The Right Relationship of Priest and Lay

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?


20 thoughts on “The Right Relationship of Priest and Lay

  1. Hmmm…nice work Jiryu. Before we examine the distinctions of priest and lay, I want to ask a basic question. What are Zen Buddhists looking for in a priest? Is it the teachings of the lineage, meditation guidance, personal counseling, mindfulness, charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity? If I was a Zen Buddhist, (I’m Christian) I would want the priests to either have these skills and qualities or be trying damn hard. The problems I had with SFZC-Green Gulch Farm, my brokenness being one of them, was that I was already looking for a Christian saint amongst Soto Zen Buddhist priests. I didn’t find that person. I have found glimmers of that person in my faith. So what are the cardinal virtues of a Soto Zen priest and how can we encourage priests to aspire to greater levels of virtue? At SFZC the sangha is giving priests cash to live a comfortable life. What demands does the sangha place on the priests? What bacon are SFZC priests bringing home and no this is not a rhetorical question…entirely.

    Jiryu Wrote:
    “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?)” Can I get an amen?
    This is what we call contemplation in action or for me faith in action and this path has several advantages. 1) It keeps the clergy honest. No more snarling at an improper bow when you are now a SERVANT. 2) Some of these socially engaged roles fiscally support the sangha and it’s functions so lay people don’t have to bear as much financial weight. 3) Doing good attracts do gooders which increases the goodness in the world-the only world we know for certain exists, rebirth is speculation.4) Service and sloth are incompatible.

    Caveat: There are Christian monastic orders who are largely contemplative and do not fully support themselves, whom I admire deeply. Important points. 1)They’re poor. 2)They’re chaste 3)They do engage in commerce aside from hospitality that supports the community. 4) They have a very rigorous public and private contemplative life i.e. schedule.

    In summary the Western part of me is critical of SFZC for it’s misuse-not-exactly-abuse of money and my Christian side is critical of their lack of social engagement.
    As for a a lean and austere Soto Zen Buddhism, check out

  2. it’s great you’re playing with these ideas.

    Priests carry forward the traditions and rituals and _in theory_ create a living icon on this whole liberation from the cycle of birth and death thing. If more priests/monks _were_ meditation specialists I wouldn’t have taken this path. From what I’ve seen few are.

    The distinction I see is that _many_ priests think that the liberation thing is _really_ difficult and requires a full-time job. _many_ lay-people are just not in much suffering so don’t need much liberation from anything so don’t need to dedicate much time to it.

    Then there are the outliers. _some_ priests _are_ meditation experts and role models in whatever tradition they chose. _some_ lay-people are more monkish than many monks and clock more meditation time.

    I remember when one priest made a declaration to spend daily time on the cushion – and that turned out ok. Another sits for decades and rages against the world as his body decays.

    I really only care about who can get on the pitch and throw a ball around. Anyone can shout from the sidelines.

    I was taught by a monk that The Big Secret was to just Do The Work. He didn’t care what I believed. But when in his class I was told to always wear my uniform and correct belt.

    I don’t have a magic cushion to sit on or a bib to wear yet every day I create the space where you’d find both these things if you looked correctly. Currently I’m looking at what is the most natural way for humans to run – non-stop? Ultra? Walk-run? bare-foot? Moccasins? City streets? Trails? Cross-countr? The answer is within me, buried under decades of bad habits and social conditioning. The clues are in my physiology and in my running stats. The clues are in the big padded running shoes that are everywhere – are we really born with feet that do not work?

    I’m human 24×7. When I’m asleep I’m not trying to be anything or categorise much. That just leaves the other 14 hours aware that humans are the only species on the planet that create books on “How to be human” and “Be human the _right_ way”.

    A few less meditation experts and a few more human experts would help. Maybe I’m a ferral lay-person? There are never enough categories when you slice the world with words….

  3. Quite a kaleidescopic view of the scene, Jiryu! As a point of clarification, the feral monk, I believe, was relegating priests berely (or at all) to being “ritual specialists” when he referred to Shakyamuni’s performance preactice but rather said this:
    “Who followed in his footprints was a crowd of cultic fetishists that turned – largely with the help of hierarchically disposed and secular potentates – his *performance-artistry-of-realizing-authenticity* into a kind of tribute repertoire… Can we not speak of buddhic priests and lay without any reference to -ism?… There is a role for buddhic priests – but only as masters of Shakyamuni’s performance art, who can then make journeymen of any laity who aspire to awakening authenticity anywhere.”

    In otherwords, Shakyamuni demonstrated expertise in liberating authenticity before his surviving devotees turned began substituting ritual devotion and blabbering for authenticity practice.

    I was told recently by an officer of a priest-teacher training site where I practice that a number of the vested teacher aspiriants see themselves working so hard and so long to become teachers and so take umbrage that I am not inhibited either by self or by institution from appearing to be a teacher.

    This reminded me of the Fifth Ancestor’s caution to layman Lu just after secretly making him Sixth ancestor to run away from the monastery before the other monks could kill him out of jealousy.

    Just yesterday, at my teacher’s personal teaching place, at the end of the day-sit I pointed out that the pivotal word of the first sentence of the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi – “The teaching of suchness has been intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors …” – was the word *intimately*. I followed up that with a recollection that according to the legend the holy Siddartha Gautama was nearly dead of self-starvation when a young girl came along him laying along side the road and asked “What’s the matter with you, here, have some gruel!” Were it not for this uninitiated unschooled girl, who of us would be venerating Shakyamuni Buddha. Of course, he went on to pull an all nighter under a tree where he discovered the middle way which he then began to teach but with no actual to the natural goodness of the girl who actually offered him his first respite from suffering. My point was to emphasize the importance of *intimacy* practice. Who was the buddha here, Gautama or the girl?

    Both layman Lu (who would eventually be called Hui Neng) and the girl behaved out of their authenticity which thus empowered them to practice *intimacy*.

    So I would therefore say this about priests and lay: The role of the priest in this day and age is to become a *virtuoso* practitioner of authenticity and intimacy – which is not sold in stores and is not given and then to give it away for no other reason than to arouse and affirm in the laity their aspiration for embodying their own authenticity and practicing intimacy in all of their affairs – perhaps not as virtuosos but certainly as benefactors (dare I say Bodhisattvas).

    For example, my teacher (who is a priest) a few weeks ago gave to me and to others the opportunity to commit ourselves to this vow:

    “In a world without protection, without refuge, without a home, without friends and without a haven, I will be a protector, a refuge, a home, a friend and a haven. I will free all those sentient beings who have not crossed the ocean of existence. I will take completely beyond sorrow those who have not passed completely beyond sorrow by leading them beyond sorrow to the unobstructed dharmadatu. I will quell the suffering of those whose suffering has not been quelled.”

    One does not need ten years of curling his/her big toes with prostrations, studying philosophical categories in dead or non-native languages, or accommodating sleep deprivation to actualize this vow. And it certainly was not my teacher’s prostrations, mastery of sutras, his facility with original tongues that empowered me to take this vow. It was his manner of presencing himself, of listening, and of – dare I say it – not losing patience with me.

    I do teach people who ask me to listen to them. And, I find myself seening my teacher in my minds eye, saying things I heard my teacher say just a few days before. I am not imitating my teacher, but I do seem to have had awakened in me something that his teacher helped to awaken in him.

    This is the relationship I enjoy with my priest.

    • …and I wish I could edit my offerings here when I make typographical errors.

      I have some errata:

      First paragraph where it says “As a point of clarification, the feral monk, I believe, was relegating priests berely (or at all) to being “ritual specialists” when he referred to Shakyamuni’s performance preactice but rather said this:”

      Please read instead:

      “As a point of clarification, the feral monk, I believe, was NOT relegating priests MERELY (or at all) to being “ritual specialists” when he referred to Shakyamuni’s performance preactice but rather said this:”

      • … and again, where I wrote: “Of course, he went on to pull an all nighter under a tree where he discovered the middle way which he then began to teach but with no actual to the natural goodness of the girl who actually offered him his first respite from suffering.”

        Please read instead:
        “Of course, he went on to pull an all nighter under a tree where he discovered the middle way which he then began to teach but with no actual REFERENCE to the natural goodness of the girl who actually offered him his first respite from suffering.”

      • …another mistake. Where I wrote: “In otherwords, Shakyamuni demonstrated expertise in liberating authenticity before his surviving devotees turned began substituting ritual devotion and blabbering for authenticity practice.”

        Please read instead:

        “In otherwords, Shakyamuni demonstrated expertise in liberating authenticity before his surviving devotees … began substituting ritual devotion and blabbering for the *Buddha’s* authenticity practice.”

  4. Another wonderful post.

    In our Sangha, we are stepping beyond and right through all such categories and mental boxes. I sometimes say that we fully step beyond divisions of “Priest or Lay, Male or Female”, yet fully embody and actuate each and all as the situation requires. In our lineage, we are not ashamed of nor try to hide our sexuality and worldly relationships, nor do we feel conflicted that we are “monks” with kids and mortgages. When I am a parent to my children, I am 100% that and fully there for them. When I am a worker at my job, I am that and embody such a role with sincerity and dedication. And when I am asked to step into the role of hosting Zazen, offering a Dharma Talk, practicing and embodying our history and teachings, and passing them on to others, I fully carry out and embody 100% the role of “Priest” in that moment. (Actually, I often say that “friend on the Path” or “Sangha Companion” is a better way to put things than “Priest”.) Whatever the moment requires: maintaining a sangha community, bestowing the Precepts, working with others to help sentient beings. Even the names we call ourselves do not matter. We do not ask and are unconcerned with whether we are “Priest” or “Lay”, for we are neither that alone, while always thoroughly both; exclusively each in purest and unadulterated form, yet wholly all at once. It is just as, in the West, we have come to step beyond the hard divisions and discriminations between “male” and “female”, recognizing that each of us may embody all manner of qualities to varying degrees as the circumstances present, and that traditional “male” and “female” stereotypes are not so clear-cut as once held. So it is with the divisions of “Priest” and “Lay”. We are each Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upāsaka and Upāsikā thoroughly and all at once! The original categories thrive! We haven’t eliminated the traditional divisions, but let them flower!

    Some of this may arise from Soto Zen view of “fully exerting”. When I am lay, I am fully that, nothing lacking. When we are priests, we are fully that, fully exerting. Likewise, if lay/priest we are fully that … nothing remaining. Thus I can honestly say that we are exclusively lay with not a drop of priest … fully priest with not a drop of lay … fully drops dropped away. … When at home, there is no other place to be … when leaving home, there is no other place to be … when home and away at once, there is no other place to be … all our True Home where there is neither father nor worker, male or female, priest or lay … yet each and all thoroughly fully exerting with nothing remaining.

    Anyway, it is no big deal. We each have many roles to play, there are many jobs to do.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Treeleaf Sangha

  5. The distinction between lay and priest in the West is only an issue because the vast majority of the ordained have never actually done long term intensive training in monasteries as they have in Japan. Oftentimes, the only discriminating factors between a layperson and a priest in the West is the amount of retreats attended and time spent in the sangha. In most cases the priest has just been there a little longer and knows his way around the sangha, has read the books and knows the rituals, but that’s about it. Whereas in Japan the monks spend two or three years in monasteries where they are basically hazed and tortured to become fully recognized priests and heads of temples. Now as a layperson (leaving all ideas of spiritual realization aside) who are you going to respect more? The priest who’s only accomplishment is having done a few more treats than you or the priest who trained full time in excruciatingly painful conditions? I’d say the latter.

    Essentially, there is a perception among Western lay people that many teachers and priests just haven’t done the work, by work I don’t mean Japanese monastic torture, I just mean something slightly more intense than being a weekend sangha bum for x amount of years. I don’t know how you fix that. People want authentic teachers, but few want to do the work required to become that, and there are few places in the West where becoming that is even possible; and hardly anyone wants to go East because we are all distrustful of Asian teachers and hierarchies in America because of people like Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki. All we are left with then is some overly diluted and democratized lay practice where no effort is demanded and nothing of value is produced.

    • I think there’s something to be said for mediocracy through ignorance. If you’re a priest and all you meet is other priests and not many of them are that great then your standards are set pretty low. From the priests I\ve met with over the years ITRW or online I think a fair few are open to upping there game once they understand their is a game to be upped.

      Many years ago now I went looking for Zen Priests who had any game at all. The results were frankly depresing. If I toured around Yoga studios it was easy to find adepts, around Sanghas not so much. I ended up taking this path where I supported in some way as many as I could who I thought had potential and were willing to engage. I see priests as being the flag carriers for Zen. They need to be the ones who are seen and can deliver.

      I’m much happier with how things are today. Sangha walls are breaking down and monks are working together much more naturally. When no-one has to fake it everyone can be more real. A lone priest in a mountain monastery can weave stories to protect his ignorance and uncertainty, but a lone priest with an internet connection can reach out to others and become real at least in private.

      I see it as different roles for different folks. I see someone like Brad as a monk who convinces laypeople that he’s a person too and it’s OK not to be a monk. I see myself as the othe side of the coin – I’m at best a lay-person who seems to be naturally monkish so I go around telling monks it’s OK to be monks.

      Ever since Jiryu started this blog I’ve been pestering him with “No Zen in the West – you’re a priest, it’s you’re responsbility so FIX IT”. He’s doing that. In opening this debate and studying history he’s doing things that only a priest has the time and the space to do.

      You only ever need a few players who can throw the ball from one end of the pitch to the other. Then everyone knows it’s possible. That changes everything. The internet means you only need a few who can do that for everyone to know their game can be improved.

      These days I think of myself as ‘retired’ and letting the priests run with the ball. But if I see one do something dumb I will call them on it. Nothing like seeing an old fat guy outplay you on the field to make you realize maybe things are not what they apper 🙂

    • Hi,

      I am going to disagree with this very much, observing for a few decades the priests coming out of monasteries here in Japan. There are some very excellent products of the monasteries, true jewels. But there are so many more who are numbed by the experience, mediocratized, even broken … not to mention all those who are there simply as a step to taking over dad’s temple. In fact, the monastery can be a place of safety, running from the world and its burdens. Of course, the monastery presents its own trials and difficulties, but it can also be place of escape.

      In contrast, practice in the world can be the true testing ground, the hot fire to hone an excellent teacher. Many teachers I know have been through hell and back at some time in life, and if they lived to tell about it, they came out stronger as teachers and human beings because of the experience. Zen Practice and the Buddha’s Wisdom and Compassion are not limited by place or time, and not shut within monastery walls. In fact, if this Way has any value, it is where life’s rubber meets the road and the shit hits the fan in life.

      It is primarily for historical reasons and politics (plus the realities of traditional societies and opportunities for gathering) whereby Zen Practice was centered on monasteries while lay folks were relegated to footing the bill in exchange for merit. Please don’t misunderstand: I believe that the monastic path is powerful, but it is not the only environment for producing the excellent Zen priest or lay teacher. In fact, the Buddha is often quoted in the old Suttas as follows:

      Household life is crowded, cramped, frustrating & dusty!
      The Life gone forth is out in the wide open… It is not easy, while living in a
      home, to live this Noble life utterly perfect and pure, as a polished shell.

      In other words, Practice amid household life is harder, but he does not say impossible. Further, the life cut off from all the duties and dust is the easier way. However, as with a diamond, the purest jewel comes from having formed under the greatest pressure.

      Gassho, Jundo Cohen

      Treeleaf Sangha

      • To each is own. But realize that most of the great teachers and masters came out of the monastic system, and they did not spend their entire lives in monasteries. Like college, one attends a monastery for a certain amount of time and then leaves to help society. That is the Japanese model. I’m not saying it produces people who are any wiser or more compassionate than the average lay person, but it does say a bit about that person’s level of commitment to walking the path. So if there is going to be a distinction between lay and priest then I believe it must take into account one’s level of commitment.

      • Hi Uno,

        Well, most of the great teachers and masters came out of the monasteries for primarily political reasons, to wit, that was about the only road open for Zen Training. Furthermore, there were great lay teachers in the past, and we do know of a few whose words and teachings have come down to us … but there were so many hurdles to lay practice in the past (economic resources affording the time, opportunity) that they had to be few and far between. What is more, for every gifted master of the past, the monasteries produced countless priests who were less so.

        As to commitment to a monastery in the past: The monasteries also presented a lifestyle in the past that was not so uncomfortable … and actually pretty nice … compared to general standards in the traditional agricultural and feudal societies of 500 or 2500 years ago. I do not think their life was as hard as one might imagine by the standards of the day. It is not so hard to give up one’s car, computer, tv, cell phone and Ipod when … they don’t exist, as they did not in the 13th century! Even the wealthiest people of the day probably lived lives of surprising simplicity given that there was not much choice. (Even all the money and power of the day could not get someone indoor plumbing, lights or heating back then!). The monastery was certainly a better situation … with regular meals, a roof over one’s head, companionship, even the best of medical care of the day … compared to how the peasants and average folks lived in centuries past. In fact, right outside the door of the monastery was often a world of violence, plague, limited options for education or “social mobility”, and a day-to-day struggle just to feed one’s family and survive! Compared to that, Sangha life was not unattractive … and most governments in China, Korea and Japan had to enact strict limits on the number of people allowed to enter the monasteries! Through a variety of means, many monks coming to the monasteries were even able to retain or own property ‘indirectly’ while remaining in “technical compliance” with their vows of poverty, and most of the large monasteries from Kyoto to Tibet had huge land holdings … and serfs and slaves (not considered morally wrong centuries ago) working them … the income from which, while not privately owned by individual monks, was shared by all living in the monastery.

        In other words, it may have been less of a “sacrifice” to be in a monastery than one might imagine.

        In contrast, attempting to walk the road of Training as a Zen Teacher while simultaneously balancing and harmonizing with the duties of being a good worker, a good parent to children, takes real commitment and sacrifice too.

        Gassho, Jundo Cohen

      • “In order to continue the life vein of Buddha ancestors, we should not go towards profit in the common world, such as offerings from humans and devas, or the patronage of kings and ministers. Don’t violate the spirit of dharma by seeking worldly profit. Aspire to be a teacher of home-leavers rather than a teacher of kings and ministers. Home-leavers come first and laypeople come next. The emphasis should be heavier on home-leavers and lighter on laypeople.” -Dogen, (Enlightenment Unfolds pg. 236)

        Is Dogen just professing the politics of his time with such a statement? If yes, then who is to say that we are not engaging in our own modern politics by downgrading monastic practice in favor of lay practice?

      • Uno:
        Dogen was reaching an audience. He looks out at a room full of monks and says “Dudes, you made the best choice in coming here”. He’s hardly going to say “Dudes, go home farm some rice, party on”.

        It’s all politics. Monasticism isn’t the only option. I’ve met a few monks now for whom living in a monastery is active, conscious avoidance of everyday life, others for whom it’s a calling and others a lifestyle choice. I’m glad we are losing the attitude that existed years ago of “Only monks can be true serious Buddhists”. That’s because Monks and Lay and others have been comparing notes and working together. Beyond form and formless whilst embracing form and formless. Cushion time and sangha matter but the shape of each much less so.

  6. You’re right, Jiryu Mark. It’s a pretty great situation. We don’t need to “nail” the issue. As with so many things in this great nation, we have too many options. We will pay our money, make our choices, & vote with our feet. It matters not how we define “priest” & layperson.” We are all bozos on this bus.

  7. Hi Uno,

    Dogen was Dogen, and man of his own time and views. He was a monastic who favored monastics (although, sometimes depending on his mood, spoke of dropping barriers between priest and lay). Anyway, we need not be a prisoner of Dogen.

    One can live in the world yet be free of “profit”, and one can be a hermit in the hills or a monk in a monastery and be fixed on “gain”. One may leave home, be at home and embody True Home at once (yes, that little trick of being two not two places at once ain’t so hard for Zen folks). One may “Dogenize” that statement that “home-leavers come first and laypeople come next” as “lay leavers first home” and, anyway, what is this “first” and “next”?

    I am reminded of Vimalakirti, the great Lay Bodhisattva (Dogen was sometimes a fan of Vimalakirti, sometimes not, depending on his mood) …

    He had a son, a wife, and female attendants, yet always maintained continence. He appeared to be surrounded by servants, yet lived in solitude. He appeared to be adorned with ornaments, yet always was endowed with the auspicious signs and marks. … He engaged in all sorts of businesses, yet had no interest in profit or possessions. … He was honored as the businessman among businessmen because he demonstrated the priority of the Dharma. He was honored as the landlord among landlords because he renounced the aggressiveness of ownership.,Watson,1997.html

    Gassho, Jundo

  8. Thank you again for your post, Jiryu. The dharma is indeed everywhere…however renunciation takes many forms. It’s true that one must renounce the worldly temptation to sleep in or drink coffee rather than make time for a formal meditation practice. It’s also true that just because someone graduates from Yale, is free of student loans, and has the financial flexibility to ordain as a priest, that this represents some type of higher level of renunciation. I would argue that living a lay life and choosing to not ordain as a priest could also be viewed as a form of renunciation. (Read for example the home page of the Lay Zen Teacher’s Association

    I think there is room for both priest leadership and lay leadership; one is not a threat to the other. They are two wings of one bird. And that bird has my wings. Incidentally, for all you readers out there, there are Zen lineages that DO in fact have robust lay leadership, including the ability to train disciples and give complete dharma transmission. They do not happen to be in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, however. I suspect there will be some cross pollination of the traditions happening over time, perhaps with dharma empowerment coming from a different lineage.

    This of course raises the issue of Jukai. In my mind, the question of giving and receiving the precepts is a separate issue and one that should be carefully considered by everyone. Having received the precepts formally both in Zen and by Theravadan Nuns, I must say that there is a special interrelationship that occurs in this ceremony between the people we call “monks and nuns” and the folks we call “lay people.”

    That said, there have been hundreds of lay dharma heirs throughout the centuries, so this is not “new” nor is it “American.” One senior lay dharma teacher has even put together a 20-page list of lay dharma heirs. You won’t find it yet on the Internet, but it may someday become a book. So stay tuned to this incredible blog.

    • Whoops. Typo. Just because someone graduates from Yale, is free of student loans, and has the financial flexibility to ordain as a priest does NOT represent some type of higher level of renunciation. Renunciation yes. But not necessarily a higher level. You get the idea…

      • Renunciation can be another thing to cling to, to define yourself by, to feel different to everyone else. Like a vegetarian who goes to a Steak House and then complains about how Grits and Fries and Beans are the only thing on offer for Vegetarians.

        I like reading the text around ‘Donate’ buttons on Monk blogs. How do they offer the bowl? Some understand, some do not.

        For me renunciation is a problem. It means I’m doing something that isn’t natural, adding complication. For others it’s a gift, an important choice to help create better choices.

  9. Agreed. Renunciation isn’t the problem. Clinging to it is. Renunciation happens, and yet when practiced with wisdom and compassion it can lead to more wholesome choices. A deep bow to all for this fruitful discussion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s