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.