. It was clear that for at least some people who ordained, I don’t know, maybe most, they felt there was something else happening, as well. What that is is not clear, but it is compelling. And the priests of the Boundless Way continue to wrestle with that mystery.

Then, two years ago my spouse Jan and I retired from our professional lives, she as a librarian and me as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, and returned to our native California. This allowed Jan to be closer to her mother in the Los Angeles area.

Of course we started a Zen sitting group, Blue Cliff Zen Sangha, meeting at the UU church in Long Beach. Then after about nine months we started a second group meeting at the UU church in Costa Mesa. We’ve begun offering day long sits, and have just put a deposit down on a retreat facility for our first three-day at the beginning of February.

I’m just finishing up a three-year term on the board of directors for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association during a critical time when it is attempting to define some broad perimeters for membership. This has followed about fifty years of wild growth through numerous lineages, and an equally wild number of expectations for ordination. As part of this project I’ve studied the nature of ordination and transmission in Soto Zen, and reflected on what might be helpful at this pregnant moment in our history.

I’ve also found myself reflecting on my own path. I’ve recalled my initial impulse. And, I recall the vows I made forty-seven years ago.

And, very importantly, I’ve made two friendships. The first is with Gyokei Yokoyama, a Japanese Soto Zen priest who serves dually as minister of the Long Beach Buddhist Church and with the Soto Zen Buddhist North America Office, the official representative of the Sotoshu in North America. The second is with Gesshin Greenwood, an American Soto priest who trained almost entirely in Japan, and who has only recently returned to North America, and is currently completing an MA at the University of Southern California.

There are others, of course. I think of some conversations with a younger generation of Soto priests who trained in Japan, Koun Franz, Tenku Ruff, and Ejo McMullan in particular. But also with many others, off the top I think of Hozan Senauke, Dana Veldon, Gyokuko Carlson, Kosho McCall, Renshin Bunce, Domyo Burke, Hondo Rutschman, Tetsugan Zummach, and most of all with Dosho Port. Just the names that I think of in the moment as I type these words. With some brief conversations, with others much deeper, but all of them touching my heart. I’ve been richly treated. But Gyokei and Gesshin, these two have particularly triggered vital questions for me at this moment in my life.

And, so, here I am today. I think the original ordination concern at Boundless Way is real. We need ministers, and we need to attend to how to prepare them. And, pretty much obviously, at least to me, those ministers can so easily be our Soto Zen priests. But, there is something else going on with Soto ordination that precedes any other concern, even that need for ministers. It is found in that mysterious stirring in the hearts of those who ordained within Boundless Way. And, it has for me.

Today, as am now some months into my sixty-ninth year. And, so, those questions.

I think about awakening, and how my understanding of what that means has shifted, and I hope, deepened over the many years. The secret of all this is the reconciliation of our divided hearts which is summarized so perfectly in the Heart Sutra, the great text of my life.

And, I think about what I’ve learned about awakening. The rhetoric of our way focuses on a great insight and a transformed life. This is absolutely true. But, it is also about the meeting of a dynamic, and it is experienced, deeply and shallowly, it is lived now aware, now not so much. And, the path itself continues on. One of my most cherished sayings from our tradition is that even the Buddha continues to practice. And that word practice itself speaks to it all, it is both doing and it is always also preparing.

And, I think about my vows as a Buddhist priest, as a Zen unsui. In part it is about ministry. But, at heart it is about something else. It has to do with that life of practice. As a Soto practitioner I’m most taken with the great Eihei Dogen’s practice-enlightenment. I am a relentless advocate of the validity of lay practice. And, I believe, deeply, profoundly, that no one need ordain to become an authentic practitioner, or even a fully qualified Zen teacher.

And, my heart calls me into something. It is that ancient vow that I joined myself to those near five decades ago.

I’ve long resisted the term monk for what I ordained into. I’ve preferred priest. The history of our Japanese-derived Bodhisattva ordination is long and complex. It was originally simply an alternative form of monastic ordination introduced out of specific needs of Japanese Buddhism in the Ninth century. But, over time something evolved, a form of “married monasticism,” to use a term that was coined to attempt to capture the phenomenon. The relationship between Japanese Bodhisattva ordination and Continental Vinaya ordination is vaguely similar to how Anglican ordination stands in relation to Catholic ordination. Confusing. And, as I said, I’ve generally found priest a less confusing term. And I still use it.

But. I am increasingly aware of my life vow into what I am becoming more comfortable with calling it by that clumsy but compelling “married monasticism.” It is a life of vow. It is not lay practice. Nor is it the Bodhisattva precepts as used in China, although the specific precepts used to ordain derived from that source. But, it isn’t traditional monasticism, either, which nearly everyone understands whatever else, includes celibacy and voluntary poverty. I like that term mainly used in the Shin tradition to describe the state to which this Bodhisattva ordination calls us as “neither monk nor lay.”

All this said, I find how I increasingly cherish my early years of monastic practice as a foundation for much of what I’ve done. And in a sense of who I’ve been. And, now, as I age, as I see the diminishing of faculties, and the shrinking of my world on the horizon, I see myself slipping more and more into the power of that original vow, and how it is carrying me along.

Where this is going, I cannot say. Just a marker. Just a moment to notice.

From here, from this, I find I am surrendering into mystery. Comforted in some way by that ancient and constantly renewed vow…

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