So let’s address the elephant in the room - why am I doing all of this online? I live in a city with a wonderful, thriving community of Soto Zen practitioners at Austin Zen Center. I’ve taken classes there and I sit with them on occasion. So why am I not doing this “for real”? I would argue that it is “for real”, or just as “real” as anything in this life, but I’ll still attempt some explanation.
It’s a complicated question, but for me, there are several important factors.
Some common concerns expressed by other Buddhists about online sanghas:
These are my honest thoughts about these issues. There is no easy answer, and I don’t mean any of these points to denigrate the practice of all the insightful, devoted Zen practitioners who practice at brick and mortar centers. I simply feel that for me, looking at my early passion for online culture, my devotion to it both in my career and my personal life, an online sangha and teacher-student relationship makes sense.
There’s nothing secret or mysterious about the Shukke Tokudo ceremony. In fact, you can watch the entire first Treeleaf 2010 ordination ceremony online.
My ceremony (which will occur sometime in Spring 2012) will be streamed live and will be available on YouTube later as well.
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.
So when I commit to taking Shukke Tokudo, what exactly am I signing up for? If you’re REALLY curious, you can read the entire Treeleaf Sangha Guidelines for Training Soto Zen Buddhist Clergy and learn more about it than you’d probably ever want to know. But I’ll give the Cliffs Notes version here.
The purpose of priest training is to prepare individuals for a life dedicated to exemplifying the Dharma with integrity via empowering them to extend Buddhist teachings and Soto Zen practice out in the world, all in keeping with the traditional teachings of Soto Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of our Lineage.
Priest training encourages the continuing unfolding of the Bodhisattva ideal characterized by the Six Paramitas of giving, ethical conduct, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Yet the heart and flowering of our way is always Shikantaza, sitting and moving in stillness without grasping or rejecting any of the constantly arising and changing phenomena of life as-they-are, the life practice of the Buddhas and Ancestors manifesting and realizing the Genjô-kôan, the fundamental point actualized through this life-practice.
The purpose, for me, is to continue to develop as a Zen student. Shukke Tokudo isn’t a means to an end - I am not trying to become a teacher, though if people ask, I certainly won’t withhold sharing the Dharma with them.
Though it may be hard to understand, Shukke Tokudo does not have a “purpose” in the traditional Western sense of goal, action, achievement. A common sentiment in the feedback I received was “What are you going to do with this once you have it?” The thing is, I’ll never “have it.” I’ll never get anywhere - that is the point. And I don’t have a goal associated with this “achievement” (though I don’t think of it as an achievement).
I’m pursuing ordination because I’m pursuing truth. That’s it.
Based on some excellent feedback I received recently from my friends and family, I’m going to do a short series of posts on Zen priest ordination (Shukke Tokudo) - what it is, what it means within the Soto Zen tradition, and what it means to me specifically.
So what is Shukke Tokudo? I will leave it to my teacher to explain this.
From time to time, after undertaking Zen practice for many years, a person may feel in their heart a certain calling. They may wish to train in our traditions and embody them in order to keep this way alive into the next generation as clergy. They may feel a calling within themselves to live as a servant and minister to the community, to the Sangha and to all living beings.
Traditionally, in India, China, Japan and the other Buddhist countries of Asia, one was expected to leave one’s home and family behind in order to begin the necessary training and practice of an “apprentice”. Thus, the ancient ceremony of ordination in Buddhism became known as Shukke Tokudo, “Leaving Home to Take the Way”. Now, in modern Japan and in the West, one of the great changes in the nature of Buddhist clergy has been that most of us function more as “ministers” than “monks”, with family and children, often with outside jobs as “Right Livelihood” supporting us, while ministering to a community of parishioners. This, in keeping with changes in cultures and society, has done much to bring Buddhism out from behind monastery walls. While, now, we may be living in a monastic setting for periods of weeks or months (and thus can be called “monks” during such times), we then return to the world beyond monastery walls, where these teachings have such relevance for helping people in this ordinary life. Thus, the term “leaving home” has come to have a wider meaning, of “leaving behind” greed, anger, ignorance, the harmful emotions and attachments that fuel so much of this world, in order to find the “True Home” we all share. In such way, we find that Home that can never be left, take to the Way that cannot be taken.
Someone’s undertaking “Shukke Tokudo” is not a “raising up” of their position in the Sangha, it is not an honor or “promotion” into some exalted status, not by any meaning. Far from it, it is a lowering of oneself in offering to the community, much as all of us sometimes deeply bow upon the ground in humility, raising up others and the whole world above our humbled heads.
It is to volunteer and offer oneself as the lowest ‘sailor on the ship’ at the beck and call of the passengers’ well-being and needs, a nurse to help clean soiled linens, a brother or sister to sacrifice oneself for a family, a friend offering to help carry a burden. One must be committed primarily to serve and benefit others, and one must not undertake such a road for one’s own benefit, praise or reward.
What is more, the undertaking of “Shukke Tokudo” is not the end of the road of training, not by any meaning. Far from it, it is but the first baby steps. Perhaps, years down the road, the person will find that that they still have the inner calling to continue this path … and, perhaps, years down the road, they may have embodied this Tradition sufficiently to continue it and be certified as full “priest” and a teacher … but there is no guaranty of any of that. For this reason, one undertaking “Home Leaving” is not yet recognized in the Zen world as truly a fully ordained “priest” for many years, and is called an “Unsui”, meaning “clouds and water”. The best translation in English is “apprentice priest” or “priest trainee”. Perhaps, years down the road, some trainees will be felt to have embodied these traditions sufficiently in order to function independently as teachers … but not necessarily. For now, they are just school children expected to learn … with the future not assured. (Of course, we are all beginners, all children … all learning from each other … teachers learning from students too).