Note: this is the first in a series of four lectures on these subjects.
I want over the course of a few talks to clarify what is signified by several Buddhist ceremonies, or what I have in the past called “milestones on the path of practice,” that you may come to witness or participate in as a Zen student. Regarding these things—and the names or titles that go with some of them—a great deal of confusion exists. I hope this will help clear things up.
Specifically, I will discuss shoken, which is the ceremony by which we formally enter into relationship with a teacher; jukai, by which we take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and take up the practice of the five lay precepts; shukke tokudo or ordination, which is a commitment to the Zen path as the primary focus of one's life; and finally inka shomei, by which a teacher hands over responsibility for carrying the lineage to another.
First, though, I want to begin by saying that Zen may be practiced by anyone. The things I will discuss express important aspects of Buddhist teaching. But we do not care if you call yourself a Buddhist, and you are free to practice with us even if you never experience any of these things. Zen over the centuries has emphasized a very direct, practical approach to awakening which is not limited by the language or customs of Buddhism, and in fact in our practice we must each eventually transcend “Buddhism” with great freedom. We should keep that in mind.
On the other hand, Zen itself is certainly a lineage of Buddhist teaching and practice. So if we truly grasp the essential point of Zen, we should also be able to express how that point is the essence of all Buddhist teachings. If we truly understand the rationale for practicing Zen in the first place, we will also understand how Zen in fact fulfills not only the ultimate intent of all Buddhist practice, but the highest goals of all spirituality. If we are not able to understand these things, we need to study and practice more.
Because of preconceptions or bad experiences with religion, it does seem that many Zen people—even if they do not have any other strong beliefs or religious affiliations—prefer not to think of themselves as “Buddhists”. That's fine. But then, they seem to have no problem saying they are “Zen students.” In some cases, I think they might not understand that there is no difference or conflict at all between Buddhism and Zen. One label is really not preferable to another.
With that said, again, I would never tell anyone that they must identify as a Buddhist to practice with us. It is not our purpose to convince anyone to believe something, or to adopt some new identity. Everyone is responsible for their own beliefs. What I just want to point out here is that there really is no such thing as a sanitized Zen apart from the Buddhadharma, the Buddhist teachings. But the Buddhadharma also is not something that binds us at all, and it is not a religion in the mold of Abrahamic faiths like Christianity or Islam.
Despite my lingering on these points, it is alright to relax and not worry too much about them. It is enough if we can understand that the essential meaning of Buddhism is encompassed within Zen, and that in Zen training we rely on both our master and those Buddhist teachings to check or confirm our realization of awakening. If we are able to have genuine realization, then labels aren't important. What the Buddhist teachings point to will be manifest clearly here, in our own bodies.
Returning to our topic, then, first we'll discuss shoken. Shoken is a brief ceremony that a student and teacher perform privately. It signifies that the student wishes to follow the teacher as his or her guide on the Zen path. It also means that the teacher accepts responsibility for training the student. Really, it means that they accept responsibility for each other.
During shoken you are brought in to the sanzen room, where you are formally introduced to the teacher and bow three times. In that moment you really are negating yourself in a way: you acknowledge that your practice is not just “yours,” but will be fulfilled within human relationship. You acknowledge that you need others, and are not apart from them. You are inviting the teacher to participate with you in your practice, and so to make it a mutual exploration of wisdom. At this time you also give a small gift to the teacher, perhaps a few sticks of incense or a small, symbolic amount of money. The teacher accepts your gift and gives personal instruction for the first time within the new relationship. And with that, a mutual responsibility to revere and care for one another is accepted, and the relationship is sealed. We can say that a karmic link has been established between you.
After that, there are of course responsibilities and a kind of etiquette to be observed. But what it mostly boils down to is that you should communicate regularly with your teacher regarding your practice, and you should practice exactly as he or she directs you to do, to the best of your ability. From the teacher's side, it is also a kind of self-negation: in the sanzen room, where the two of you will meet often as you strive to explore and manifest the fruition of Zen training, there actually should be no so-called “teacher” or “student” roles at all. Now, traditionally it is said that we should view our teacher as a Buddha. But please don't be confused about this. The teacher is still practicing, just as you are. The teacher is truly a Buddha, but so are you. The entire point of the relationship is for both of you to manifest that. It is certainly important to approach one's teacher with a kind of reverence and care, but actually teachers must approach students in precisely the same manner. It is a mutual reverence.
Shoken is actually a brave thing, a gutsy thing to do. But it is also crucial from a practical standpoint. There are many things in life which are difficult to learn without help from a teacher; if we try to self-learn and self-guide prematurely, we are almost certain to become lost. This is true for Zen. It is also true that without human relationship, the full energetic transmission of Zen cannot occur. In that regard, actually, the teacher needs the student just as much as the student needs the teacher.
So this is the way to approach encounter with the teacher, even if we have not yet fully developed a faith in ourselves or others as Buddha. What the word “Buddha” refers to is something that is constantly shining out from the eyes of both teacher and student as they meet. When conditions are such that this is mutually recognized, we can say that the minds of the teacher and student momentarily mirror one another. This is like a strike of lightning which is followed in the same moment by thunder; or a voice calling out and an echo immediately returning without any gap; or a flint and steel meeting and the spark instantly blazing out. This is one way that we can awaken in relationship with the teacher.
Therefore, if someone says that training with a teacher is like a kind of therapy, or an ongoing casual conversation about practice, they are mistaken. Encounter with the teacher is itself the crucial practice. In one sense shoken is not a big deal, but in another it is the beginning of all possibilities in Zen, and the foundation of realizing that our practice is not for “I” alone. Our practice must encompass and include all beings and phenomenon, and clearly reveal that these altogether are not different from the original face of our own nature. The relationship between teacher and student, of which shoken marks the beginning, is a place where this way of seeing can decisively manifest.
I have to admit to being somewhat lax regarding shoken in the past. I have usually allowed almost anyone to come into the sanzen room right from the beginning to ask questions and make a connection. But later, at least by the time these students were ready to begin working with the wato and koan practice methods, I should have established the formal connection with them through shoken. Often I have dispensed with the ceremony, even though more and more I have come to feel that it is an important thing.
In the future, therefore, I plan to be more careful about this. Anyone who did not get to do shoken in the past and wants to do it, just ask. And since our incense is always burning away, I would be happy to receive a few sticks!