I was offering the zazen instruction at Zen Center last Saturday for the first time in a while, and as I was running through some of the things I often say, I remembered that I was coming up to the tenth anniversary of my shukke tokudo, which, like other important ceremonies, had taken place in the Buddha Hall, where we were sitting. It’s not that big a deal, but I was glad to notice in time – and today is the day.
There is a story I have heard around Zen Center where someone asked – I think – Suzuki Roshi, what it meant to be a priest, and he responded, “I don’t know.” They then went to another teacher – perhaps Katagiri – and asked the same question, only to receive the same reply. Of course, this answer has a long history in our tradition. When I was studying to be a priest, there was an article by Lew Richmond outlining the nine different paths one could take, depending on one’s inclinations; I don’t seem to have a copy of it now, but it included being a temple priest, focused on ritual (something that appealed to me most in those days), being a scholar, being a chaplain or minister, and so on.
Dogen, of course, had much to say about this, especially once he began to narrow the focus of his teachings to his monastic community at Eiheiji. This quote from the Shobogenzo is typical: ‘Clearly know, the Buddhas’ and ancestors’ realization of the truth is nothing other than leaving home (shukke) and receiving the precepts (kai). The life-blood of the Buddhas and ancestors is nothing other than their leaving home and receiving the precepts.’
If I explain the different ordinations to people these days, I tend to say that a lay ordination is a public commitment to accepting the precepts in your life, and that a priest ordination is making them central to your life. Obviously there is more to it than that, but my wish to ordain came from the feeling that I would be working on this practice for the rest of my life, and being a priest, at least how I saw that role manifested at Zen Center, seemed to be the way to manifest that.
As much as I love the ceremonies and rituals still, I have a different life now, and am still examining what role I can play out in the world as a priest. While I fail constantly, my effort is still to stay aligned with the precepts and my vows to help others with their awakening. I hope that in the last ten years I have managed to do that on occasion, and that for however many years are left, I will keep trying.