Shukke tokudo is the ceremony in which you ordain as a priest. Ordination eventually allows you to conduct various ceremonies that you wouldn’t do otherwise in this tradition. Also – not necessarily but normally – if at some future date you are going to receive Shiho or transmission you need to have been ordained. But let me come back to that later because it’s important me.
The vows that we take in receiving tokudo are not that different to the precepts we undertake to keep, in the jukai ceremony. However, shukke tokudo carries with it the idea of “leaving home to enter the Way.” I used to think this meant one literally left home and became either a monastic or travelling monk. Historically this would have been the case. Nowadays my own understanding is that as a monk you aspire to be “at home” wherever you are.
Wherever you are in the world, you’re at home. That’s what “leaving home and entering the Way” now means for me.
The tokudo vows are similar to jukai vows, but there is a deeper commitment to them. As a monk there is an intrinsic and exoteric commitment that your life is the life of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And that most importantly you are not only working towards your own clarity, development and growth as a human being, but you’re also absolutely committed to work in that way for other folk.
Ordained monks also wear different and certainly more cumbersome robes than lay practitioners. Within a practice setting the voluminous nature of the robes requires you to remain present and aware in each of your movements and also they set you apart and because of that there is an external pressure to maintain your focus and vows. Nowadays in the West robes are normally only worn regularly in residential centres or on retreat or for ceremonial purposes. For this reason for those receiving tokudo who lead a normal life there is much more of a responsibility to sustain an inner sense of their commitment and the change that it’s made in their life. It’s not going to be externally seen and checked anymore, so it requires more inner commitment, and inner integrity, to sustain. It is most important to remember this.
After tokudo there is much more expectation from me of what I want from you. I will have a real expectation that you will uphold the traditions of the practice and what it means to be ordained. For example, just to give a brief flavour, the Japanese Soto school of America has the following guidelines for Soto Zen priests (the seven principles of training).
- Deepening understanding through personal effort,
- Working with a teacher,
- Studying Buddhist literature, and
- (the most important for me) Sustained effort.
Let’s just get back to that thing about transmission only coming through ordination: the whole thing about transmission is problematical for me, because somehow the idea has developed that we’re not successful in this tradition unless we receive transmission. It’s absolute nonsense. As a layperson or monk who has been in the practice for a long time, there are many different ways in which you can teach, and even just by being who you are, you teach. Regardless of who’s empowered you, or what rituals you’ve been through, if your commitment is powerful and strong and has that sustained effort and endurance that I’m talking about, then hopefully you will freely manifest your true nature. And that is the best teaching. The absolute best teaching to offer to other folk.
Q: You talk about tokudo as becoming a priest, rather than what people normally think of it, becoming a monk…
There’s a lot of difficulty around what to call a Zen monk. Some people prefer to be called priests, some people prefer to be called monks. Incidentally, men and women are both “monks,” there’s no separation, no gender difference between men and women monks in this tradition, both are called monks, both are called priests. I suppose I would only call myself a priest if I was involved in ceremonies to do with births or weddings, or those things which we understand a priest would normally do. Otherwise people get confused.
But there’s also confusion about “monk”, because in the West people think of monks as (1) being celibate, and (2) living in a monastery. And neither of those are true within this tradition. They haven’t been since the Japanese Meiji Restoration (1867).
Before that, if you were a monk, you were supposed to be celibate. Of course many of them were not which is why they changed it, they went with the flow.
Q: Some of us think the same thing about priests…
It’s true, but they haven’t gone with the flow yet, they’re still holding out!
Q: For everybody who’s wearing robes, particularly these [indicating koromo and kesa], it’s a deliberate encumbrance, isn’t it?
Yes, this whole thing is designed specifically to make sure that you stay absolutely present. Because if you forget for a moment what you’re doing or where you are, you’re just all over the place. These things will trip you up! You try and do jobs with sleevage like that! Even when you sit down, you’ve got to get it all tucked up and everything in place. So it’s consciously designed to keep you aware.
Q: [Tenshin] Roshi says the robes train you.
Oh, they train you for sure, they do. For some of us it’s more of a struggle than others – for me it was, and it still is, a struggle. Other people can be immediately graceful in robes and can handle them with aplomb. For me it is still a work in progress