Why I Am Not a Member of Clergy

I never really considered the possibility that I might be a “member of clergy” until three years ago. I was staying at Tassajara Zen Monastery and Greg Fain, the tanto (sort of like “spiritual director”) there said that they preferred all members of clergy to wear their robes at zazen. I was kind of taken aback. “Am I a member of clergy?” I asked. Greg said that according the way San Francisco Zen Center defines things, I was. Hm. Interesting.

I didn’t really accept SFZC’s definition (nor, for that matter, do I accept their definition that zazen is a “ceremony”), but I wore my robes to zazen that summer. What they hell. Might as well get some use out of the things.

But I don’t think that Zen monks are members of clergy and I never have. I certainly would not have become one if I did. People in the West seem to think of Zen monks — especially those who teach — either as members of clergy or as some kind of Eastern version of a psychologist. They’re wrong. Zen monks are something else.

I have always thought of Zen monks as part of the category of artisans who sometimes, but not always, take on apprentices. Sometimes if a person becomes skilled at making pottery or painting or playing the swarmandal she will take on apprentices who are interested in learning that skill for themselves. Artists and artisans who take on apprentices rarely have any sort of teacher training program. They generally start off by assigning various tasks to their apprentices that bear some relationship to the skill the apprentices wish to learn. The apprentices get to prepare the clay or the paints for the teacher or restring the swarmandal or what have you. Gradually they begin to pick up the skill by watching the artisan at work and seeing how she does her thing.

Traditionally, this is how Zen monks worked with their apprentices. They didn’t teach them very much in any overt way. There was no seminary, no lessons. It was a process of assimilation. Some Zen monks still work this way. Both of my teachers do. When people ask me about my Zen training I don’t know quite what to say. I just sort of watched and picked up things.

I’ll give you an example. There is usually a statue of Buddha in the central room of most Zen temples. It’s traditional to stop and bow toward the statue whenever you pass in front of it on your way somewhere else. Nishijima Roshi never once told me to do this. But one day I happened to see him do it. That was how I learned of this tradition. That’s pretty much how I learned everything I ever learned from Nishijima. It’s not an easy way to learn. You have to be really observant. You have to really want to learn, for the sake of learning itself and not for any certification you might get in the future.

I had no idea at the time that I was mastering skills that would one day lead to receiving dharma transmission. I was just deeply interested in knowing how a Zen monk did stuff. Like someone who admires the way a master potter crafts a really good vase, I found something admirable in the way Nishijima Roshi had crafted his life. So I watched and I absorbed.

When people start thinking of Zen monks as members of clergy they seem to me to immediately start coming up with ways to destroy the very thing that makes Zen worthwhile. For example, I’ve heard a lot of cries that we need a monitoring organization for Zen monks — one “with teeth,” meaning it has some kind of power to bite anyone who gets out of line. To me that’s like saying we need a monitoring organization “with teeth” to judge what is and is not good art. It sounds scary and vaguely totalitarian to me.

If Zen monks start becoming beholden to some organization that tells them how to do what they do, they won’t be able to do much of anything beyond passing on ceremonies and ways to fold up their robes. They’ll only be able to do the things that some committee somewhere decides they can do. But that committee will always be far removed from the day-to-day work of actual monks in the field.

To me, the phrase “member of clergy” describes a participant in some organization. The person is a member of this thing called clergy. To me that means that he willingly submits to the oversight of an organization who guarantees that he will play by their rules lest they throw him out and thus make him a non-member.

Zen isn’t like that. There’s no Church of Zen to which its members pay dues and which vouches for their behavior. There are organizations like the Soto-shu that kinda sorta do something that’s maybe a little bit like that. But even they are more like very loose affiliations of likeminded artists than a Church (with a capital “c”). And that’s the way it has to be if Zen is to remain Zen.

Zen has to be just a little bit dangerous. If it’s not, it ceases to be Zen. The reason that Zen can go as deeply as it does into the question of what it means to be truly human comes in a large part because it’s not entirely safe. The safer, more rule-bound, more structured and organized it becomes, the shallower and less valuable it gets. Nobody gets hurt (supposedly) but nobody learns much of anything either.

I imagine my opinions on this matter will upset some people. But take heart! As far as I can see I am clearly on the losing end of this battle. It seems to me that those who want to establish a Church of Zen “with teeth,” are going to be the victors. That’s just the way stuff goes. What I’m saying here today will, in the future, be remembered (if at all) only as the ravings of someone who didn’t understand what the Church of Zen now knows to be true. You folks reading in the future can vouch for me on this one.

When that happens, real Zen will go underground and start calling itself something else. That’s also the way stuff goes.


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78 Responses

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  1. Will
    Will January 13, 2013 at 4:43 am |

    So, the point was, even if they’re really nice people and have impressive robes you’re under no obligation to believe or act how they tell you to. Running around laughing when you see people and writing poems on trees isn’t the only way to practice and neither is the official state priest route. In my opinion we need more lay practitioners. Like I started out saying the vast majority of bodhisattva don’t wear monks robes. The goal of Zen isn’t for everyone to become a priest.

  2. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |

    I should apologize for impugning the subject of philosophy. The rules of logic and argumentation are basic to science and reasoned discourse; I got no quarrel with that.

    I feel there is a science in the Gautamid’s teaching and in the practice of zazen, and I’m frustrated that more people who claim to know the heart of the practice aren’t involved in looking for accurate and objective ways to convey the practice. I know a lot of people who practice zazen, but in general folks who find their way into the cross-legged posture are not able to help someone who can’t find their way in apart from general encouragement. There’s a lot of good things said that make sense to those who found their own way in but which don’t make sense to everybody else. Everyone likes the good words and respects the teacher for being an adept, but wouldn’t it be grand if the teacher actually could help folks by describing what’s happening more explicitly?

    Maybe we can do more with what science now has to offer. Maybe the folks that don’t like science much will run screaming, especially because Zen seemed to be so safe from having to apply the brain to the unknown… “do not try to adjust your set; we control the transmission…”

  3. SoF
    SoF January 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm |

    “…wouldn’t it be grand if the teacher actually could help folks by describing what’s happening more explicitly?”

    What is happening is unique – a little different to each perception.

    It is the student that talks to the ‘teacher’ and not vise versa*. In traditional school classrooms, the teacher lectures (e.g. is the exemplar) and the students take notes. The very best students become the next exemplars (through normalization).

    This is the classical “cookie cutter” or assembly line model of education.

    With Zen, it is a one-to-one experience with the explorer (e.g. student) describing to the master (e.g. been there, done that) what s/he has discovered.

    *If you recite a Sutta in reverse, it does not take you back to where you once were.

  4. Will
    Will January 13, 2013 at 6:43 pm |

    Walk into an Anthropology conference and watch someone try to define culture sometime. Or possibly an Artificial Intelligence conference. Anthropologists study culture but they don’t agree on a solid definition. Artificial Intelligence people don’t have a solid definition of intelligence. No matter how complex object oriented design gets things don’t always work according to your model. It’s why economic models are always in a constant state of calibration. No matter how good science gets it will never be sufficient to completely understand reality. That’s not to say it’s not a useful paradigm but it is imperfect and always will be. Insert old metaphor about the finger pointing at the moon. Ideas are a nice picture but they aren’t the real thing.

  5. SoF
    SoF January 13, 2013 at 7:41 pm |

    Check THIS out.

    Also: Emblems : Occupational Badges : Buddhist Chaplain

    This is no small victory.

    30 April 2005

    “Evangelical Christians among the officers and cadets at the US Air Force Academy have created an atmosphere of systematic intolerance towards Jewish and non-religious students, according to reports by minority students and investigations by off-campus groups concerned about the rise of fundamentalist bigotry.”

  6. SoF
    SoF January 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm |

    A culture is “the customs, traditions, and norms of a regional people…”

    (or the same of an identifiable group within a regional people…)

    some might add ‘lifestyle’ which is redundant.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm |

    Godel’s incompleteness theorem is not only accepted mathematics, but the first theorem to be subjected to formal proof by means of a computer. The theorem says that maybe 2 + 2 is not always 4, which is hard for many mathematicians to swallow (google “is arithmetic consistent?”), and the reason arithmetic may contain some contradictions is the axiom of extension, the proof from the finite to the infinite.

    If we have assumptions that produce no contradictions, then those assumptions will never describe all of mathematics; if our assumptions describe all that is known in mathematics, then there are contradictions that can be derived from our assumptions.

    Gautama the Buddha was very careful about how far the logic he developed could be applied, and in some cases he said things like “(statement such-and-such) goes too far”, meaning that what someone was asking could not be discussed within the logic he had developed to describe his experience.

    It’s possible to make very powerful statements about relationships that underlie much of the natural world with mathematics, but it’s not possible to describe the whole of what we know without contradiction. Mathematics describes aspects of the moon in great detail, and can be used to predict position and motion in the moon and in the earth that is caused by the moon. If we can limit ourselves to assumptions that don’t give rise to contradictions, maybe we like Gautama the Buddha can describe our experience in the practice of zazen in ways that communicate something of the relationships involved .

    I’ll start: calming of the activity of the mind in the movement of breath, like relaxation of the activity of the body in the movement of breath, is conducive to the induction of a hynogogic state that actually sharpens the wits.

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 13, 2013 at 9:52 pm |

    I have to be careful in my assumptions: I can relax, and I can calm down, and I believe science has a lot to offer with this, but the attainment of a hypnogogic state will always be “something other than” what I think it to be (as Gautama put it).

    That’s why Suzuki said that “only zazen can sit zazen”.

    1. hrtbeat7
      hrtbeat7 January 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm |

      Hiya Mark!

      Entering a hypnogogic state is merely modifying consciousness, and has nothing to do with getting to its root. However, only by finding the source of consciousness and abiding there will any possibility of realization pertain.

      Moreover, the common result of hypnogogic trance is typically hallucinatory, rather than clarifying. I offer this based on personal experience, as well as a large body of anecdotal references gleaned over the decades.

      Some also consider it a preliminary to the experience of astral travel, or OBE, and it is not uncommon for a traveller to experience sleep paralysis upon return to the bio-vehicle.

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 14, 2013 at 6:02 am |

    I can drop body and mind, but I can’t attain enlightenment. At a certain point, relaxing is the induction of a hypnogogic state; practice is enlightenment.

    Hiya hrtbeat7! If it were something I did, then entering a hypnogogic state might be merely modifying consciousness. Because entering a hypnogogic state is rooted in the necessity of the current movement of breath, and in the consciousness, equilibrioception, and proprioception appropriate to that necessity, entering a hypnogogic state is simply being the experience where I am as I am. The shift is in the agency, and indeed consciousness is programmed to respond to the loss of agency with an attempt to regain it, witness the “hypnic jerk” that 70% of the people experience with regard to falling asleep.

    The phenomena of sleep paralysis, ain’t that fun. I know Robert Monroe wrote that after some time, he discovered that he could always return to his body through the awareness of breath.

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 14, 2013 at 6:07 am |

    Consciousness, equilibrioception (impact), and proprioception (feeling with equanimity):

    (Anyone)…knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye—neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).

    Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.

    (Majjhima-Nikaya, Pali Text Society volume 3 pg 337-338, ©Pali Text Society)

  11. Fred
    Fred January 14, 2013 at 6:15 am |

    Dogen said that even enlightenment is a dream within a dream.

    A hypnic jerk is when you awaken for a moment from the everyday self, and
    thrash about in the web for a second, before falling back into the deep sleep of
    I and me.

  12. Pat
    Pat January 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm |

    I think i’m missing something – i don’t expect a great big enlightenment moment
    BAM ! one day i’m ‘ignorant’, next day i’m ‘not’.

    Here’s how it is for me – i have nobody who says ‘ yes Pat ‘ you have reached nerd level 1b or whatever – so it’s probably rubbish!

    All experience is mind – is born in the mind and dies in the mind.
    when sitting ; setting conditions or finding points in it – tilts the mind this way or that way – but it is still mind.

    The mind when sitting and left almost to it’s own devices – can also translate the enormous silence, void or whatever you want to call it – we all know this – we all get ‘revelations’ – little jolts. Maybe if these jolts were all collected together – the concepts would still be mind – but their ‘vision’ and ‘meaning’ would contain a strong wiff of something that’s not mind.

    Scripture, past and present or a good teacher and more sitting seems essential in putting those jolts together and seeing those jolts of insight come alive in everyday life ( they were always there – they just weren’t noticed before ).

    Slowly what begins to emerge is a profound universal and impersonal logic – born in the mind – but somehow different from what the mind could cook up by itself – and it helps – the logic is useful – it untangles things – it makes life that bit easier – lightens the load.

  13. SoF
    SoF January 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm |

    Except “BAM” is exactly how enlightenment arrives.

    For most, the field needs to be fertile – e.g. the mind (consciousness) prepared.

    For some, “BAM” and ‘there it is.’

    One day, you just wake up.

    And one day, you just wake up dead.

    What’s the difference? I maintain that there is no difference.

  14. Fred
    Fred January 14, 2013 at 4:20 pm |

    Mr. Sasaki had a sudden jolt in his pants. BAM, there it was.

  15. Alizrin
    Alizrin January 14, 2013 at 4:50 pm |

    YES, exactly why I am rather . . . dissatisfied with Shambhala. Hmmm perhaps this will inspire me to stop complaining and quit the organization and just do what I always do: sit at home.

  16. Fred
    Fred January 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm |

    “Moreover, the common result of hypnogogic trance is typically hallucinatory, rather than clarifying.”

    Yes, people take drugs to hallucinate, when they are already hallucinating.

  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 14, 2013 at 9:44 pm |

    The language is interesting. I am using hynogogic to refer to phenomena that occurs between waking and sleeping, but I am contending that this is also the phenomena of hypnosis, and of the states of the cessation of habitual activity that Gautama described in so many of his sermons. Really for me, there is basically one hypnogogic state, the one in which voluntary activity in the movement of breath ceases.

    There’s a kind of reversal in this, like what happens in falling asleep; the mind no longer moves the body, but moves in the body (and for some folks, outside the body?). The breath affects where consciousness takes place and what is felt, instead of the reverse.

    In Gautama’s nine meditative states, this is the fourth, and in parinibana sutta it is said that Gautama returned from the ninth or final meditative state to the fourth and died while in that state. Peculiar, isn’t it: you would expect they would say that he died in the state he identified as his great attainment, wherein he surpassed his two teachers and realized the nature of suffering, but they didn’t.

    I think we all experience this cessation of habitual activity in the movement of breath all day long, as we relax into where we are and experience some kind of calm. It’s also possible to realize the same reversal in a more pronounced way, as though having fallen asleep while wide awake; then it’s possible to sleepwalk with full awareness, maybe even clearer awareness because there’s no exercise of will in the activity.

    “My hand just moves. It’s will-less (ishinashini).”- Sasaki

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm |

    “you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around”. – Kobun

    I’m going to sit on my tuffet, hope I don’t cough up curds and whey- may what sits me down, get me up again!

  19. boubi
    boubi January 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm |

    Cosmic fireflies


    … like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
    Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream …

  20. boubi
    boubi January 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm |

    Satvas, mahasatvas, patriachs, arahts, mahasiddis, openers of universes, keepers of the gates, transmuters sublimes at Solvay conference


    gate, gate, paragate, samparagate bodhi svaha

  21. boubi
    boubi January 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

    ??? ??? ?????? ???????? ???? ??????;

  22. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs January 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm |

    Nicely said, Brad!

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