What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?

Part 8 – What do I have to believe in to become a monk, and when do I get my dharma transmission?

Sometimes people ask me: “What believes do I have to commit to if a become a Buddhist monk at Antaiji? What sutras or prayers do I have to remember to qualify?”

An interesting question. Or maybe I should rather say: Interesting that someone would ask such a question. There is a text written from a Theravada perspectice called Broken Buddha. If you do not know it, I strongly recommend it. The author says that to ordain in the Theravada tradition, you have to answer twelve questions, the first five in the negative, the following seven in the affirmative. These questions are:
1) Do you have leprosy?
2) Do you have boils?
3) Do you have ring worm?
4) Do you have tuberculosis?
5) Do you have epilepsy?
6) Are you a human being?
7) Are you a male?
8) Are you free from debt?
9) Are you free from obligations to the government?
10) Do you have your parent’s permission?
11) Are you twenty years old?
12) Do you have your robe and bowl?

The author goes on to say that “In India today all sorts of disreputable types turn up at the few Thai and Burmese temples in the country and are given ordination as long as they go somewhere else afterwards. They amble off, without training, knowing nothing about the Dhamma, using their robes to make a living and usually giving Buddhism a bad reputation in the process… As with the locals, a Westerner can turn up at a Theravadin monastery in Asia and be ordained almost immediately. In keeping with the Vinaya, he will be asked whether he is a human, whether he is a male etc. But he will not be asked what most intelligent people would consider were more pertinent questions like; ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ ‘Have you suffered from mental illness?’ ‘Can you read and write?’ ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ Astonishingly, he won’t even be asked if he is a Buddhist! Where else in the world would it be possible to become a clergyman in a religion before knowing anything about that religion?”

In Antaiji, you have to commit to even less than that. Yes, you should indeed know that becoming a monk is what you really want to do. For that, I used to ask people to stay at least six months at Antaiji before they ordain. now I ask them to commit to three years of practice with the community. But apart from that, I do not expext much. Sure, you should be human. I would not want to ordain your pet. But you do not have to be male. I have ordained women as well. We had people here with ring worm, tubercolosis, metal diseases, even epilepsy. Also people who came strait out of prison and had no other place to go. Sometimes, this can be a major problem and therefore needs to be discussed in advance. I some cases, it might be a reason to consider not living in a community like Antaiji. Agewise, you only have to be ten years old to ordain in Japanese Soto-shu. At Antaiji, I would expect people to be at least 18 years old for a long term commitment. I do not ask for your parents permission though, although it might be a good idea to talk with them about your decision beforehand. But in my opinion, it is your decision, not their’s. One thing I do not ask you though, is: “Are you a Buddhist?” What the fuck is a Buddhist in the first place? I have no idea, and I could not care less.

Therefore, the answer to the first question is: You do not have to commit to any believes and have to remeber nothing in order to ordain at Antaiji. You can not name each single part of the eight-fold path? You are not familiar with the twelve nidānas? You are not sure what to think of the Shushogi”? No problem. Neither am I.

What is more important is what you do as a monk after you ordain. It is really not about signing up to a religious faith or aquiring a new dogma. Quite the other way around, you will have to let go off a lot of things. Sometimes already on the night after the ordination ritual. I used to be a vegetarian from childhood, until I ordained. The monks at Antaiji had prepared beefsteaks to celebrate my ordination! I valuabe first lesson in letting go as a Buddhist monk.

Now to the second question: When can you expect to get your dharma transmission and be a sensei or roshi or what-you-like in your own right?

To be honest, I have no idea what exactly I would expect from someone that I might give shiho (dharma transmission). I have never done it yet. But one thing that is important to me when thinking about shiho is Uchiyama Roshi’s text “To you who has decided to become a Zen monk”. Among other things, Uchiyama Roshi says here:

“For someone who has aroused this mind and aspires to practice the way, what is important is to first of all find a good master and look for a good place for practice. … To practice the Buddha way means to … practice egolessness. … [This] means to let go off the measuring stick that we are always carrying around with us in our brains. For this, you must follow the teaching of the master and the rules of the place of practice that you have decided for loyally, without stating your own preferences or judgements of good and bad. It is important to first sit through silently in one place for at least ten years.”

“If, on the other hand, you start to judge the good and bad sides of your master or the place of practice before the first ten years have passed, and you start to think that maybe there is a better master or place somewhere else and go look for it – then you are just following the measuring stick of your own ego, which has absolutely nothing to do with practicing the Buddha way.”

“Fortunately, there are still masters in Japan that transmit the Buddha-Dharma correctly in the form of zazen. Follow such a master without complaining and sit silently for at least ten years. Then, after ten years, sit for another ten years. And then, after twenty years, sit anew for another ten years. If you sit like this throughout thirty years, you will gain a good view over the landscape of zazen – and that means also a good view of the landscape of your own life.”

Someone told me that Uchiyama Roshi called the bureaucratic Soto-shu stuff “unnecessary necessities”. I do not know if Uchiyama Roshi would have included shiho in those “unnecessary necessities”. I myself would not call shiho “unnecessary”. Rather, I think of it as a by-product of the kind of practice that Uchiyama Roshi is talking about in the quote above: Unconditional, loyal practice under one teacher without preferences or judgements.

One could counter-argue that Uchiyama Roshi had less than 25 years as a monk when Sawaki Roshi died and he became the abbot of Antaiji. And Uchiyama Roshi gave shiho to some of his students after only three years, so 10 years of practice (let alone 30 years) were obviously not a minimum requirement for Uchiyama Roshi. But still, he says time and again: “Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years, and then for another ten years.”

I have the feeling that Uchiyama Roshi gave shiho to his students when he saw an attitude of unconditional loyality to the buddha dharma. I have never heard of Uchiyama Roshi giving shiho to any of his students who had not really lived with him for a longer stretch of time (like at least 3 years or more).

There is a self-styled Zen master in Germany, Wolfgang Kopp, who claims to have dharma transmission from Francois Viallet (Soji Enku), who was a Frenchman ordained by Uchiyama Roshi in turn. But although Uchiyama Roshi had a lot of sympathy for Viallet, I know that he never gave Viallet shiho either. Because I am sure that Uchiyama Roshi wanted to avoid the confusion that arises when everyone with a little theoretical understanding calls themselves a “Zen master”.

If I might give shiho to a person in the future, I will set a standard for coming generations of practioners at Antaiji. When I practiced with Miyaura at Antaiji, there were some of my dharma brothers who left Antaiji after ten years WITHOUT shiho. In my case, Miyaura Roshi first talked with me about the possibility of shiho after I had lived with him for seven or eight years. Until then, it was never a topic of conversation.

Now, each teacher has their own ideas and ways of practice and that is OK. In general, I think there is something like the r/K selection going on in dharma transmission. “The focus upon either increased quantity of offspring at the expense of individual parental investment, or reduced quantity of offspring with a corresponding increased parental investment” (Wikipedia article). Some teachers give out dharma transmission quite easily to a lot of students, often without any monastic training at all. Some give transmission for a number of kensho experiences, others for signing up to their specific philosophy of “Zen”. That would be an r-strategy of dharma transmission. The hope is that among those many “Zen masters”, there might be one or two who might later develop into genuine teachers.

Dharma transmission at Antaiji, at least as I understand it, was never an r-strategy. Sawaki Roshi had only five dharma heirs, after many decades of teaching Zen. Miyaura Roshi also had only five heirs, and most of those actually lived for close to ten years at Antaiji. The danger with the K-strategy is that you have only a small number of dharma heirs, maybe none at all. But for me, as you might know from the past “What does it take…” series of articles, dharma transmission is not a light issue, and although I have no specific set of conditions for dharma transmission, the words of Uchiyama Roshi are one guideline, sharing one’s life 24/7 for a stretch of many years another, even more important factor.