What’s expected? What separates a Zen priest from a lay Zen practitioner? Why does the distinction matter?
The foundation of priest training rests on the following principles of Zen practice: (1) zazen, (2) mindfulness to care and detail, (3) deepening understanding through personal effort, (4) self-reflection, (5) working with a teacher, (6) studying Buddhist literature, and (7) sustained effort.
These priorities reflect a continuation of my current practice, not something new I’ll be taking on. More zazen, maybe.
A fully formed Soto Zen priest will exhibit the characteristics and skills necessary to fulfill the responsibilities of Zen clergy. These attributes are developed through working over time within four areas:
(1) Carrying the Tradition - A priest should also be able to take care of the practice place, garments, objects and implements, perform appropriate ceremonies and rituals common to our Dharma lineage and often called for, adapt or develop new ceremonies and practice forms when needed, and instruct others in key aspects of Soto Zen practice. Priest training should also enable an individual to give dharma talks when authorized to do so, and, for fully transmitted priests, to conduct private interviews (dokusan) and engage in both informal and formal pastoral counseling. Also, a Soto Zen priest should be able to nurture Sangha and perform community outreach and other activities of benefit to society and furthering the Dharma.
(2) Personal Conduct - A Soto Zen priest should conduct himself or herself ethically in accordance with the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts. He or she should also show the proper respect for seniors, juniors, and peers, for the O-kesa, and for the role of a priest and minister. He or she should be able to respond positively to criticism, to practice forgiveness, to learn from mistakes, to accept praise and blame without losing balance, to teach by example, and to conduct himself or herself with dignity, courtesy, patience, humility, tolerance, and good humor in everyday life. Also, a Soto Zen priest should maintain constancy, the ability to fulfill commitments over time, and be able to provide leadership with integrity.
(3) Self-Understanding - A Soto Zen priest and minister should be aware of his or her personal biases and beliefs as well as karmic habits and reactive tendencies. He or she should be able to show restraint and not act them out. A Soto Zen priest should also be cognizant of his or her own strengths and weaknesses and should be willing to devote himself or herself to the continual unfolding and expression of wisdom and compassion.
(4) Knowledge of Source Texts - It is said that our Way is ‘a special transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and letters’; yet one must know our traditions and writings well in order to see through and express through. A Soto Zen priest should exhibit an understanding of both general Buddhist and Zen Buddhist literature, history, theory, and practice, and be able to communicate this understanding to others. He or she should also exhibit grounding in the teachings and practices unique to Soto Zen Buddhism and the practices and perspectives particular to the priest’s own Dharma lineage.
Now these things, I’ll definitely be ramping up my knowledge and study. In the full Treeleaf Sangha Guidelines for Training Soto Zen Buddhist Clergy document the expectations for each of these areas are outlined very clearly.
So, in short, I need to attempt to master some traditional Soto ceremonies and rituals, I need to minister to others as needed without letting my personal crap get in the way, I need to work hard at being a decent person, and I need to learn even more about ancient Zen texts than I already know now.