Come, Monk

Narrative of a talk I gave at
Clouds in Water Zen Center on 25 September 2016.

Last Saturday was a very auspicious occasion. We held a ceremony to ordain two new priests in our community at Clouds in Water. Genjo Sam Conway was ordained by Byakuren Ragir, and Shojin Be Alford was ordained by Sosan Flynn. This is not the kind of thing that happens very often - I was working on a talk about a completely different subject when it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to talk a little about ordination in our tradition, and something about the history and practices associated with it.

I’m going to explore a bit about the history of ordination and the precepts in our lineage and a little about the path of priest ordination in Soto Zen Buddhism in the 21st century U.S. I’d like to express something about why I decided to pursue ordination and what I think it means to be a zen priest.


The original form of ordination was called the “Come, monk” formula. The Buddha’s very early disciples, before the establishment of a formal Buddhist order with procedures for admission, were ordained this way. At this point, if a spiritual seeker (this did include some women, although it was mostly men) wanted to be the Buddha’s disciple the Buddha would ordain them by saying:

“Come, monk, the Dharma is well proclaimed; live the holy life for the complete ending of suffering”.

Obviously this was a very simple way to do it. No rehearsal, ceremony, or reception afterward. In spite of the simplicity, it did have a pretty cool finale: some literature says that after the Buddha uttered the phrase making them his disciples, “…they found themselves shaved, covered with the robe and provided with the alms-bowl and the pitcher that ends in the beak of a bird; having beard and hair of seven days, they appeared with the proper aspect of monks who had received ordination a hundred years ago.”

Dogen writes in the chapter of Shobogenzo called Leaving the Household:

Mahakashyapa followed the World-Honored One, aspired to leave the household, and expressed hope to awaken all beings.

The World Honored One said, “Come, monk.”

Then, Mahakashyapa’s hair dropped all by itself and a Kashaya wrapped around his body.


As the sangha grew, they lived and practiced together. When a group of people lives together it doesn’t take long to discover the challenges of living in community. Originally the Buddha and his disciples lived and practiced together during the rainy season, and they traveled throughout India teaching the rest of the year. These rainy season residencies together are the origin of our angos, or practice periods. As they lived together a set of regulations for the monastic order called the Vinaya was created. Each time one of the Buddha’s disciples made a mistake, the Buddha said “don’t do that again” and that rule was added to the regulations along with the origin story for the rule. The Vinaya has about 250 rules for monks, and another 100 additional rules for nuns. At this point (and still today) the essential meaning of becoming a monk or nun was receiving the precepts. The ceremony for conferring the precepts was held in a place called a “sima” or ordination platform. This is a consecrated space outlined by some kind of boundary – precepts could not be given outside of this kind of space. Monks also gathered twice a month to recite the precepts on this platform or sima.

In the Buddha’s time there was a pretty flexible view of these regulations. Rules were made in response to situations in the sangha, but exceptions or changes were often also made as was required by the conditions. 

In the Vinaya we find these two rules set one after the other (edited for length a little bit). First:

Now at that time the Blessed One walked up and down in the open air unshod. Noticing that, the Thera Bhikkus also went unshod when they were walking. But though the Master and the Thera Bhikkus went unshod, the Khabbbaggiya Bhikkus walked with coverings on their feet.

The temperate Bhikkus were annoyed, murmured, and became angry, saying "How can the Khabbaggiya Bhikkus walk shod when the Master and the Thera Bhikkus walk unshod?" They told this to the Blessed One.

'Is it true, what they say, O Bhikkus, tha the Khabbaggiya Bhikkus walk shod, though the Master and the Elders walk unshod?'

'It is true Lord.'

He rebuked them, then addressed the Bhikkus: 'None of you is to walk shod when your teachers or those who rank as your superiors are walking unshod.

And immediately following:

Now at that time a certain Bhikku had an eruption on his feet. They used to carry that Bhikku out when he wanted to ease himself. The Blessed One was passing through the sleeping places, saw them doing so, and said, 'What is the disease from which this Bhikku suffers?'

'This venerable brother has an eruption on his feet, Lord, and we are carrying him out to ease him.'

Then the Blessed One addressed the Bhikkus saying, 'I enjoin the use of foot coverings by one whose feet hurt him or are blistered or who has an eruption on his feet.'

The Buddha’s view of the meaning of ordination was also quite flexible. Dogen illustrates that with this story in the chapter Leaving the Household:

“When the Buddha was at Jeta Grove, there was a drunken Brahman. He went to see the Buddha and asked him to make him a monk. The Buddha told the monks to shave the Brahman’s head and let him wear a buddha robe. When the man became sober, he was shocked to see himself turned into a monk, so he ran away.

The monks asked the Buddha, “Why did you allow that drunken Brahman to become a monk? When he saw what you had done, he ran away.”

The Buddha said, “That Brahman would never intend to leave the household even for innumerable eons. But, because he aroused a faint aspiration when he was drunk, due to such causes and conditions he will leave the household and attain the way in the future.”

The regulations also changed in various ways as Buddhism was transmitted from culture to culture. For example, monks in India supported themselves by begging. They begged for food in the morning and were forbidden to eat after noon. When Buddhism moved from India to China this regulation was no longer viable – there was no tradition of supporting religious mendicants in China. Monks had to grow their own food (agriculture had also been forbidden in India). In addition, it was cold in China so monks needed to eat in the evening as well. We acknowledge the tradition of not eating after noon today in the way the we regard our evening meal when eating in a formal oryoki style (sesshin, for instance). In fact, we call it medicine instead of a meal. We also don’t do the chanting done at breakfast and lunch, and we don’t use the largest bowl in our oryoki set, which is considered to be Buddha’s begging bowl.


As groups of Mahayana practitioners arose, they distinguished themselves from so-called Hinayana practitioners in various ways. Similar to the original simple “come, monk” formula for ordination, the early Mahayanists took a very simple bodhisattva vow: to achieve Buddhahood in order to liberate all beings. Eventually more formal codes of conduct arose - the set of precepts that were transmitted in our lineage originate in the Bonmokyo (Brahma’s Net Sutra). Although the Bonmokyo is reputed to have been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Kumarajiva, it was most likely written originally in Chinese in the mid-5th century CE.  In this sutra we find 10 major and 48 minor precepts. These are known as the Bodhisattva Precepts and are received by both monks and laypeople in the Mahayana tradition. Monks also continued to receive the Vinaya in the traditional way.

There is a noticeable difference in the feeling of the Bodhisattva Precepts as opposed to the Vinaya code. The rules in the Vinaya are generally quite practical and not subject to a lot of interpretation. For example:

--A deliberate lie is to be confessed

--Should any bhikkhu set a bed, bench, mattress, or stool belonging to the Community out in the open — or have it set out — and then on departing neither put it away nor have it put away, or should he go without taking leave, it is to be confessed.

-- Should any bhikkhu chew or consume staple or non-staple food at the wrong time, it is to be confessed.

The Bodhisattva Precepts leave quite a bit more room for interpretation, and in fact the author of the entry on the Bodhisattva Precepts in the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism asserts that “…one of the secondary infractions of the bodhisattva code is not to engage in killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying divisive speech, harsh speech, or senseless speech when in fact it would be beneficial to do so.” An example of this is the precept against speaking about the faults of others. It’s not difficult to imagine how this precept could be misused to cover up abuses of power in the Buddhist community. The Bodhisattva Precepts are not rules that we can simply follow. They require us to be engaged with the world around us and to make decisions about what would be most helpful in the current situation.


The essence of the tradition Vinaya stayed intact through all this, and everyone ordained in any Buddhist tradition throughout the world still receives those 250 or 350 precepts. Every tradition, that is, except ours and almost all others that come from Japan.

In order to be ordained and receive the Vinaya precepts, in addition to there being a Precept Platform, there must be also be a preceptor and 10 other monks who have received the Vinaya. Around the time of what we now call the Golden Age of Zen Japan had largely cut off ties with China. This meant that in 8th century Japan there weren’t 10 fully ordained Buddhist monks in Japan so it wasn’t possible for Japanese Buddhists to be ordained as monks or nuns. The Japanese had been inviting teachers from China to come, but it seems there weren’t any who wanted to make that journey. Finally, a monk named Ganjin agreed to come and bring around 30 of his disciples. Over the course of about 10 years (beginning in 743) they tried to come, but each time there was a problem: once a typhoon destroyed their boat, another time they were blown off course to Viet Nam. In the end, in 754, they succeeded in making the voyage. By this time Ganjin was blind. This was the first time Vinaya tradition existed in Japan. Ganjin went on to found Toshodaiji, which was and still is the main monastery of the Ritsu (Vinaya) school of Buddhism in Japan. When he arrived they built an ordination platform, he conferred precepts on the emperor, but the Ritsu Shu was never widely accepted in Japan.

In contrast, the next important figure in this story is Saicho (767 – 822 CE). Saicho is one of the most important figures in the history of Japanese Buddhism and the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan. Eventually the Tendai school grew to become the largest and most popular sect. It had a dominating presence in the social, political, and even military spheres in Japan for hundreds of years. After returning from China to Japan and establishing a center for Tendai practice on Mount Hiei, Saicho, who had received the Vinaya precepts, decided to give them up, declaring that in order to be a Tendai monk one only needed to receive the 10 major and 48 minor Bodhisattva precepts from the Bonmokyo, not the full Vinaya. Saicho decided to do this because he believed that Japan was a fully Mahayana country, and anything from the so-called Hinayana tradition was not necessary. After this all Buddhist schools in Japan except the small remaining Ritsu (Vinaya) school conferred only the Mahayana Bodhisattva precepts, not the Vinaya. This happened only in Japan – the full Vinaya is necessary for ordination in every other Buddhist country.

By the time of Dogen in the 13th century the common belief was that they were living in the degenerate age and all Buddhist practice, including following the precepts, could no longer be effective. Dogen did not accept this viewpoint. Again, in Leaving the Household he wrote,

“Clearly know that the attainment of the way by all buddhas and ancestors is only accomplished by leaving the household and receiving the precepts. The life vein of all buddhas and ancestors is no other than leaving the household and receiving the precepts. None of those who have not left the household are buddha ancestors. To meet a buddha and to meet an ancestor is to leave the household and receive the precepts.” (trans. Tanahashi)

To leave the household means to be ordained as monk. Does Dogen mean that only ordained monks can attain the buddha way? That is one possible interpretation, but that’s not how I read it. To me, leaving home does not necessarily mean literally leaving one’s home. I think it means to vow to leave behind greed, anger, and ignorance, the three poisons. Behavior based on those three poisons is our karmic home. I think anyone can leave this home by taking the Bodhisattva vows and taking up the practice of living their lives based on the Bodhisattva vows rather than our karmic direction impelled by greed, anger, and ignorance.

Dogen also says that to meet a buddha or ancestor is itself to leave home and receive the precepts. I think we should investigate what it means to truly meet someone. When we encounter someone outside ourselves we break down the barrier we have imagined between ourselves and the rest of the universe. This kind of meeting is a manifestation of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings of dependent co-arising and emptiness. When we intimately encounter those teachings with our bodies and minds, this is itself to receive the precepts. As usual, Dogen’s view is unique and turns our usual thinking on its head.

In Soto Zen, the tradition we receive from Dogen Zenji, we receive 16 precepts – the 3 refuges, the 3 fold pure precepts, and the 10 grave precepts. This is an adaptation of the Mahayana Bodhisattva precepts that come from the Bonmokyo. The precept ceremony we still practice today is basically the same as the ceremony for transmission of the precepts that Dogen recorded 900 years ago. In our tradition all people receive the same sixteen precepts. There is no separation between monks or priests and laypeople. Japanese Buddhism is very special in its relationship to the precepts and the Vinaya. It’s an open question whether this is a good or bad thing. It can certainly be a cause of confusion, but I think it also reflects Dogen’s teaching and the spirit of the Mahayana and helps to create a more horizontal relationship between priests and lay people.

In 1868 a political upheaval called the Meiji Restoration took place in Japan. This new government had a strongly anti-Buddhist stance. During this time Japan moved away from its feudal system and adopted Shinto as the state religion. The Buddhist precepts had been state law, but this ended in 1872. This change meant that monks could eat meat, and maybe more importantly that they could marry and have families. This again makes Japanese Buddhist monastics unique in that they are the only ones who can marry. My understanding is that this change was made by the Meiji government in order to dilute the power of Buddhist institutions in Japan. A priest with a spouse or partner and children has considerably less time and energy to devote to political power struggles than a single, celibate one.


There are three basic phases for ordained people in our tradition. First, what is sometimes called Novice ordination, then shuso practice, and finally one receives dharma transmission from their teacher. I’ll give a little explanation of what each of these is.

That first phase is what Shojin and Genjo entered into yesterday. Here at Clouds in Water we call it being a Priest-In-Training. Generally, in the U.S. people have already practiced for a substantial amount of time before making this commitment to practice and training. In Japan, however, it is normally very young people (often teenagers) who receive this ordination. Preparations for doing this vary from teacher to teacher. In my lineage, and in Katagiri Roshi’s lineage, the person to be ordained sews their own robes by hand. This means they sew a 7-row okesa, a zagu (the bowing cloth), and a rakusu. In the ordination ceremony they receive all these things from the teacher, along with the koromo (the black robe with the big sleeves), a set or oryoki eating bowls, a paper called a kechimiyaku, which means blood line. This paper documents the line of transmission of the precepts from its recipient (Genjo or Shojin) back to the historical Buddha. We know that in many ways this lineage is fictional in its details, and some aspects of it were created for the purpose of political maneuvering at various points. However, what is not fictional is that this teaching and these precepts have been transmitted from teacher to students for thousands of years by people who have devoted their lives to preserving them.

During the last 3 ½ years I have been a priest-in-training. I have been studying and learning in as many ways as possible. Of course I have been studying my teacher’s books and lectures, and also studying the history and foundational literature and thinking in our tradition. I’ve also been really lucky to spend time around several different teachers with different styles and approaches. Watching how they talk to students, how they manage themselves in sesshin, or how they wash dishes has been a really important piece of my education. When I spoke to my teacher about what it means to be ordained he said it means making a transition from being a consumer to being a service provider. In other words, being a priest or monk means making yourself of service to the community. It’s normal for people to perceive those of us wearing these beautiful robes as being something special, but at least from my perspective it’s not true. It is true that it requires a special dedication to working for the Dharma, but the essential practice of a priest is not necessarily different from anyone else. We should see ourselves as supporting from below, not above, the rest of the sangha.

Being shuso is the next marker of a new phase in one’s practice. Shuso means head monk or head student. One is shuso for the length of an ango (practice period) – usually 2 or 3 months. The tradition is that the shuso shares the teacher’s seat with the abbot of the monastery. For a long time, the only thing I really knew about shuso practice was that it is the shuso’s job to clean the bathrooms. That’s true, actually. It is the shuso’s job to support the practice of the community, and become even more visible to the sangha as they begin to move into the role of a teacher. The culmination of the shuso practice is the shuso ceremony in which the shuso, teacher, and sangha acknowledge each other, and the community has the chance to ask the shuso questions about the koan they have been studying and working with over the course of the ango. Our fall ango, or practice period, begins today. We’re having a ceremony immediately after this talk where we will install GD as the shuso for the ango. I hope you all will support her work and practice as she makes this pivot and transformation in her role in the sangha.

There are a lot of ideas about what Dharma Transmission means. It varies widely from lineage to lineage, teacher to teacher. Here is what my teacher, Shohaku Okumura, wrote to his disciples last year on the subject of Dharma Transmission:

As I often say, dharma transmission in our lineage is not receiving certificate to be an enlightened person, or receive authority to be a Zen teacher.

It is simply a passing-rite to be the new phase of practice to prepare to become a teacher.

Japanese Sotoshu has about 15000 temples in Japan that means more priests than the number.

To be temple priests, all of them have to receive dharma transmission.

Dharma transmission is not a way to select enlightened elites.

It is simply a process to be temple resident priests.

No one in Japan think all Soto Zen temple priests are enlightened people or qualified Zen masters.


I received dharma transmission when I was twenty-six years old.

Including myself, no one thought I was ready to teach.

Actually, it took me twenty more years of on-and-on study and practice until I feel I have something to offer as a Zen teacher.

As our practice is good-for-nothing, dharma transmission is also good-for-nothing.

It does not make us great enlightened people.

Rather, we need to be more humble by reflecting how small and deluded we are when we compare ourselves to our ancestors.

Please understand this point regarding dharma transmission.

I was ordained because the practice of zazen, the precepts, and the study of Buddhist teaching changed my life profoundly. Those things came to me in a particular package – Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism from a small, poor temple called Antaiji. This style of practice and study has been transmitted to me and many other people around the world by Shohaku. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to him and to all the people who came before him who devoted their lives to keeping this teaching alive. Since I received all these things in this particular form, my aspiration is to keep that form alive so that other people can encounter it the way I did. I can say, with no false modesty and complete honesty, that I can never measure up to the standard set by Shohaku-san or any of the other people I’m lucky to call teachers. But I do think that each of us is completely unique, and so has their own way of manifesting the dharma as an expression of the functioning of the universe. My aspiration is to continue practicing letting go of my personal agenda by sitting in zazen and carrying that practice as the foundation for the precepts and my life off the cushion.

To conclude I’d like to point out to Shojin, Genjo, and this amazing community that is supporting them and being supported by their practice that Dogen Zenji concludes his chapter called “Leaving the Household” by saying:

…ask, “How much is the merit of leaving the household?”

If someone asks in this way, say, “To the top of the head.”