Am I a Zen Priest?

I got an email that went like this:

I ordained this summer, going through Shukke Tokudo. According to my teacher I can therefore refer to myself as an official Zen priest. However, I’ve also encountered other Zen priests both outside and inside of the Soto tradition who claim that such an ordination does not mean that you are a Zen priest yet. Do you know what the official or general answer to this is? I do not want to claim being something that I am not

Here’s what I said (I’ve edited it a bit):

A few months after I did shukke tokudo and then shiho (dharma transmission) with Nishijima Roshi, I had a conversation with him. I asked him, “Am I a monk now?”

He said, “Yes, you are a monk.”

The Japanese word that is often translated as “priest” or “monk” is bouzu. That’s pronounced bo-zoo, but you hold the “o” sound in bo a bit longer than you would in English. The Japanese sometimes represent that by putting a “u” after the “o” when they write it in Roman letters.

ANYWAY… my point is that the same word is translated as priest and as monk. In Japanese Soto Zen there is just one thing called bouzu. And a bouzu does some of the things monks do and some of the things priests do. It’s not like Catholicism where there are two distinct categories.

Shukke tokudo literally means “leaving home (and) entering the priesthood.” Though remember that the word “priesthood” here is as iffy of a translation as the word “priest.” In the old days, one literally left all one’s family ties behind. Nowadays, Japanese Zen doesn’t require a vow of celibacy. So often priests/monks (aka bouzu) have spouses and families.

Also, after taking shukke tokudo there are often no specific requirements about what to do next (depending on who you do the ceremony with there might be requirements, but not in all cases). This is also different from being ordained as a Catholic priest or a Catholic monk. In Japan, most people who do shukke tokudo go on to be part of a temple. Often they have been ordained by their fathers (sometimes by their mothers), and the purpose of this ordination is so that they can run the family temple. In that case, they function something like a Catholic priest who runs a small church.

This is a long answer, I know. But the point is that it’s not entirely clear whether a person who has done a shukke tokudo ceremony is a “Zen priest” because there really isn’t any such thing as a “Zen priest.” “Zen priest” is a poor English translation for bouzu. So is “Zen monk.”

Some Zen institutions in the US often have special training for what they call “Zen priests.” They specifically teach you what is known as “priest craft.” That means they teach you how to do Zen ceremonies and they give you training about how to deal with people who come to you for advice and suchlike. In Japan, if you were to go to a large Zen temple like Eihei-ji, you’d spend a lot of your time learning that kind of thing. In the west, many Zen teachers don’t teach that sort of “priest craft.” 

Here’s my personal opinion. If you’re going to call yourself a “Zen priest” in the Soto tradition, then you had better know some “priest craft.” You’d better know how to do all the different roles in a standard chanting ceremony — like ringing the bells, offering incense, hitting the mokugyo (wooden drum shaped like a fish), chanting, and so on. You’d better know how to do a standard Zen ceremony by yourself (one person doing all of the different roles — there is a way to do this). You’d better know your tradition very well. You’d better know enough about Dogen’s philosophy to be able to explain it to someone who asks about it, or to give a lecture about it. I don’t think you have to be the greatest expert in the world about this stuff. You don’t have to know every ceremony perfectly. You don’t have to memorize all 95 chapters of Shobogenzo. But you need to know enough about this kind of stuff that you can at least do it reasonably well.

Furthermore, I’d say you also need to be able to have difficult conversations with people who come to you wanting to talk about difficult things. You need to be able to listen to their problems without judging them. Sometimes people tell me things that are pretty shocking. And you need to be able to give advice if they ask you for it. Again, you don’t have to be a genius at doing this. But you need to be willing and able to do it if you are asked to. 

I don’t usually call myself a “Zen priest.” This is because, even though I know some “priest craft” I am pretty bad at it. I sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) call myself a “monk.” But whenever I do, I try to explain what I think that means. I know there are people out there who have different ideas about what it means to be a monk. In any case, I avoid even calling myself a “monk” unless there is some good reason to do so. I don’t walk up to strangers and say, “Hi! I’m a Zen monk!” or anything like that. Whenever someone asks what I do for a living I say that I’m a writer.

So… yes, you’re a Zen priest. Sort of.

I hope that makes some kind of sense.


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