While cleaning out a closet I found the certificate I received to become an "official" student of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. Dated March 13, 1988 (which I dimly remember was the wrong date, but they didn't want to reprint the certificate) the certificate declares I had passed the "five-fold barrier gates of this Monastery" and had "entered into training as a Practicing Student."
Let's see if I can remember the barrier gates -- one was being interviewed and accepted as a student by the monastery board. This was not an automatic acceptance; some applicants were turned down, apparently because they were judged not ready. Another gate was to individually ask the teacher, the late John Daido Loori, to accept us as his students. Another was a commitment to support the monastery financially. I believe one was to have participated in at least one week-end retreat at the monastery.
The fifth barrier gate was the day-long sit. Four of us spent the weekend at the monastery, and on Saturday we were roused before dawn and ushered into a small room off the zendo to sit zazen all day long. We got a break for lunch (still maintaining silence) and then went back to sitting until shortly before dinner, I think.
At some point after the sitting we had tea with Daido and received student robes and oryoki bowls. We were given some kind of welcoming recognition during the evening service, also, as I remember.
We still weren't officially "Buddhists." In American Soto Zen the ceremony marking one as a disciple of the Buddha is jukai, and for me that happened many years later, and somewhere else, in a process officiated by my current teacher, Susan Jion Postal. Usually, jukai (I am told this means "receiving the precepts") requires receiving permission of a teacher and taking classes in the Precepts. We meditatively sewed our own rakusus and were "robed" with them and given new dharma names during the jukai ceremony.
Some might say these ceremonies and accoutrements are a bit silly. Certainly, practice does not require them. But I think they do serve useful purposes.
First, they reinforce commitment. Daido used to say that the purpose of a ceremony is to make visible what is invisible. What is visible becomes clarified and solid.
Second, it serves to protect the integrity of the dharma. This is especially important in the West, where many enthusiastic newbies are eager to reinvent Buddhism to make it a better fit to western culture (rather than the other way around).
Along these lines, please see "What's an American Buddhist?" by William Wilson Quinn, and also Mumon's response. I don't disagree entirely with what Quinn writes, but I do think that "American Buddhism" is something that is evolving and will continue to evolve through practice. However, it is evolving from Asian traditions brought here mostly by Asian teachers; it is not evolving from thin air.
The dharma has been maintained for 26 centuries by Asians. When we take the refuges and receive the Precepts we are entering into something that Asians have been protecting and nurturing all these years. I think it's important for westerners to appreciate this and be grateful for it. And if we rip it out of its cultural roots prematurely, it's not likely to survive.
Learning and engaging in the traditional liturgies and ceremonies can, among other things, help us feel connected to the many Asian ancestors and to the great global family of practicing Buddhists.
Transmission of the dharma requires meticulous effort. And this takes care and commitment. It is not helped if Buddhism becomes little more than an affectation du jour. For this reason, I think rites of passage -- and they don't all have to be the same rites -- serve a real purpose.