The Priest Path
When a student reaches a point in their practice at which they would like to make a lifelong commitment to serving the Dharma as their profession, they can enter the Priest Path. On this path, the student first spends several years as a Postulant Priest. This is a trial period, living the life of a priest and exploring this path. If the teacher and postulant priest mutually decide that this is the right path for the postulant priest, the postulant priest sews their okesa, the large rectangular patch work garment that goes over one shoulder. The ceremony in which they receive formal ordination as a monk or nun is called tokudo. The monk’s or nun’s head is shaved for the ceremony and they can continue to shave their head or wear their hair very short after the ceremony. The monk or nun, also called a priest, wears a black robe called a koromo with the okesa on some occasions and a rakusu on others.
Traditionally Buddhist monks and nuns have been required to remain unmarried and without children and this is still the case in many settings. However, at GPZC, monks and nuns are allowed to be married and have children providing they continue to follow the guidance outlined in the Postulant priest vows. As with ministers in many other religious traditions, the priest can have a family, but must consider their commitment to the Sangha (practice community) in any major decisions in their lives. Myoyu Roshi, who herself is a mother and grandmother, has observed that parenting provides rich training if taken as practice. Although it is challenging to balance family and Zen Center commitments, the challenge can have the effect of maturing a student’s practice in invaluable ways and in gaining a perspective that is relatable for other sangha members. It is also true that some already have a marriage and children when they enter practice. It seems beneficial to them and to the Dharma to allow them to choose the priest path if they have the aspiration and determination to manifeset practice in that way.
Ordination is entirely different than becoming a Zen Teacher. Becoming a Zen Teacher requires a long period of study and approval by a teacher. Priests or lay people can both become teachers in this way. Someone who is ordained is not necessarily on the path to becoming a teacher. The teacher path has its own rites of passage including being shuso or head trainee for an ango (90 day training period), often completing koan study, and undergoing Dharma transmission (Shiho) .
Below are the Postulant Priest vows to be signed by the Postulant Priest and presented to their teacher in a simple ceremony. A postulant priest in essence lives as if an ordained priest to make sure the priest path is a good fit for them. Therefore, the postulant vows give a good idea of what the priest path is about.
The Postulant Priest Vows
I formally request to enter the Postulant Priest program of the Great Plains Zen Center. I agree to undertake the vows of stability, simplicity, surrender, serenity, and service during the postulant period of one to two years or more in preparation for becoming a Buddhist priest. This period will serve as a time to confirm my commitment to this path of practice. My participation in the program can be terminated if my teacher or I determine that this is not the appropriate path for me at this time.
I undertake the vow of stability, freely committing myself to a life of supporting and sustaining the teaching of the Buddhadharma. I vow to devote my time and energy to nourishing the seeds of Buddha wisdom at Great Plains Zen Center. I vow to acknowledge and provide for the needs of myself and my family, so that I may continue to be able to serve others who are on the Path. In my practice and daily life I will choose actions that promote the harmony and stability of the Sangha. I vow to consider any major life decisions in the context of my practice and commitment to the Sangha and to openly discuss these with the teacher.
I undertake the vow of simplicity, arising from my understanding that the life and death matter of practice is my highest priority. Any outside employment in which I engage will embody the principle of right livelihood. I will choose employment situations that have as much flexibility as possible, so that I can participate in zazenkai, sesshin, ango, fusatsu, and daily zazen and be available to help organize and manage Sangha activities. I will wear clothing appropriate for a priest and will refrain from excessive attention to my own appearance (in the form of jewelry, cosmetics, elaborate clothing) while participating in Sangha activities. I will not accumulate wealth for wealth’s sake, seeking only the financial resources needed to reasonably support myself, my family, and the Sangha.
I undertake the vow of surrender, as a means to release self-clinging. I understand that I am expected to attend all retreats and ango activities of the Sangha. I vow to take the inevitable changes that occur in the training curriculum and in the teacher’s expectations as an aspect of my training at Great Plains Zen Center and will make full use of the practice opportunities and teaching available. I will take responsibility for my actions and well-being and will appropriately report to my teacher any behavior toward myself and others that I believe to be inharmonious with the Precepts.
I undertake the vow of serenity, taking every aspect of my life as my practice. I will seek joy in serving others. I will continuously strive to be harmonious and inclusive. When difficult relations arise, I will first look at the disharmony within myself rather than blaming others. I will think of others’ feelings and needs before my own.
I undertake the vow of service. I will devote my time, energy, and resources to sustaining the practice of the Buddha Way and making it available for generations to come. I vow that, rather than seeing myself as better than others, I will see my role as one of serving others. I vow to devote myself to taking care of the needs of the Great Plains Zen Center to the best of my ability.
Once the petition has been approved, the postulant priest embarks on a course of training, study, and service that includes regular participation in sesshin, ceremonies, daisan (interviews with the teacher), samu, and regular financial support of the Great Plains Zen Center.