Buddhist Clergy in America and the 21st Century

Priests at Engaku-ji Temple

I have been pondering what it means to be Buddhist clergy in America and the 21st century lately.

My orientation in this sense is in the non-monastic traditions of clergy. These are largely derived from the Buddhist traditions of Japan but are also present in the Tibetan traditions. Japanese ordination is not derived from the Vinaya, the traditional monastic vows that date from the Buddha’s own life and followers. For a variety of reasons, some of which were clearly political, Saicho, who founded the Tendai school in Japan, promulgated an ordination system that was based on the Bodhisattva Vows and that considered the Vinaya to be “Hinayana” vows. Because of this, the “monks” that one meets from the Japanese traditions are, from the point of view of other Buddhist traditions, not monks at all. In those traditions, monks are Bhiksus (or Bhiksunis if nuns) and that requires that one has received the Vinaya and held to its vows appropriately. This is why a number of Buddhist groups derived from Japan call their clergy “priests” rather than “monks” in an attempt to reduce confusion. In Tibet and the Tibetan disapora, the monastic tradition is intact but there is a long tradition, especially with the Nyingma sect, of family lineages of dedicated practitioners. These practitioners are often trained in monastic schools and are even monks for a while but return their vows and function as dedicated householders with wives and children. The chances are that if you have met many Nyingma lamas in the West, at least a few of them have not been monks. In spite of this, they are clearly still clergy.

In my life, I am clearly a householder. I have a full-time job (thank you, Mozilla!), a wife, and a daughter from my previous marriage. I am also some sort of academic (quality to be debated) looking at studying to receive a PhD focusing on Buddhist religion, especially Japanese esoteric Buddhism and its rituals. I am also a seminarian, as discussed in my post the other day, through the Five Mountain Order. As a seminarian and a practitioner within our school, it is likely that I will be ordained at some point. That is part of the point of a seminary, after all. What does ordination mean here in America in this current time, especially since I won’t be a monastic in the very longstanding Buddhist model? This is the question that I’ve been returning to, off and on, over the last couple of years.

As former Neopagan, this has come up in other contexts before as well. In the past, I’ve functioned as lay clergy and done so in order to serve others. This was the context of my volunteer work at a state prison in Washington state for the pagan inmates incarcerated there. It was also part of my work in smaller, more intimate, circles of people in the past within the pagan community. While I do expect to work with inmates again, in a Buddhist context this time, I’m not much of a minister as people in the West think of their reverend types. Some people in my position, including priests within the Five Mountain Order, seek advanced psychological degrees in order to help other people with their pain and difficulties in this life. I’ve seen this with clergy of other traditions as well. It has become clear at various points that, at least in this time of my life, I’m really not called to that sort of work nor would I likely be very good at it. At the root, I’m not really a “people person” that would be energized or fulfilled by that sort of work. This would make the result of my attempting to do so unlikely to be extremely beneficial to others and akin to smashing a square peg into a round hole. My calling, in some sense, has also been much more on the scholastic end of things. I started down this path because of my own unease with life and questioning of the meaning of things. I study and practice, on one level, to address this. Over time, the Mahayana goal of helping others became clear to me as defining this study and practice but, at the end of the day, I need to practice and study for a variety of reasons.

One of the questions is: if you aren’t going to follow a very Western Christian pastoral model of clergy and you aren’t working within the context of established Buddhism, as in Japan or elsewhere, what is the role for clergy here? We do not live in a Buddhist nation that will support monasticism easily. This is part of why I think that the Japanese model of householder clergy (which is also, in many ways, the Protestant model) will be the strongest here in America. It is very hard to be a Vinaya holding monk in the West, as conversations with those who have previously been such or current are has shown. Our culture simply does not support people who are not self-supporting to a great degree.

For some clergy, their path is obviously a role of service through counseling and other therapeutic work to directly relieve the suffering of others. This also provides a career that is self-supporting and clearly follows right livelihood. What is the role of the scholar who is clergy? Is it simply to be a secular professor in the possibly diminishing Humanities in the University system? It has to be more than the simple translation of Buddhist texts. We have had decades of that, giving us the important Buddhist texts in English, and their are scholars (Buddhist and secular) who are gifted in languages and have dedicated their lives to this task. On a purely practical sense, I expect that if I achieve my doctorate, I’m likely to work in academia (if I can find a job). I’m going into the doctorate without a real plan on how I will shift careers at the end of it. I finally embraced the ambiguities of this because I decided that not following this path was intolerable and something that I would regret in later years.

I do not see the role of ordained clergy to be the setting up of a “Dharma Franchise” of creating their own temple, gathering students, etc. etc. This clearly works in some circumstances where there is need but in many places, such as here in the Bay Area, there is no lack of existing temples, churches, Dharma centers, or whatever you want to call them. Is there really a need for another? Even if there is, setting such things up as a financially self-sustaining enterprise is difficult and often distracting task.

It seems to me that there is some sort of role to be played by Buddhist clergy in society outside of pastoral work or the running of temples. How that will work in practice is something that Buddhist clergy will need to explore over the next few generations. I really am not sure how it will play out. I think this is part of what has driven some of the “Engaged Buddhist” groups that have intermixed their practice with social causes but I am not sure that getting involved in politics in that manner is really an example of skillful means. There is a reason that Buddhists are generally admonished to stay out of politics and worldly affairs. It is quite easy to slip down the slope into compromising ourselves or Buddhist principles by playing politics with causes.

In any case, I would appreciate any thoughts that people might have on this issue. I have no answers, obviously, just the questions that have been occurring to me.

P.S. I’ve also cross-posted this to onesangha.org in order to begin the process of bringing that group blog to life.