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Barbara O'Brien

Zen Buddhist Whatchacallems

By February 9, 2013

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The last post was about a Soto Zen priest ordination. However, recently a couple of ordained Soto Zen something-or-others have written about why they don't want to be called priest or reverend or any such thing. So what do we call them?

But first, some clarification. Unlike in some Christian denominations, in Buddhism there is no class of priests separate from monks and nuns. In most schools that maintain a monastic sangha, there are (at least) two levels of ordination, novice or entry-level and full. I believe most of the time -- there probably are exceptions -- important ceremonies and rituals are conducted by the fully ordained, which makes them something like priests, arguably.

The rules of celibacy were suspended in Japan in the 19th century, so Japanese monastics go on dates, marry and raise little monastics. As the Japanese orders moved into the West, they took the no-celibacy rule with them. And often in the West, the ordained married whatever-they-ares live in their own homes, not in a temple.

So it seems odd to call them monks or nuns."Priest" seems to fit better.

The practice in western English-speaking Soto Zen appears to be to call a person receiving initial clerical -- so to speak -- ordination a priest. This should not be confused with lay ordination, usually called "jukai," but there are other names for that, too.

People who are recognized as what's called a dharma heir or lineage holder are re-ordained and called "teacher." This happens when a teacher recognizes a student as a successor who may begin teaching. They are also still priests/monastics, of course.

Teachers are also called "sensei," which means "teacher"; or "roshi," which means "old man." I understand that in Japan, "roshi" is reserved for especially venerable teachers. I understand also that in Japan there are  hierarchies of ranks within those levels of ordination, but it's not clear to me what they are.

Also, FYI: the Japanese title that means "Zen master" is "zenji," and it is given to really outstanding and admired teachers who have passed into history. Living people are not called "zenji."

That out of the way -- Zen teacher Dosho Port says he doesn't want to be called "reverend" or "priest."

"Sometimes I get called 'Reverend' and it just doesn't sit right.

"You see, I don't see myself as a minister in the Protestant mold or a priest in the Catholic/Anglican mold either. Neither molds approximate the Zen mold."

He explains why in more detail in his post, and then he proposes that people who receive priest ordination be called sōryo, which means "companion of home-leavers."  Hmm. I'd say it needs some work.

A few days earlier, Zen teacher  Brad Warner also argued that he doesn't see himself or any other ordained zennie as a member of the clergy. He thinks he is more of an artisan.

This sounds like something that needs to be discussed at the next meeting of the American Zen Teachers Association. I looked for Japanese words for monks/priests and rather like hojo, a Zen monk or priest in a temple. Short, easy to pronounce, works for me. Except that it reminds me of ... Howard Johnson? Maybe not.

Also -- read more about Zen teachers at Nyoho Zen.

February 9, 2013 at 4:30 pm
(1) Joseph says:

FWIW in the Mountains & Rivers Order, a North American order founded by John Daido Loori, which draws most of its forms from Soto, we use Jukai & Hojo in the ways you suggest. Monastics in the order live in the temple(s) and are usually referred to as “monastics” because “monk” is not, historically, gender-neutral. The term “monastics” erases the difference between “monk” and “nun.” Our teachers are “Sensai.” Both monastics and lay students go through a series of levels marked by different colored robes, etc., though anyone is welcome to come practice with us. A lot of the confusion in the West comes, I think, from the fact that lay practice is such a large part of the emerging Zen presence here.

February 9, 2013 at 10:04 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joseph — I was a student at ZMM several years ago (I doubt anyone there now would remember me). Daido wouldn’t let anyone call him “roshi” as long as his teacher Maezumi was alive, so he was Daido Sensei then.

February 10, 2013 at 11:48 pm
(3) buddhanonymous says:

In Western Theravada orders, monastics (male and female) are addressed as “Venerable.” In my Zen lineage, there are “monastics” (bhikkus and bhikkhunis) and “teachers” (people with a certificate to teach) I think worrying about what people are calling you is kind of on the bottom of the list of worries– unless they are calling you late to dinner.

February 11, 2013 at 8:28 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think worrying about what people are calling you is kind of on the bottom of the list of worries– unless they are calling you late to dinner.

Yeah, I’m with you on that.

February 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm
(5) Rob says:

I’d like to nominate Shunryu Suzuki and Robert Aitken for the title of Zenji. Perhaps John Daido as well, though I’m not as familiar with his body of work. If we had an American Zenji to admire, perhaps people would stop pouring inappropriate veneration upon their Roshis and Senseis, and we could stop having to mop up after controversies. :-)

February 14, 2013 at 4:39 pm
(6) Jo says:

The use of “monastic” by the MRO is arbitrary even disingenuous. Using monastic to mask the gender does little to clarify matters. MRO’s “monastics” aren’t necessarily celibate like either the original Buddhist monks, or Christian monks.

So we are back to where we started: What word labels such ordained folk appropriately.

IMO, “Zen Buddhist Minister” has the better meaning for Westerners.

“In Christian churches, a minister is someone who is authorized by a church or religious organization to perform functions such as teaching of beliefs; leading services such as weddings, baptisms or funerals; or otherwise providing spiritual guidance to the community. The term is taken from Latin minister “servant, attendant”, which itself was derived from minus “less.””
- from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minister_(Christianity)

That last part “minus ‘less’ is very Zen. No?

Zen Minister for short.

February 14, 2013 at 4:58 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jo — the Watchacallems appear to hate “minister” even more than they hate “priest,” since (they say) they don’t “minister” to anyone. And you are correct that the MRO monastics are not celibate, but most of them, I believe, do live in monasteries and engage in monastic training. So I don’t have a problem with “monastic.”

February 14, 2013 at 11:01 pm
(8) Sid Ban says:

I thought Buddhism went toward egolessness. If true, then why all the discussion about titles? I never understood why there are funerals in Buddhism. Why give a name to someone who does not exist anymore? Not living anymore means there is no reference to a human being. Am I wrong about this?

February 15, 2013 at 7:56 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

I never understood why there are funerals in Buddhism. Why give a name to someone who does not exist anymore? Not living anymore means there is no reference to a human being. Am I wrong about this?

The dead may or may not benefit from funerals, but the living certainly do. But yes, you’ve got it wrong — “emptiness” is not non-existence.

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