The Zen Priest’s Koan

Sojun Mel Weitsman once asked Suzuki Roshi, “What does it mean to be ordained as a Zen priest?” The answer—“I don’t know”—has been his koan ever since.

By Mel Weitsman

Photo by Phil Robinson.

The occasion of a priest ordination always brings up questions about what it means to be ordained. We can look at this by examining what ordination has meant in Zen tradition, and also by considering our practice in the present day.

When I was about to be ordained in 1969, I asked Suzuki Roshi what it meant to be ordained as a priest and what I should do. He said, “I don’t know.”

Then I asked Katagiri Sensei, and he said, “Oh, I don’t know.”

I hadn’t asked to be ordained. Suzuki Roshi asked me to, and I was quite surprised when he did. I thought that since he asked me, he would at least tell me what to do. But he didn’t tell me much. At that time there were few American priests at the San Francisco Zen Center; I was only the fifth person to be ordained. The first one had left the center, two were in Japan, and the fourth was out of sight. So I didn’t have any role models, except for our Japanese priests: Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Sensei, Chino Sensei, and Yoshimura Sensei.

I tried to observe everything Suzuki Roshi did; I would follow him around and imitate him. Suzuki Roshi told me later that there is a practice of following the teacher’s footsteps: moving as the teacher moves and absorbing the teacher’s way, to the point where sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the teacher and the student. Without explicitly saying so, he was drawing me into that as an aspect of my training.

Chino Sensei and Katagiri Sensei (as they were known then) taught me how to wear my robes, as well as other things I needed to know. I also learned that it is necessary to ask questions. So little by little, through observation and by asking questions and following closely, I learned something about how to become a priest. Still, I wasn’t told much, and when I did anything wrong, I was scolded. Many times I failed to pick up on things as I should have. There was a good deal of mystery in my relationships with my teachers—this was their style.

In the Sixties, our morning service consisted of bowing nine times and chanting the Heart Sutra three times in Japanese. At the end of morning zazen, we recited the robe chant, also in Japanese. One time, Suzuki Roshi and I were in the anteroom at Sokoji and I asked, “What is the meaning of the [robe] chant that we do in the morning right after zazen?” Suzuki Roshi hesitated and Katagiri Sensei started looking through the drawers to see if he could come up with a translation. Suzuki Roshi stopped him and pointed to his heart and said, “Love.” This is how he used to teach. He didn’t like to explain things literally, but he didn’t miss an opportunity to go right to the essence.

I began to realize how important not knowing was, even though I felt that I needed some answers. So I practiced with “don’t know” in front of me as my priest’s koan, and it’s still there. From time to time, people want to define a Zen priest, or the role of the priest, or the functions of a priest. There are historical functions and role model functions; we should know what they are, and practice and absorb them. But at the same time, we must be open to what the present situation calls for and be ready to respond to new situations, differences in culture, and the circumstances of a particular place and time. Suzuki Roshi was concerned that in the transition from Japan to America, the true essence not be lost. At the same time, he made a big effort to follow as well as to lead us.

Soon after we had established the Berkeley Zendo, I asked him what I should do to help develop the practice. He said, “You can do what you want.” He was giving me permission without telling me what to do, and at the same time observing. When it looked like I was becoming arrogant or assuming too much of a teaching role, he would let me know with a remark, or sometimes just a look or a glance. I told him once that I felt his stick was always on my shoulder. He gave me a lot of trust and freedom, and at the same time I felt I was never out of his sight. I think he wanted to see what it would look like to have an American priest develop an American zendo. I think it was something of an experiment for him.

During Suzuki Roshi’s time, when things were just beginning, we didn’t study much. Suzuki Roshi went through the one hundred cases in the Blue Cliff Record, and commented on the Lotus Sutra and the Sandokai, and talked about Dogen a lot. That’s what I remember most. He told me he wanted to comment on the Platform Sutra, but he didn’t have time. So when we were with Suzuki Roshi our attention was focused on his teaching and understanding of dharma. After his passing in 1971, we began studying and teaching classes, developing a study center, and learning something about Buddhism and Zen. After many years of study, we could finally see how accurate Suzuki Roshi’s understanding of Buddhism was.

When the founder is gone, it is natural for the students to study more and to broaden our knowledge, as well as to define our practice and create categories and standards. Although our priests learn the liturgy and the service positions, train in the various monastic positions, and study the appropriate literature, we have never established a formal curriculum for training, even though there have been attempts to do so. But I think we are in a position where such a curriculum would be helpful, and would not sacrifice the fundamental intuitive quality that is the basis of our practice.

Now thirty-four years after the founder’s death, how do we think about priest practice, lay practice, and monk’s practice, aside from not knowing what a priest is. Priest ordination is not as common as it was twenty-five-odd years ago, when it was considered to be the prime aspiration for a student at the San Francisco Zen Center. Since that time we have not been ordaining as many, but allowing some space to harmonize lay and priest practice. I think it is important to remember that although Suzuki Roshi ordained a number of priests, he was equally committed to his lay practitioners.

My rule of thumb for ordaining a Zen priest is that the candidate must already be practicing with the same attitude as a priest. Then, after at least five years, ordination can become a natural step, an acknowledgment and an encouragement to continue.

I think of a priest as someone who doesn’t have any other ambition and whose whole life is devoted to practice for the sake of practice. One’s practice is wholehearted and selfless, accompanied by a strong desire to understand the dharma. One is ready and willing to help and support others, and that willingness comes before one’s own attainment. One’s practice is steady and continuous, not contentious, competitive, materialistic, or easily discouraged. Most importantly, one is not doing it for one’s own self-aggrandizement, or for gain or position. A priest should remain upright and honest and set an example for others.

Sometimes a student will ask if they can be ordained as a priest and I may say, “Yes” or “No” or “Perhaps sometime.” If I say to someone that it might be a good idea sometime in the future, responding in that way allows them to consider what it might feel like as a possibility, and then to sit with that for a while. We may have the desire, but to ask the question and get a response puts it in a new light.

There are many excellent students who practice in a steady and mature way, and yet it wouldn’t be right for them to take on the burden of priesthood. This is why lay ordination is so important. As a layperson, one practices in the world and utilizes the forms of the world as forms of practice, which is a very advanced way. This can also be an important part of a priest’s experience. A priest puts on the full robes, shaves his or her head, and is a more visible example, inviting feedback. A layperson is less visible and must practice in a sometimes hostile or unsympathetic atmosphere, without getting lost or discouraged. Suzuki Roshi once said that one must be a good lay student in order to be a good priest.

Lay ordination and priest ordination are two tracks, and in the middle is the monk. The terms apply to both men and women. According to my understanding, a monk is a person who is practicing in a monastic situation and can be either lay or priest. The term monk indicates the kind of practice one is doing rather than the type of ordination one has. When we attend practice period at Tassajara, we are all monks participating in the same way.

Eventually, some of the monks should and will become priests, and some lay students will spend an appropriate amount of time in residence at Zen Center and then return to a more worldly life. Hopefully, they will continue practice as laypeople involved with Zen Center, while living in the larger society. This style of lay practice is very important and vital, and lay ordination is an acknowledgment of that connection. To be ordained into the sangha as a layperson or a priest are both equally valid. We take the same sixteen precepts. But a layperson lives and sets an example within society, while the priest takes care of the sangha, makes the practice available, and is responsible for carrying the tradition forward, both in its historical and emerging aspects.

Many laypeople who have practiced a good number of years have actually taken on the same responsibilities as a priest. They are practice leaders, they teach classes, and hold key positions. For some time, we have been thinking about how to acknowledge and give formal recognition to this kind of practitioner. We will continue to work on this. As far as I know, this type of formal recognition will be something new for our school. We have the unusual circumstance of having longtime resident students who are not priests, but who cannot properly be called laypersons either. I have begun giving a certificate of lay recognition to some longtime practitioners—I call it lay entrustment. It authorizes that person to teach, but not to ordain others, as I feel that to be the task of a transmitted priest.

In Japan, college-age boys from temple families go to the monastery for a few years of rigorous training before returning to the family temple. They have a different kind of training than we do. They are all ordained as novices, so the atmosphere is quite different. They also come from a cohesive Buddhist culture and have not yet journeyed into their adult life. Here at Zen Center, we have many kinds of people from diverse backgrounds, ages, and levels of experience, which makes our system far more complex. In Japan, the student is ordained as a novice and then begins the practice. Here, we practice for many years before becoming ordained.

In the history of Buddhism, the celibate monk has always been treated in a special way. Having given up all worldly desires and ambitions in order to practice with complete devotion, the monk is supported by the laity. In return, the monk practices virtuously and acts as a teacher and guide for society. As we say in our meal chant upon receiving the food offering, “May our virtue and practice deserve it.” Although our priests are not expected to be celibate, they are expected to be faithful in relationship and not promiscuous.

One problem that arises is that because a person is a priest, one might think he or she must be very special. Then, many people may want to be a little bit special. But my feeling is that a priest is a servant of the sangha. In other words, rather than being put on a pedestal, I believe that priests should direct their energy toward serving the sangha. When priests selflessly serve and provide leadership with sincere effort and humility, they are spontaneously honored by the sangha. Respect has to be earned. The function of a priest is to set that kind of example for the sangha and provide the glue that holds it together. It is a rather humble position and at the same time a noble one. The respect must be earned—it is not automatic—and one of the worst things a priest can do is use the position to lord it over people, or as a means to acquire a powerful advantage.

It can also be a problem if a sangha of priests is seen as an elite or privileged group. There are some schools that only recognize the ordained monks as sangha. But for us, the sangha includes all practitioners, and in a wider sense, it includes all beings—not only humans, but trees, rivers, mountains, and the animal kingdom.

Originally, the sangha was made up of monks who were supported solely by the laity. But in our sanghas there is no laity to support priests or monks in the traditional way. We have had to develop innovative ways, such as providing programs for the public and services like the summer guest season at Tassajara. Sometimes priests must go out to work. I think it’s a good idea at some point for a priest to do this, to test their practice and then come back again and be visible as a priest.

The overlap of priest and lay can sometimes lead to confusion. But I’m not worried about the confusion. The priest has a path within the practice, and the layperson also has a path within the practice. Rather than interfering with each other, they can and should be mutually supportive. We are all in the same dharma boat, but each one is at a different stage of development and understanding. We can all practice together harmoniously if we know where we are moment by moment and treat each other with love and respect, being aware of both our abilities and shortcomings.

In the Asian countries, there is more of a distinction between priest and lay. For instance, in Japan, if you are a carpenter, that is what you do; if you are a potter, that is your identity; if you are a priest, you function as a priest. The crossing over of practices is not so common. The practice that we have here is very unusual in that laypeople practice in a way that might look like a monk’s practice somewhere else. We have a peculiar situation that’s not easily defined; we can’t make the ordinary distinctions. Regardless of the problems, I think that given time, the resolution will come by itself. We must be able to sit with our headache, if that’s what it is. But if we are attentive, without ignoring the situation or forcing it into resolution, we will be able to find some clarity.

When people are ordained, they are not automatically teachers, and someone may already be teaching before being ordained. At a certain stage, a priest or layperson can counsel students. After being a shuso (head student for an ango or practice period), a student may be asked to begin counseling other students, depending on their maturity. There is a certain amount of psychology that goes with counseling, but students with critical psychological problems are referred to therapists. The counseling that is done in dokusan and practice discussions is directed toward helping the students in their understanding of dharma and encouraging them to sustain their practice.

A good counselor should be able to meet every situation and help those with whom they meet to see themselves clearly. Sometimes a layperson can do this very well and a priest may not be able to. Sometimes a priest is completely immersed in practice but is not necessarily a teacher. That person may simply be a monk—a sincere student whose life of practice is itself a wonderful teaching. There are those who teach without teaching, but through their activity they are always transmitting the dharma and inspiring the sangha, whether knowingly or not. There are those who always have a very hard time, but their effort feels genuine and they inspire us because of their sincerity and dedication. This practice reveals many facets.

Now, after many years of taking the backward step, we are testing the waters of socially-engaged Buddhism. I have always left social engagement to each individual to do what seems appropriate, but I think we can do much more in this area. Still, we sometimes forget that opening our doors so that people have the rare opportunity to practice is perhaps our most valuable social service. In the future, though, we can be developing more ways to use our energy for social engagement on various levels.

In most religions, priests have been thought to be mediators between god and the people, or god’s representatives on earth. What about the Buddhist priest? Most koans are about the nondual nature of heaven and earth, the absolute and the relative. A Zen student should realize that there is no gap, that a mediator is not necessary, and embodying this fundamental point helps others to realize it. You could say that the function of the priest or lay student is to express determination for realization and practice, regardless of the obstacles, and to be the seamless place where heaven and earth meet, becoming a lamp for oneself, and others, on the path.

Mel Weitsman

Mel Weitsman

Sojun Mel Weitsman is abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center and former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.