On the Priesthood

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This was written in October 1997 in response to questions I received after my tokudo ceremony. I generally feel the same way about the role and the meaning of the priesthood. However, there are two things I would express differently. The first thing is that I no longer use the word priest in reference to myself or other clergy in Japanese lineages. That is because Japanese clergy are not celibate, are not spiritual intermediaries, and are not in charge of officiating at either a literal or symbolic sacrifice. We are more like ministers, in that we have families, facilitate religious meetings and services, and we offer the teachings to those who wish to hear them. The second thing is that I no longer emphasize Buddha Nature the way I did at that time. I no longer equate the Gohonzon with the Buddha Nature, as I think the Gohonzon goes far beyond what is traditionally signfied by the term Buddha Nature in that it represents the Unity of the Trikaya in the person of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha. I would also no longer say that the Odaimoku is for drawing upon the Buddha Nature. Rather, the Odaimoku is the seed or catalyst which acts upon the Buddha Nature, which would otherwise remain hidden and inert. The Buddha Nature is the true nature of reality which is replete with all the qualities of Buddhahood, but it is only realized and expressed through Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. Despite these changes in the way I think about these issues, I offer this essay unchanged as an expression of the thoughts and feelings I had at that time.

"I would also like to congratulate Michael. However, I am not sure what it means to be ordained as a priest in Nichiren Shu. Could someone explain the requirements for ordination, as well as the duties and obligations of a Nichiren Shu priest? Thank you."

Excellent question. In answer, I'll share with you what I understand the training, duties, and obligations of a priest to be:

The Tokudo Initiation Ceremony - The full name is Shukke Tokudo which means "leaving home & attaining the Way." It is the first step in becoming a fully ordained Buddhist priest (bhikshu). In Buddhism, this is commonly referred to as the lower ordination whereby one becomes a novice (sramanera). In effect, one is an apprentice priest under one's master. In the Nichiren Shu tradition, to take this initial step, one must find a priest who is willing to take one on as a disciple and who can vouch for the strength and sincerity of one's practice of the Buddha Dharma. To be initiated means that one will undertake the following:

-- To seek enlightenment. While all those who chant Odaimoku are seeking enlightenment, the one who becomes a priest has the specific intention to make this the central driving intention of one's life and to take responsibility to help encourage the aspiration for enlightenment in others. It is basically a deepening of the fundamental aspiration of all Nichiren Buddhists.

-- To make efforts to cut off the ties of relatives. In other countries, those who become priests will literally cut off all family ties; however, since the 13th century, Japanese Buddhism has been more concerned with actual intentions rather than with living the lifestyle of an Indian mendicant. It is not expected that one should cut off one's family ties, rather, one should realize that seeking enlightenment is a higher priority than the ambitions and expectations that are commonly a part of family life. This does not mean, however, that one can renege on one's family responsibilities in the name of Buddhism. What it does mean is that the fulfillment of family responsibilities must be viewed and lived within the context of the Bodhisattva ideal to save all sentient beings.

-- To train himself by the monastic rules. Again, since the 13th century, Japanese Buddhism has not concerned itself with trying to duplicate the life of 5th century B.C.E. Indian mendicants. However, one should try to abide by the spirit of the Vinaya (the monastic precepts) by living with integrity, courtesy and mindfulness. As Nichiren Buddhists, we must simply ask ourselves if a given course of action, speech or intention is in accord with Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

-- To wear the robe of the Dharma. If I am not mistaken, this is a reference to Chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra entitled "The Teacher of the Dharma" wherein it is written:

If you wish to expound this sutra,
Enter the abode of the Tathagata,
Wear the robe of the Tathagata,
Sit on the throne of the Tathagata,
[And after doing these things,]
Expound it to people without fear!

To enter the abode of the Tathagata means to have great compassion.
To wear his robe means to be gentle and patient.
To sit on his throne means to see the emptiness of all things.
Expound the Dharma only after you do these [three] things!

-- To take the Three Refuges. In Nichiren Shu Buddhism we take refuge in the Original Sakyamuni Buddha of the Juryo chapter, the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching, and the Community of the Bodhisattvas from Underground led by Bodhisattva Visisticaritra who appeared in the Latter Age of the Dharma as Nichiren Shonin.

-- To master the threefold discipline of the precepts, meditation and wisdom. In Nichiren Buddhism this means that we fulfill the precepts by upholding the spirit of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo in all our thoughts, words and deeds in all situations; that we meditate upon the Gohonzon at all times so that we can draw upon the serenity and insight of our own Buddha Nature; and finally to realize for ourselves the wisdom of the Buddha which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

-- To depart from the secular life. Again, this does not mean that we turn our backs on the secular world, but it does mean that we should be "in it but not of it" so to speak. In other words, we strive to see the vanity inherent in secular ambitions and distractions and strive instead to wholeheartedly see and live the Buddha Dharma in every situation that we are in.

-- To have faith in the Buddha. This is the same as having faith in Namu Myoho Renge Kyo for that is the Truth of the Buddha's life and teachings. To have faith in this sense is to realize that we can entrust ourselves to Namu Myoho Renge Kyo and not to seek true happiness anywhere other than in the Treasure Tower which resides within the depths of our own lives.

-- To observe the precepts. Again, not the letter but the intention of the Vinaya. In this case, the Diamond Chalice Precept of wholeheartedly upholding Namu Myoho Renge Kyo in all circumstances.

-- To protect the Dharma by upholding the true teaching and correcting any misrepresentations (slander) of the Buddha Dharma. Protecting the Dharma also means striving to strengthen and maintain the community and to share the teachings with others.

In taking the Tokudo initiation, one is making the commitment to endeavor in all of these things. In addition, one is making the commitment to cooperate with one's teacher in transmitting the Lotus Sutra to posterity, generation after generation.

After the Tokudo, the new novice is sent to the Docho Registration at Kiyosumidera (where Nichiren was ordained and studied Buddhism as a child) at the earliest opportunity. (I will hopefully be going in April).

For the next few years the novice is expected to study, practice and develop his/her faith under the guidance of the teacher. This includes learning to chant the sutra and learning how to conduct the various services. One will then be tested in one's ability to perform these services and also in Buddhist doctrine.

When the teacher feels that the disciple is ready, the novice will be sent to the 35 day Shingyo Dojo at Mount Minobu, where one will complete one's training and receive the higher ordination as a full-fledged priest.

As an aside, I would like to point out that this is open to women as well as men (in fact there is already a fully ordained American woman priest who lives in L.A.). Women, like the men, can also have families and function as priests.

Also, there is no sense in which the priests are considered superior to the lay people. The key difference is that the priest have the responsibility to propagate the faith, uphold the standards of Nichiren Buddhism and perform the various services that may be required. This is a functional difference and not an essential one. If there is any "essential" difference between the clergy and the laity, it would only be in the fact that the clergy have made a public committment to take responsibilty for upholding the faith, practice and study of Nichiren Buddhism for the community, but this does not mean that the laity can not or should not strive to do the same. Basically, the role of the clergy is to serve and facilitate the practice of Nichiren Buddhism for the laity, it is not to practice for the laity or to in any way act as intermediaries between the laity and Gohonzon.

Also, in Nichiren Shu Buddhism there is no talk of a "blood lineage" or any kind of esoteric transmission such as found in Zen. We all directly inherit the Wonderful Dharma from the Original Buddha Sakyamuni himself. The Odaimoku is how this "transmission" from the Buddha to ourselves expresses itself in terms of our day-to-day lives within the conventional reality of tradition, culture, geography and history. The timeless and placeless transmission which is the ceremony-in-the-air, however, can only be realized each one of us for ourselves through the awakening of faith in Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. All the clergy can do is keep this tradition alive so that others may have access to it, but the clergy do not by any means hold a monopoly on enlightenment, they simply mark the path and point to the moon.

As for the Eye-Opening Ceremony, in Nichiren Shu Buddhism only the priests are trained to perform this and bestow Mandalas upon the lay-believers. However, this does not mean that they control the Gohonzon. The Gohonzon can never be possessed, bestowed, hoarded or taken away. The Gohonzon is the Buddha-nature itself, the consecrated Mandala merely expresses it for those believers who wish to enshrine one and who have demonstrated their strong and sincere practice. The practice of Nichiren Buddhism does depend upon the Gohonzon, but it does not depend upon the possession of a Mandala or any other object of worship. The Mandala's are consecrated only by those who have demonstrated their correct understanding and appreciation of what they are bestowing only upon those who have demonstrated their correct understanding and appreciation of what they are receiving. The use of the Eye-Opening Ceremony is the time honored way in Buddhist tradition to officially and mindfully recognize the possession of the Ten Worlds by otherwise ordinary scraps of paper and chunks of metal or stone. It is insight into the deep functioning of the Buddha-nature which transcends even the distinction between animate and inanimate which matters here, and not the form or appearance. Preserving the deep significance of this act and preventing it from degenerating into idolatry or confusion with the true Gohonzon is the reason that the Nichiren Shu reserves this ceremony for those who have been properly trained to do it - namely the clergy. The reservation of the Eye-Opening Ceremony to the clergy, then, is a form of quality control in regard to the Mandalas and other ritual objects. It is not, however, a means of controlling access to the Gohonzon.

Well, that is how I understand the role of the clergy in Nichiren Shu Buddhism. There are many other things that I could say. I also might be mistaken in regard to several points. I hope that in the future, I can correct any mistakes and further clarify the meaning of the priesthood both for my own sake and for all of those here on the NBF who would like to understand the role of the clergy better.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1997. 2002.

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