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Barbara O'Brien

Ordinations in the Three Times

By February 7, 2013

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We had a lovely priest ordination ceremony at my Zen center last week. The sangha came together to celebrate. Afterward we laughed, we cried, we hugged, we enjoyed a home-cooked lunch. Some of us even sang.

Priest ordination, with the head shaving and robes, is something secular Buddhists would do away with. Of course, we should keep in mind that just because we've borrowed words from Christianity -- priest, nun, monk, ordination, clergy -- doesn't mean that what we mean by those words is precisely the same. But I think ordinations have a tangible purpose in what's called the "three times," and it would be a shame to do away with them.

The first time is the past. An ordination ceremony acknowledges our connection to dharma ancestors. Among the rules of the Vinaya are stipulations that a monk's or nun's ordination requires the presence of already ordained monks and nuns. This creates an unbroken line of ordinations going back through the centuries to the Buddha's time, which is kind of cool.

In Zen, the connection to ancestors is acknowledged by chanting their names, beginning with the six Buddhas who proceeded our Buddha and whose names are in the earliest scriptures, and continuing through the lineage of masters and their students who became the next masters. That takes a while. The candidate also is given a lineage chart of the dharma ancestors.

The priest/monastic robes themselves are a kind of lineage. Since we're a Soto Zen sangha, the robes are Japanese style. The candidate enters wearing a white kimono, which of course is Japanese. During the ceremony, the candidate is dressed. A black robe, commonly called a koromo, goes over the kimono. The koromo is modeled after a Chinese monk's formal robe, which centuries ago was modeled after robes worn by Taoist scholars. This happened because the Indian practice of leaving an arm and shoulder bare was not acceptable in China (not warm or modest enough).

Finally, the new priest/nun/monk/whatever is wrapped in the Okesa, which is the large rectangular robe wrapped around the body and draped over one shoulder, just like the monks in southeast Asia today and the original monks of India. The Okesa is sewn with a "rice field" pattern that goes back to the Buddha's time. The whole ensemble represents the history of Zen, from India to China to Japan. Probably an American style robe will evolve in time.

The second time is the present, and an ordination really is a group project that binds the sangha together. There was much work to be done -- cleaning, cooking, sewing -- and many hands were needed to do it. Several people had special roles in the ceremony. Projects like this help people feel part of the sangha, more so than just showing up for service, and help build community.

And the third time is the future. An ordination is a commitment to the future, to preserve the dharma and carry it forward.

I'd underline the word "commitment" several times. An interest in Buddhism is not the same thing as a commitment to dharma.  Even a daily meditation practice may be more of a self-improvement project than a commitment to dharma.

February 7, 2013 at 10:55 pm
(1) Will says:

Thank you for your comments about ordination, Barbara, and also for the many other helpful articles on Buddhism you have written. I went through jukai about 10 years ago and am now considering sewing a kesa. At times it seems a bit weird and anachronistic to participate in these traditions, but then I think of all those who have carried these teachings forward as a living, breathing force so that I can benefit from them. If I only had access to the dharma through dusty manuscripts, PDFs or study groups, it would not be the same. I appreciate your gentle reminder of that fact.

February 7, 2013 at 11:54 pm
(2) John A. Kauth says:

Hi Barbara, I fully concur with Will’s kind comments. Occasionally in comes up in conversation that I am a Buddhist which is quite unusual in South Carolina. I don’t know how to answer when I am asked about the difference between a Buddhist Monk and Priest.. Can you please explain the difference if any?

February 8, 2013 at 8:25 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

John — In Buddhism, there really isn’t any difference between a priest and a monk or nun. Many schools have a two tiered ordination, where some monks have a kind of “novice” ordination and others have a full ordination, and the fully ordained monk or nun does the “priestly” stuff. In Japanese Buddhism there is no celibacy, and the ordained whatever they ares marry and have children. And they don’t always live in monasteries. So I think “priest” is a better fit, but some disagree with that.

February 8, 2013 at 4:13 am
(4) Gavin says:


You practice with the Mountains and Rivers Order, correct? Could you reveal who was ordained a priest? I was fortunate enough to attend a weekend retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery and even though I live in Germany now, I still think fondly on the sangha there.

Thanks for the article.

February 8, 2013 at 8:26 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Gavin, actually, I was a student at ZMM for a big chunk of the 1980s and 1990s, but now I’m part of another sangha closer to New York City.

February 8, 2013 at 10:15 am
(6) Mila says:

Hi Barbara, your description of the ceremony brings to mind also the distinction sometimes made between the “maintained,” the “realized,” and the “one body” three jewels — and how the structure provided by the maintained tradition (ceremonies, rituals, organizations etc.) provides an historical context for the other two ….. though seems to me that our ultimate commitment, as dharma practitioners, must be to the one-body.

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