Saturday, June 5, 2010

Online Zen Priest Ordination?

Online Zen priest ordination? Sounds pretty odd, but it's now happening. Jundo Cohen, of the online practice community Treeleaf, will be conducting home leaving ordination for three people online. He writes:

The ceremony itself will be held with the participants in four separate countries, and our Sangha members observing the ceremony from perhaps twenty countries, often separated by thousands of miles, all linked by modern telecommunications. Training too will combine old ways and some very new ways transcending barriers. We expect the training period will require several years, and there is no promise or expectation of the outcome. The “goalless goal” is the creation of priests who have profoundly penetrated into the way of Zazen, who are ethical, who can serve the community and people who come to them for guidance, and who embody the ways of their Lineage.

I have no idea what to make of this, but it's kind of fascinating to think such a thing is possible. What do you think?


Brikoleur said...

My initial reaction was "mail-order Reverend."

It passed, but I remain extremely skeptical.

I only have very little personal experience to go on, but even that has convinced me that the teacher-student relationship is something that's intensely personal and direct, and I just don't believe it can be moved online without turning it into something else. Sorry. Count me out on this one. It sounds like a recipe for all kinds of weirdness.

I do think the Internet and other ICT technologies can support Zen teaching, though. I don't think you need to meet the teacher face-to-face daily to be able to to study Zen, even at the depth required to become a priest. I just don't believe it can be replaced altogether.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Nathan,

Thank you for taking note. Just to make clear, only part of the training will be online. We have a 33 page outline that spells out how we will handle this.

We are designing a training program following very closely the standards and objectives set forth in the Guidelines for Training Soto Zen Buddhist Priest in the West established by the SZBA, although we are going to be innovative ... employing very traditional, as well as creative and ground breaking methods in the process. In our own Treeleaf Sangha Guidelines for Training Soto Zen Buddhist Clergy (available here for download, 33 page PDF) ...

Training Guidelines PDF

... and borrowing heavily from the SZBA guidelines, we describe our methods and goals this way:

The period of formation that follows upon novice ordination (shukke tokudo) may continue for any number of years prior to possible (although never inevitable) Dharma Transmission, but truly continues as a lifelong endeavor that will sustain individuals dedicated to exemplifying the Dharma and the the Bodhisattva ideal. Completing formal priest training will mean that an individual has internalized the tradition, is capable of transmitting it, and vows to devote her or himself to a life of continuous practice and service.The individual’s dedication to the elements of priest training must enable him or her to maintain a regular, disciplined zazen practice, to instruct and guide others in their practice, to present and discuss the history and teachings of Buddhism and Soto Zen, to perform services and ceremonies in the Soto style as appropriate and required in the circumstance, and to actively nurture and serve both Sangha and the larger community and society.

In addition, priest training must make the individual aware of the highest ethical standards which must always be maintained by a member of the clergy, thereby assisting him or her in maintaining such standards in his or her personal life at all times. Training will also enable the individual to demonstrate personal qualities that inspire trust and confidence and encourage others to practice. Finally, training will enable the individual to clearly understand – and communicate to others – the relationship of Zen teaching and practice to everyday life.



jundo cohen said...

Given the nature of our Sangha transcending place and distance, we feel we must make extra effort to see to the training of individuals who may be living far across the world from their teachers for much of the time, and who will be training in conjunction with family and work responsibilities. We will combine traditional methods and periods of residential training with very new and innovative methods employing modern technology, modern telecommunications, all available internal and outside resources, constant diligence on the part of teacher and student, and great creativity. The individuals selected have already been part of our Sangha for several years, and are each very active there on an almost daily basis. We expect the training period will take several more years, and there is no promise or expectation of eventual Transmission as the outcome. We are well aware that the absence of sufficient training in the teachings and traditions of Soto Zen can give birth to Zen clergy who are ill equipped, ill informed and ill prepared for their role. We realize that we are creating ministers who will have influence over peoples' lives, often in situations of vulnerability and at times of crisis such as divorce, illness or death of a loved one ... and, thus, such persons must be trained to uphold the highest ethical standards, and prepared as ministers and councelors. The point of all this is merely the final product, which is the creation of teachers gifted with profound penetration into the meaning of Zazen, who are ethical, and who embody the ways of our Sangha and this Lineage.

Otherwise, it would be a bad idea!

Gassho, Jundo

Robyn said...

I have some doubts about this just given my own experiences in dokusan - wordless things that happen in there. As much as I have embraced these forms of communication, I think there will never be a substitute for face-to-face teaching and receiving.

Nathan said...

Thanks for stopping by Jundo, and giving some additional info to us.

Robyn and Petteri, I can understand both of your views. I think I share them to some extent. But I'm also interested to see what happens with this.

I do also wonder about assumptions made concerning teacher-student relationships. How many stories speak of monks or nuns who spent very little time in the physical presence of a teacher, and did most of their studying on their own, or with other students? It seems common enough to consider what Jundo's doing a possible extension of that approach.

Brikoleur said...

"How many stories speak of monks or nuns who spent very little time in the physical presence of a teacher, and did most of their studying on their own, or with other students? It seems common enough to consider what Jundo's doing a possible extension of that approach."

But they still did have that periodic physical presence.

Consider romantic long-distance relationships. It's one thing to spend time apart and keep things going with email and chat; it's another thing entirely to dispense with physical meetings altogether. Knowing the other person, from spending a lot of time with them face to face, is the foundation; it's the thing that's being kept going online.

Purely online relationships exist too, but they're not the same thing. They exist in the worlds of fantasy and, depending on who you are, ratiocination. They're two constructed realities interacting.

I'm pretty certain that Zen teacher-student relationships are similar. Cyber-Zen is to Zen what cyber-love is to love. So, sorry, no, I don't think this is a good idea. I think it's much more likely that it'll just result in the emergence of a bunch of "Zen Masters" with fancy robes and very, very badly inflated egos.

Nathan said...


I might be inclined to completely agree with you in a few years. The points you bring up make total sense to me. But first, I'd like to see what develops because maybe we're missing something.


David said...

One major problem with this kind of ordination is that it entirely removes the body and the physical dimension from the experience. In Dogen Zenji's Zen, body and mind cannot be separated.

A major event in the tokudo ceremony is when the ordination master shaves the final remaining lock of hair from the ordinand's head. It symbolizes the last attachment to worldly life, and if there was a single point to say when a person had left home and become a monk, it might be the moment when the shura is shaved off by the master. The master says "This last part is called the shura. It can only be cut off by a Buddha. I am going to cut it off." Needless to say, it is impossible to do this in an online format. The disciple has to shave his or her own shura, effectively self-ordaining. Furthermore, the disciple is not physically presented with robes and bowls by the master, he simply picks them up and puts them on himself. I would have grave concerns about the validity of such an ordination. The same would apply to Jukai and Shiho.

Dogen Zenji devotes an entire fascicle of the Shobogenzo to the importance of face-to-face transmission. It was written in response to some Japanese monk claiming to have received Dharma Transmission from a Chinese master via correspondence. The monk, Nonin, wrote a poem expressing his enlightenment. He sent two disciples to China to present it to a master, who confirmed his understanding and gave him Dharma Transmission. Dogen criticized this harshly, insisting that transmission must be face to face. It might be argued that master and disciple see each other and are virtually face to face, but pixels are not flesh.

A parallel can be found in Catholic ordination. The primary moment is the laying on of hands by the bishop. If the bishop does not physically place his hands on the priest's head, the ordination does not take place.

These are my thoughts on the subject. I would not consider such a method of ordination to be valid.

jundo cohen said...


The disciple has to shave his or her own shura, effectively self-ordaining. Furthermore, the disciple is not physically presented with robes and bowls by the master, he simply picks them up and puts them on himself.

This may be fixating on outer form and missing the heart.

In our ceremony, friends and family members will serve as surrogates for the cutting of the hair and placing of the robes. They we be me and I them ... here there now and then. All the Buddhas and Ancestors will certainly be attending and participating in the ceremony too ... and they express little concern for mental barriers of time and space.

I do, however, agree with the comments by those who say that training online should only be part of the process. Absolutely agreed. This is a slow, multi-year task involving traditional methods of training only supplemented by online communication. I ask people to grasp the multi-faceted nature of the this, and not focus on the word "online" too very much.

I dare say that our priest will come out of this far better than many of the empty robes and inflated egos who have come out of the traditional routes.

Gassho, Jundo

Nathan said...

Glad to see this conversation continue. It's worth having. I'm still interested to see what happens before expressing any definitive judgement, but I appreciate the clarity of others' comments regardless.

David said...

"This may be fixating on outer form and missing the heart."

I'm afraid I have to insist on this point. Family and friends might help with shaving the majority of the head, especially the back where it is difficult for someone new to head shaving to reach, but the shura must be shaved by the master. To do otherwise is simply to fall into what is sometimes called "evil equality," the confusion of absolute and relative. I am you and you are me, but I am not you and you are not me. No one else can take your place at that moment.

One of the profound insights of Dogen Zenji is that there is no "heart" that is separate from the forms. Whether we are talking about a spiritual essence separate from the body or enlightenment separate from practice. Essence and form are of equal value. The truth is manifested in concrete forms and action: cloth, paper, cutting the hair. The particulars of the tokudo ceremony are very important.

Even if we allow that a surrogate might shave the disciple's head, the fact that master and disciple (not to mention others being ordained) are not physically together in the same room makes the whole matter rather sketchy. Some things are simply too intimate to take place in a virtual way. Would an online marriage ceremony in which the spouses were in separate parts of the world be valid? Would cybersex enable them to consummate their virtual marriage? I think not.

There are many benefits and possibilities for the Dharma online, but there are some things that simply cannot be done. I believe that this is one of them. Of course, this is simply my opinion on this matter, but I would love to see it be taken up by Sotoshu, or overseeing bodies like the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America, or the American Zen Teachers Association.

David said...

Another question for Jundo, if it is expected that priest trainees will have some traditional residential training, why not just perform the ordination face-to-face when the disciple is able? An obvious time would be at the conclusion of sesshin, or if they can make a longer stay, at the beginning or end of an ango?

jundo cohen said...

Hi David,

the shura must be shaved by the master... No one else can take your place at that moment.

The hair will be shaved by the master who will be fully there. There is no other place which can be taken in that moment.

Perhaps this requires a certain eye to see. Originally, Taigu and I were to travel there, or they come here. We instead decided to let there be here.

Master Dogen will be present at the ceremony. He has already accepted the invitation. A reading of Shukke Kudoku, by the way, explains the merit of any home leaving ... however imperfect, yet a jewel. He wrote, "Clearly we see that if [a person] shaves beard and hair and wears the kasaya [kesa], even without receiving the precepts, people who serve offering to this [person] will enter the castle of fearlessness ... Remember, if [people] shave their hair and [wear] the dyed robe, even if they do not retain the precepts, they are stamped by the seal of supreme and great nirvana. If a person trouble them, [this person] injures the reward body of the buddhas of the three times."

Master Dogen did not have modern telecommunications. I am a member of the SZBA and AZTA. The announcement was made there as well. Some would do it this way, others not, I am sure, all are interested in how this will go. By the way, the real leap was about 130 years ago, as Zen clergy of Japanese lineages began marrying, having children, wearing street clothes sometimes, and returning to eating meat.

That was the true "break" from old ways and, if so, there has barely been a real Zen "Home Leaving" in Japan or the West since that time.

Respectfully, I think your focus on who cuts whose hair, and who holds the razor and what the razor cuts, is simply misplaced. That razor cuts the barriers of the mind.

Gassho, Jundo

Leaf Dharma said...

As with all things the mind you enter with is the most important thing. While sitting a formal Zen Intensive your thoughts can be miles away from your body that sits on the Zafu. Our daily actions can be unmindful and we can follow years of formal practice and end up like bitter little Zen Master Warner.

Many of us would like to have access to a Zen Temple and Sangha in our backyard but its not practical for everyone.

I think Jundo offers a legitimate compromise. Whether your Mom shaves your head or Buddha himself is not the question. Shaving the inside of your skull is the real trick.

Michael Pockley said...

Perhaps my personal experience of something similar might be of interest.

I was ordained face-to-face, but only after a largely on-line training. My "distance learning" was necessitated by geography: my teacher lives in America and I live in England.

The face-to-face encounter at my ordination was helpful. However, this helpful personal enounter could instead have occurred during training with the on-line part of the process being the ordination.

At the time I saw things differently: it was MY desire that I should be ordained in the flesh. I was attached to the idea of it being "official" - and there is little precedent for on-line ordination. I now realise that this attachment to precedent was a delusion brought on by ego.

An on-line ordination would have been just as meaningful and rather better in terms of my carbon footprint.

To see how I reached this conclusion, you may wish to sit with this koan:-

How can the Master shave a bald man's head?

Anonymous said...

Fear, perhaps, mixed with a solidity in traditional forms, springs from the replies that negate the possibility of authentic Zen priests turning out to be the real deal here. Naysayers put down many new and challenging endeavors that come on the scene in varied walks of life. Yet, many of these same varied explorations turned out to be genuine and of value after the smoke clears. Time is the test of all good things it seems. Let them explore and don't be a hater. You may end up very surprised.

My final thought is that this can be done successfully, with both, face to face teaching and on-line training. I agree that there is a necessity to retain the teacher to student physical presence. I support it, if these two ingredients sustain the exchange. To say it can't be done, is, I think, a little arrogant and judgmental,in a righteous way:
" I..know best." Already strong ego's appear to destroy an attempt to do something good by pioneers of a new way. Step back.

After all, it is mind that is meeting..

Tell someone who earned a degree on-line they are of less value. Then too, it is not so much the on-line element that suggests a weak approach to this..a good teacher can do much good with a good student..even at a distance.

Haters and it. Someday your teacher may be contacting you via Skype.

Five Mountain Sangha provides both on-line and face to face teaching and offers a College of Buddhist Studies with a very reputable teacher with an impressive background. Approved by the late Master Sueng Sahn.

Weird? Mail order? Humility waits. Pride negates. I say, best of luck and never say never. It can work if the ingredients are mixed right.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely interesting. As I hace claimed before: "Nobody really ordains yuo; it is you yourself who decides you want to be a Zen Monk". - So, even if the cremony is an online one, it is your heart that trully decides! - Gasso, Paul Quintero (Zen Monk).

Unknown said...

yes, i agree with is interesting but informative post.thanks for share with us.
get ordained online

Unknown said...
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