In a country that prides itself on a secular orientation, there are many people who have questions about the role of religion and of monastics. For Buddhist monks in particular, there is often a lack of clarity about how the lay community can or should interact with them. And in fact, within some American Buddhist communities, particularly in today’s Zen sangha, there are lots of questions about the role of a monk even within the temple or monastery environment, as well as outside of it.
For one thing, in Zen, the term “monk” can be applied to any person of any gender or no gender who has received ordination, and thereby taken the 16 foundational ethical precepts. Or the term “priest” can also be used for them, though it sometimes has the additional connotation of someone who has completed dharma transmission, a milestone which usually indicates someone who has the authority to ordain others. Or the term “nun” can be applied to the ordained sangha who are female. Or the title of Reverend is often used. But, for our purposes, all of these terms are interchangeable ways of speaking about those ordained in Zen. They all have basically the same vows, the same responsibilities and the potential for the same roles.Their activities may differ, but their basic vows do not. Personally, for myself, I prefer the term “nun” or one day if I am a full-fledged teacher, maybe “acharya.”
Practicing in Japan I learned that it’s possible for a monk to simply be the presence of the Dharma in the world. This was particularly obvious when we went on takuhatsu (alms collection walks), a weekly activity at the monastery where I lived for a year and a half. We would go to small towns and villages, dressed in our traditional robes and other monk-type gear, and visit each and every house. No matter the reaction – good, bad or indifferent – the town folk recognized us as monastics. This is important because it is an opportunity for them to encounter the teaching and to notice whether they feel inspired, enraged or something in between. Then, for me, this sense of presence extended to other activities outside the monastery, rituals within the monastery, and finally to everything in my life. I found that my having taken up this life made it possible for others to consider their own responses to the monastic life, either by making it possible for them to feel inspired to practice, generous and giving of their resources and time, or by sparking a sense of separation and difficulty, or some other response. But the critical point was the clarity and authenticity of the interaction. There was no mistaking that we were monks, and that meant that the laity could make clear choices about how to respond to us.
So it seems to me that the point, then, is not that everyone who wants to practice Zen in America should be a monk, but rather that a strong monastic community helps to sustain a strong lay community, and vice versa. A clear role for the monastic makes it more possible for lay people to take up their own practice. And that is the true meaning of sangha.