On December 21st I will ordain four Zen priests. This is the first time I have ever done such a thing. I’ve performed jukai ceremonies, which are very similar to priest ordinations, before. A jukai ceremony is where a person agrees to commit their lives to following the Three Devotions, the Three Universal Precepts and the Ten Fundamental Precepts. These are as follows:
- Devotion to Buddha.
- Devotion to Dharma
- Devotion to Sangha
THREE UNIVERSAL PRECEPTS
- To Obey the Rules of Society
- To Observe the Moral Rule of the Universe
- To Work for the Salvation of All Living Beings.
TEN FUNDAMENTAL PRECEPTS
- Not to destroy life.
- Not to steal.
- Not to desire too much.
- Not to lie.
- Not to live by selling liquor.
- Not to discuss the failures of Buddhist priests and laypeople.
- Not to praise oneself and berate others.
- Not to begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things.
- Not to become angry.
- 10. Not to abuse the Three Supreme Values: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
For more details on what these mean you can look at my teacher Gudo Nishijima’s pamphlet on the subject, available for free as a PDF at this link or you can read the section I wrote about it in my book Hardcore Zen for free on line at this link (just be sure and purchase a copy of the book from our store when you’re done!).
A priest ordination is basically the same as a jukai ceremony but with a few more bells and whistles added. Instead of just receiving the precepts, the priest receives some fancy clothes and some bowls and maybe a nifty certificate they can frame and put on their wall. The ceremonies vary from place to place. Sometimes it’s a hugely elaborate thing, sometimes it’s dirt simple.
One of the reasons I’m doing this is because one person from a large Zen institution asked me to do it for her because she was dissatisfied with the way her training at that large institution was proceeding. She wanted something more organic and less rigid than that institution could possibly provide and she figured I could do that. I told her I wasn’t so sure I could provide what she wanted but I said I was willing to try.
Yesterday I was talking about this to a friend who asked why the process at the large institution wasn’t working out. I told her there were a lot of reasons specific to this particular person but that there was a much more general reason that a lot of people feel unsatisfied with institutionalized Zen, or, indeed, institutionalized spirituality of any kind.
If you apprentice with a master potter, she can sit down with you and put your hands on the clay and thereby find out exactly what you need to maximize your special and unique pottery making skills. However, when you run a big pottery training institution with a lot of people you have to find ways of managing the situation by dealing with groups of novice potters essentially as if they were one single novice potter or smaller groups of novice potters of different skill/motvation levels which are more or less equal within the smaller group.
So, since most people need pretty much the same instructions in their early education on pottery making, you could forget finding a person to apprentice with and just join a pottery making class. You won’t get the same level of interaction with the instructor, but if you apply yourself and learn how to modify her very general instructions to suit your specific needs, you’ll be fine.
Zen institutions, by their very nature, are forced to take pretty much the same approach to spirituality. There are too many people involved and too many other administrative things that must be attended to for much individual one-on-one mentoring to happen. Each teacher must deal with a number of students as well as other tasks that the institution requires and can’t really focus on any one student more than any other.
There are people who simply cannot do their spiritual work within the structure of an institution. Just because they can’t work inside this structure doesn’t mean they’re any less capable of doing the work. Witness, for example, Frank Zappa who never had formal musical instruction but who is widely regarded as a compositional genius. Most rock musicians are unschooled, but many are great at what they do anyway, whereas highly trained rock musicians rarely seem to create much music that’s worth listening to (yet there is one Yngwie Malmsteen song I kinda like).
A large Zen institution can teach you everything you could possibly ever want to know about how to properly perform the ceremonial functions of a Zen priest. They have extensive libraries where you can research the history of Zen and the intricacies of its written legacy. They have buildings specifically designed for meditation practice and ceremonies. They are often located in areas where distractions from the practice are kept to a minimum. For a self-motivated person who deals well with the rigors of institutionalized training they can be ideal.
But they also require conformity and obedience to the rules of the institution. They cannot function when too many people question their hierarchies. They often mistake rote obedience for true discipline and take the bland dullness of conformity as a sign of the deep inner calm brought on by spiritual growth. They often mistake the repetition of well-worn clichés for teaching and take the memorization of those clichés as evidence that their lessons have been imparted. They really can’t deal with people who need to probe too deeply into the roots of their structure.
In short, the institutional method does some things very well and other things very poorly. By the same token, apprenticeships or individual mentoring styles do different things very well and different things very poorly. Few individual mentors can’t train a person in what they call “priest craft” as well as a big institution can or can offer the kinds of resources and spaces for practice and learning that a big institution can.
It all comes down to what a person is really looking for.
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The documentary about me will be showing soon at the following places and I’ll be at all of them:
Ojai Playhouse | December 06, 2013 @ 9:30pm $10 http://local-screen.com/hardcore-zen/ojai-ca/
Northwest Film Forum | December 12, 2013 @ 8:00pm $10 http://local-screen.com/hardcore-zen/seattle-wa/
Clinton Street Theater | December 13, 2013 @ 7:00pm $10 http://local-screen.com/hardcore-zen/portland-or/
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Isn’t it nice that you got to read that article for free? It took me a long time to write and is the outcome of literally decades of totally unpaid training. Wouldn’t you feel good about donating a little bit to help support my ability to keep giving this stuff away for free like that? Yes. Yes you would!