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Dragons Taking to the Water

With clouds and water

Dragons take the zendo

There, they sing like whales.

I had this notion that maybe people would like to read about what it’s like to be neither lay person nor priest. Suzuki Roshi said it like this: “ I understand it this way: That you are not priests is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult.” With that, he’s speaking to the ordained and the lay-ordained, or the non-ordained, or the ordained wearing clown noses. He’s not the first to say it. In the Parinirvana Sutra, the Buddha addresses the fact that his disciples are not lay, not ordained.

So, there’s old time Zen priests here, beautiful purple Okesas, humble brown Okesas, even shiny mustard Okesas from Japan. There are also old time lay practioners with fraying lay robes and dark blue, bright blue, and dark green rakusu. There's even a lay practitioner who has received dharma entrustment who wears a green Okesa. Some of them are married, some aren’t. And then there’s a steady flow of youngish people (from to 20-50) who come and stay from anywhere between 3 months and 5 years. Some of them take lay ordination (Jukai) and some don’t. Some don’t believe in it. Some lay-ordained don’t believe in full ordination. It’s really a vast, vast phenomena.

Sometimes a monk, sometimes a priest, sometimes a lay person- where do my wife and I fit in? We have a little room in Cloud Hall. We sleep in separate single beds. We wake up around 4 am. We meditate, we chant, we work, we go to class. I want to ordain, she’s very open to not interested in ordination. What do we look like to the outside? That were not priests is simple; that were not exactly lay people, harder for those outside our tradition to see.

I started this post with a Haiku. I wrote that after hearing Dogen’s “ With clouds, water, and cooperation, dragons take to the water.” The singing of the whales is the sweet range of voices that come together every morning when we begin to chant:

Great robe of liberation

Field far beyond form and emptiness

Wearing the Tathagata’s teachings

Saving all beings

I hear so much from our ancestors; we are not lay people, we are not priests, we are dragons, we are elephants, we wear the the tathagata’s teachings...

What do you think? To ordain or not to ordain? What’s all this robe culture about?


  1. I think that the priest/lay/in-between quandary is delightfully American. We love gray areas. It is like giving cows a very wide pasture, lots of room to roam and find your place in the way. I think what you said once before about the distinction being less necessary at a place like Green Gulch where we all do the same thing is very true. So my next question tends to be, what is the role of a place like Green Gulch. A place for anyone who wants to to stay forever? A training ground where people study and practice and then go out and share the dharma in lay realms? I'm not sure how the story goes...

  2. I think living there relieves you of a great deal of responsibility and decision-making,like being in school. Follow the schedule, stay in these boundaries, all together. It sounds very nice, and not lonely.

  3. My teacher recently said, "Some of us do better in a cage."

  4. I did think for a long while that the monastic path was the only way to really do Buddhism, but having enough self-knowledge to know I couldn't make that deep a commitment. My middle way: I took lay ordination twelve years ago, but saw it as a springboard to householder practice. Now that the kids are older it feels like I need to reconnect to Sangha and practice more closely. There's a reason for the three jewels, and I now recognize I wasn't doing so great without the wider holding environment of a community of practice. I think as long as we each are aware of what helps us stay engaged and mindfully execute our other responsibilities, it's all good.

    1. Dear Stonecutter,

      I like when Tenshin Roshi says we're all experiencing renunciation on the Buddha path, whether that means we stay home and attain the way or leave home and attain the way. I also like what his dharma heir, Kokyo, says about renunciation, which is that it's up to us to make sure we're renouncing phenomena that liberates us, and not just jumping on a band wagon headed straight to building a renouncing "self."

      I whole heartedly agree with you! I don't know if that's helpful to say, but I don't get that feeling very often, so I just wanted to acknowledge our online affinity.

      Thank you for checking in!



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