"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!