I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community. Our version read:
”To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”
The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.
In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.
My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.
I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being ”Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them.
On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of ”me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, ”only don’t pick and choose.”
We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example. But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future.
Photos courtesy of Bunny Solomon