ZEN & THE WEST: Nearly Random Thoughts on Clerical Marriage in Buddhism, Women teaching, and the Rise of Householder Zen

ZEN & THE WEST: Nearly Random Thoughts on Clerical Marriage in Buddhism, Women teaching, and the Rise of Householder Zen February 23, 2020


Nearly Random Thoughts on Clerical Marriage in Buddhism, Women teaching, and the Rise of Householder Zen

James Ishmael Ford

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on Buddhist clerical marriage in Japan, Korea, and the West. The panelists included the Reverend Dr Hwansoo Kim, Taego order priest and professor at Yale University, Dr Richard Jaffe, long-time dharma practitioner in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki and professor at Duke University, and Dr Ann Gleig, dharma practitioner in the Nyingma tradition and professor at the University of Central Florida. The panel was moderated by the Reverend Dr Duncan Williams, Soto Zen priest and professor at the University of Southern California.

My kind of event. Loved it, loved it.

They were focused on the issues of clerical marriage within Buddhism as it has arisen in Japan and Korea, and how it has transferred to the West, especially within the Zen schools. And a little bit about what that means.

My summary of their presentation as I heard it (through so, so, many filters, I freely acknowledge): In Japan this phenomenon originally arose out of ordination reforms in Ninth century Japan together with the rise of a temple system. But really took full flower within the Meiji era (1868-1912).

In Korea this arose within the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). We unpacked a little about Korea, noting that it is vastly too facile to attribute the reforms allowing clerical celibacy to the Japanese occupation, although they did facilitate a long existent native reform movement.

Here in the West the Japanese model of non-celibate clergy has firmly rooted as the predominant form of clerical leadership within the Zen schools. In recent decades the Taego order, which allows clerical marriage, has been rapidly establishing itself.

This radical step was justified in two different ways. In Japan a major argument was that we are in mappo, the degenerate last age, and it just doesn’t matter what we do. In Korea a major argument has been that clerical marriage represents a breath of fresh air.

The panelists added in how married Buddhist priesthood can be understood as something complete in itself. It can be seen as offering a full dharmic life, and as a fully embodied way of being a Buddhist.

There is much to explore here. One major aspect is formation for priests, which has been a point of contention among the Japanese derived communities, where most are not connected to the Japanese denomination, the Sotoshu. There a multitude of perspectives. I have spilled a lot of ink advocating for one. Several advocate for a period of time, frequently five years in a cloistered life. Others are inclined to a back-to-Japan move and a reclamation of a conservative approach. Interestingly many in this last camp are among the younger priests.

The Taego order which has been reaching out but for a briefer period of time has maintained its standards by remaining a single organization.

Important things.

However while attending the panel something else captured my imagination. And it opened a door in another direction worthy of comment and reflection.

Okay, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. But, I’ve spent a lot of that time focused on the questions of formation for Zen priests. The panel touched something which has encouraged me toward a different focus.

Not only is clerical marriage a radical revision of what a Buddhist ordained life might be, it also invites another perspective, as well. And that is the dharmic fullness of a householder life.

The householder way is an invitation to something that has taken hold here in the West. And an invitation into reflecting on that phenomenon. What is the intimate way when we center it on Householder practice?

Zen came to the West something of a mixed bag. Two, maybe it’s three lay people had an enormous early influence. At the very beginning the scholar D.T. Suzuki and his focus on awakening first fired people’s imaginations about a different way of living. I think it important to note he was not a priest. The “maybe” person is Alan Watts. I’m not sure whether he ever considered himself a Buddhist. More like a term first used by my friend Gesshin Greenwood who speaks of “Buddhist adjacent.” But it was Watts who took Suzuki’s teachings and ran with it, creating a very inviting wildly open form of Zen that had nothing to do with an ordained sangha. And then on the ground of actual practice, the first Zen master to stay and teach in North America, Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki was a lay teacher.

That noted, normative Zen in the West is very much a clerical project. And, in fact, within the Japanese Soto tradition it’s technically not even possible for a lay person to receive transmission. The rites of dharma transmission were folded into ordination so long ago that no one even thinks of lay transmission. Or, didn’t until our time and our place.

Interestingly this collapsing of transmission into ordination, priestly or monastic, is outside the received traditions of Zen beyond the Japanese Soto school. No other Zen school absolutely closes the door on lay people receiving dharma transmission. Although for all of them transmission of lay people is non-normative. It could happen. Occasionally it did. But isn’t a normative practice.

Of course, Zen has always had its lay heroes. Layman Pang is even featured in koans. And one of the principal texts studied by Zen students is the lament of the lay master Vimalakirti. For those who dig in a bit deeper notice the foundational myth, the story of the sixth Chinese ancestor, Huineng has him receiving dharma transmission while a lay-monk and kitchen scullion. Ordination would only come some years later.

The story for women is similar. In the central koan collection the Gateless Gate, case 31 features a lay woman master. Of course, she is unnamed. Par for that course. The number of tea ladies and unnamed women who ask the turning question of a young monk is embarrassing for its frequency. Still, some have been named. One who is named is Iron Grindstone Liu who is celebrated in the Blue Cliff Record in Case 24. And, one of Bodhidharma’s heirs was the nun Zongchi. Layman Pang’s wife remains unnamed but celebrated as a master, as is their daughter who is named, Lingzhao.

With all this bubbling, and I believe they totally connected, two things happened.

Here in the West Zen priests and teachers are often married and they are often women. Today in the North American Soto lineages it looks like roughly half of all priests are women.

And, there is the rise of lay sanghas.

Actually, I agree with the poet Peter Levitt and others who say the term for this phenomenon is not “lay.” It’s “householder.” Lay implies less than. It implies the amateur, where there Is a professional. And from here I’m going to use householder rather than lay.

I think there’s a reason a lot of householder communities not only do not have priests, they actively reject priests.

I certainly get it. I see among the ordained various forms of marginalizing non-ordained practice and practitioners. Usually its sugared with rhetoric of equality. But in practice in many, I suspect most ordained communities, householder practice is marginalized. There are two principal lineages of Japanese Zen in the West derived through Shunryu Suzuki and that through Taizan Maezumi. The Suzuki lineage flatly refuses to give dharma transmission to non-ordained people. In that panel it was noted how there is a single exception. So far. Of course. Just so far…

The Maezumi lineage gives transmission to non-ordained householders. This might have happened in part because of its use of a koan curriculum, which provides a formation model that does not require a monastic experience.

And I notice the lineages that focus on Householder practice are usually koan-aligned. These include the Sanbo Zen communities as well as derivitives such as the Diamond Sangha and the Pacific Zen Institute.

My own projects, first within Boundless Way and now within the Empty Moon both embrace Householder practice and the possibility of receiving dharma transmission without ordination. My path started as priest-oriented, included a few years of monastic formation, but then pivoted and I spent more than twenty-years studying with a Householder koan master.

When Jan & I returned to California I was given the astonishing opportunity to reclaim my priestly practice, guided by the ever patient Reverend Gyokei Yokoyama. I continue to cherish that aspect of my personal life. I even had a hot minute where I wondered how it would be possible to go to Japan for a traditional monastic ango. Before Gyokei was forced to point out my age and the difficulties of even the most generous official training monasteries.

But then there is the Empty Moon, and what we’re trying to do. We consist of three sanghas, one in Pennsylvania, another in Washington State, and the third I guide here in Orange County. The largest of these is the Washington State group led by Reverend Janine Larsen. It’s fully householder-centric. It’s also older and the vast majority sit in chairs. It is a community to watch.

And, then there’s what we’re doing here. We’re very small. But, we are beginning to see an outline of what we’re doing.

I find myself thinking of the Upaddha Sutta, in my very free adaptation:

One day while walking quietly together, out of the silence the Buddha’s attendant Ananda declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life. They proceeded along quietly for a while more, before out of that silence the Holy One responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.

There is that term used in justice circles, “centering.” It calls us to see what it is we give our attention to. And, I can say, while there are Soto priestly elements, on our Saturday sittings I wear my robes and we have a brief liturgy that conforms to the Soto traditions. But, everything else is centered as Householder Zen.

We center ourselves in friendship.

We center ourselves in friendship as a full expression of the bodhisattva way.

It is the intimate way, and perhaps the best expression of it for our particular time and place.

The questions we holding in our hearts as we seek to be a community of practice are how we live here. One of our members has recently had a child. How do we include that child and her mother? As she ages, what do we do to help her find a dharmic identity? What is an appropriate course of instruction? How do we flatten our leadership without losing the accumulated wisdom of elders? How does one have a job that has limited time off and of that time “off” much must, must be focused on family?

How do we deal with the issues of our day? How are we citizens? How are we human beings in relationship? How are we inclusive beyond one political ideology? And how do we manifest the values that arise out of our realization of interdependence?

What I am absolutely sure of, is that there is a full dharmic life here.

And I feel so grateful to be a part of it…




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