Priest Training

zen-kyosakuOn 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:


  1. Devotion to Buddha.
  2. Devotion to Dharma
  3. Devotion to Sangha


  1. To Obey the Rules of Society
  2. To Observe the Moral Rule of the Universe
  3. To Work for the Salvation of All Living Beings.


  1. Not to destroy life.
  2. Not to steal.
  3. Not to desire too much.
  4. Not to lie.
  5. Not to live by selling liquor.
  6. Not to discuss the failures of Buddhist priests and laypeople.
  7. Not to praise oneself and berate others.
  8. Not to begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things.
  9. Not to become angry.
  10. 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 (it’s the one called The Buddhist Precepts) 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.

*   *   *

The documentary about me will be showing soon at the following places and I’ll be at all of them:

Ojai, California

Ojai Playhouse | December 06, 2013 @ 9:30pm $10

Seattle, Washington
Northwest Film Forum | December 12, 2013 @ 8:00pm $10

Portland, Oregon
Clinton Street Theater | December 13, 2013 @ 7:00pm $10

*   *   *

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!

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87 Responses

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  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles November 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm |

    Thanks, Malcolm for the clarification as you know it, after I wrote that I thought I recalled that Jundo had conferred something, or offered to, once upon a time? Might have been Jukai by correspondence course/video participation? I don’t frequent Treeleaf so maybe I heard that here or somewhere else through someone who does. Or maybe I’m dreaming…

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 November 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm |

      Yes, he did, John. Jundo’s fond of the ‘priest’ thing, too. And yes, you are dreaming. Arguably.

  2. Jundotreeleaf
    Jundotreeleaf November 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm |


    About 80% of the Soto Zen Priests in North America (in the SZBA and such) do not bother registering with Soto-shu in Japan. Not sure of the situation in Europe. Maybe Brad or Mike L. can correct my history if mistaken, but I recently wrote this to some of our Treeleaf members:


    Nishijima Roshi was a lay person for most of his life and a critic of this whole “funeral/father-son” culture and “guild of funeral directors” at modern Soto-shu, calling for a return to emphasis on Zazen. Surprisingly, a close friend and major supporter in the criticism became Rempo Niwa Zenji, a bigwig in Soto-shu who was the Abbot of Dogen’s old temple, Eiheiji Head Monastery, and the de facto “Pope” of Soto Zen .

    Although the very head of the system, Niwa Zenji Ordained Nishijima in 1973 and gave Dharma Transmission four years later, with the specific understanding and support of Nishijima’s being a critic of the system in order to help revitalize the system. Niwa also knew that Nishijima (already in his 50’s and the author of several fairly well-known books on Zen and Dogen, and having practiced Zazen for about 30 years at that point) had no intention of going the “Temple Priest” route, would remain a working man while a Priest, and wished to bridge the hard borders between “priest and lay”.

    Nishijima proceeded to knock down those walls, originally completely eliminating the distinction between Priest & Lay, “Jukai” and “Shukke Tokudo”, among his students. Nishijima would offer Dharma Transmission to various folks (we actually do not have an accurate count, but about 20 people) who had worked closely with him in various capacities, without regard to ever making clear whether they were “priests” or “not priests”.

    At the time Brad and earlier students of Nishijima received Dharma Transmission from him, it was all very ambiguous … and beside the point … whether what they had earlier undergone was Jukai or Shukke or something transcending all that. Later, Nishijima Roshi’s attitude began to change just a little. In my case, when it came time for my Ordination, I explained and discussed with him that most of the “Soto Zen Establishment” in North America (where I planned to return at the time) would not understand his concept of “neither priest nor lay” … an attitude which still exists. So, simply in order for people to clearly understand, when I was Ordained we made it clear that this was to be a “Shukke Tokudo” Homeleaving (even though I kept my job, house, wife and family-to-be). He added some elements to the Ceremony to represent this distinction from Jukai, such as bestowing of Bowls and Koromo and such.

    And then, for a reason that nobody clearly understands, Nishijima Roshi suddenly got the idea that several of us needed to travel back to Tokeikin, our root Temple (Niwa Zenji’s Temple) to perform “Shukke Tokudo” again in a completely Kosher “Soto-shu” Ritual with all “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed. Why? Perhaps Nishijima knew he was nearing the end of his ability to protect us from Soto-shu in case somebody ever tried to deny our status. By officially filing the papers with Soto-shu, and having them accept the registration, this was some proof that our Lineage properly derives from Niwa Zenji in case anyone tried to challenge that. In fact, the Registration is of limited importance. First, neither Nishijima Roshi or any of us care a bit about being “official”, which is all bullshit. Second, almost none of the priests in North America who are members of the SZBA are “officially registed” with Soto-shu, so it is not even so important in America to make one a Zen Teacher (the situation is a bit different in Europe because of the influence of the Deshimaru Lineage, who have now become very “Kosher” and “officially register” all of their priest with Soto-shu in Japan). That last fact does not matter because the situation is the same for most foreign Soto Zen priests in North America and anyway, through the entire history of centuries of Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” was a private matter between Teacher and Heir, not something requiring official stamps from some church office. If the Master affords Dharma Transmission, that is all she wrote.

    By the way, let me make clear that, even though at Treeleaf we use words like “Priest”, it is not your dad’s meaning of “Priest”. Like Nishijima Roshi, we feel like we are transcending and stepping right thruogh the traditional Four Categories of the Sangha of “Male Monk and Female Nun, Male Lay and Female Lay” (bhikkhu bhikkhuni upasaka upasika). We are totally each and all and none of that. We don’t care about limitations of some word. Just as most Western Sangha have largely come to ignore and transcend the traditional Sangha divisions of “male and female”, we drop the mental walls to “priest vs. not a priest”. n fact, in our Sangha, we feel that we can be 101% fully, each and all, upasaka and upasika, bikkhu and bikhuni at once as well as 10,000 other categories we embody at once. One may fully actualize each and all. It is rather like saying that when one stands in the pulpit, one fully actualizes the role of minister, when one plays with one’s children, one fully actualizes the role of father, driving a truck one fully actualizes the role of truck driver … one can be fully and completely one and all at once. We are 101% lay-priests … I sometimes call “p-lay” or “l-iests”.


    Gassho, J

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 December 1, 2013 at 3:09 am |

      Thanks for the clarification, Jundo.

    2. 5000sounds
      5000sounds December 4, 2013 at 7:40 am |

      Thanks for your long and interesting post. As you mention the AZI in Europe: Deshimaru had similar thoughts about japanese priesthood, father-to-son and funeral-business as Nishijima. Nevertheless, since the early 2000s (about 20 years after the Deshimaru’s death), the AZI started to follow the Shumucho rules and now, they distinguish more and more inbetween lay-people and monks (we never used the words “lay” and “priest”- but “monk” and “nun”, and not to seperate from so called “lay-people”).
      Yet, there are still many Deshimaru-disciples and some big sanghas inside and outside the AZI, that don’t follow the japanese system (like Philippe Coupey, Stéphane Thibaut, Barbara Kosen, Luc Boussard, Yvon Bec, Edouard Bagracbski and others. Some of them have many disciples, others practice with a few people others on their own).

  3. Jundotreeleaf
    Jundotreeleaf November 30, 2013 at 8:43 pm |

    By the way, we are very inspired by passages such as the following, a younger Dogen in one of his more ecumenical moods before he later fled to the boondocks of Echizen and got all hard-assed and monky (From Zuimonki 3-2, I add a couple of explanations and highlights) …


    Once, a certain nun asked,

    “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma. As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say that we go against the buddha-dharma. What do you think?”

    Dogen admonished,

    “That is not a correct view. Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are. However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home. This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma. There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home. A layman who has the mind of a monk or nun who has left home [i.e., is free of attachments even though still with his or her family] will be released from samsara. A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person [i..e., thinks only about wealth, career, status and such] has double faults. Their attitudes should be quite different. It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely. I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm |

    Well thanks for that Jundo!

    Here’s the point I was making: Brad has said that at some point in a person’s practice, they should have a teacher. I hope I’m not misstating his opine.

    The question is, who should qualify as such a teacher? How does the student know that the person who sits in front of him or her is genuine, as opposed to a grifter? Bonafide, as opposed to no-account?

    The student can’t know, unless there is an organization or institution that tracks shiho and can authenticate that an individual has received it; yet as Brad has pointed out, some who have that official document have seemingly offered enlightenment for a price, or made sexual advances in dokusan.

    So if a student needs a teacher at some point to keep them straight in their practice, then can we say that at that point they can’t distinguish between a healer and a grifter (in the guise of a healer)? My experience is that there are teachers with varying degrees of love for what they teach, and that it’s great to be exposed to teachers with great love for what they practice and teach, but anyone can teach themselves.

    My assumption is that we have reached a point in the information age where we can develop an open-source teaching that nevertheless recognizes this aspect of the human condition, when it comes to learning:

    “Erickson maintained that it was not possible consciously to instruct the unconscious mind, and that authoritarian suggestions were likely to be met with resistance. The unconscious mind responds to openings, opportunities, metaphors, symbols, and contradictions. Effective hypnotic suggestion, then, should be “artfully vague”, leaving space for the subject to fill in the gaps with their own unconscious understandings – even if they do not consciously grasp what is happening. The skilled hypnotherapist constructs these gaps of meaning in a way most suited to the individual subject – in a way which is most likely to produce the desired change.”

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 30, 2013 at 10:34 pm |

    I could be wrong…

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm |

    … but I think it’s possible to allow the induction of trance and the filling in of gaps by the unconscious as a practice, when once the relaxation of activity out of stretch and the calmness of distinction of the senses can be recognized.

    The sixth patriarch heard someone reading a line from the Diamond Sutra in the marketplace, and a gap was filled in. He didn’t need a teacher, just the right words at the right moment. Words sometimes matter, the world is magic that way.

  7. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon December 1, 2013 at 3:56 am |

    An equally valuable ordination is available online for free…

    but the official credentials will cost you $7.99 plus shipping.

    For a slightly higher price you can be certified as a doctor of divinity, a doctor of metaphysics, or even a Jedi knight.

    1. Jundotreeleaf
      Jundotreeleaf December 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm |

      Ordination alone is no different from receiving a Gi and White Belt in the Martial Arts. What matters is all the hard work and sweat to follow. In our Sangha, we anticipate Training of 5 or 10 years or more from Ordination before Dharma Transmission will even be considered (none have happened yet).

      Even then, “Dharma Transmission” might be something like a “blackbelt”, authorizing someone to maybe have some competence to show other folks some of the Way. In fact, it is just to be a True Beginner and what matters only starts from there.

      I think picking a Teacher is hard, but no harder than finding a good doctor, lawyer, Karate sensei or piano teacher. Oh, sure, some fancy “white coat” and diploma might tell you something, but what matters most in finding a heart surgeon is whether the fellow actually has a good reputation over many years for helping patients … without carelessly killing em or doing harm! Does the Karate master, appearance aside, actually keep and pass good Practice … without having a reputation for poor ethics and the like.

      One can tell quite a bit from reputation garnered over the years, word of mouth (especially among experienced folks and fellow Teachers and such who have actually known and worked with the fellow), and a relative absence of negative reports and scandal (any doctor can make a mistake, even the best surgeon. However, please save us from the quacks who hurt folks by the score!). One can also tell a good music teacher by one’s own ear, in addition to the opinion of fellow musicians.

      One thing important is to avoid popular trends and image. There are tons of quack doctors out their with a “miracle cure” and bad musicians who are the “latest hot thing”. It is just the same in the modern “spiritual teachings” world. People run to follow the herd. Be discerning. Be an educated consumer not prone to “spiritual materialism” and such.

      Can one also inherit these timeless teachings without a teacher and without “formally” being part of a Zen Lineage, or just simply by (as someone proposed) sticking a couple of Sutras in your backpack and hiking the “holy trails of Yosemite”? YES! Of course.

      But you are also more likely than not going to end up with someone with their own, very personal and half-baked ideas of these teachings … someone who is convinced they “figured it out” when (without the sounding board and mirror that having a teacher provides) they are skimming the surface or lost in circles and fooling themselves … someone who thinks they are a diamond when (without the polishing and shaping of the jeweler-teacher’s hand) they remain a diamond in the rough unable to bring out the true brilliance of imperfections.

      That does not mean, of course, that every product of a “recognized Lineage” will necessarily end up a shining diamond … certainly not (there are a lot of questionable … even dangerous … folks out there with a “robe and a piece of paper certifying their enlightenment”). However, one is more likely to end up with a well formed “teacher” when the “teacher’s teacher” was a gifted teacher who knew how to pass on those teachings, and who had an eye for his students … could sift out among them the special ones … could be a good judge of character who could see which students manifested wisdom and compassion and which did not … all to insure (just a little bit) that things would be left in good hands for the next generation.

      I believe there is great value in having some recognized and respected teacher or institution (in modern Dharma Transmission, it is usually a combination of multiple teachers and institutions) approve someone else as a teacher. It is the same reason that you don’t want to turn over your heart surgery to anyone with a white coat, but would like to see that the doctor graduated from medical school. It does not mean that the Harvard Graduate doctor will not also screw up your heart transplant, but there is a little level of confidence there that the guy knows what he is doing more than turning your heart surgery over to the butcher in the super market.

      Now, there are many licensed doctors with white coats and fancy degrees who are just butchers, and will do real harm. But there are far more butchers who are just butchers.

      That is my belief about how I hope to train the next generation in our Sangha.

      Anyway, it was nice to stop by here. I think Brad will be coming over to Treeleaf in a few weeks as a guest Teacher to lead one of our Zazenkai netcasts and offer a Talk.

      Gassho, Jundo

  8. Fred
    Fred December 1, 2013 at 4:04 pm |

    The unconscious is still the conditioned, and no different than the conscious,
    conceptual mind.

    To enter trance, and access the unconscious is not holding the hand of the Absolute.

    It is the conditioned self buttressing its own imagined solidity

    A turning word turns awareness away from the self to that which is unsupported.

  9. Fred
    Fred December 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm |

    “But you are also more likely than not going to end up with someone with their own, very personal and half-baked ideas of these teachings … someone who is convinced they “figured it out” when (without the sounding board and mirror that having a teacher provides) they are skimming the surface or lost in circles and fooling themselves … someone who thinks they are a diamond when (without the polishing and shaping of the jeweler-teacher’s hand) they remain a diamond in the rough unable to bring out the true brilliance of imperfections.”

    This is just a one-up ego game.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote December 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm |

    Whose was that quote, I wonder?

    The whole story of Huineng I think exemplifies a person who taught themselves. There’s no story of Huineng being taught by the 5th patriarch; the 5th patriarch just gave him the nod and told him to scram, from what I’ve read. Here’s Huineng’s verse (with a slight modification):

    Bodhi originally has no tree,
    The mirror has no stand.
    Buddha-nature is always clean and pure;
    Where are there imperfections that need a jeweler-teacher’s hand?

    Meanwhile, back at the oasis, the arabs were eating their dates…

    “To enter trance, and access the unconscious is not holding the hand of the Absolute.

    It is the conditioned self buttressing its own imagined solidity.” -Fred

    To do anything consciously, willfully, forsakes the absolute, and yet in the place where relaxation and calm induce trance and belief becomes action without the exercise of will, anything is possible. That would be my opinion, and also my heart-most belief. Go ahead, change it if you must!

  11. Shodo
    Shodo December 2, 2013 at 7:23 pm |

    I saw this and thought folks here would like it…
    … “Mindfulness or Mindlessness”

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 December 5, 2013 at 5:04 pm |

      Thanks, Shodo. Very interesting talk. I enjoyed it.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote December 2, 2013 at 10:12 pm |

    Intrestin’, thanks, Shodo. “A kind of vegetative coma”- like that description of Burmese “bare attention”.

    ‘In the same way, even if Shakyamuni Buddha were to appear in the world, and even if great master Bodhidharma were still alive, people shouldn’t rely on their power–one can only attain enlightenment through one’s own acceptance and personal realization. Therefore when you explain a principle and add flavor, this is still looking to another–you have not gotten free from intentional striving. That is why Touzi hit Daokai when he was going to speak further.’

    (Denkoroku trans. T. Cleary #46 Daoki)

  13. Mumbles
    Mumbles December 3, 2013 at 4:29 am |

    Consuming Mind

    Spiritual experience and goods can certainly reinforce a consuming mind, too, and it is no surprise to see this happening in a consumer culture. Marketers are successfully targeting spiritual consumers as a market niche and figuring out exactly what fulfills their self-centered yearnings. How many of these products are necessary for spiritual enlightenment? Probably not one. – Stephanie Kaza, “Ego in the Shopping Cart”

    Funny how SK ends with the ultimate in “consuming mind,” the golden calf “spiritual enlightenment.” The above also made me think of Chogyam Trungpa’s concept of “spiritual materialism” and I think this is something maybe missing from this discussion of ordaining priests, etc…certainly some degree of ambition is required to begin with, but in the end you are right where you started.

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