Virtually Ordained

Newer to the online Dharma realm than many of you, I wasn’t quite prepared to hear the news of Treeleaf Sangha’s online Soto Zen priest ordination that happened last week.

Wanting to be hip and forward-looking and open-minded and not stodgy and conservative and stuck, I would like to have nothing but warm and enthusiastic regard for this historic event. I am genuinely happy for the new ordinees and wish them the very best on their path. It was hard to not be moved by the part of the video ordination I saw – very precise, orthodox, heartfelt.

But the truth is I’m not ready to embrace this level of on-line practice as the future of the lineage, and I do take issue with some of what Jundo wrote in defense of the non-traditional ordination.

Some of the more conservative folks in the Buddhist world may have trouble with that fact, and we have heard some critical voices raised about the nature and effect of the ceremony. It is surprising to me that so many Buddhist folks, though all about dropping artificial categories like “distance and space,” and who regularly invite all the ancient Buddhas and long dead Ancestors into their ceremonies, seem to reject that a ceremony of ordination can be done “long distance via the internet.”

I too hold that the Great Way has no distance and no space, but it has no birth and no death either, and certainly no priests or non-priests or anything remotely like “training” or “practice.” It has no good and evil, no killing or not killing, no skilfullness or unskillfulness. The Way itself does not have these distinction, but any kind of “path” by definition does. There is no such thing as “absolute practice.” Practice does not take place in the realm of no time and “no space” – practice and training can only be spoken of when we are speaking of time and place. Everything we “do” involves interacting with artificial categories, and there is no life apart from or beyond that. Being a priest is completely an artificial category, that is, is takes place in the realm of here and there, me and you, birth and death. It is not an ultimate condition, just as sitting zazen is not “closer” to the ultimate than anything else. We sit zazen and ordain priests because of the conventions of relative reality. “No distance and no space” doesn’t justify anything – sure it can justify a distance ordination, but it can also justify a war, a drink, a kind word, anything you want.

As for inviting the Buddhas and ancestors (or the medieval Japanese ordinations of ghosts), inviting and honoring them is one thing, but saying that they are “training” me is quite another. If someone came here claiming to have been ordained by Keizan in a dream, I would ask them how they trained when they woke up. It’s interesting, but it isn’t enough. I honor the invisible world, and have been deeply informed by it in my life and practice, but it doesn’t hit me how the visible one hits me, and the grounded ground of Zen practice is that visible, tactile contact.

I really do appreciate the effort to create paths of wholehearted practice for people without access to the warmth of a living, breathing Sangha. But being a priest is not the only way to do wholehearted practice – it is a particular condition. It seems to me that the conditions that create a priest include having a living, breathing Sangha with which you relate eye-to-eye and elbow-to-elbow. Certainly there is Zen practice without those conditions, but I question whether there can meaningfully be “priests” without them.

Wanting to extend ordination to everyone everywhere I think confuses the question of priesthood and practice. Let’s help anyone who would like to practice to find space for practice, but if someone doesn’t have access to a Sangha they can see and smell and hit against, I would not say that they have the conditions present to be a priest. That doesn’t mean that they can’t practice, and it doesn’t mean that have lower-grade practice. But it does mean that they simply lack the conditions to be priest. It’s important to me that we stay very clear that being a priest isn’t an indicator or fulfillment of the sincerity of practice, it is just a kind of practice that takes place in the presence of certain conditions. It is vital in honoring lay practice and everywhere practice, that we appreciate that. If we think that everyone needs to be able to be a priest because being a priest is the only real practice, then we’ve really gotten off track.

In truth I could equally see myself arguing the other side of this issue, because I do think opening and including is generally the way to go. And it is clear that the Treeleaf Sangha is going forward in this with the upmost integrity and carefulness. But just as the many “Zen and”s, like the National Peanut Board iPhone meditation app (thank you Austin Zen Center for bringing it my attention!), for all of their worthiness still make me want to move even closer to the heart of the tradition, so to this on-line ordination brings out my most conservative sentiments.

I think we need each other – some holding the core to enable others to branch out. Without either side, the Dharma wilts.

So I offer a deep gassho to the three new ordinees – congratulations and welcome – and a redoubled appreciation, too, for the messy and vital physicality of temple life, without which my priest training would just be an idea.


11 thoughts on “Virtually Ordained

  1. Hi.

    As one of those three ordainees mentioned i would like to say thank you.
    But what i have done is nothing special.

    As i said in my Jukaiarticle (Please interchange Jukai with shukke, in the below statement).

    “As I see it the Jukai puts an emphasis on a number of things, the precepts, a sort of confession/commitment, a statement.

    I learned more from the journey towards Jukai than I have leaned during the rest of my “life as a Buddhist”. The question is if it will change anything.

    Now, I may anger some people by saying that taking Jukai isn’t such a big thing. It was not for me. It doesn’t involve earthchanging moments, no strikes of lighting to the head or anything dramatic like that. It just confirms what you already know and do. For me it’s not a big thing, but for some it might. Ultimately, the real significance of Jukai will be that which every recipient finds for him/herself.”

    Its all good practice.
    Thank you for your practice.

  2. Hi Jiryu,

    First, let me thank you for writing “Two Shores”, which I believe was needed. We have had all our novice priests read it and added it to our book list.

    Second, let me say that I agree with about everything you wrote. A ceremony can take place beyond “time and space”, but training should not.

    Our reason for choosing to conduct the ceremony this way is simply keeping with the entire spirit of our TREELEAF SANGHA as an an online practice place for Zen practitioners who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health concerns, living in remote areas, or work, childcare and family needs, and our seeking to provide Zazen sittings, retreats, discussion, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Zen Buddhist Sangha, all fully online. As we approach our fifth year, we believe we have succeeded, and the ceremony is another symbol of that and the strength of our community. But beyond any ceremony, the real test and responsibility will be the training and education as clergy, ministers and teachers that it is our responsibility to now provide these novice priests. In order to do so, we are about to embark on a road which will take years of hard and sincere effort, also combining traditional ways and some very new, innovative ways of education. While we may reject some traditions, we should first understand them and not stand ignorant and blind to them. If anyone wishes to download and read a very long and detailed statement of the ‘goalless goals’ of training that these three are expected to follow and come to embody … here it is at the following link (33 pages, PDF) based, as closely as we can, upon guidelines for priest training established by the The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) of North America:

    There is only so much that can be done beyond “time and space” … and good training takes time.

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. Thank you, Jiryu, for the invitation and encouragement.
    I imagine our GGF/Zen Center training is to a Japanese trained eye as “nonresident” or, beyond that, “virtual” training is to my Zen Center-trained eye, and I have been trying to keep this in mind as I encounter and question these other ways. Still, for myself I know there has been training in the situation of long-term residence that would not have been possible in any other situation. I think the body with bodies part of vow is like this too, let alone the body with bodies aspect of ongoing training, whether residential or not. I would not want to hold this difference against someone or their way of training (as I would not want a Japanese monk to hold the difference against me or ours). Still, I think we have to be clear that they are not the same. Something is lost. Something is lost (for me) by not having been trained from the age of 19. Something different is brought to the training situation, yes, arriving in my 50s as I did, with a long active life already lived, and something is lost. We have to be able to say this.
    Also, I have read the posted training document. There is no question of the depth of intention in its content. As always the proof will be in the practice.

  4. Hi and Thank you (firstly for the great book, and for the congratulations).

    I will not revisit much here as its all well covered and well said. Just want to add the we 3 novice priests do have, or had a group to sit, hosted a group etc allowing us to bump elbows and egos (among other things), as well as participating in sesshins and or extedend practice periods with other groups, (physical and “virutal”) when ever possible and the same can be said for many Sangha members at Treeleaf.
    It is encouraged and I agree very important for practice and for learning the very valuable lessons.

    Speaking for My self there is little around me in any direction, 300km, min. so I started a sitting group (a simple space in an art studio some 30mins drive from my home in the sticks) and right now its a group of one…sometimes 2. I had been sitting each week and will continue to do so months, years what ever. I am approaching the downtown core here about putting up a poster in their store front letting folks know I’m sitting there as that is the way folks do things around here.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    Sincerely yours

  5. Hi Again Jiryu,

    I was looking again at your wonderful book, and a bit more ‘food for no-thought thought’ came to mind.

    In the first part of the story you seemed very disappointed by the “free flowing peanut butter” Zen which seems to detract from your idealistic vision of a spiritual community.

    In the next part, you run toward the idealized Japanese community, only to find more complexity and ‘positives and negatives’ than first imagined.

    At the end, you seem to return to America a bit wiser … with an attitude more that the situation is not so ‘black vs. white’ … and a good deal of what we each make it.

    (i very much oversimplify the richness of the story)

    In any event, in this case too … do not jump to conclusions on what is or is not present in a community, what can or cannot be contained there … and do not hold them up to your idealized judgments of what a Sangha should look like. For it is not “black vs. white” and very much up to what the teachers and our members make of the Sangha experience.

    A vast Japanese garden at a magnificent temple can be neglected, and a universe of wisdom and effort can be attained in tending a small flower box out one’s window. It is what we bring into it, the sincerity. Is the flower box “small” (yes it is) … but does it hold the whole universe in every seed (yes it does).

    When one thing is lost, another may be gained (as any visually impaired Zen practitioner will tell you … other ways to encounter the world open before us when one avenue is “lost”). We have certain hurdles to overcome, folks in a residential community have different (and many of the same) hurdles to overcome.

    Thus … do not bring suppositions and idealized visions and “should be’s” too much into judging a community. Instead, take the time to see it for how it really functions, and know that the experience is largely what the people make of it.

    Gassho, Jundo

  6. Hi Jiryu,

    I’m a hermit monk, and I admit that when I clicked on this link, my shields were up. (OK, “not up”; bow to Jiryu.) But having read Jiryu’s teaching on this subject carefully, I find nothing to object to. We who practice outside The Establishment get slammed a lot by those inside the walls, or who believe that Zen can only legitimately be practised indoors. This always saddens me, because there was no rejection of the monastery in my decision to take a path opened by Gotama, Bodhidharma, Ryokan, and Ikkyu. Ironically, whenever I’m pressed to argue monastery vs. tree (which I avoid, but it seems to find me anyway), I’m usually advocating the monastery against brother and sister hermits. We need The Establishment. It’s still our Sangha, whether we’re sitting amongst it every day or not.

    Yeah, there’s a point in here somewhere. It’s this: hermits are hermits and priests are priests. Both are important to Zen. So the question of whether a given practice can legitimately be called _priesthood_ is vital and necessary. This is _not_ the same thing as determining whether or not it’s “real Zen”. I admit to a pernicious prejudice against fellow hermits (that is, rebels, loners, Bodhidharma-wannabes, hard cases like me) who set themselves up as “teachers” or authorities on Zen. Authority is for cloistered monks and ordained priests. Accept it or reject it, but don’t become it. Therefore, I share Jiryu’s concerns over the legitimacy of monastic titles.

    Now, where I get off the train is when people say, “You’re not a monk because you don’t wear okesa.” (Never mind that the tradition of “conferring” okesa hijacks a birthright we all share; that ship has sailed, and I accept the new paradigm.) But if I went around claiming to be a product of the monastery, or the temporal honours that adhere to it, then examination of my practice would be entirely called for.

    Bottom line: leading yourself is your privilege. Lead others, and you better show me what you got.

    That’s why the true nature of long-distance discipleship is a valid subject. I don’t reject cyber-jukai, or the practice of those who walk that path, but we (Zen devotees of all paths) have a vital interest in keeping The Institution institutional.

    But if you quote me, I’ll deny it.



  7. Welcome back to the bloggin’ whirl, Jiryu, and thanks for this thoughtful post. A couple quick thoughts from my seat.

    First, as you point out, there are many ways to carve the “Zen priest” pumpkin. I notice that for you it seems largely about relationship to a sangha. I don’t agree that this is the only way, although it may be predominant in California Zen 🙂

    Imv, a person could lead a life as a hermit and train as a Zen priest.

    I’d place training under the guidance of a teacher to be a necessary condition for the unsui.

    And it seems to me that there is an important buddological issue here: who does the Zen priest primarily serve? The community? The teacher?

    No and no, imv – all of Zen, and especially for the priest, is about serving the truth.

    Second, I agree with you about the importance of in-the-flesh practice and find your arguments quite compelling. I can’t imagine that I’d find ordaining someone virtually to be the best choice but that’s just me and how I see training.

    Warm regards,


  8. With reference to the notion that priesthood exists with reference to a sangha – the sixth patriarch, to whom pretty much all ordained ch’an & zen priests race their lineage, didn’t initially practise with a sangha – he was too busy running away from his sangha so they wouldn’t kill him!

  9. all of the above saddens me. truly truly you must know that zen is a master-disciple transmission, outside the scriptures. Otherwise it is NOT zen. One Cannot, repeat Cannot! attain to transmission of true mind without having up close and personal contact; i.e., sweat and blood with a realized master. this includes day to day monitoring of your state of mind and constant correction, humiliation, grinding and love.

    To join the path of the ancients is laudable, but this does not ordain you towards the priesthood. This is even less than Jukai. This is even less than pseudo-jukai.

    Sorry! You’re fooling yourselves and it’s great that everyone is being so kind and encouraging to you, but I will stand up and say you’re wasting your fucking time and it’s a travesty. and shame upon this person Jiryu. Where did he or she receive transmission? from a comic book?!
    great sighs and lamentations,

    • Genro. Lost in Genro. Shame upon Genro. Where did you receive your training? From a book you have forgotten? I’d rather sit with monks who find the wisdom in comics than a monk whom mistakes his dharma threads for those of a trial judge. If you had a legitimate transmission it no longer runs, take it back to the dealership or manufacturer and get a tune up, but maybe, just maybe based your cruel language you’ll need a new a whole new engine, But really, no engine needed, then no transmission needed. Your title isn’t needed and neither is there title. Who is this person claiming they have wasted their time? Is it not you whom have wasted our time proclaiming strangers to be fools. Your words say more about the person you think you are than they do the people you wish to harm. You are a lost child, pretending to be an adult…I recommend you sit down and read a comic book…

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