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.
You can contribute to the way stuff goes by making a donation to this blog. Thanks!