In the original sangha of Śakyamuni, ordination meant leaving home and taking full refuge in the community. In our contemporary Western world, however, the word ordination carries with it much more of a connotation of spiritual empowerment. Buddhism differs from many of the traditional faiths, especially Christianity, in that the primary mode of qualification is not simply a seminary style education and professed faith. Although the former is important and can be of immense value in producing thoroughly educated monks and priests, it cannot replace the necessary formal relationship between student and teacher, alongside the internal (rather than merely external form-following) dedication to the Buddhist process.
In one sense, taking the precepts is the full engagement of a community and thus requires presence at the ongoing events and practice of said community and this commitment is a good way to gauge one’s potential readiness for walking the path toward ordination. Formal education is an essential prerequisite, in that one should be well versed in the overall traditions of Buddhism in addition to the practices of one’s own “sect," as well as informed in the world of religion outside of Buddhism as a means of academic qualification on par with Western expectations of the word “ordination." Further, the relationship with a teacher, personal experiential understanding, and insight into the great matter to some degree of depth is absolutely necessary (while not necessarily at the level on par with say teacher recognition), lest we become preachers of mere speculation.
Although it is often stated that Zen is a “special transmission outside scriptures,” this does not mean that formal study is unnecessary. Indeed, we focus on the threefold training: Study, analytic contemplation, and meditation. We accumulate knowledge and insight through each of these paths, and a relationship with a teacher helps us to focus our efforts well. Formal training is also advanced through entry into our affiliated seminary, Buddha Dharma University.
We welcome all people, regardless of sex, age, race, gender, nationality, marital status, and experience, to our community. We recognize that there are many systemic -isms, and we desire not to further these as they typically cause more harm than benefit in the world. We also recognize that many of these biases have existed within Buddhism, such as when considering the place of women in Buddhism.
In summary, there is an intangible something that presents itself to one’s preceptor when a student is ready for ordination that is not so easily identified in any of the above three areas independently, but rather grows from cultivation of all of them and is recognized heart to heart. When this appears in our tradition, one may receive the precepts and become recognized as fully ordained by an ordination council of no fewer than three other fully ordained practitioners. An individual teacher may grant the level of novice to those manifesting the qualities required for initial conversation of ordination, but the final level is a group acceptance into the community of peers.
The requirements for entrance into the ordained community are rigorous and the ongoing responsibilities of ordained members are demanding.
Monastic ordination represents the highest commitment that one can make as a lay student through the realization of the Buddhadharma and to live out of that clear understanding for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Ordained members work with the Zen teachers to develop training forms and lead the Sangha in spiritual practice at their local center. In addition to their own personal practice duties, ordained members lead ceremonies and may be asked by the Guiding Teacher to answer questions at Dharma talks.
Monastics also make themselves available to perform wedding ceremonies, birth dedication ceremonies, and memorial ceremonies for the general public as their faith moves them. Ordination involves a lifelong commitment to the practice and realization of the Dharma. The Novice Monk ordination is an opportunity to deepen the commitment to practice and to live the vow to help others. It encourages its members to widen their focus from being largely a questioner and receiver, to being also able to guide, inspire, and educate others. As a Novice Monk, the relationship to the teacher and the Zen center will have the opportunity to mature.
After a member has been actively participating at the center for a minimum of nine months as a Postulant, and has typically completed three full quarters, nine classes, in Buddha Dharma University or another qualified program. If both the applicant and the Zen center’s Guiding Teacher feel that the Postulant has the acumen and the right commitment to a lifelong dedication to Zen practice, he or she may apply to become a Novice Priest at a precepts ceremony. The Postulant will take the Ten Precepts at this ceremony, and this publicly marks an entry into the Ordained community.
The Guiding Teacher’s approval attests to the Postulant’s ability to lead practice, knowledge of the teaching and its forms, and a willingness to take more responsibility at the center or group. Because all students are not interested in ordination, it is never assumed that a member will become a Novice Priest; therefore, it is necessary to submit an application to the Guiding Teacher to clarify the situation regarding one’s aspiration towards a path of service with the local Zen community.
Novices wear a Spring Green Bangasa or Yungasa with grey robes. (See the local Zen center Guiding Teacher to arrange the purchase of your gasa and robes).
It is customary (but not required) to offer a gift to the head preceptor and/or other teachers after the ceremony. This is the Buddhist practice of dana, a Sanskrit/Pali word meaning "generosity." Should you offer something and how much? In the Dana Sutta, the Buddha says, "the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified." Therefore, we encourage you to only give something that fits these criteria - it makes your mind glad, clear, and gratified. (For more on dana in Buddhism, see here and here, not affiliated with the Ames Mahasangha).
If a new member is transferring from another Buddhist organization and was recognized as an equivalent Novice, the Guiding Teacher may waive the requirements for this position in the Ames Mahasangha. Even though the requirements are waived for installation as a Novice Priest, the requirements for education and liturgy should be completed in at most forty-eight months following ordination.
The Ten Precepts:
The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, to use sexuality wisely, and refrain from objectifying others.
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.
The Sixth Precept: I vow to be kind and to encourage others, and to refrain from discouraging others including myself.
The Seventh Precept: I vow to be kind to others and refrain from being boastful and self-centered.
The Eighth Precept: I vow to be generous, to be grateful for what I have, and refrain from yearning for things that do not belong to me.
The Ninth Precept: I vow to promote harmony and refrain from acting in anger or hatred.
The Tenth Precept: I vow to affirm and uphold the three jewels (the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma).
It should be noted that the 10 Precepts of a Novice Priest are granted for a period of two years, wherein the practitioner continues practice under the guidance of a teacher. At the end of the two-year period a Novice Priest will either:
- Proceed to full ordination with the approval of their teacher,
- renew their precepts in a formal ceremony for a continued novitiate training and formation phase, with definite length determined by their guiding teacher, or
- revert to lay status and precepts.
Full ordination as a Buddhist Priest entails a lifetime commitment to these vows. Monastic candidates need to personally embrace these vows, investigating their internal motivations and possible limitations within the guidelines that the vows provide.
To become a priest, the applicant must have been actively practicing as a Novice for at least twenty-four months, and have made good progress or been graduated from the Seminary Program.
The first requirement is that Priests should dedicate all of their extra energy to helping the Zen community by volunteering in every capacity required there, and have the approval of the Zen center’s Guiding Teacher.
Ordained Clothing (Kāṣāya)
Priests wear a Jiāshā Summer Brown Bangasa as well as a Summer Brown Gasa for ceremonial wear. Monastics also wear the Hǎiqīng 海青 (Long Robe) for ceremonies.
The Precepts which a Priest takes have their origin in the Brahmajala Sūtra and have been handed down since at least the time of the Great Indian Ancestor Kumarajiva.
The Fifty Eight Precepts:
11. I vow to respect my teachers and friends in the Dharma
12. I vow to abstain from entering into intoxicating situations or consuming substances intended to distract from this moment.
13. I vow to be conscious of what I consume, the way in which it was produced, and what harm might result from my consuming it. I vow to bring awareness to the impact of what I ingest and take care not harm myself or any other beings in the process.
14. I vow to maintain the integrity and sanctity of the teacher/clergy to student relationship by never entering into a sexual or otherwise inappropriate relationship and thereby violating the trust of the student as well as the entire sangha.
15. I vow to encourage others to view past mistakes as learning opportunities that enable them to make better choices in the future.
16. I vow to always request the Dharma and make offerings to visiting Sangha members
17. I vow to attend Dharma talks and events that will open my heart and mind; thus enabling my practice to grow stronger and allowing me to be of better service to others.
18. I vow not to divide the Dharma into separate vehicles or doctrines by placing one classification as higher or better than another.
19. I vow to always give care to the sick and the needy
20. I vow to abstain from the storing of weapons used to intentionally take away life.
21. I vow to abstain from serving as an emissary of the military, except in non-violent roles such as Chaplaincy, Medical Positions, and other roles that do not directly engage in the violent expression of military service.
22. I vow to conduct my livelihood in a way that that is helpful to myself and others and refrain from business practices that limit the freedom or happiness of others.
23. I vow to communicate in a way that is true, accurate and helpful and to refrain from speech meant to plant seeds of doubt, misinformation, or gossip.
24. I vow to support life by behaving in a way that respects and protects the environment as well as all beings and to refrain from activities that may cause harm.
25. I vow to teach the Dharma in a manner that inspires awakening and well-being for myself and others.
26. I vow to fully understand the Dharma so that I may teach it in a manner that is true, accurate, and helpful.
27. I vow to share the Dharma as freely as I have received it, with no personal gain as my motive.
28. I vow to serve others with commitment, kindness, and integrity.
29. I vow to communicate in a direct and compassionate manner that promotes harmony and to refrain from speech that contains hidden or implied messages meant to cause harm or unhappiness.
30. I vow to liberate all sentient beings from suffering and the causes of suffering.
31. I vow to treat others with respect and to refrain from behaving in a manner that violates, harms, or imposes revenge on others.
32. I vow to conduct myself in a manner that is consistent with the Dharma: to remain humble and accessible and to refrain from arrogant or self-important behavior.
33. I vow to teach the Dharma with generosity and an open heart
34. I vow to put the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma into practice in my everyday life and to teach others how to do the same.
35. I vow to be a Sangha member that acts with integrity and accountability.
36. I vow to share all offerings made to the Dharma or the Sangha
37. I vow to accept invitations given equally to all others and refrain from accepting invitations that exclude anyone based on gender, race, religion, physical condition, age, or sexual orientation.
38. I vow to be inclusive and to invite all people equally regardless of gender, race, religion, physical condition, or sexual orientation.
39. I vow to conduct my livelihood in a way that that is helpful to myself and others and refrain from business practices that limit the freedom or happiness of others.
40. I vow to give all Sangha members equal consideration and respect and to refrain from engaging in any actions that might cause division or conflict.
41. I vow respect all clergy members and Dharmic objects.
42. I vow to extend loving-kindness indiscriminately to all sentient beings, and to greet all experiences with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.
43. I vow to approach all beings with respect and dignity and refrain from objectifying others.
44. I vow to always keep a clear and open mind.
45. I vow to make great vows
46. I vow to make firm resolutions
47. I vow to keep myself safe whenever possible and to refrain from putting myself or others in environments where harm is more likely.
48. I vow to respect all members of the Sangha equally.
49. I vow to cultivate wisdom and good judgment.
50. I vow not to unfairly discriminate against others when conferring the precepts.
51. I vow equanimity in teaching the Dharma and will not to enter into teaching arrangements for the sake of profit.
52. I vow to offer the precepts only to those that wish to take them with an sincere and open heart.
53. I vow to uphold all of these precepts.
54. I vow to value the Sutras and the ethical guidelines set forth by the Buddha.
55. I vow to teach and serve all sentient beings in ways that are appropriate for who they are.
56. I vow to teach the Dharma in ways that are appropriate and helpful and to refrain from teaching in ways that cause harm.
57. I vow to consistently support the Dharma in my daily life.
58. I vow to keep the Dharma fresh, alive, and vibrant and to refrain from any actions that might cause its destruction.
NOTE: These Fifty-Eight Precepts include the previous Ten Precepts.
Gatha on Shaving the Head
this drifting, wandering world,
difficult to transcend worldly ties.
to cast them away entering true activity.
expressing gratitude as
the ignorance grass falls away,
vowing to live a life of
simplicity, service, stability, selflessness,
and to accomplish the Buddha Way.
manifesting this life
with wisdom and compassion
The 250 Buddhist monastic vows we use in the Ames Mahasangha are intended to be universal, and are carried over from the traditions we received from our teachers. They are rigorous and demanding and they are also ultimately liberating. Because these vows ask much of the person who is receiving them, they must be studied and clarified carefully by those who are called to them. The vows include these five themes:
- Vow of simplicity – A vow of restraint, which means monastics are mindful of their actions, consumptions and lifestyle.
- Vow of service – Following the guidance of seniors and teachers, monastics vow to give themselves freely.
- Vow of stability – This vow requires that monastics have completed major life changes in order to give themselves wholeheartedly to their vows. (This does not preclude stable monogamous relationships, although parenting must be examined closely on a case-by-case basis).
- Vow of selflessness – The realization and actualization of one’s life as the life of all beings, rather than a personal entity.
- Vow to aspire to the Buddha way – To act as a model of the manifestation of the moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha, manifesting wisdom and compassion in all actions.