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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
summer 2005| 54 |buddhadharma The occasion of a priest ordination always brings up questions about what it means to be ordained. We can look at this by examining what ordi- nation has meant in Zen tradition, and also by considering our practice in the present day. When I was about to be ordained in 1969, I asked Suzuki Roshi what it meant to be ordained as a priest and what I should do. He said, “I don’t know.” Then I asked Katagiri Sensei, and he said, “Oh, I don’t know.” I hadn’t asked to be ordained. Suzuki Roshi asked me to, and I was quite sur- prised when he did. I thought that since he asked me, he would at least tell me what to do. But he didn’t tell me much. At that time there were few American priests at the San Francisco Zen Center; I was only the fifth person to be ordained. The first one had left the center, two were in Japan, and the fourth was out of sight. So I didn’t have any role models, except for our Japanese priests: Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Sensei, Chino Sensei, and Yoshimura Sensei. I tried to observe everything Suzuki Roshi did; I would follow him around and imitate him. Suzuki Roshi told me later that there is a practice of follow- ing the teacher’s footsteps: moving as the teacher moves and absorbing the teach- er’s way, to the point where sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the teacher and the student. Without explic- itly saying so, he was drawing me into that as an aspect of my training. Chino Sensei and Katagiri Sensei (as they were known then) taught me how to wear my robes, as well as other things I needed to know. I also learned that it is necessary to ask questions. So little by little, through observation and by asking questions and following closely, I learned something about how to become a priest. Still, I wasn’t told much, and when I did anything wrong, I was scolded. Many times I failed to pick up on things as I should have. There was a good deal of mystery in my relationships with my teachers − this was their style. In the Sixties, our morning service consisted of bowing nine times and chanting the Heart Sutra three times in Japanese. At the end of morning zazen, we recited the robe chant, also in Japanese. One time, Suzuki Roshi and I were in the anteroom at Sokoji and I asked, “What is the meaning of the [robe] chant that we do in the morning right after zazen?” Suzuki Roshi hesitated and Katagiri Sensei started looking through the drawers to see if he could come up with a translation. Suzuki Roshi stopped him and pointed to his heart and said, “Love.” This is how he used to teach. He didn’t like to explain things literally, but he didn’t miss an opportunity to go right to the essence. I began to realize how important not knowing was, even though I felt that I needed some answers. So I practiced with “don’t know” in front of me as my priest’s koan, and it’s still there. From time to time, people want to define a The Zen Priest’s Koan Sojun Mel Weitsman once asked Suzuki Roshi, “What does it mean to be ordained as a Zen priest?” The answer − “I don’t know” − has been his koan for more than thirty years. Sojun Mel WeitSMan iS abbot of the berkeley Zen Center and forMer Co-abbot of the San franCiSCo Zen Center. Zen priest, or the role of the priest, or the functions of a priest. There are historical functions and role model functions; we should know what they are, and practice and absorb them. But at the same time, we must be open to what the present situ- ation calls for and be ready to respond to new situations, differences in culture, and the circumstances of a particular place and time. Suzuki Roshi was con- cerned that in the transition from Japan to America, the true essence not be lost. At the same time, he made a big effort to follow as well as to lead us. Soon after we had established the Berkeley Zendo, I asked him what I should do to help develop the practice. He said, “You can do what you want.” He was giving me permission without telling me what to do, and at the same time observ- ing. When it looked like I was becom- ing arrogant or assuming too much of a teaching role, he would let me know with a remark, or sometimes just a look or a glance. I told him once that I felt his stick was always on my shoulder. He gave me a lot of trust and freedom, and at the same time I felt I was never out of his sight. I think he wanted to see what it would look like to have an American priest develop an American zendo. I think it was something of an experiment for him. During Suzuki Roshi’s time, when things were just beginning, we didn’t study much. Suzuki Roshi went through the one hundred cases in the Blue Cliff Record, and commented on the Lotus Sutra and the Sandokai, and talked about Dogen a lot. That’s what I remember most. He told me he wanted to comment