The Role of the Clergy

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Here again I was answering questions people had for me about the priesthood.
This was written for the internet in December 1999.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Here are some of my thoughts about the role of the clergy and the relationship between the clergy and the laity. Again, this is off-the-cuff, so don’t expect this to be a thesis. Let me begin by sharing with you a passage from the opening of the Nichiren Shu handbook:

Our faith does not differentiate ministers from lay followers. The minister’s base of activities is in a temple, church, or association, where they are responsible for personal and social dissemination of our faith, for studying the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shonin, and for conducting Buddhist ceremonies. While living a secular life, lay members are responsible for working hard at their faith and training, and practicing the teachings. In this way we spread the true and wonderful aspects of the teachings. Only with unity and cooperation between ministers and lay members can we strengthen the faith in Nichiren Buddhism.
(Shingyo Hikkei: A Handbook for Members of the Nichiren Order, p.1)

Note that it says that minister and lay followers are not differentiated except in terms of their lifestyles and spheres of influence. Here in America, even these things are inconsequential, as I am a clergyman who works full time and has a family and my base of operations is my home as much as the San Jose Temple. Secondly, notice that the passage says that there should be cooperation between the clergy and the laity, NOT submission of the laity to the clergy.

As for Nichiren, the Gosho, “How those initially aspiring to the Way can attain Buddhahood through the Lotus Sutra” states:

Only when one understands all this clearly and has faith in it can the power of the Law be manifested and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas bring benefit to the people. To illustrate, in kindling a fire, three things are needed: a good piece of steel, a good flint and good tinder. The same is true of prayer. Three things are required--a good teacher, a good believer and a good doctrine--before the prayers can be effective and disasters banished from the land.

A "good teacher" is a priest who is innocent of any wrongdoing in secular affairs, who never fawns upon others even in the slightest, who has few desires and is satisfied with little, and who is compassionate, a priest who trusts to the scriptures, reads and upholds the Lotus Sutra and also encourages others to embrace it. Such a priest the Buddha has praised by calling him, among all priests, the finest teacher of the Dharma.

A "good believer" is one who does not depend upon persons of eminence nor despise persons of humble station, who does not rely on the backing of his superiors nor look down on his inferiors, who, not relying upon the opinions of others, upholds the Lotus Sutra among all the various sutras. Such a person the Buddha has called the best of all people.

As for a "good doctrine," the Buddha has told us that this sutra, the Lotus, represents the foremost among all doctrines. Among all the sutras the Buddha "has preached," among those he "now preaches," and among those he "will preach," this sutra is designated as foremost, and therefore it is a "good doctrine."

This is very good advice we should all reflect on. However, we should also keep in mind that Nichiren constantly reminded his disciples to follow the Dharma and not the Person. These were actually the words of Shakyamuni Buddha. The very same Buddha who once made the following remarks about noble friendship:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara. There Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues.”

"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path. (Samyutta Nikaya XLV.2)

It seems strange that the Buddha would tell us to rely only on the Dharma in one place and then tell Ananda that the whole of the holy life is to have good friends. This is not a contradiction however. The point is that the Dharma is the true entity of ichinen sanzen (three thousand realms in one thought/moment), and ichinen sanzen embraces our relationships with ourselves, with others and with the world. This means that the quality of our relationships is very much an expression of our realization of the Truth of ichinen sanzen. Does anybody remember the term esho funi? It means the non-duality of self and environment. If we have good friends around us who encourage us in our practice, help us to deepen that practice, and even point out our errors or shortcomings in a healthy and constructive way, then this is a reflection of the Wonderful Dharma taking center stage in our inner lives.

Bringing this back to the role of the clergy and the relationship of the clergy to the laity, it seems to me that the real role of the clergy is to make themselves available to others as “good friends” who lead others to the Dharma by example, NOT by authority. If they are not doing this, then they are only dress-up priests, priests in name only. Related to this, no one should gain anything by becoming a Buddhist minister. Instead, becoming a Buddhist minister should be seen as taking on a very grave responsibility. In addition, no lay person should think that their enlightenment depends upon getting something from the priests. The Dharma is not a “thing” that can be kept, bestowed, received or transmitted except in a rhetorical sense. The priest’s role is to facilitate the practice of the laity, not to do it for them.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999, 2002.

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