Belonging
avatar

I spent last week at a conference for Soto Zen priests. There were 90 of us at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) gathering. We were defined as much, or more, by our differences as by what we held in common. In the 45 years or so that Soto Zen has been developing amongst western converts in America, priests and lineages have stayed quite true to the American ideal of individualism, freedom and innovation. Within lineages there has been some degree of conformity, but between lineages there are often vast differences, especially regarding priest training. For example, in one lineage it is expected that an ordained person will spend at least 7 years in a monastery before becoming an independent priest. In another lineage ordained people typically stay in the monastery for their entire lives. In yet another lineage, lay practitioners with jobs and families are ordained and become independent priests without ever living in a monastery or residential practice community. We are like a herd of cats.

This is why it is so remarkable that this group of priests is striving so hard to stay together – to find out what we hold in common, or what we want to hold in common. At first glance the only thing we could find was this: we all feel passionately about being priests. We all feel that we deserve to be priests, that being priests is one of the most important things in our lives, and that priests are vital to the flourishing of Soto Zen.

This is not much to start with, in one way. All of this passion could just be ego-delusion. We might just be clinging to a role or a label without much to substantiate our claim.

Nonetheless we keep up the dialogue with one another, constantly seeking for things we agree on and trying to minimize the divisiveness caused by the many things we passionately disagree about. Why? Why don’t we all just go our separate ways? It’s a free country. Nothing is stopping any of us from calling ourselves Soto Zen priests and functioning as religious leaders for anyone who cares to come practice with us.

The longer I am involved with the SZBA the more deeply I understand why we stay together. It is a difficult thing to describe, but this starts to get at the heart of the matter: together we can create something greater than any of us could create by ourselves. Or together we can create something greater than any of the lineages could create by themselves.

Exactly what this “greater thing” we are creating will be we don’t even know at this point. Nonetheless we can sense its character when we taste the satisfaction of completing a communal project – one that required us to speak up for our positions but also listen to others and find a creative way to function together. We can sense the character of this “greater thing” when we grudgingly learn to respect and even like colleagues that hold views very different from our own. We especially sense the character of what we are creating together when we feel the growing power and stability present in a group of peers that has tested, questioned and come to understand and trust one another.

Frankly there have been times when I wish I could simply set the agenda and the standards and force everyone else to comply. At other times I wanted to give up and take my toys home, feeling like whatever is being created together is so far from my ideals that it is irrelevant to me. I am grateful that I have not done any of these things. Even though at times I find myself thinking of a phrase I learned from a friend of mine, “It takes all kinds. Unfortunately.”

I imagine this is something like what the founding father felt when they created the United States of America against all odds. It’s really pretty amazing.


Comments

Belonging — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for approaching this topic…the diversity of training is fascinating and inspiring. In one tradition, 2 years until Jukai- in another american Soto lineage, you can be a fully transmitted teacher in just 5 years. 
    I too think it's helpful to enter into the dialogue, explore the spectrum, and cohabitat our religious looking lives. The comparison of the householder to the life long monk puts me right in my place, right where I am. Reminds me of what my teacher said one time when I was getting a little cocky, "Be a guest as long as you can. The truth is that's what you'll be for the next 10 years at Zen Center."
    However, I wonder if you could say anything about the benefits of the slower and faster model of priest training. I can see both, but I'd love to hear your view first. 
    Palms together, 
     Kogen

    • Thanks, Kogen.

      I wonder if there is room for slower & faster/monastic & in-the-world/narrow & broad models of priest training… but with understanding and differentiation among the different paths regarding the goal of the training. What is the priest intended to do?

      We need dedicated folks in every city and small town in America, leading sitting groups and sharing the practice with people. When a teacher sees a dedicated person who has trained primarily in lay life who is willing to and capable of doing this, it seems skillful to empower these folks to serve their Sanghas, doesn't it? Especially if you can up the ante and ask them to do additional training and abide by ethical guidelines while they do it, in exhange for that empowerment?

      And yet this kind of training is not the same as the slower/narrower/monastic/residential/years-of-apprenticeship training. This kind of training preserves our traditions of rigor and depth, and provides people opportunities to join in such practice. It also results in priests who embody the tradition in a deep and profound way. They may not be any more realized than pracitioners who have trained "out in the world", but if you dropped them on a desert island they could re-create much of the tradition in its holistic form – including how to set up and maintain a place of practice, how to encourage Sangha, how to do ceremonies, how to bow and walk and offer incense, how to answer dharma questions not just from one's personal experience but also in a way that is harmonious with one's tradition. I could go on… and intend to do so in a separate essay. ;)

      Might it be possible for us to honor different ways and value them, without insisting they are the same, and without insisting that everyone, no matter what their training, should hold the same amount of power and be able to function in exactly the same ways? Can we give professionalism and specialization their due?

  2.  
    Exactly what this “greater thing” we are creating will be we don’t even know at this point. Nonetheless we can sense its character when we taste the satisfaction of completing a communal project – one that required us to speak up for our positions but also listen to others and find a creative way to function together. We can sense the character of this “greater thing” when we grudgingly learn to respect and even like colleagues that hold views very different from our own. We especially sense the character of what we are creating together when we feel the growing power and stability present in a group of peers that has tested, questioned and come to understand and trust one another.
    Frankly there have been times when I wish I could simply set the agenda and the standards and force everyone else to comply.
    Hi Domyo,
    A wonderful statement. Now, if only the SZBA and its Board could take to heart what you write above … finding a way for folks to function together, respecting views different from one's own, trusting each other. There are many paths along this Soto Non-Mountain, and we need to support and nourish each other. Instead, we frequently find dominant groups and Lineage with a certain shared take on key issues … the nature of Priesthood, Training and even Jukai and Ordination Ceremonies and how they must be conducted … attempting to impose their views of Orthodoxy on those Lineage who might disagree and choose to have other good ways. There is room in this boundless universe for all of us, and all the good flavors of Soto Zen Buddhism. 
    Thus, you comment is lovely. If only it were fully, truly so.
    Gassho, Jundo
     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>