Monks and Zen Masters.
These are the exalted models in zen. This exaltation promotes status distinctions within a sangha.
The monk is a "home leaver" who has "ordained" by taking the vinaya precepts, shaving off his hair, and wearing special clothes. In older times, monks sustained themselves by begging for food, and people would give to them out of a belief, more or less conscious, that they were accumulating spiritual merit by giving to these holy people. The zen master is a person who has become "enlightened" or at least "manifests" it, has had their "experience" validated by another master in a process called "transmission." It is sometimes said that they have "completed" their "training," although many zen masters will reject that idea. Around the zen master, there lingers a dangerous miasma of infallibility, such that even when doing something harmful they might be said to be demonstrating "crazy wisdom." From that place, forming a cult is scarcely a leap.
For the purpose of brevity, I'll have something more to say on zen master fixation in a separate post. It's a topic I've addressed previously anyway -- see here.
If we want to circumvent all the sticky concepts associated with monks and zen masters, let's cut to coda: monks and zen masters are accorded the status of special people, different than everyone else.
But how so? In what way?
Just so there is no misunderstanding: I am writing with a deep respect for monastic training -- indeed, only a decade ago I was inches away from becoming a postulant (haengja) myself, when circumstances intervened -- and also for the tradition of legitimate, verifiable dharma transmission in zen. A critique of these institutions is not going to be our business today.
There is an implied hierarchy, and sometimes the hierarchy is more than an illusion. In the Kwan Um school, monks and zen masters have preferred seating at ceremonies and at all times, everyone waits for them to leave the room first. Everyone bows to the zen masters in the morning.
Respect for their status is very much a part of the customs and forms.
Rather, what we want to address is undue concern about status. It is a frequent distraction. Who is a monk, and who is not. Is so and so going to get transmission? Is being a monk the "best" way to practice or even "the only" way to "really" practice? I've heard these conversations so many times over 19 years. It is pointless to spend even a second worrying about whether a monastic situation is "better" for practicing or not; at that point, you're not practicing anymore -- so what's the concern? Your situation is your kong-an, your life is your zen center.
Zen Master Seung Sahn was a monk. It was very important to him, and he encouraged some of his students to become monks. Most of his western monks now live in Korea or Europe, and there are still two or three living in North America. As important as this tradition was to him, he also spoke in dharma talks and in letters of monasticism as simply a "situation" and a "job," reminding us that we are all practicing zen in the context of our own situation and job. Later, he began a "dharma teacher" track for laypeople to train and take on responsibility for sharing the dharma and teaching our practice. A different way of life, a different situation.
James Ford recently blogged an excellent reflection on what it means to be a "monk" in zen practice. It begins when he notices his own name included on a list of zen monks. In pondering this, he reframes the issue beautifully. Whatever ceremony you've gone through, whether you're a "monk" or a "priest" or a "layperson" or what-the-fuck-ever -- how's your practice? How's your life?
...I do count myself as someone who lives with a rule of life. The rule is the sixteen bodhisattva precepts used for ordination in Japanese Soto Zen.
Living within a rule of life. The way I would put this is living in vow. Using a framework that helps us regard each moment of our life as practice, yes, and keeping a great vow to awaken and live our life for the benefit of all beings. Nothing is minutia: it all counts. Every moment, every relationship, is an invitation to wake up, simply and truly to be true self.
Sometimes I find the precepts the expression of awakening. And I walk easily with them.
At other times, they’re the container that help me through the hard times when I am off balance.
But, whatever, whenever, they’re my constant marker, constant companion.
They are what I am. Even when I break them. Maybe especially when I break them, as they point out correction, and provide a path of reconciliation…
So, does that make me a monk?
This cuts through the social hierarchy and brings it back to practice. This is about making practice an integral part of your life. When practice and life come together into a conscious path, you've got vocation. When that vocation is as precious to us as our own children (an analogy Ford uses in his post), this for me is as good as any ordination.
A monk at Su Dok Sa in Korea has a life that looks very different than mine or James Ford's -- we all have different situations, as Seung Sahn would put it -- but the purpose and the background are quite similar.
May we all fulfill that vow; and return to it quickly when we stumble. That is what it means to be a monk in your own order.
[Image: me and Sherry after finishing a very small retreat at Deming Zen Center]