how do you become a Zen priest?

September 17th, 2014

scan0034This question has been posed to me a lot lately, in radio interviews and podcasts you can listen to all day long on this page of my website, and in personal conversations. It seems to me that when I answer it, the listener is at least mildly disappointed.

They might expect me to say that I spent five years in theological study. That I’d heard a voice or seen a vision. That as a small child playing with a stick in the dirt outside my family’s mud hut, three strangers approached and told me I was a reincarnated monk. Or that I’d always known deep in my heart that I had been placed on Earth to save the souls of sinners.

The question is laden with expectation, but the answer is not. Because that’s not how you become a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen is entirely one’s own doing, motivated by one’s own aspiration, deepened by one’s own practice of zazen. Ordaining as a priest is simply an expression of personal commitment. In my lineage at least, there are no prerequisites to accomplish and no prescribed pastoral, professional, or organizational tasks to perform. No tests or credentials. I don’t write sermons every week, and I have no congregation. My calendar isn’t booked with couples counseling, parochial education, baptisms, weddings or funerals.

“That sounds kind of laid back,” said the interviewer in one conversation.

“So it isn’t a job,” said another.

“There must be a story behind that,” many have said, and there is. Just not the story you think.

This is the story of how I became a Zen priest. One day I sat down in a place I’d never been before and recognized the scent of something I’d never smelled before: sandalwood incense, burning on an altar. How do you recognize what you’ve never smelled before? Heck if I know. I liked the place, and I stuck around.

Everything came after that: subtle shifts and colossal changes. Denial and avoidance. False certainty. Sudden leaps and setbacks. Vanity, fear, doubt, surrender, and finally, love and devotion. One day I knew what I would do. I would take the vows that would commit myself to the selfless service of others forever.

Is it laid back? It is a matter of life and death.

Is it a job? Never-ending.

Is there a congregation? Everyone and everything I meet.

Is there a story behind it? Not anymore.

Read more about Tokudo, priest ordination, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.

Watch this short video, “Vows” about monastic discipline in Chinese Buddhism.

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  1. I cry upon seeing that picture. There you are, in somehow ‘my’ mirror (since I also look in it every morning when I’m in my home away from home).
    I keep wondering what my story will become. The forever one.


    Comment by Roos — September 18, 2014 @ 4:24 am

  2. After Suzuki Roshi died, the few American Roshis ordained by him, increasingly got overwhelmed with all the students and they gave ordination like candy to many who were not really prepared. Here in the Bay Area, the soto zen community came together to write guidelines about required study. practice, and ethics that should be adhered to for ordination. In addition to that is the honored practice of personal transmission from master to student. With nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva lives Prajna Paramita. Gassho.

    Comment by Fern Gekko LaRocca — September 20, 2014 @ 9:07 am

  3. I won’t tell you what I know or think about that, but I will say that the integrity of the teacher-student relationship is paramount and living lineage is all but extinct.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 20, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

  4. Your words touched a place inside me. I don’t know where it will lead. It just feels necessary.
    Thank you for your words.


    Comment by Jude Smith — September 26, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

  5. thank you! did you become a monk when you were already a mother?

    Comment by claire — October 20, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  6. Claire, I became a priest when my daughter was 3.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 20, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

  7. Wow! You sure are a speedy replier. i apologize – i meant to say priest, not monk. you probably already intimately know why i asked: i find it challenging to find enough snippets of uninterrupted time in a day to feel that i have a real regular practice. i give my time to my daughter. it is inspiring to hear that you made that commitment in your spiritual journey simultaneously while meeting your daily commitments as a mother. thank you.

    Comment by claire — October 20, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

  8. After I received the Precepts, my practice deepened to a point where I became sensitive to the needs of those around me in regards to their suffering. Now, I feel a pull toward ordination and desire to share my happiness with others. Your story resonates with me. Enjoy your walk. We’ll see if my teacher recognizes potential in my journey to take this step.

    Comment by Joe — November 28, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

  9. i practice at a zen temple, but i’m also a seminarian seeking ordination as an ELCA pastor. there are a lot of hoops to jump through for ordination in the denomination, and while ultimately i think this is more positive than negative from an institutional standpoint, it is stressful. reading this helped me to see that the external hoops should ultimately be seen as representative of the internal hoops we have to pass through in order to be prepared for spiritual leadership. even without the external hoops, i would still be subject to the discernment of my conscience on the cushion at the end of each day. “the practice is its own rod,” and it brings its own hoops.

    Comment by molly — July 4, 2016 @ 7:58 pm

  10. Thank you for sharing. <3

    Comment by Jamie — August 3, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

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