Soto Zen Buddhism in North America
Some Random Notes from a Work in Progress
(First published on 20 January 2018, minor edits 28 June, 2019)
James Myoun Ford
The other day I looked something up in my history of Zen come West, Zen Master Who? It’s a dozen years old and I don’t have cause to look at it much. And, embarrassingly, what I mainly recall are various errors of fact, mostly small, one not so small. So, when looking at I was frankly a little surprised at how much of it can still count as current.
That acknowledged, I would write something different were I able to re-explore my own tradition, Soto Zen. I’ve been thinking about the nature of Zen practice, particularly Soto, the emergence and importance of lay practice, and Japanese Soto Zen’s unique priestly Zen practice as it is beginning to take shape here in North America. And with that a small challenge to re-vision what it means to be a spiritual director or teacher within North American Soto Zen Buddhism.
Since writing that book not that many years ago, but still, a lifetime ago, I’ve been engaged in many conversations about the shape of Zen here, and in particular what Soto might be. I’ve spoken with many priests and others, both North Americans and Japanese, and have even served a three-year term on the board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, an attempt at creating a proto-denominational structure. I’m deep into it.
And, also this coming July it will have been forty-eight years since my ordination as a Soto Zen priest. That same month I will turn seventy. In my view we’re facing what I’ve come to call “the great die off.” That is my cohort, the so-called boomer generation are just beginning to die.
And, with that as it turns out there will be significant shrinking of Zen communities here in North America. Actually, I was at one time worried that Zen in the west might just be a “boomer thing.” That, thankfully, has proven not to be so. Still, many fewer of the Gen X cohort followed us into Zen. Although now, a rather surprising number of the Millennial generation are showing signs of going for Zen in a big way.
So, perhaps you can consider this a status report, a provisional read from someone deeply committed to Zen and particularly Soto Zen on what has happened as the tradition has come to North America. And,yes, similarly to South America, Europe, and Africa, although I can’t claim to know enough about Zen in those cultures to feel comfortable saying I’m addressing “Western Zen” in any significant way. So, North American Soto Zen.
And with this review some points to consider for those who will follow.
Zen is About Awakening
Now, the first and foremost point. Zen is about awakening. Whether Rinzai, Soto, or, any of the various hybridizings that have occurred, Zen is always all about awakening. We forget this, and we lose everything. We recall this, and all that follows can be helpful.
And, no one owns awakening.
Awakening means seeing into our own hearts and minds and finding how we are precious and unique and at the very same time as passing as the morning dew. And, one more thing. This insight contains the secret of our existence. While we are passing, rising and falling in a moment, we are at the same time birthed out of something and will return to that something mysterious and true. It can from one angle be seen as causes and conditions, and from another as a mysterious play of intimacy.
Intimacy. We are all caught up so closely to each other and, actually, with all the things of the universe in some great dance of existence, that it can be completely honest to call the whole of it, “one.” In classical Buddhism, this truth of that intimate encounter of the many passing things is called “empty.” The great binding is our passingness. But, that doesn’t quite capture the whole of it. The reality of our rising and falling and intimacy is more complicated, yet. So, I find the term boundless for that empty, for that one more helpful than most other terms.
This said, Zen offers some particularly useful disciplines for anyone seeking awakening. Discovering this as our reality, and then living into it is the Zen project. It heals the broken heart. This wondrous insight and constant unfolding of its many mysteries gives us a path to walk all the way to our deaths. This is Zen. And with that this is Soto Zen.
Soto is one expression of the Zen way. And it is mine.
I am so grateful.
The School of Zen
The particular disciplines that are Zen’s way, emerged in Medieval China and took unique shape, really, several unique shapes in that ancient culture, and over time traveled to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. And in each of these countries it adapted to the local culture and within that, also provided new insights and possibilities on the great Zen way.
Zen is a cluster of stories, and a handful of disciplines. All of them in service to awakening.
Throughout Asia the way was protected and transmitted within the monastic community, monks and nuns bound by the Vinaya codes. However, all along its history there were also numerous instances of non-monastics recognized as authentically mastering the intricacies of this way. And that’s an important note. And allows for an orientation that only began to flower in the west. More, on that in a moment.
But, first, in Japan through a series of historical accidents a new style of clerical practice for Buddhist religious leadership emerged, starting to take unique shape as early as in the eighth century. And for Zen culminating at the end of the nineteenth century with a clearly new ordination model that retained monastic terms, as well as an intensive monastic experience for training, but was no longer celibate.
As the crudest of analogies, if Vinaya monasticism resembles Roman Catholic monastic priesthood, Japanese Bodhisattva ordination more resembles Anglican priesthood. It is confusing. It is messy. And it really is still evolving in Japan. Also worth noting, starting shortly before the Second World War, a reform ordination movement also arose in Korea that similarly features a non-celibate clerical leadership.
This new ordination system is true of both Rinzai and Soto. Actually of all Japanese ordinations, as best I can tell.
And then Zen came west.
There are any number of points where we can say it happened. The true origins trace to Chinese immigrants in the Nineteenth century. But, there are no records of the teachings of this way reaching beyond the immigrants themselves. By the middle of the nineteenth century Buddhist texts starting to become available. But, it would be the end of the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before Zen was truly introduced to North Americans as a spiritual way of life that might call to them. To us.
But after the spate of authors, most notably the lay Rinzai practitioner and scholar D. T. Suzuki, the form of Zen that has had the widest influence has been Soto. There are several reasons for this. Possibly most importantly, the enormous success of the missions led by Shunryu Suzuki in San Francisco, Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles, and Dainin Katagiri in Minneapolis. Others are terribly important, but these three in particular have generated two generations of Zen priests here in North America. And their influence is prodigious.
Japanese Soto Zen in North America
Of course, Soto’s formation is older than these three priests. For the foundations of Soto Zen, I think we need to hold up two dates. And with that note a tension that continues to this day.
In 1922 after first establishing a Soto temple in Hawaii, the Reverend Hosen Isobe established a Soto Zen mission in Los Angeles. It would eventually become Zenshu-ji temple. I find this a pretty good marker for the beginnings of Soto Zen in the West. And with that date it means Soto Zen has been here in North America for ninety-six years.
The hard reality however is that the Soto mission did not reach far out beyond the Japanese immigrant community. An occasional person of European or African descent would be caught up in the ways of Soto Zen, but they would be met with various obstacles including language and, frankly, suspicion on the part of the nearly exclusive Japanese and Japanese-descent community. To this day Zenshu-ji and other official Sotoshu temples in North America tend mostly to serve a Japanese and Japanese descent population, with services largely in the Japanese language, and with a significant commitment to preserving Japanese culture.
And there’s another date. To my mind equally important. 1953. It marks the ordination of Ernest Shinkaku Hunt as a Soto Zen priest. An Anglo-American convert to Buddhism, I particularly like that he’d previously been ordained a Shin priest, and was throughout his life devoted to an ecumenical vision of Buddhism. He would be the first of what today, if you include those who’ve simply taken the first ordained vows, number as many as several thousand North Americans of European and African descent have ordained as Soto priests.
And also, significant in the years following the dawn of Zen in the West, the rise of the “Zen Center” as distinct from temple or monastery. Zen Center, by the bye, is a term apparently first coined for the missionary Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki’s outreach to a convert community.
And as an aside he came here originally as a minister for one of the official Sotoshu temples, where the beatnicks and then hippies were seen as, well, too often dirty, and pretty much always annoying. Also, a Zen center is either a lay, or a mixed lay and ordained community, but always lay-oriented, rather than a monastic or even a temple. And it is the Zen center that has become the principal gathering place for Zen practice in North America, with significant consequences.
Now, either of these are arbitrary dates, but using them we can say the new era of an American Soto Zen Buddhism began. Using that date Soto Zen is at the most ninety-six old here, although we could equally say sixty-five years. In either case, a blink of the eye by the count of most social transformations.
I think it critical to acknowledge at the same time a divide. On the one hand the official Japanese Sotoshu, which remains largely for Japanese or Japanese descent people, and is quite conservative in the sense of alignment with Japanese Soto norms. And on the other, the converts, mostly of European descent, although in recent years marking the beginnings of interest among African Americans, some Native Americans, more Latinx (there’s actually an enormous interest in South America, particularly Brazil, but just beginning here), and just to keep things interesting people of Japanese or other East Asian (and some South Asian) descent but who are in a very real sense also “Western converts.” Their, our, Soto remains largely independent of the Sotoshu, is wildly experimental, and I would say continues at least in spirit that universalist feeling taught by Reverend Hunt.
The two streams sometimes meeting, sometimes deeply informing the other, but all too often simply following different currents, and not even particularly aware of the other. When we are talking of two streams that both can increasingly claim to be “North American” Zen, well, this divide speaks of wounds in our human culture that cry out for healing.
I was speaking with a friend, a Japanese priest, and I commented how from my perspective some of the Americans who have trained exclusively or nearly so in Japan and who identify deeply with the Sotoshu do not actually represent “American” Zen. He smiled ruefully and said it was his observation these same priests are considered by many in the Japanese hierarchy as simply Americans who speak (to some greater or lesser degree) Japanese. Emphasis on Americans. And implied in that rueful smile, always a part of that “other” camp.
In my dotage, I’m ever more interested in bridging that gulf to the degree it is possible. I believe we of European and African descent called into the Soto way bring gifts to the great way of awakening. And, at the same time, our teachers and founders from Japan and their heirs continue to bring their own riches.
And going forward, I believe, deeply, we need each other. Desparately…
All this is offered by way of prelude.
Zen as a Lay Practice
What I find myself most concerned with today is noting how Soto Zen practice and, I believe it is so important, acknowledgement of leadership within our North American Soto stands. Especially within the convert community. And, with that I offer some observations, and raise some question for further investigation.
Probably the most important thing here has been the rise in the importance of lay practice. My sense is that the Japanese hierarchy pretty close to completely miss this. And, even within the convert Soto ordained community, a clericalism exists that has also blinded many to this reality.
Now, throughout Asia the disciplines of Zen have largely been the province of the ordained, whether traditional Vinaya monastics or Japanese (and Korean) priests. This has been particularly so with Japanese Soto Zen, where the myth and history of Dharma transmission has been collapsed into the normative ordination model.
And with that it has become functionally impossible to acknowledge lay practice as anything other than a support for “real,” meaning ordained practice. Even today when I meet with Japanese priests, they appear to have a hard time even thinking that lay practice is something other than a hobby, and real practice is exclusively the province of the ordained. And, I would add seeing women as equal practitioners. I suspect there is a connection here.
But in the West something else began to emerge. It shakes the old foundations. And, as I see it, if we are honest with ourselves and care for the Soto form of the dharma going forward here, forces us to look at the whole matter with new eyes.
We’ve seen here in the West and particularly here in North America the emergence of a Soto derived Zen that is not reliant on clerical leadership. And with that a clarification, or perhaps simply a reminder of the central gifts of Zen.
If the Zen project is really about awakening this should not be a problem. But it is clarifying. The particular meditation disciplines of the Zen school are about how awakening can be encountered within a mature spiritual technology. And the foundation of this technology is zazen.
What we’re seeing is that people who devote a significant part of their lives to seated Zen meditation can find their lives transformed. Throw in some retreats and a rich and powerful way has been revealed. This even produces wise counselors and, and this is critical, authentic teachers. I will return to this point later.
Also, of critical importance, and probably not unrelated to the strength of lay practice, is how koan Zen within a Soto style has emerged here in the West. While koan introspection is part of the common inheritance of Zen, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries koan introspection was suppressed as a normative practice within the Japanese Soto school. The reasons are many, and not critical to unpack here.
What is critical is how the work of a Soto master Daiun Sogaku Harada who studied deeply with several Rinzai masters and then developed out of that a Soto koan curriculum began to be practiced in some Japanese Soto temples and monasteries beginning in the early part of the twentieth century. And, more importantly, that discipline made its way West.
This happened through one ordained lineage by way of Taizan Maezumi and his White Plum Asangha. And, importantly, also through several lay lineages by way of the Sanbo Zen community, and through them, to the Diamond Sangha, and the Pacific Zen Institute. It is worth noting other communities like Boundless Way, and now my own Empty Moon Zen sangha as well as the Nebraska Zen Center, as some I can think of off the top of my head, offer both ordained and lay practice with authentic and full acknowledgement of lay achievement.
But most important is how through Sanbo Zen, the Diamond Sangha, and the Pacific Zen Institute an opportunity for lay practitioners to dig in deeply has clearly and unambiguously presented. Lay practice, I underscore, as a complete practice. Now, yes, while Sanbo Zen, Diamond Sangha, and the PZI each have felt they’ve moved away from Soto, their linage charts suggest something else. That acknowledged, from my perspective, at least, there remains the possibility of a reconnection. For all our sakes, I hope this will eventually happen. Whether it be through the Sotoshu itself, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, or some as yet unformed alliance, almost doesn’t matter. That it happens, however, does. For the sake of the way of awakening as a Soto stream in the West, it does.
What is critical is that there is here in the West a lay practice that is clearly rooted within the Soto school has produced lives of grace and possibility, devoted to a healing of individuals and the world. And more than interesting, has produced authentic Zen teachers. This needs to be noted. And, it needs to be celebrated. And it needs to be supported. It is grounded in the simple but astonishing practice of the heart we call zazen, althought often, and maybe ever more regularly includes a devotion to koan introspection. And so, as I see it, koan introspection needs to be accepted as a normative part of Soto Zen in the West.I believe it is the very foundation of our emerging North American Soto Zen.
A Personal Digression: I Find the Koan of Soto Zen Ordination
All this said, now it is critical to consider ordination within Western Soto Zen.
Ordained practice in the West, I have come to believe, has three major components. One of these has arisen here in the West, while the other two are part and parcel of our inheritance from Japan. Here in the West we’ve simply assumed a pastoral or ministerial function should come with ordination. While not part of what I believe was part of Japanese ordination systen, the foundations of Japanese Soto Zen are in fact monasticism and sacramental practice. I believe all three of these aspects need to be taken into account as we consider Soto Zen ordination here in North America.
When I first came to Zen practice at the tail end of the 1960s, I was fascinated with ordination. There were many reasons for this. My own life centered around thoughts of meaning and direction, religion writ large, and with that the dedicated religious life. In my childhood, I just assumed I’d be either a minister or perhaps a missionary. And as time passed, while I lost Christianity in my adolescence, I did not lose the call of the religious life.
After some looking about I realized Zen was the way for me. And more specifically the Soto Zen community gathered around Shunryu Suzuki.
I watched as the master at the San Francisco Zen Center began to ordain some of his senior students, including the leader of the group I sat at, what was then the Berkeley Zendo. And I wondered if this was right path for me. I was filled with notions, so whatever I thought, I can’t say they were realistic, but I did feel a call. Beyond the fact Suzuki Roshi referred to the ordained life as “neither monk nor lay,” a term I didn’t realize at the time he’d lifted from the Twelfth century Shin teacher Shinran Shonin, I only knew it seemed some form of gateway to solving the many problems of my life. So, confused, and at the same time, compelling.
And then in 1969 the English priest Houn Jiyu Kennett arrived San Francisco. She had been authorized to establish a Sotoshu temple in London and was visiting the Zen Center to see how an effective mission to a potential convert community might look. For her own reasons, she quickly abandoned the plan of returning to England, and instead moved into a flat on Potrero Hill announcing she was “receiving.” I became her first student in the United States.
A few months later when she decided she did indeed have to return to England, at least briefly, to wind up family issues, I was invited to move into the flat/temple as a resident. And to pay the rent. For the next not quite three years I was launched into a full-on Zen monastic training life. On the 5th of July 1970, I was ordained unsui, a clouds-and-water priest, or, as we called it then and there, as a monk within the Zen Mission Society. There were six of us in that first batch.
We were told our ordinations were registered with the Sotoshu. That mattered to me at the time.
During the next several years I practiced continuously, including three (I cannot say with certainty), perhaps four ango, formal ninety-day intensive training periods. During the second ango I was the “chief junior,” and at the end underwent the Shuso Hossen ceremony. Then rapididly for our later Western standards, on the 2nd of May, 1971, I was fully ordained a full Soto priest, receiving both denkai and dharma transmission from the roshi.
We were no longer formally associated with Sotoshu, so I assume this was not registered.
Within a year after that I’d left Kennett Roshi and what was now called Shasta Abbey. Frankly, I felt I had escaped a cult, or, at least a cult in formation. In retrospect I think both yes, and, not really, in some genuine ways simply the intense disciplines of, at that time, a very traditional Japanese-style Soto training temple. The cult would come later, after I had left. And, then, with the vagaries of time and the death of its founder Shasta Abbey would evolve into an eccentric if wonderful experiment in establishing a traditionally celibate monastic Zen. It remains rooted in Japanese Soto Zen and the vows of the Japanese inheritance rather than Vinaya monasticism, becoming its own rather profound Western Soto Zen experiment.
Years would pass. I tried to escape Zen. And I looked at some very rich possibilities. But, my heart called me back. What I found at the time just right for that return, what really worked was the koan driven lay-practice of the Diamond Sangha, mixed up for me in ways hard to unravel with Unitarian Universalism. In time my primary spiritual director, John Tarrant, left the Diamond Sangha, and institutionally I followed, if not with complete enthusiasm. But when we bow to a teacher, it is important to bow. And I did. At the same time, I ended up within the UU ordained ministry.
I dug into koans. And, they worked for me. I cannot say how important they were for me and the formation of my spiritual life. Eventually John gave me inka shomei, really just the Diamond Sangha style of Dharma transmission. It came with a title, roshi. And, I liked that there was a distinguishing between my ordinations and my teaching authorization. With some friends I ended up founding a new spiritual community, Boundless Way Zen. I practiced with them for nearly two decades.
Ordained Zen as Ministry
Somewhere along the line I started feeling the calls of my ordinations. And, casting about for a way to engage this feeling, I seized upon that sense of ministerial call which I understood from my Unitarian Universalist ministry, itself while rooted in the Christian inheritance, nonetheless, and definitely, was “post Christian.” It worked. At least for me. Certainly, several people who were deep Zen practitioners, mostly well along in the koan way, joined me and we created a Boundless Way ordination system based within my Soto ordinations that was intended to serve that ministerial call.
There is little doubt in my heart that any North American or Western Zen ordination needed to understand our Western sense of ministry and, in addition to acknowledging as central to any Western Zen ordination, and beyond that helping those who would ordain to prepare for those functions along with other things.
But, we weren’t very far along when it became apparent there was something else going on, as well. It was vague, not in any way clear. While we were wary of any sort of clericalism, where the ordained might claim their, our, practice was in some way superior to that of lay practitioners who counted the larger number of us. And, who were obviously just as deeply committed – in many instances attending every retreat opportunity as well as embracing all other offerings of a growing and dedicated Zen community.
Ordained Soto Zen as a Life of Vow
Gradually, I found myself aware of that second, or, in the traditional Japanese inheritance, first understanding of ordination. From the dawn of Buddhism ordination has been about monasticism. So, even with those many accidents that created a non-celibate ordination model within Japanese Zen, it retained monastic language. I was, all those years ago, ordained a monk, after all. Even though I was at that time married. (A marriage I felt forced into by the roshi, I feel the need to add. One that was suitable for neither of us, and would end badly in a couple of years.)
The ungraceful term “married monk” is often applied to this form of ordination. In some ways it is accurate. And, it feels a conundrum which isn’t necessary. But there is a struggle among those of us who undertake this way to precisely define it. Some say that our ordination vows supersede our marriage vows. And, that absolutely feels wrong to me. What I came to see was that my ordination vows were as precious to me as a child. I would give my life for it.
In practice, I began to feel this “monastic” element was similar in very important ways to the “third orders” of some forms of Christian monasticism, particularly I felt among the Franciscans. A vowed life, a life of rule, but not celibate. And that definitely is what I understand to be a signal part of ordination. It is a promise to bow.
A life of vow.
Working through this, and particularly to whom or what am I promising to bow has become the work of my last decades. And, I am not yet sure. Although it informs my own desire to reclaim my Soto inheritance, both within the convert community, and if possible, with the Japanese Sotoshu. The later, given my age, is not likely. But, I find myself working in that direction.
What I do see is that within this the struggle to maintain the ancient training form of ango, an intensive ninety-day retreat as part of ordained formation becomes important. Whether it is an absolute requirement, I cannot say. But, I am increasingly inclined in that direction. In the meantime, I support, and actually at the time I was on its board voted for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, the only substantial pan-lineage association of convert Soto Zen priests, requirement of at least one ango during priestly formation. Although with the hedge that it could be satisfied by four three week intensives. At the same time, I’m painfully aware how the Sotoshu itself requires two ango as a necessary part of clerical formation, and there is no breaking them up into briefer periods. Along with many other expectations, of course.
In our time and place, particularly when there is no living to be had at the end of the training time, as with say Unitarian Universalist ordination which requires an ever more expensive three-year seminary degree as part of its formation. But, which, one at least hopes, leads to a professional life. In Japan that training does lead to a profession. If one that appears to be rapidly dying. Increasingly priests in Japan have to take on another job or profession to support themselves. It seems the most popular of these is teaching at a school. In North America the comparable choice mostly appears to be within the helping professions, social work and counseling.
What I find important to note is that somehow that monastic formation needs to be understood as a central element of ordination to the Soto Zen Buddhist priesthood. And, ways need to be found that can support those who feel called into this way of life. Although, I also think it fair to note, not everyone who thinks they are called in fact are. Part of the Unitarian Universalist ministerial discernment is sorting out whether one’s sense of call, a private experience, is supported by others.
Me, I feel this is equally true for Soto Zen ordination. We can “feel” anything. And often do. But, the proof of that particular pudding is whether others agree. And that agreement is generally whether they will help in some way to support those seeking ordination. Now within the UU world this does not necessarily mean financial support, although that would make a world of sense. In our Western Soto Zen communities, we haven’t yet figured out how to offer support, some sort of public confirmation of that heart’s longing seems criticial.
This is something I’m not offering a solution. I don’t have it. But, it is a reality on the ground we need to take up communally. The reality of Zen ordination is that it is many things. A central part is bowing into a community of practice as a conscious sense of vow. It is similar to what anyone might feel who takes on Zen practice as a serious part of their lives. But it is also different than for lay practice. Discerning the differences is part of our project in this time and place.
Ordained Zen as a Sacramental Life
And with that, there’s the third aspect of Zen ordination, something distinct from a call to lay practice. I’ve struggled with how to even name it. It wasn’t something I even felt as a calling until recent years when I started feeling a deep need toward integration of my spiritual life. It turns on the sacramental life.
I started by dismissing it as the “business” of Zen. It is rooted in the assertion of Vinaya Buddhism that a gift to a monk or nun generates more good karma than a similar gift given to anyone else. My hardcore rationalist side is vaguely offended by that assertion, even as I accept that given the time and place when the Vinaya community arose it was one of the few ways the community could survive. But, I found it hard to see anything more to it than that practical way of support.
And then, the Japanese Bodhisattva ordination system claimed the same power for its clerics. Which would later be refined into a system of ritually generating and transferring of directed merit. Sometimes the rituals of Zen Buddhism seemed beautiful to me, but they also just as often seemed ridiculous. The revolving of sutras as an example of something that looked interesting, but, just didn’t make sense.
And, along the way I felt something pulling at my heart.
Since my early retirement from the UU ministry and our move from New England back home to California I’ve found myself working with two priests, one Japanese, the other an American almost entirely trained in Japan. And because of that and my own growing desire to integrate the fullness of my training I’ve been trying to conform to more normative Soto practices.
This has included reintroducing the doshi function, the traditional Japanese Soto Zen practice of “service,” a liturgical recitation of sacred texts together with proscribed ways of bowing and the offering of incense. It is the heart of that “business” of Zen, but I found myself looking at it with new eyes.
The critical moment for me was sitting with my Japanese priest friend as he officiated at a liturgy following morning zazen at his little temple. We were half way through the recitation of the Heart Sutra, and he’d just arisen from the mat, walked over, and, bowing, and making an incense offering.
In that moment I realized all of my desire for the healing of the world was captured in that incense, and the smoke rising in the morning light was every aspiration I felt for this world, so hurt, so bruised, actually dying. And, my love for it. And for all beings.
One with that burning stick of incense.
And, I realized it was our Buddhist version of the Christian mass. Now, for me, I am of that rational turn, and so I would put the analogy more to the enlivening of memory and aspiration, as one might find more common among Anglican’s celebrating the mass than with the full blown magical transformation of bread and wine into God’s body. But, both worked. Both could be true in one sense or another. And, for sure, for absolute certainty, for me, in that moment that stick of incense my friend was offering was all the hope for this world captured and released. A blessing. The endless blessings.
Zen Teachers for North American Soto
And one more thing. As I look at the map of Zen training in the West, particularly within the Soto schools, I fear we’ve made some terrible assumptions. We were, I was, raised on the myth of the Zen master. And with that the mystery of Zen’s dharma transmission.
What I’ve found in reality is something different. In Soto specifically Zen’s semi-mythical dharma transmission has been collapsed into a pretty early stage of the ordination process. It has become identified with “full ordination.” In Japanese Soto it is the necessary gate leading to many other possible authorizations. Being an actual teacher is a number of steps down the line after dharma transmission.
I’ve written elsewhere that I feel Zen training in the West, in whatever form it takes, although at the time I was mainly reflecting on completion of curricular koan introspection, and the authorization that comes with it, is not a magical acknowledgment of some sort, but a much more prosaic acknowledgement someone has trained long and hard and this was a recognition someone had achieved what I’d call “journeyman” rather than “mastery.”
Mastery has nothing to do with the conventions of titles. It is a mystery that comes in it own way and in its own time. We who’ve been given the titles are the most likely pool from which masters of our way will arise. But, even there, not necessarily. Awakening cannot be captured by a religion, even one that maps the deep way of the heart more authentically than most.
And, so, two things. I think full priests in the Soto tradition should be reluctant to claim to be spiritual directors. If they do not do something that digs directly into the heart of insight such as koan introspection, there should be considerable “post-graduate” study before trying to counsel others. Rather a priest should normatively focus on the three gifts of ordination, ministry, the life of vow, and the sacramental life.
And, teachers within our North American Soto Zen should be either priests or lay people. Maybe with koan study under their belt, but not necessarily. Rather they should emerge in the fullness of time, recognized as wise counselors by their sisters and brothers in the community as well as by whatever institutional hierarchies arise.
I see several ways this might be recognized among us. But, here, I’m just holding up the possibilities. And suggesting the challenges for us going forward.