Shukke Tokudo (leaving home ordination)
also called Unsui Tokudo (clouds and water ordination)
& Denkai, Precepts Transmission
For most of its history the Buddhist tradition has been divided between renunciate practitioners and their nonpracticing lay supporters. The renunciates, monastics adhering to the hundreds of strictures in the Vinaya code, constituted the ordained sangha. This division of practice and support was symbolized by the concept of a four-fold sangha. Laymen, laywomen, monks, and nuns. For many centuries it was the Vinaya-ordained sangha of monks and to a lesser-degree nuns who guarded and transmitted the way.
When Zen emerged in China it also developed the unique feature of Dharma transmission. This answered the Chinese question, of "where do you come from? Or, who are your parents?" It also became an acknowledgement of deep insight and with that an implicit responsibility to guide others. While theoretically and occasionally in practice, open to all lay or ordained, in general practice Dharma transmission was reserved for monks and occasionally nuns. Naturally enough "professionals" would usually be responsible for the preservation and continuation of the tradition.
Then, starting in the Ninth century in Japan, a new model of ordination “neither monastic nor lay" began to evolve. It would eventually become the only form of ordained practice in that country.
It is possible to see in this new model a rough analog to the difference between the non-celibate pastoral ministry of the Anglican tradition as opposed to the (usually) celibate ministry of Roman Catholicism. An imperfect analogy, but if held lightly, useful. Ironically, and similar to the relationship between Catholics and Anglicans, in general continental Buddhists who maintain the traditional Vinaya model do not generally accept the validity of the Japanese non-celibate ordination.
Another unique characteristic of Japanese ordination was how in the Soto school full ordination and Dharma transmission were collapsed into a single ceremony. This was not true in the Rinzai school, but for Soto this was an unfortunate development. It reinforced an already normative assumption that lay people's principal purpose was to support the professionals.
Then as Zen moved West this would become particularly complicated, since the backbone of Western Zen was an emergent lay practice. This is a new development in the transmission of the Zen dharma, where the normative practitioner is otherwise a lay person. This powerful path challenges much of what was thought was true and necessary about a living Zen. And the many facts that follow inform how we in Empty Moon engage ordination.
Fortunately within Soto's transmission ceremonies Denbo, Dharma transmission is easily untangled from Denkai, Precepts transmission or full ordination. Understanding these differences is critical to allowing both ordained and lay life their fullest possible expression as our practice in the West emerges into its own.
And so it is important as we move into a description of our ordination model to note how we within our Empty Moon community specifically and jealously uphold the integrity of lay practice. Within our community if the play of causes and conditions reveal that a lay person is manifesting as a spiritual director the lay state is no barrier to that being recognized. And so with us it is completely possible for a lay person to receive full Dharma transmission. Not some vague "lay transmission" nor "Dharma entrustment," nor any other euphemism to dilute the fact that whatever it is, it isn't actually Dharma transmission.
And at the same time we fully uphold ordination as a valid path within our Western Zen community. While there are historic reasons for using monastic language for what some scholars call "Bodhisattva ordination" as opposed to "Vinaya ordination," we find the least confusing term for someone ordained within our Japanese inheritance, a priest.
One way of understanding all this is how a three-fold sangha of lay practitioners, priests, and monastics is emerging. This three-fold community, where in addition to a new ordination model being introduced, the sharp divide between genders is dropped together with the usually not stated but always enforced dominant place of men. We're also aware of the lack of hard lines in gender identity, and feel this broader statement both honors the original intent of the Four-fold designation, and the realities of our current understanding & practice.
Within the Empty Moon we are currently able to support lay and priestly practice. It is our stated intention to not privilege either state, but to fully embrace that both have a place as Zen roots here in the West and North America. We hope the day will come where we can also fold into our sangha monastic community. We are comforted to note there are a number of communities already with this focus. And we celebrate that fact.
With that the Bodhisattva ordination project, the non-celibate ordained path that first emerged in Japan and continues to evolve. While dating from the Ninth century, the contours of this particular discipline took its current form about a hundred and fifty years ago. At that time the centuries long established if illicit practice of priests having partners and children was finally legally acknowledged. In Japan they are still working out what this means in practice.
Coming West this priestly ordination has begun taking on additional characteristics. We currently can identify three unique aspects to the priestly ordained way as it is taking shape here. Two are inherited directly from Japan. The third is implicit in Japanese Zen, but becoming more clear and explicit in the West.
For as long as it has existed within Buddhism ordination is a commitment to a vowed life. With the exception. of Japanese and a Korean lineage ordination has always been celibate. We stand in that Japanese inheritance. Here we ordain into a community of practice. We take the same vows as lay practitioners, but there are additional nuances to our commitment.
Specifically, we find an explicit and ongoing expectation of supporting each other as companions on a spiritual path. One way of looking at this is by considering the Christian concept of third orders as opposed to “regular” orders, which with the Christian churches also drop vows of celibacy. It is a commitment to a life of bowing, surrender into the mystery, and specifically within a community of mutual accountability.
Traditionally both formation and our ongoing life within this vowed life is found within the cloister. Later in Japan it has been found within a temporary monastic experience before moving into temple life. In the West some are fortunate enough to have the formal cloistered experience raging from several years to simply ninety day tradition retreats. Traditionally these are required of anyone who ordains.
However within some Western sanghas, and this includes the Empty Moon, we experience the cloister most commonly through sesshin, those briefer but very intensive meditation retreats of three, five, and seven days duration. For those on a priestly path these are experienced over and over again through years and decades. We find these profoundly important for all Zen practitioners if at all possible.
This extensive retreat experience is required of anyone who ordains. And so a generally necessary although not in itself sufficient expectation for full ordination is about a cumulative year of retreat experienced in one day, three-day, five-day, and seven-day increments.
Another aspect of traditional Zen formation traditionally encounter within the cloister, is koan introspection. In Japanese Soto koan introspection was suppressed along with a general formation in the Eighteenth century. However, thanks to the work of Daiun Sogaku Harada, we have been able to reclaim the discipline and in a way that is particularly transferable across cultures.
We find the extended experience of retreat together with an ongoing engagement with koans fruitful in our spiritual lives, and necessary aspects in the formation of our priests. It is possible to receive Dharma transmission within the Empty Moon without the formal completion of the koan curriculum, but it would be highly unusual.
The second is a commitment to a liturgical life. Here, again, we can see parallels in the Christian tradition and particularly in the celebration of Eucharist. Through rites that have evolved in Japan over more than a thousand years, and rooted in celebrations a thousand and a half older, of chanting, bowing, offering incense or flowers (and in some adaptations water), with the express intent of the healing and blessings for the world, including named people and situations we find a work that is unique to our ordained life.
We make no "theological" assertions about this liturgical practice, also called "service." We simply and whole-heartedly embrace this as a calling of our hearts as an expression of the bodhisattva way. Literal, metaphorical, all are outside our concern. Rather we bow into this as a critical part of the ordained way.
These first two aspects are fully part of the ordained life in Japanese Zen, with that modification in how we achieve a regular experience of intensive practice.
The third aspect exists in Japan, but here in the West it becomes clearer and more explicit. And that is the call to ministry, the conscious preparation for and a life devoted to the service of others.
These are the heart of our practice as Soto Zen priests in the West.
Different people are called to focus on different aspects of Zen priestly life and might give one or another greater focus in their lives. However, they can be considered like the three legs of a stool. Without all three legs one’s ordained life is unbalanced. And, we expect anyone who is ordained to embrace all three and to acquire competencies in support of these aspects of Soto Zen Buddhist priesthood within the Empty Moon Zen sangha.
Ordination publicly affirms the significance and prominence of the role of the Dharma in one’s life, in the same way that a marriage ceremony might be said to publicly affirm a commitment and relationship to one’s long-time partner; nothing changes, and everything changes.
Ordination is conferred by a fully transmitted priest through the authority of her or his own ordination and precepts transmission.
Upon being ordained one becomes an unsui priest. The term unsui means “clouds and water”—evoking the image of a person flowing freely and unattached even in the middle of worldly life. The ceremony in which one becomes an unsui is called Unsui Tokudo, or simply ordination. In the Empty Moon Zen Network, priests are neither monastics nor lay people, fully practicing as priests but also keeping a job, possibly maintaining an intimate relationship, and perhaps raising their children, even after ordination.
Our ordination vows are seen as life vows and should be approached with respect and considerable hesitation. We do not have a set formula leading to ordination, although there are some prerequisites to candidacy and an expectation that one will acquire certain competencies prior to ordination.
Priests vow to manifest the life of the sangha. Ordination is a commitment not only to Zen and Buddhism, but also to our particular manifestation of the Path within the Empty Moon sangha. This means taking on tasks of support and leadership within the community and beyond our walls. An unsui (clouds-and-water) priest may perform all the rites of the Soto school and the Empty Moon, including performing marriages and conducting funerals. An unsui priest may also serve in the larger community in a variety of ministerial capacities.
We see the life commitments of ordination has three aspects. Our Western sense of ministry being one. A second is to belong to the order or companionship of practice. And, the third is service through a liturgical life focused on the regular recitation of sacred texts, offerings of incense and and candles and bowing as an offering of hope and intention for the world. While each person will probably find one of these directions more important in their personal life, with ordination one takes on obligations to all three.
And in some ways Unsui Tokudo is a novice ordination. It is a significant marker on one's life path, but also in many ways simply a beginning. An Unsui priest may not give the precepts and may not ordain others. These authorizations come with Denkai transmission, which is described above. And, because these things need to be explicit, full Dharma transmission and authorization to teach only comes with Denbo, also described above.
We take the Guidelines for the Formation of Soto Zen Priests in the West as a reference document. But, we find the following more descriptive of our approach to ordination.
Candidacy for Ordination
Those who wish to be ordained must first discuss their intentions with their shoken teacher. If they do not have a shoken teacher, they need to establish that relationship, as the shoken teacher must approve advancing to candidacy for ordination. This is the person who will serve as their preceptor. Should one’s shoken teacher be a layperson, an ordained preceptor must be found who will work together with the shoken teacher.
There are many ways to manifest the priesthood and the gate to walk through ordination is wide. Nonetheless there are broad parameters to be noted that mark out the likelihood of success on this way. Ordination is not an excuse to avoid living life. Indeed, we feel that ordination is a way to live the fullness of one’s life in service of the Dharma. What follows are guidelines for doing that. If someone considering ordination feels that they don’t fully meet these guidelines, and still feels a strong calling to this path, they should not be dissuaded from discussing the matter with their shoken teacher.
A candidate for ordination should be liked by children and dogs. A candidate should be committed to the ideal of service. They should be stable in their life or well on the way to becoming so. They should have substantial experience within the Zen Way. There is a general expectation that a candidate will have some life experience and a sense of the larger world—such as, undergraduate degree, extensive work experience, service in the military, raising a family.
Ordination Candidacy Committee –
Once accepted into candidacy by their preceptor, an Ordination Candidacy Committee (OCC) will be formed. It will consist of three people plus the candidate. One will be the shoken teacher. Another will be a well-established lay member of the sangha selected by the shoken teacher. If the shoken teacher is a lay person the preceptor and the shoken teacher will both serve on this committee. The third member of the committee will be selected by the shoken teacher and the Candidate in consultation.
As a Candidate one is expected to demonstrate proficiency in a number of skill sets and experiences. Specifics will be agreed to by the Candidate and the Ordination Candidacy Committee and a written covenant and time-line will be composed that lays out a path of study and practice leading to Ordination.
The competencies leading to Ordination will normally include the following:
Pastoral Skills. These can be acquired in a number of ways: coursework, so long as there is also a practicum; guided reading; volunteer or related experience; and/or a Clinical Pastoral Education unit.
An ability to perform all the standard Zen ceremonies as observed within the Soto School and within the Empty Moon Zen Network. The expectation is that the Candidate will come to understand the forms and the underlying assumptions and to manifest them with some grace, and will be able to modify or create rites as necessary.
The Candidate must come to have a basic understanding of Buddhism, Soto Zen, and historic and contemporary modes of Zen practice, as well as the evolving ethos of the Empty Moon. This competency is primarily established through a reading list and demonstrated either through dialogue with the Ordination Candidacy Committee or possibly through a written report/reflection.
The Candidate must continue to be a regular participant in the life of the sangha and to attend most sesshin.
The Candidate must demonstrate a capacity to meet people as they are and must demonstrate self-awareness.
The Candidate must acquire general leadership skills and demonstrate a capacity to use the energies of time and space. Specific skills to cultivate may include public speaking, leading groups in discussion and organizing and leading a committee.
The Candidate must have fallen on their butt in public at least once. This may be accomplished literally or figuratively.
The Candidate must come to show a “priestly presence”—difficult to describe, but recognizable by others. This critical pre-requisite will be determined by the Ordination Candidacy Committee.
Anyone ordained within the Empty Moon will have a way to support themselves. This might be a professional degree, a skilled trade, or some other manifestation of right livelihood consonant with being a Zen Buddhist priest.
Some experience of retreat within other Buddhist traditions is recommended. And this should be discussed with the ordination committee.
Prior to ordination, a Candidate will be expected to have sat a minimum of between fifty and one hundred days of sesshin or zazenkai. The exact number will be determined by a number of factors. If, for instance, someone has had many years of sustained practice but has been unable to attend retreats because of their family situation or some other obligation, this can be calculated in. Whenever possible one ninety-day Ango is recommended prior to ordination.
Prior to ordination a candidate is generally expected to have passed the "Mu cycle" within the koan curriculum.
The candidate is encouraged to sew their own kesa and zagu over the course of their candidacy in alignment with Empty Moon's standard patterns, although obtaining the kesa and zagu through other means (such as by purchasing them) is also an acceptable option.
A footnote on our relationship
with the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.
While we are a part of the emerging North American Soto Zen community we have some differences from other Soto sangrias. For one we do not privilege ordained practice over lay. When appropriate we acknowledge lay teachers as full dharma successors within our lineage. We also have some different requirements for our ordained clergy than found with the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. We consider the SZBA very important to the establishment of Soto in North America, so our differences are not undertaken lightly.
Our senior priest and teacher the Reverend James Ford was an early member of the SZBA, participated in its first Dharma Heritage ceremony in 2004. In 2012 he served as doshi or principal celebrant for that year's Dharma Heritage ceremony. He also served on the SZBA board for a three-year term. And he remains a member of the SZBA. (It should also be noted he is a long time member of the American Zen Teachers Association, as well. He served on the AZTA's membership committee for a decade.)
This said, our clergy are not necessarily members of the SZBA. The turning question going forward is whether an ango experience is necessary in the formation of a Soto Zen priest in North America or whether it is beneficial, but need not be a necessary requirement. We argue the later view, that it is beneficial but not essential. We encourage those who ordain within our community to do one or more ango, if at all possible. But we do not require it.
Within our priestly formation program, instead we require significant retreat time, at least three hundred days of sesshin for a fully transmitted priest or lay teacher. That said if a priest's life allows for the ango experience, we do require it. Following the current SZBA guidelines, this may be done in either a single ninety ango, or with four three week residential intensives.
It is important to note there are people in the West who do not consider extensive Zen meditation practice necessary for priests and teachers, sometimes dismissing it as "butt time." We strongly disagree, believing no one should be teaching Zen and especially its heart practice without a long and intimate experience within the discipline. So, in fact, we see that near year of days of retreat a minimum for adequate formation for a meditation teacher within our tradition.
There are, of course, other expectations. These largely map those of the SZBA. Also we consider koan introspection a central part of our normative training program and an important part of the formation of our Zen teachers both lay and ordained. Those of our priests who complete an ango are otherwise eligible to join the SZBA, which we encourage. And all our teachers are eligible to join the AZTA.
We seek to collaborate with other communities transmitting the Soto inheritance to North America and the West seeking appropriate but rigorous preparation for priests and teachers as well as to find forms of mutual accountability.