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How To Become A Zen Monk (or die trying)

"Now, if you have decided to become a monk because you think that life in this world is too hard and bitter for you and you would prefer to rather live off other people's donations while drinking your tea - if you want to become a monk just to make a living, then the following is not for you." -Kosho Uchiyama

So you want to be a Zen monk or priest? Unsui, which means clouds and water? Good on ya. Me too. 

Having googled that very aspiration for the first time in 2003, I was convinced it was impossible. I'll admit I am as thick headed as they come. I was also resistant to meet some figure in a robe. I heard my father's voice when I begged him to get my fortune read in Jackson Square, New Orleans, "I'm not paying some fat asshole in a bathrobe to tell you lies." Instead, for the first four years of my Zen practice, I committed as little as possible to my local sangha, left when they started chanting, and never talked to the teacher. I was so unapproachable, I sat in a painful full lotus, back hunched, no cushion, my knees kicking up in the air like butterfly wings as my pelvis painfully sucked me in like a Japanese ham sandwich. Good for me. 

I left that sangha as a "young man on a mission" and I'm lucky I didn't end up like Chistopher McCandless from Into the Wild. I was just across the inlet from Timothy Treadwell, from The Grizzly Maze. I did break my ribs and eat brown sugar sandwiches in the Caribou hills of Alaska. And I did sit in that -30 degree winter, no electricity, no water, but with northern lights illuminating my mind to this- you can't do this alone. Shortly after 5 months of seeing only about two to five people through my dog mushing gig, I got a ticket back home. Oh, I should mention I quit zen after a breakdown when I couldn't figure out why green lights were green lights in a traffic light. 

Having given up, I was hung over on my porch in New Orleans on a bright Sunday morning. Mardi Gras beads from last year melted and peeled their lead coated paint, decorating our fence. My neighbor was going to his car with a big black round cushion. I jumped in the car, wearing a pink t-shirt that said, "When I dance, I dance to the max. When I rock the mic, I charge hip hop tax." I might have been a little drunk. 

We climbed the stairs of New Orleans Zen Temple, and I sit on a zafu for the first time. I face the wall for the first time. I smell Japanese chip incense for the first time. I've landed in the rowdy temple of Deshimaru, where these words burn into my ears, "Head presses the sky. Knees press the earth. This is hishiryo consciousness." Hishiryo-thinking without thought. The bell rings, I turn around and see my first Zen monk, and decide I will one day wear the O'kesa, the Buddha's robe. 

I googled it again.  What came up were vague answers like, 

You don't need to do anything save follow the precepts.

Ordination can come later.

Or real "zen" answers like, 

I believe that enlightenment is available to all and that your current life can provide you with more than enough opportunities and lessons to make the 'journey' you desire. What you need is here and now. Why seek elsewhere?

I think when Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen about 800 years ago said stuff like that, his eyebrows said much more. And if you wanted to be a monk, you sat Tangaryo (a one to five day period of sitting to clarify your intention). 

But what if you're actually asking: How do I live in a temple, wear the robes of a monk, sit like a monk, chant like a monk, eat like a monk- how  do you do that?

No one has given a straight forward answer. Muho, abbot of Antaiji, is the best I can come by. It reads more of a critique of the Soto Shu, rather than a how-to. It's my intention to provide a basic how to. Currently, I'm living at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, in Marin California, and training with Linda Ruth, the residing Abbess of our temple. Technically, after 10 years of practice, a couple years of residency here and there at temples, I am at the beginning of the process of becoming a priest. I predict it will take me at least two more years, but most likely four or five. 

But that's my choice. It didn't have to take me this long. It doesn't have to take you that long. While I am most familiar with the San Fransisco Zen Center process of becoming a Zen Priest (we are careful with the word monk), I will take liberty to suggest what you could do in other Zen traditions. Here are the nuts and bolts about our tradition.

1). Come to one of our 3 main centers as a guest student for two weeks. 
2). Become a work practice apprentice for 6 months and build a relationship with a dharma transmitted teacher(they wear the brown robes).
3). Sit tangaryo, complete two practice periods (4-6 months for both) at one of our 3 main centers
4). Apply for staff. Perhaps solidify your commitment to a Zen teacher by taking the precepts.
5). Stay with that teacher for 2-3 years.
6). Go to Tassajara, our training monastery for two practice periods (6months flat- or maybe you did your 2nd practice period here, if so, do one more and skip to 7.)
7). Request permission to ordain.
8). Start sewing.
*9* Maybe request permission to ordain from all 3 abbots of Zen Center (unclear on this one)
10) Ordain and start your 3-5 year novice period.

Our process is the slowest one I've come across when it comes to Japanese Zen. It could be worse- I asked the teacher of New Orleans Zen Temple to ordain me for 3 years, and he never gave me a lick of hope. Good on him, I have very good posture now. 

I've heard at Shasta Abbey you spend a year as a postulant and then receive novice ordination. However, that's one year sleeping in a meditation hall, perhaps aside your cohort with no room, no stipend, and celibacy restrictions. 

I've gathered I could ask any Japanese zen teacher to ordain me and they'd send me to one of their training monasteries for 6 months, and bam, I'm a priest (usually before the training). I've also gathered that it will cost money in most cases. I also fear I would be in no way prepared to live my life as a priest. 

And then there is every which way the wind blows Zen teacher that lives outside of the temple who is empowered to ordain whoever they want whenever they want with whatever prerequisites or no requisites. Isn't that beautiful? Old wells and new wells bubbling with fresh dharma. 

Easy or hard doesn't seem clear with what I've wrote here. For that matter, here's a zen answer for you: Staying at home and attaining the way or leaving home and attaining the way has nothing to do with actualizing the fundamental point; in our bodhisattva hearts we are all renunciates, and we're renouncing our perception as anything more than deception, the permanence of anything, and any notion that we are not already and completely our original self. You know, Buddha. 

As Furyu Schroder says when you ask her about ordination, "Who will stop you?"

Have a Zen ordination story or how to in any lineage or sect? Please share for the benefit of all would be patch robed monks of true color and no rank! 


  1. I just wonder if this is a matter of wanting another identity? Wanting not to be yourself? I'm also thinking of what you've written about the urge to the military.

    1. Good question, let me think about that.

    2. In the Mountain and Rivers sutra, Dogen writes about how we are perfectly free and unattached, yet we appear (and abide) as their own phenomenal expression.

      He also writes about how water, when it's being itself, speaks of water, of water seeing water. So THIS identity or THAT identity can't be anything other than a fish seeing water or a dragon seeing water or a human seeing water. Water's freedom depends only on water.

      So, I'm thinking that any identity will do as a phenomenal expression and will be off the mark when it comes to identity. Maybe true identity is just the mirror and the reflection of just more mirror, mirrors all the way up and down.

      How's that?

    3. Way over my head, you Jewel Mirror, you. Glub glub.

      Shakya's answer is interesting, though, may point to why they want to take it slow with us. My teacher is assuring me that sewing a rakasu is very very hard and slow and you have to be there in person and he'll think about it.....
      and I'm like, hey, I'm living by those precepts, what's the big deal here? I suspect that them frustrating you and seeing what you do is part of the training.

  2. Becoming a Zen monk is pretty easy in Japan if you know Japanese. At Komazawa University I could have asked my professor for a reference and gone to Eihei-ji or somewhere more local.

    I think even outside of academia it wouldn't be that hard. You just find a Soto priest willing to take you on as a disciple and go from there.

    Staying in Japan at a temple isn't an issue if they write you a suitable letter for the culture visa.

    Chan is likewise pretty straightforward, though in Taiwan they insist on a long seminary program plus Chinese training if you're a foreigner. You then surrender all personal autonomy to the administration and live your life under their direction. Quite different from Japan.

    1. Thanks for that confirmation! I've had friends visit from Eihei-ji, 25 year olds with dharma transmission, who with their father's permission, would have sponsored me.

      We have a slow process here at Zen Center and sometimes I think it's quite appropriate. There's no cultural context for what a zen priest is, so we get here and we watch and grow, become Buddhists, and then maybe ordain. I think it's a question of support. Around here, if you go out in samue, people think your a karate teacher or a sushi chef.

    2. Kogen, thank you! There is too much to say here on a blog. I am open to the possibility and think it is the best path I can think of. But I need to explore with someone who can listen to my heart and hear what words cannot say. Could I send you an email? I am quite lost and the world makes no sense, anymore. I humbly ask: could I talk to you over email or however it may be possible. My email is

    3. Sure, Cetan. I can refer you to many great teachers. Feel free to e-mail me anytime.


  3. Are Zen priests required to remain celibate all their lives? Or can they marry eventually?

  4. The reason I ask is because I am interested in becoming one, but I also want to be a father one day. Any information regarding my question would be helpful, thank you.

    1. Dear Anon,

      In the soto zen tradition, priests are not celibate, but could be during certain practice agreements with their teachers. I'm married and soon will be starting a family. It's not quite all the that straight forward but the short answer is No, you can marry, you can have kids

  5. Thank you for writing this Kogen! And Shakya thank you for the the info you posted! I also want ro become a zenonk and have been searching since the late 90's on how to do this with no luck. I even went to Japan in 2010, visited a few temples and shrines in hope of finding a monk or anyone who could help, but strangely enough I only saw one very hurried monk. I am still searching on how to become a zen monk, especially in Japan. Would you Kogen and you Shakya like to correspond? I could really use your help! :) My email is I hope to hear from you! :) Thank you.

    1. Hey! First things first, find a teacher you trust, then ask them about it. Here'w where I train:

      Be patient, it could take awhile!

  6. It's a sham shrouded in mystery.
    Awakening requires none of this.
    Don't waste a moment of your precious life like this.

    1. I agree "it's" is a sham. But what is "it"?

    2. this guy gets it ^


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