2022-01-10 A Dharma Life: Reflections on Zen Priest Ordination
5:45PM Jan 10, 2022
Warm greetings to everyone. Today I am going to mark the fortieth anniversary of having been ordained as a Zen priest. It is a little pause in our series on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. I feel fortunate, certainly, to have reached this fortieth anniversary and to have spent these forty years in the dharma, practicing and teaching.
But the fact that I am here at Insight Retreat Center is also very special. This also is a part of the wonderful dharma life I have been graced by or blessed by – to have this wonderful retreat center to practice in, be on retreat, and to teach in. To be able to open the doors of the center for so many people to come and practice here.
And coincidentally, the reason I am here is that we have a two day retreat for our teacher training. IMC started its very own teacher training back in April. In the past, people who trained in our tradition got trained through Spirit Rock or Insight Meditation Center. Here, we have started our own training for fifteen people. It is special, a kind of culmination of forty-five years or more of dharma practice, to come to the wonderful circumstance of training others to be full teachers.
All of this came together – being at IRC, the anniversary of my ordination, and the teacher training I feel so fortunate to be able to do. So I wanted to mark it. Forty years ago, I was ordained with two other Zen students, Victoria Austin, and Gary McNabb. I felt very fortunate to know them both. Both of them dedicated their life to the practice – in their case Zen practice – and the life of what became known as a priest.
I say "became" because at the San Francisco Zen Center, at the time of my ordination, it was called a monk ordination. The word "monk" was used both for males and females, referring to a monastic ordination. That is what I thought I was doing, ordaining as a monk.
I knew there was a track to become a teacher someday. But there were so many other monks, priests, ordained people at Zen Center when I was there. I calculated that it would be something like twenty-five years before it might be my turn to move up into even the very beginning teaching roles, or to be trained as a teacher. But I was not being ordained to be a teacher, I was ordained to be a monk.
But to my surprise, a few months after I was ordained, the Abbot decided to stop calling the ordination a monk ordination – monastic ordination, but rather a priest ordination. Maybe this was partly because traditionally, in Buddhism, monastics are celibate. But in Japanese Soto Zen, there is no rule of celibacy, so there can be marriage and sexual relationships.
Maybe that is one of the reasons. But also there is a way in which the life of a Zen priest is a little bit more in the world in all kinds of ways. They participate in all the different aspects of life in a way that a traditional bhikkhu – monastic – does not. Monastics hold themselves a little bit apart from the world and participating. A small example would be that monastics are not allowed to marry people, and Zen priests are. This represents, a little bit, that distinction.
But one of the things ordination represents for me is that every time that I, in my adult life, chose the dharma – chose dharma practice over any other possibilities – it always worked out fantastically, wonderfully. I could never have imagined how well it was going to work out.
There were even times when I had almost no money and was living a poor life as a practitioner. And I thought the reasonable thing to do was to go find work. But I said, "No." I even had a job lined up once. And then I said, "Nope. That's not what I'm dedicated to. My life is dedicated to the practice and, come what may, that's what I'm going to do."
Then periodically, it just became clear that the dharma path was opening up in front of me. The decision to become a monastic – to be ordained – was not exactly a conscious or reasoned decision. I was sitting at the Zen monastery, looking at the creek that runs through it, and reflecting about my life – what I should do with it and what direction to go. And then it was like lightning went through my body. Suddenly, I just knew that I was going to be ordained.
Generally, I am a person who does things for reasons. I am kind of a rational person perhaps, or tried to be. So then, afterwards, I thought of reasons for that, and the reasons were sincere. But the decision was not reason. It was just a deep knowing. Suddenly, I just knew that this is what I was doing.
One of the reasons I had was that I wanted to live a life that responded to the suffering of the world, at the deepest place of suffering. The only thing I knew in life up to that point that, somehow, was able to touch the deepest places of suffering – in myself and in others – was Buddhist practice. I didn't necessarily think that that was the only way to do it. But that is the only thing I knew. I wanted to dedicate my life to responding to suffering at its deepest level.
I was going to go back to graduate school to study soil conservation. I wanted to support and help the world by doing erosion control in different places in the world where there were serious problems. But I felt that, somehow, there was something inside me. As important as that work would have been, it would not have reached into the depths of the human heart to where suffering really lies at the core.
I didn't know if I would be effective as someone who, somehow, touched that in people and supported people. But I wanted to be in an environment dedicated to that, and just support it. My long term image of myself as a Zen priest was to have a little neighborhood storefront meditation center, maybe just one room, a storefront kind of thing. And my job was to have the key, keep the place clean, open it up, and allow people come and meditate. I was not much more thoughtful about what I was going to do in the long term than that.
But then I've had this wonderful life of things just continuing to unfold after I was ordained. Even things that were tragic for many people somehow kept opening up to my going further and further in the practice. A tragic thing was that the Abbot of the Zen Center had an ethical scandal. He left, and it was devastating to many people.
But I was invited by someone to go to Japan – my father, actually. He was working in Japan, and he said, "When do you want to come to Japan?" Coincidentally, it was at the same time as the Abbot leaving, and I said, "Oh. Sure. I'd like to continue my Zen training in Japan." So I went to Japan for a while.
But in order to stay in Japan, I had to go to Thailand to get a new visa. And in Thailand, I discovered the practice we do here, vipassanā practice. And that opened up wonderfully for me. Then it continued for a while, this dual track of both Zen and vipassanā. And that is still a dual track.
Zen is very important for me still. It is a kind of orientation. It provides a kind of fundamental religious orientation for me. It is an orientation of participation in the world, being fully present in this world, practicing in the world, and as a place to be free. Vipassanā practice is equally deep and valuable for me. That is practice of deconstructing the world in a very deep way to discover the deeper potential capacities we have for freedom.
There is a wonderful synergy of these two. Vipassanā allows for a depth of deconstruction, a seeing through the conditioned world we live in – the constructed world – and for a real opening up to greater and greater capacities for freedom. Then in Zen, learning participation, learning to give yourself to the world, to enter the world, and to participate with that freedom.
One of the teachings, or ideas, in Zen that was very influential for me, was the idea that we express our practice. Practice, understanding the depth of our practice within us, and how we mature in the practice, is not just to be in enlightened retirement, but is something that is expressed or enacted.
There was a person many years ago who heard all these Buddhists keep talking about practice, practice, practice, practice. What kind of practice do you do? I'm going to retreat to practice. I'm practicing. The word practice is used very quickly and a lot in our scene. And the person heard all this and said, "You guys, all you ever talk about is practicing. When's the performance?"
In Zen, the idea is that you live the life of the performance. It is how you enact, how you express your understanding that is the fulfillment of it. For me, the combination of vipassanā teaching freedom, and Zen teaching living that freedom in our life, those dual tracks were so important. It is not inherent that one is just one way, and one is the other way. It is just that this is the way these two lessons came through to me. And I am very grateful for it.
I feel so fortunate to be able to live this dharma life and find my practice in everything I do. I have the good fortune of being able to teach, like teaching here to all of you on YouTube. This is a small manifestation of my practice, but it comes around that, when I am teaching, it is also the place where I practice. It is not that this is only an expression of whatever practice I have. But also, I see it as this is the "location" for practice when I am teaching. So I am tracking myself, noticing what is happening inside me, my thoughts, my feelings, my body, and being present for the whole show. So that it is a practice. I am tracking myself and mindful of what is happening so that I keep discovering more freedom, more depth, more fullness, more participation, more getting out of the way of this life.
Someone I saw in the chat earlier asked me what my Zen name – my ordination name – is in Japanese. It is Ryuge Kojun. Ryuge – one word, and the second word is Kojun. When the Abbot gave me the name, he translated it as "Dragon Tusk, Sunlight Revere." One of those names is supposed to represent how you are when you are ordained. And the other is supposed to represent your potential, what you can become.
I don't know which is which. But it is a nice, hopefully nice, pairing of these two words –ideas. "Dragon Tusk" sounds little bit ferocious. Maybe I am a little bit dangerous. But then, "Sunlight Revere." So that was the name I was given.
My Pali name – you get lots of names in Buddhism sometimes – in the Theravādan Vipassanā world where I teach, is "Dhamma Dasa." That means a "Servant of the Dharma." So through both Zen ordination and being a Zen priest, and through being a vipassanā teacher and practitioner, I feel very much that I am a servant for the dharma. I love serving it, supporting it, letting it grow in our hearts, and spreading it across the lands.
Thank you. Tomorrow, I will be back at IMC, and we will continue with the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.