On being a Priest

This talk from Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a helpful clarification of what it means to practice as a priest in this lineage family. 

On Being a Priest

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 23, 2008

Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

I want to talk a little bit about the practice of a priest, or, at least, how I understand that practice after twenty-eight years or so of trying to do it.   In our meeting earlier, Chris said, “But let’s also talk about the lay practitioners.”  I don’t know exactly what Chris had in mind when she said that, but what I got out of it was the implication: “If we talk about priests tonight, are we being ungenerous, leaving someone out, or not speaking in a way that would be relevant to people who aren’t priests?”  We need to be more inclusive.  Do we think that priests are more serious, more important practitioners, a little more grave?  If you’re a priest, have you made a bigger commitment?

This way of thinking about things is so common for all of us.  How can we ever hope not to make distinctions and then place value on our distinctions?  And in placing values, place value on ourselves?  How confusing all that can be!  In all of the Buddhist lineages, our lineage is very unusual in that there really isn’t any fundamental difference between priests and lay practitioners.  One could be confused, or one could even wonder, what is going on here?

I’ll tell you how I found out the difference between lay and priest practitioners.  I found out the difference when I got together the three most experienced, committed, wonderful lay practitioners that I knew, and I was about to give them lay entrustment.  Sue, Martha, Mick, and I were going to study together for a year before this.  The first thing I asked was, “Now explain to me why you’re not choosing to be priests?  I want to really understand this?”  And we had a long very interesting conversation about it, and this is what I remember they all said to me.  In different ways, each in their own way, each with their own language, said what amounted to, “I want to be serious.  I want to be committed.  I don’t want to hold anything back, but for some reason, it’s not right for my karma to enter the archetype of being a priest.”  So that’s how I figured out the difference between lay and priest practitioners.  Being a priest is a powerful archetype that you enter for better and worse.  It is a powerful archetype, so that some people think, “I don’t feel that this is right for me to enter this archetype.”

Entering it you will become, whether you like it or not, a figure for healing in someone’s life, in someone’s psyche, in someone’s heart, or you equally may well become a figure of confusion and upset in someone’s psyche, in someone’s life, for reasons that have nothing to do with who you are, what your personality is, or what your actions have been.  This is possible.  I’m not at all sure that it is the best idea, given that there’s so much potential trouble with this.  There are those who think that we would be better off without the tradition of priests.

Certainly in my own case, it was not my idea to become a priest.  I never thought of that as something I wanted to do.  But here we are.  We have this tradition.  It’s a powerful tradition; we’ve inherited it; and in the case of some of us, we’ve inherited the obligation – whether we like it or not, or whether we think it’s a good idea or not – to pass it on.  So we do it.  I usually speak about this to individuals, but I thought I would take the occasion to speak about it, as I’m doing tonight.  But in doing that, it doesn’t mean that I’m excluding those of you who may not be priests, because to me, you’re included in this.  Everybody who can find themselves in these words that I’m about to speak to you is included in them.  Because everyone can practice as a priest. Whether or not you actually decide to enter the archetype, you are able, if you want to, to take on these practices and this feeling for your life.

So when I say in my talk that a priest means this or a priest does that, this includes everybody who wants to feel that this practice is theirs.  The practice that we do is just the same; it literally is the same.  The vows we take are literally the same.  The only difference is that one person enters the archetype and the other doesn’t – at least externally.  The archetype is the okesa.  Sewing and wearing the okesa, and all that goes with that, is what it means to enter the archetype.

To be a priest is to renounce – to let go of and give up.  When you become a priest and you undertake that obligation, and you enter that archetype, it means to be a renunciant, to let go of everything you have, and to see every person that you are and every thing that you have as only in the service of dharma.  Depending on your point of view, that’s a great freedom, or it’s a great burden.  Priests are the ones who have to do that, because when you enter the archetype, people will expect that of you, and your teacher will require it of you.  For everyone else, this can be practiced with a great freedom, voluntarily.  For priests it’s practiced as a kind of obligation and a necessity.

My favorite line of Tung-shan, among many favorite lines of his that I cherish, is one that went straight to my heart, when I first reflected on it soon after ordination.  He says, “The greatest suffering that there ever could be is to wear this robe and not understand the Great Matter.”  I really have a feeling for that saying.

When I was abbot in the Zen Center, people would sometimes inquire about being ordained.  I would always say that there are three practices of being a priest.  The first practice is to be humble, to realize that we don’t know so much, that our understanding of dharma is always limited, and that our experience only goes so far.  And so we don’t think, “Oh, I’m a priest.  I’m an expert.  I know something.”  We’re just willing to do our best to share whatever small bit of the practice we’ve been able to absorb.  We want to share it with others as they wish and as they need it.  So it makes no sense to think that you are outranking someone or somehow higher than someone or superior to someone.  Be humble.  This is really, really important, because there’s a big tendency in every tradition for priests to be arrogant.  From the side of the priest and the side of the people who aren’t the priest, this tends to make for a very likely arrogance on the part of priests.  So that’s why it becomes so crucial to practice humility as a primary and ongoing practice.

The second practice of priests is to see everyone as a buddha, and to treat everybody that way.  In the ordination ceremony it says, “Now everyone is your teacher.” To see everyone as your teacher; to see everyone as sacred and special; everyone as important.  Even wacky people, troublesome people, destructive people.  So this is a whole practice, to see everyone as a buddha.

The third practice is always trying to help others.  Priests have this obligation.  I find that in recent years I keep wanting to say this word in relation to priest practice: obligation.  Priests have the obligation to help others.  That’s what the practice of a priest is all about, to do whatever you can that someone might need.  The older one gets, the more obvious it is that this is a very tough world, and every day difficult things are happening, and there has to be someone who is willing to receive all this – all this disaster – with full awareness and with the spirit that says, “Yes, I’m willing to receive all this.  This is my practice.  This is my obligation, and I want to try to help, even if there’s not much that I can do.  This is my life: to absorb all this and do what I can.”  And even if we can’t do it very well, and I think a lot of us can’t do it very well, we have to try.  We have to do our best and try.  Most of us fail at it; I know I usually do.  One of the other big practices of being a priest is the recognition that you will not be able to be the person that you need to be, that you’re expected to be, and to be humble about that failure.  To live with that failure and the discomfort of it, and, nevertheless, keep trying to do what you know you need to do.

So that’s the main thing: to be humble, to see everyone as Buddha, and always to try to help. That and putting on the okesa, protecting the okesa, and all that goes with that – chanting and bowing and offering incense.  Putting on the okesa empowers you in that chanting and bowing in a special way, so that you can offer the benefit of that to others.  You can bow and chant and offer the merit to a sick friend, a dying friend.  This is really important.  It’s important for oneself; it’s important for the friend; and it’s important for others who would participate in that ritual.  In the world we live in now, where there are so many people who are estranged from any religious tradition, it seems fairly commonplace that will seek out a Buddhist priest, not because they’re Buddhist, but because somehow they feel that in that space they can be understood or they can be included.  So I’ve many times participated in rituals that were not traditional Buddhist rituals, but were adaptations in order to bring in an element from our tradition to create a ritual container for a funeral, or for someone who is suffering.

I pulled out of my files this document that I want to share with you for the rest of my talk: “Being a Priest at Zen Center.” As abbot at the Zen Center, I thought that we really had to try to be more explicit about some of the things that are most important to us.  So I said, “Let’s figure out what it means to be a priest, and see if we can write down what that is”  So we did, and it took a year for a bunch of people working together to write this down.  This may be an out-of-date version of it, but I just wanted to share this with you, because it actually does represent what it means to be a priest.  [Sojun Weitsman, our teacher, once asked Suzuki Roshi, what does it mean to be a priest? Suzuki Roshi said, “I don’t know.”]

What is the Commitment of a Priest?

A Zen Priest makes a lifelong commitment through the shukke tokudo ceremony to the following:

  • Accepting Shakyamuni Buddha’s Way as the primary commitment of one’s life; making this inner sense of renunciation explicit by wearing the okesa; and being held accountable for living in accordance with the bodhisattva vow and the precepts;
  • Dedicating one’s efforts to realizing the formless essence of the Buddha Way through zazen, engaging in the forms of Soto Zen, training and studying with a teacher, and awareness in everyday life;
  • Supporting and encouraging everyone to be free from suffering and to awaken their own true nature; engaging in zazen and the other forms of Soto Zen as the embodiment of Buddha Nature; ensuring their continuity from generation to generation; and making available to the sangha the rituals and the ceremonies that honor significant life transitions; and proceeding in this endeavor with Suzuki Roshi’s spirit of complete adherence to the essence of Soto Zen practice, while adapting its manifestation to the needs of society.

So this is something that is important to me, this kind of double plan.  On the one hand to uphold the tradition and refer to it and not think that you can pick and choose your own way.  And at the same time, to realize the necessity of trying to figure out how to express this to people in this time.

Expressions of Commitment

Within this general commitment there are many expressions.

And this is something that is very important to me – to recognize that all kinds of different people want to be priests and that there’s different ways of being a priest.

Some priests may follow a traditional path, complete dharma transmission, and become Zen teachers in a traditional way.  Other priests may make service or craft their practice.  Some priests may remain for many years, or a lifetime, in large Buddhist institutions.  Others may practice residentially only for a short time.  Some may start large or small centers of their own.  Others may fold into the world at large without beginning a group, practicing with others in a less visible way.  Some may become monastics or hermits, practicing quietly and without taking much direct responsibility for the practice of others.  The choice of a path within being a priest will depend on circumstances, temperament, and dialogue with friends and teachers.  Paths may change within the course of a lifetime of practice.  The role of the teacher within this relationship can be that of mentor, spiritual friend, or traditional hierarchical teacher.

Residential Training before Ordaining

A person who wants to be a priest should have practiced and demonstrated clearly his or her informed commitment to the dharma as it is practiced in our dharma family.  [At San Fransico Zen Center they ask that] a candidate for priest ordination should have done at least two training periods at Tassajara, ten seven-day sesshins, evidenced a basic understanding of dharma, and have worked closely with one or more teachers.

So even though that’s a Zen Center requirement, I actually have the same requirement.  I don’t count up the number of sesshins, but I want to know somebody for ten years and have sat with them many, many times.  It takes a long time to get to know someone.  And then, if they haven’t done two training periods at Tassajara already, I ask them to do that, either before or after ordination.  Whether or not Soto Zen will continue with this monastic formation is an interesting point, and I think that is up for discussion nationally.  But so far, being a Zen priest has had a monastic formation.  Even if you later don’t live as a monastic and are not interested in monastic practice, everybody goes through that gate.  Sometimes we do it in other ways, like [one student], for example, has not done Practice Periods at Tassajara, but has done many in the City Center, and for special reasons, that fulfilled that requirement.  So it’s flexible, but basically the idea is, you have done residential monastic practice for some period of time.

Why Someone Seeking Ordination Would Not Be Invited to Ordain

In reality, no sincere person is incapable of being a Zen Buddhist priest.  It is a matter of heart, not skill or talent, but if a person is in a time in his or her life when he or she is emotionally unstable, it’s not the right time.  If the person is in the midst of a serious life transition, it’s not the right time.  If the intention to ordain is unclear to the teacher, the time is not right.

Sometimes that becomes difficult to discern, but the teacher feels, “I just don’t think it’s right.” But otherwise there’s no “You’re not smart enough,” “You’re not dedicated enough,” “You’re not this,” “You’re not that.”  Anybody who wants to do it and really has the sincere intention is able to do it.


Each newly-ordained priest will study closely with his or her teacher for a specific period of time, a minimum of four years.

I think I say to people, five years.  I’m not good at tracking this, so I depend on all of you to tell me.  And at the end of five years, you should come to me and say, “Let’s have a conversation, it’s been five years.”

After that five years, by mutual agreement, the priest continues with the same or with other teachers; and all priests will maintain some contact with one or more teachers throughout their lifetime.   Such contact is always essential.

No one practices without guidance.  Priests and teachers are mutually accountable to each other and the sangha…mutual accountability and mutual obligation.  That’s why you undertake a huge obligation if you’re the person who ordains someone else.  It’s a mutual obligation, and it’s a very solemn obligation.

As paths within being a priest will differ, so will training differ.  There are some things all priests will practice for a significant amount of time, including zazen practice, work practice, doan work, [You should know how to strike the bell and do the service. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest expert, but you ought to know how to do the service], text study, precept study, work with teachers, training in doing practice instruction, and shuso training.

We hope every priest would do all of those things.  In the case of text study, now after all my years of hoping for this, we finally have a reasonable facsimile on the Everyday Zen website of a Study Guide with fourteen topics.  Each topic has texts.  With the miracle of the Internet, you can immediately buy the text on some online book place.  There are audio files, which are my commentary on that text.  So I think going forward, I’m going to ask all priests to study the study guide.  They would go through the whole thing and would have read all those texts.  My whole concept here is make this doable.  It might be hard, but it’s practical, it can be done.  I’ve thought about this for a long time and selected from the vastness of Buddhism – not just Zen, but the whole of Buddhism – topics and texts which I think are essential for our way of practice. I have commented on them in ways that are understandable, I hope.  You don’t have to be an expert or a scholar, but you would be exposed to them and you would know, “This is buddha-dharma.  This is our tradition.”

Completing Training as a Priest

Training is a lifetime’s work. After some time has passed, a priest and his or her teacher will mutually agree that the priest has entered a stage of maturity in practice in the dharma. For some priests, completion of training is marked by the dharma transmission ceremony.

The qualification for dharma transmission is a mutual agreement that the priest has entered a stage of maturity in practice – not that they’re enlightened; not that they have lightning-speed understanding of dharma; not that they know a lot of texts and koans.  What does that mean?  We’re not sure, but I suppose there’s an implication and a feeling in that phrase that I think is unmistakable: the person is a mature human being.  They actually grew up, which is not necessarily what everybody does who gets older.

Only priests who have completed dharma transmission are qualified to do lay and priest ordinations and to be abbots of temples.  For others, a simpler private ceremony of completion occurs. The differences between the several priest paths and how practitioners of those paths will practice and work with others will be made clear through the process of training and reiterated at the completion of training.

Priests as Visible Practitioners

The style of a priest will depend on his or her activity at any given time in life. All priests will sew, receive, and wear the okesa at appropriate times.  Some, particularly when living at a temple or leading formal practice, may keep their heads shaved and wear formal robes.  Some may even wear Japanese-style informal priest clothing or an American version of informal priest clothing outside formal situations or the temple grounds.  Others may wear their hair more conventionally and seldom or never wear formal or informal robes.

The external form of being a priest is something that Suzuki Roshi valued very much, and we continue to value it.  It is something our sangha is committed to preserving, and any priest must be willing to carry this form when the situation calls for it, but not all priests need to carry it all the time.  Before completion of training, the style of a priest is a subject of dialogue with the teacher.  After completion of training, the priest makes personal choices, depending on temperament and circumstances.

So that’s interesting. I don’t know how many of you were familiar with this document, but I haven’t looked at it in a number of years, and I was surprised at how much I agreed with it and felt good about it.  We put in a lot of work.  Sometimes it was frustrating work, but it was worth it.