February 17, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 3

Note: this is the third in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

The subject of this third talk is ordination. It is another subject about which a great deal of confusion exists.

There are several reasons for this confusion. One is that ordination in Japanese Buddhism, for various historical reasons, takes a different form than in most other Buddhist traditions. Another is that in the West we carry preconceptions about so-called “monks” or “clergy,” which are not always useful in this case. Finally, because Zen is relatively new in the West, it is true that the usual ways of doing things in Japan might not work—or do not yet exist here—and so things are still evolving. With these points in mind, I'd like to discuss the types of ordination, their essential points, and their requirements.

To start, we recognize two types of ordination in our tradition: a partial, lay ordination, and full ordination. Both take the same precepts, but the responsibilities are quite different.

Those who take a partial lay ordination are called Nyudo, that is, those who have “entered the Way.” Nyudo are laypersons who express a very deep commitment to practice, so deep that it may be said that Zen training is the primary focus of their lives. However, because of obligations and responsibilities which they cannot abandon, they are unable to enter into the extended periods of retreat or residential practice which are usual for ordained persons, or to make Zen-related activity their main daily work. Nyudo ordination, then, is a way for them to express their commitment, and if appropriate to take a more visible position of leadership in the community, without causing tremendous upheaval in their lives or the lives of their family members.

Nyudo take the same precepts as fully ordained persons: along with refuge in the Three Treasures, these are the Three Pure Precepts and Ten Grave Precepts. Nyudo do not have the ceremonial and other responsibilities of ordained persons, so in that sense they are quite free. They have historically cut their hair and been permitted to wear at least some portion of the ordained dress, and they do take Dharma names. But they have not usually been monastic practitioners, and so are not required to leave behind their usual vocations or families. When we read, for example, of famous lords or generals in Japan's warring states period who were ordained, these are often Nyudo; they did not abandon their positions (and possessions) to enter a monastery, or go into the mountains to do solitary practice. They continued to run their domains, and may even sometimes be seen in old paintings wearing rakusu over their armor...an interesting sight! Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen are among the most famous of these lords who were Nyudo. Indeed, "Kenshin" and "Shingen" are their Dharma names.

For various reasons, I believe this kind of ordination is actually the most suitable for many people today, and so it is my plan to offer it in the future. If there is a lay student who, having taken the five lay precepts and done perhaps a decade or more of practice, wishes to take on more responsibility for helping to lead the community, but is unable to live at Korinji or elsewhere in order to do the usual residential training for ordination, I would say it's no problem to take precepts instead to become Nyudo. It may also be that there are some persons who, because of age or other conditions, simply cannot fulfill the training requirements of ordination, and yet the depth of their practice does recommend them. Nyudo ordination might indeed be appropriate in such situations.

Now, let's move on and discuss full ordination. Originally, as in most Buddhist traditions, this signified a lifelong commitment to monastic or mendicant life including celibacy, minimal possessions, and the leaving of one's family. In Japanese Buddhism since the middle ages, however, the many rules of Buddhist monastic ordination have been replaced by the condensed set of Bodhisattva precepts mentioned above. The extensive systems of vinaya, or regulations for monks and nuns, which these condensed precepts replaced just never really took root in Japan. Furthermore, for several centuries in Japan ordained Buddhist practitioners have often been given the option to be released from lifetime celibacy, including permission to marry and raise families if desired. In Zen this might happen after an initial period of monastic training has been completed.

There are rather complicated historical, political and cultural reasons for all of this. But for our purposes here, it is enough to recognize that in Japanese Buddhism the situations and expectations of ordained persons have tended to be more fluid, and to display greater variation, than in some other Buddhist cultures. When it comes to Zen in particular, as I mentioned in the last talk, there is also a way of viewing and using the precepts which establishes a basis for flexibility; they have outer and inner meanings. This is true for the ordained precepts as well as the five lay precepts, so much of what I said in that last talk regarding the essential point of precepts applies here as well.

For these reasons, however, we do not today use the English word “monk” to refer to all Zen ordained persons. It is fine to call an ordained Zen person who is celibate, and living in a monastic or eremetic manner, a monk. But if that person then exits from monastic life and, as is not uncommon, enters into family life, certainly “monk” is no longer appropriate. For such persons the word “priest” has come to be commonly used. However, this can also be misleading since it carries other meanings which do not apply here. Our custom around here, therefore, is just to use the word “ordained,” as you may have noticed I am doing. This allows us to then define exactly what sort of ordination, and what expectations, each person carries. 

Given the variation and flexibility I have mentioned, what then is the essential point of Zen ordination? In my view, it is an acknowledgment that the Zen path is the practitioner's foremost priority and central vocation above all other life concerns. To ordain in Zen is naturally to commit to doing Zen study and shugyo for one's entire life. Of course that commitment can be expressed in many ways, or in different ways at different times of life; there is great flexibility. However they choose to express their commitment, though, ordained Zen practitioners are expected to make Zen-related activity their primary work and life focus, integrating all other activities into that.

In other words, fully ordained Zen persons might in some cases have to leave their normal work. They might have to leave, or forgo having, a family. They might have to set aside other career paths and obligations. They might not be able to use their time simply as they wish: there are retreats to attend, ceremonies to conduct for the people, and so on. I should stress that all of this is a vocation one chooses, not a title one is given. Although ordination is often incorrectly viewed in some communities as a rank or position one receives, it actually confers no status above others whatsoever. In fact, it really just signifies that one is a servant of all others. In other words: ordination is a job, not a title.

For these reasons, clearly, persons who already bear consuming family and career obligations might not be suited to ordination (and will likely be unable to engage in the required period of intensive residential practice which ordination at Korinji requires). If this is so, they are encouraged instead to practice as laypersons according to their abilities, and to express their commitment if desired through jukai or Nyudo ordination. In fact, there is nothing at all lacking in the lay path.

Now, for persons in Japan who wish to ordain in Zen, there is a usual manner. Persons so inclined would likely ordain fairly early in life, attend a related university (for example, in the Rinzai school there is Hanazono), and then enter into one of the sodo or training monasteries for a time. In other words, they will already be ordained when they enter into the monastery. After living there at least a year, such a person could perhaps be qualified to run a local temple and provide services to a surrounding lay community. For someone wishing to become a Zen teacher, of course, many more years of training would be required.

Here in the West, however, things must be different. For one, we have few sodo (part of the rationale behind Korinji, in fact, is to help remedy this lack). Most differently, however, very few people here have cultural or family connections to Zen, and so they do not often ordain young. It is more common, in fact, for a Zen practitioner here to begin training as a layperson later in life, and then only after many years to arrive at a place in which ordination seems appropriate; persons applying to live in a monastery in the West are thus not usually ordained, but may expect to do so during their tenure there.

Finally, even after ordination and upon leaving a monastery, such persons in the West may find it necessary to financially support themselves somehow through other means. They do not have local temples to run, or communities requiring their services and donating to support them, unless they build such on their own. Therefore, when I say that ordination means that Zen-related activity should be not only one's life priority, but one's primary vocation, you may understand what a burden this can in fact be here. Ordained Zen persons in the West are not stepping into defined roles...they are, largely, creating them as they go. Taking this positively, we can say that it is actually an exciting time.

There are many interesting questions to explore regarding the evolution of Zen in the West. But let's focus now on what will be required for ordination at Korinji. Again, these are not universal requirements, since different Zen teachers may certainly set different training requirements for their own students. What I will say here just explains how I plan to run the place that we are building.

First, from the standpoint of the fruition of Zen practice, we should always affirm that what is required for ordained persons to effectively serve others is a clear experience of recognizing one's true nature (kensho), and the ability to express the meaning of that awakening to others in some useful way. All of the following should be considered without losing sight of that crucial point.

I would request, then, that laypersons in our community who wish to take up the vocation of ordained life should make a personal resolution beforehand that, once ordained, they will remain so for a minimum of ten years. They should be free of debts or other obligations that would prevent them from living at Korinji. Note that regardless of outside family commitments, trainees residing at Korinji monastery are required to be celibate while there, and can expect periods of weeks or months during which they have only periodic contact with the outside world. It will thus be no problem to call them monks during their time there!

Once interested persons have arranged their lives to be sufficiently free, they can then apply to live at Korinji. If accepted, they should reside there for a minimum of one year. During this minimum period of residential practice, candidates judged to be suitable may take ordination as Shami (novices), and so begin life as Unsui (ordained monastic trainees). Aside from Zen practice, additional training may also be prescribed during this time according to each person's abilities and deficits, for example Buddhist or other religious/historical studies, training in fine arts or physical culture (in the manner of our lineage), ministerial or diversity training, and so on. Because many people wishing to ordain do not have a background in Buddhism aside from practice, and will not have attended any kind of Buddhist university, there may well be a great deal of such study to fill in gaps. 

My hope is that after at least one year of residential practice and study, an ordained person would at least be able to teach basic meditation to others, and perhaps be qualified to lead a practice group somewhere. Later, senior ordained (Osho) status may be given to ordained persons after a suitable period of time and maturation has passed. The recipient must have extensive experience of Zen practice (in or out of the monastery) including retreat periods over many years, and must be sufficiently trained to run a Zen center or temple, to perform various ceremonial functions, and to instruct others in a variety of Zen practices. 

Finally, I should say that there may be some persons for whom ordination is appropriate despite their not being able to reside at Korini, particularly if their backgrounds or unique abilities have given them an understanding of the embodied aspects of our practice. Of course things must always be addressed on a case-by-case basis, and in general there are no fixed limitations. I want also to affirm that not everyone who comes to do residential practice at Korinji needs to ordain. Laypersons can live and train there, and remain laypersons. It's no problem at all.

Now, none of this is the same as becoming a Zen teacher, which is a completely different thing. Doing residential practice or taking ordination do not themselves make one a teacher at all. However, certainly my hope is that future teachers will arise from among those who do intensive practice, including those who ordain. This is one reason a place of such practice like Korinji is useful.

The main thing, again, is to give life to the Zen teachings by awakening. To be honest, I hope that both lay and ordained practitioners of deep attainment will come out from our community, and that they will in the future manifest Zen insight in the world in endlessly creative ways that I cannot even imagine.

I hope this brief explanation regarding ordination has been helpful. In the next and final talk of this series, I will discuss the various types of Zen teachers, lay and ordained, which we affirm in our tradition.

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