Lay Discipleship

After someone has practiced Zen with our sangha and teacher for a number of years, they may find themselves feeling committed to our lineage. At this point they may consider becoming a Lay Disciple.


Lay Disciple Ellen Shoketsu Carlin and teacher, Domyo Burk, at Shoketsu’s LD ceremony March 30th, 2014

In our lineage, someone who wants to become a Lay Disciple will have taken Jukai and established a long-term, personal, working relationship with a teacher. They will have developed a deep conviction that Soto Zen is an effective and transformative practice that they want to do for the rest of their lives, and is a rich tradition worth preserving. They will have personally experienced the value of working with a teacher, which is an essential part of our tradition, and feel trust for, and connection to, the teacher with whom they want to become a Lay Disciple. They also will feel deep gratitude and responsibility for their particular sangha, or community of practitioners.

When someone undergoes the Lay Disciple ceremony, they formalize the teacher-student relationship, their connection to the lineage, and their commitment to serve and support the sangha. It is understood that the commitments of a lay person will determine the form of this service and support, which may include volunteer time, regular participation in events, study, and taking on ceremonial or administrative roles (such as serving as a board member). It is also possible that a Lay Disciple will primarily support the sangha financially, because most of their time and energy is devoted to practice “in the world” with family, career, or other kinds of service. If a Lay Disciple’s life circumstances change and they have to move away from their teacher’s sangha, it is possible for them to continue their service and support with another sangha; their commitment can be broadened to include Zen in a wider sense.

Lay Discipleship is not a required step for members of the sangha by any means. In fact, you should only consider this step if it feels inspiring and right for you. You can participate fully in our practice without taking any vows, including working closely with a teacher. Taking Jukai may be all the formality you need in order to provide a stable foundation for life-long Zen practice.

In the ceremony of Lay Discipleship, a candidate takes six vows in addition to taking the precepts again:

  • I vow to walk the path of the Buddha; living an ethical life and becoming enlightened.
  • I vow to study the Dharma; working to see the true nature of all things and all beings I encounter.
  • I vow to support the Sangha; helping myself and all beings attain peace and liberation.
  • I vow to live a life of generosity; benefitting the world in whatever ways I can.
  • I vow to live a life of stability; honoring commitments with patience and tolerance, remaining steadfast in practice and relationships.
  • I vow to respect and honor the teacher-student relationship through regular and honest engagement, and should I ever wish to end this relationship I will consider that decision carefully,  and make that request formally, and in person.

In the ceremony, the disciple receives a rakusu and Dharma name. The rakusu makes a Lay Disciple visible in the sangha – not to indicate rank in any way, but to indicate a willingness to serve and to continually deepen his or her practice. Inevitably, a disciple becomes a representative of the lineage both in the sangha and in the wider world, so she or he has an added responsibility to act ethically and compassionately. This may sound like a tall order, but it is consistent with all Buddhist vows, including the precepts and the bodhisattva vows – we take the vows in order to give our lives context and structure. We don’t claim to fulfill our vows perfectly; in fact, that’s impossible. We do claim the vows as our aspiration, and adopt the necessary humility to acknowledge our shortcomings while continuing to stand upright with dignity.

Click here to read our page “About Zen Teachers”
Click here to read an article by a student at Dharma Rain Zen Center about Lay Discipleship and spiritual authority.