I’ve been surprised to see how much engagement and reaction there has been to my last blog post here and across a few facebook conversations, so I realize I should probably peek out from behind my shield of impartiality and “historical precedent” and weigh in on how I see this issue of lay practice in American Zen. Or maybe not. My capacity for negativity is basically boundless and without distinction: I am happy to engage in priest-bashing, that most esteemed tradition of Euro-American modernity, but I’m also just as happy to slam the hollow and lazy lay apologetics of “the Dharma is everywhere, so you don’t have to renounce anything or really even make the time.” So the point is that I really didn’t write the post to sharpen some kind of divide or antagonism between priest and lay. I really was just reporting a surprise I found in my research: the fact that in the Meiji period lay Buddhist leaders across the sects really did step forward and carried the tradition – not because they were asked to by the institutions, but because they saw that if they didn’t no one would.
So maybe I’m not really ready to peek out and weigh in myself. I’m not sure what I think, and I have mixed feelings I’d like to explore further. The truth is that I’m sympathetic to “fighting the power” in general and happy to hop on whatever anti-authoritarian bandwagon comes through town, but I also find myself a little perplexed at how big a deal we can make of a priest-laity distinction which, as people love to point out when critiquing priestly worldliness, can in actual life be so subtle as to be almost meaningless…. Knowing some places at least where the bar to ordination is fairly low, it is further perplexing to me when people object to the special status or role that priests enjoy when they themselves are just actively choosing not to have that institutional status or role (as opposed to being barred from it by economic or personal reasons, as many are in the centers with a “higher bar” for ordination). Some people take one kind of role, some people take another. Insofar as there can be movement between and through roles, what is the real problem with that?
But I don’t claim to see the picture entirely, and it’s abundantly clear that we are nowhere near “nailing” the issue in American Zen in general. We don’t really know what priests are or are supposed to be, so we can’t know what non-priests are either; we don’t know what a lay person is (especially one who wears robes and does retreats), so we can’t know what non-laypeople are either. A pretty great situation, come to think of it.
To sort out my own thinking and hopefully work towards a productive conversation, I want to try to reach a little more widely into the tradition past and present (and future?) and imagine some possible kinds of relationship between clergy and laity, some possible roles or attitudes or positions that the two might enact. This is off the top of my head, and I’d love any additions. Before “deciding” what priest-lay relations should be in the West, how about first we lay out what the relationships have been or might be?
Some roughly stated options:
- Clergy (monastic) do the transcendent practice of being liberated from samsara; laypeople see no possibility of release from samsara and strive only to achieve a more fortunate rebirth, which they can do primarily through the merit generated by supporting the transcendent clergy. (Early Indian tradition?)
- No distinction – neither monk nor layperson is the norm for all practitioners. This is a Zen-in-the-world approach in which all do “retreat” as possible in zazen or sesshin, and which all engage as possible in worldly affairs. The democratic impulse effaces the need for a special class of religious specialists (and maybe most don’t see the path as a religion in the first place). (Future [or present?] American tradition?)
- Priests are ritual specialists (“Shakyamuni’s performance art” as a feral monk has neatly put it); laity benefit practically from observing the ritual performances and receiving the efficacious dedications of such rituals on behalf of themselves and their ancestors. (Practical mainstream of pre-modern East Asian tradition?)
- Priests are ritual specialists and laypeople don’t watch, don’t care, don’t benefit, and don’t even particularly want to be dedicated to. (Contemporary Japan?)
- Priests are stewards of temple spaces, sort of community center managers; laypeople support these community centers in various ways and are grateful that a priest is designated and supported to be the primary caretaker of this basically public resource. This gratitude and vague appreciation is not based in any illusions about or opinion of the spiritual cultivation of priests, which is mostly beside the point. (Contemporary Japan?)
- Priests are fat-cats enjoying the power of their posts and languishing in a life of excess enabled by the forcible, State-mandated transfer of wealth to them from the suffering and exploited laity, who basically just wish the priests would all go away and die. (Tokugawa Japan?)
- Priests have a vow and responsibility specifically to maintain and transmit the lineage and forms of ritual and practice, whereas laypeople have a more free hand to express the Dharma in responsive and open-ended life circumstances. That is, priests should say “the Zen tradition teaches” when they teach, and laypeople should just say, “the truth is…” It is not a distinction in spiritual quality, lifestyle, or commitment, but is a distinction of venue and responsibility. In terms of practice-life, the relevant distinction is not “priest” and “lay” at all but rather “monastic-style practitioner” and “householder,” positions which both priest and lay move through in their career as devotees of the Way. (San Francisco Zen Center ideal?)
- Priests are encrusted in and indebted to institutions that stifle genuine spirituality and entomb the vitality of the ancestors they claim to enshrine; laypeople are the genuinely liberated and liberate-able, unclouded by the accretions of institutional habit and hierarchy. Laypeople’s role is to pity priests when not excoriating them. (1960s-Contemporary U.S.?)
- Clergy are a sort of spiritual consultants removed from the workings of the practice institutions/temples, which are run by laypeople and for laypeople. Clergy, through their perceived purity of purpose and their lineage links to the past sages, lend some general authority to the project without imposing much, controlling much, or interfering much. (Contemporary Vipassana movement?)
- Priests/monks are specialists in meditation and are cultivated examples of a spiritual life. Laypeople spend less time and energy in meditation and spiritual cultivation, but aspire to the life the priests represent, and take inspiration from them in their own active practice, going to them for teachings and guidance. (Contemporary Western models of this attitude exist.)
- Priests/ministers are active and engaged in the community, whether as social activists, social workers, or otherwise a positive presence on the streets and in the shops of their parish/community. They represent the religious tradition for the laity/non-ordained, who respect them not only for their institutional status but for their active and positive role in the community. (Contemporary American Christianity?)
Please help me complete this list – there are tons of models missing and tons of attitudes left out. I am finding this a useful exercise and hope you do to.
A significant caveat: I’m not sure I see myself or my own “priest-ness” in this picture so far. And maybe this points to a further or more basic problem with the whole categorization-and-evaluation project: what we are at the end of the day is just a group people with all kinds of different standpoints, conditioned by but not branded or defined by any of them, including our ordination status.
How do we all support each other? Isn’t that the real question we are asking, and the basic impulse that our many opinions of each other is just masking?
How do we all support each other?