On Becoming A Novice Chan Priest

The robes are on their way; they should be here at the end of the month.

Then, I’ll go through a little ceremony with my teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg of Morning Sky Zen, a Chan hermit tradition of the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha in the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun.

I’ve had a long, hot and cold relationship with the priesthood throughout life. It started when I was about 11, when I experienced a small glimpse of Silent Illumination while meditating during communion at the local Catholic Church.

Back then, I still believed in God, heaven, and souls. Something about that moment made me want to eventually become a Catholic priest. I became an altar boy and started going through in-depth Bible study.

Then I started asking questions that Father Driscol either gave stock, dissatisfying answers to, or he couldn’t answer at all. I asked things like, “If heaven’s eternal, wouldn’t it get boring after awhile? If God knows everything, then how do we really have freewill? Why does God let bad things happen to good people, even ones who’ve been absolved of all their sins? Why don’t animals have souls?”

Then I started doubting hell and the devil. From there, I started doubting the Christian version of God. That doubt started a 10 year journey through the world’s religions and philosophies. Throughout all that, I didn’t just want to know, I wanted to share what I knew. Even though I’d given up the idea of being a Catholic priest, I thought I could still be a guru or philosopher or something.

After an extended stay in atheism and nihilism, I stumbled on Soto Zen six years ago—almost to the day. It clicked right away, and I’ve never totally left Buddhism since then (even if I did wander around quite a bit within it).

Two years ago, I still wanted to be somebody. I wanted to throw on a robe, get a fancy Dharma name like some of my Zen friends, and get to work helping people Wake Up.

But, then life started getting darker and darker. Slowly, angst, anguish, and sour encounters with a few teachers took the wind out of my sails. Forlorn love, death, and illness seemed to consume everything, and all the meditation methods I tried just opened the door to disappointment, fear, apathy, and pain.

Then, one cold winter morning, strangled by anxiety, I went out into the snow and said, “No,” to everything. Screamed it across the field. Then, all boundaries seemed to disappear like they were never there. There was no body, no mind, no Buddhism, no Zen, no people to help, and no one to feel fear.

Then, I laughed. Because the snow was cold, and the sky was bright and blue.

After that, it still took me awhile to request ordination. My motivations had changed. I didn’t want to be a Chan priest anymore. My focus turned to just being authentic, and letting all beings be themselves. Also, I was concerned about destroying the lineage, since institutions and I have never meshed well (I’m basically an empathetic sociopath). And I was unsure about even fitting in with the tranquil, serene stereotype of Chan.

But then, it seemed like being ordained was a natural part of “my” practice. In the end, I’ve only ever glimpsed Silent Illumination via one method: the Inexhaustible Lamp. That’s from the Vimalakirti Sutra. The Dharma’s likened to a shining lamp that lights other lamps, which then light other lamps as well until the whole universe is aglow.

It’s just a metaphor, of course, and it’s a little too sticky. Really, it’s more like a hall of mirrors, each one reflecting the same lamp, even though there’s actually no lamp in the hall at all. There we go.

My genuine practice can only be done with other people. It’s a luminous, playful dialogue that points equally back at everyone involved. Just Sitting, Huatou, Buddha recitation, Samatha, Vipassana, etc., are all great methods, but my practice is—and has always been—communication. Communion. The methods just help us listen to what the moment has to say, and it’s only ever saying one thing: Just This.

Communication is the practice of Zen Priests. Robes and certificates are just symbols, silly props we can use to play dress up. Dharma names are no different than wind in the trees, a burrito fart, or the croaking of frogs gathered around a flooded field.

However, what they point to is that Inexhaustible Lamp. That Lamp is the why behind the robes, behind the vows, behind the teachings and methods. Behind everything, including suffering.

I can’t really answer the question any clearer than that. If pushed, I’d just say:

2 thoughts on “On Becoming A Novice Chan Priest

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