It is hard to be ground-breaking, because not everyone appreciates the new ground.
I am a member of an organization called the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of North America.
The SZBA is primarily a social organization, a place for interchange among many of the Soto Zen Lineages and Priests in America. Its activity is limited largely to the United States. The SZBA is primarily a social organization, with no official authority of any kind to approve who is and is not a Zen priest (that is left to the discretion of each Lineage and individual Teacher to ordain and train their own priests as they determine best). The SZBA is not a regulatory or licensing body, although they have been working very hard in recent years to develop various standards for priest training and ethical standards in America (work I -very- much support). The SZBA does have the power to approve who will be its own members, of course, but many Soto Zen priests in North America do not even bother to join for their own personal reasons.
The SZBA board of directors is an --unelected-- body dominated for years by larger and relatively conservative, monastic Lineages such as those arising from San Francisco Zen Center, who, by size, substantially control the board of directors and most of the policy decisions made there. While generally very very nice people, and all certainly well meaning, it is also true that many of those folks are not too happy with our "upstart" Treeleaf Sangha as a primarily "online" Zen community developing new media, nor our recent Priest Ordination ceremonies intentionally conducted by use of electronic media to symbolize the nature of this Sangha.
The SZBA board is not elected by the general membership, is substantially appointed by the large Lineages, and I never have been offered a chance to cast a single vote for the board's members.
Given the stance of the board, I was a bit surprised to be asked to serve last year as one member of a committee within the SZBA that was requested to survey "Non-traditional methods of Zen Training" and, specifically, the role of Electronic Media in Zen Training. That committee, after several months of work, recommended in its final report that such ceremonies be allowed and that (quote) " individual teachers be given the freedom to pursue the use of EM (Electronic Media) for enhanced teaching as they see fit including jukai and ordination ceremonies", finding that a significant minority (25%) "do endorse EM use for jukai or priest ordination as being in line with Soto practices" and concluding that "Dharma successors of SZBA members who received jukai or tokudo using EM would be welcomed to join SZBA with the same encouragement and evaluation as other candidates who received tokudo or jukai by traditional methods."
Thus, it was then a bit of a surprise that the board of the SZBA, for its own reasons, choose to overlook both the recommendation of its own committee and of a substantial minority of its own members. The board passed a resolution a few days ago, largely in response to our Shukke Tokudo priest ordinations here at Treeleaf, rejecting those findings, protective of the interests of the rather conservative and large Lineages, and stating ...
In response, I wrote to the SZBA that:Based on the belief that it is necessary and reasonable to require that the primary relationship between teacher and trainee contain significant physical face-to-face meetings, which is the basis for evaluating a student’s readiness for ordination and eventually membership in the SZBA, the Board believes that the Tokudo ordination itself be performed face-to-face, in the same physical room. This format will be the basis for membership in the SZBA.
Given the serious nature of priest ordination, the dedication and commitment that should be required of the priest trainee, and our tradition's emphasis on face-to-face transmission of the Dharma, we conclude that tokudo ceremonies are most appropriately conducted in person except under rare and extenuating circumstances, such as a deathbed ordination. Exceptions should be made in consultation with the SZBA Board. By extension, transmission ceremonies should likewise be conducted in person.
The SZBA board's decision does not make our novice priests here at Treeleaf less priests, but simply says that anyone who participated in a ceremony using a camera ... instead of standing together in a single room ... cannot join the SZBA. We can live without it.Thank you for your hard work and conclusions, although not the same conclusions as those reached by the Non-Traditional Methods Committee itself.
In any event ... our Sangha will be proceeding with our second Shukke Tokudo ceremony for Ordainees in New York, Austin, Texas and Dublin, Ireland and held from Japan [and in Europe], a face-to-face meeting of each and all with each other and with all the Buddhas and Ancestors, dropping all thought of place and time and distance. We anticipate more such ceremonies in the coming years.
The approval and sanction of the SZBA is not sought or required for our priests, who will each stand on their own merit as priests and prospective Teachers of the Way.
Gassho, Jundo Cohen for Treeleaf Sangha
The SZBA is right to be concerned about the standards and quality of Soto Zen Buddhist Priests in the future. However, the board's decision never gave us a chance to prove the kinds and quality of the priests we can train and produce in the years to come, and just cut us off at the start. We have folks who have the potential, after some years, to be caring, devoted, ethical, gifted priests who they refuse to look at after training (not before) to see who they will have become. They just cut it off at the root.
I also have written them to say ...
Gassho, JundoI, like all members of the SZBA, agree that training and standards are vital, for we cannot risk to let loose on the world clergy and teachers who are ill equipped, ill informed and ill suited for their roles. The core objective of any method of Ordination and Training is, purely and simply, the nurturing of caring, devoted, ethical, gifted, Wise and Compassionate … dare such be said, Realized-&-Realizing … Soto Zen Buddhist Clergy dedicated to saving all sentient beings, good spiritual friends and teachers of the Sangha, knowledgable in our History and Traditions (both our Traditions as traditionally practiced and our Traditions as re-expressed and evolving for new times and settings).
The question, though, is whether there is only one, orthodox Pathless Path to this Goalless Goal, or many paths. In my view, it is not a matter of whether one is a graduate of the Zen equivalent of Harvard, working folks’ night school, home schooling or the “school of hard knocks”. In fact, there have been many varied doorways to Priesthood, Training and Transmission which have been recognized and cherished through the millenia in Buddhism, no less in Zen and Soto Zen Buddhism. Not all priests … nor even all Great Zen Ancestors, male and female … entered and walked through the doorways you describe. The question is not the way to arrive there, but the priest nurtured and created … and our Treeleaf Sangha will serve as a haven for the good ones, gifted ones, the rebels and reformers, poetic dreamers and mold breakers,the special outsiders of the Soto Way, wondrous and sincere, ethical, caring Teachers wherever they are found even if not fitting someone’s image of “orthodoxy”. Our “monastery” is in the mountains, in the cities, on the streets, in the nursery and household kitchen, in the offices and factories, in buses and cars, in the cancer ward and hospice, in this world and in all others. All are Sacred, all are sites of dedicated training and effort when tasted as suchness with a heart sincere and Wayseeking Mind.
Let me emphasize that we do not believe that our Lineage's way is the exclusive way of Training or Pracitice, the only way to define a “priest” or even the best way for all people. Far from it! There are many paths up and down the mountainless-mountain, many ways of Training and many kinds of “Zen Priest”. We need them all, from Chinese Hermits in the hills of Yulun, to traditional parish priests in Japan tending a graveyard, liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and experimenters all within what is “Soto Zen Buddhism”. All of us have a role to play.
What matters is not the method or place of Training, but the quality of the priest … the Bodhisattva … whom results. Do no look only at the method or the time clocked in a certain setting, but instead see the beautiful, caring ministers and Teachers who can flower in varies climates and soils and seasons.
I made a mistake of trying to work within a system (the SZBA) which, while well meaning, also represents several strongly vested interests intent on hammering down the nails that stick out, a tyranny of the majority a bit set on preserving their turf. I don’t want to get involved in politics any more. We are convinced of the Rightness of our ways of Training and nurturing Soto Zen priests, and we plan to continue no matter what the “majority” decides as their personal vision of Orthodoxy.
Look at the results, the people, the Bodhisattvas, and not simply the means.