My sister-in-law, who is more attuned to social niceties than other members of my immediate family, asked early on in my practice if I thought of myself as a Buddhist. For me, that was less troublesome a question than whether I was a monk. Living at Tassajara, in monastic seclusion, as I had been at the time, the term seems inevitable, but for some reason it was a harder mantle for me to take on; I didn’t have any problem calling myself a Buddhist.
These days I would say that anyone who is at Tassajara over the winter training periods is a monk, but that is the only time I would think of myself as such. I know that some residents of City Center also consider themselves to be monks, and I would not try to argue the point with them.
People often ask about the differences between being a monk and a priest, and what one has to do to become one – at Tassajara, to become a monk you have to be accepted into the practice period, which means you have something of a solid practice foundation already, and sit tangaryo, which is a challenge (five days of sitting throughout the day), but a brief and not insurmountable one. At Zen Center, becoming a priest usually involves at least five years of solid practice, two practice periods, at least six months, at Tassajara, and your teacher assessing you to be mature enough to begin taking responsibility for other people’s practice as well as your own.
I think other people struggle with whether to call themselves Buddhists (I was trying to see if I could link to a clip from the Simpsons here, but am not managing it; perhaps you know the episode I mean). Depending on your upbringing, it might be a challenge to your family and culture (I have heard several gay sangha members talking about the difficulty of coming out in both spheres). There isn’t a test you have to take, or a badge you have to wear. You could consider lay ordination, but none of these things are obligatory.
The other day I wrote about reminding myself that I am a cyclist any time I get on the bike, and a runner any time I put on my shoes and run. The quote from Dogen yesterday affirms that any time you sit in meditation you are manifesting enlightenment, and that is the most important thing. Everything else is just a label.