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.