In the Spring of 2001, after a four year apprenticeship at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple, I completed 40 days of monastic training at Kuon-ji Temple at Mt. Minobu and was then, along with two other Americans, fully ordained as a Nichiren Shu minister (J. kyoshi lit. sutra master). Not too long after that I received the following question on a private email list I was on at that time:

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

My response encompassed not only the process by which I became a minister in Nichiren Shu, but also my thoughts about the duties, roles, and obligations of a minister as far as I understood them at the time based on what I had been taught and my experiences. Since this conference is for the purpose of discussing the training and role of Buddhist clergy in North America, I would like to share an updated version of that response. Perhaps these reflections of a North American Buddhist minister ordained in a Japanese lineage of Buddhism but still married and holding a full-time job as a file clerk will be helpful. After that I would like to review how it came to be that the order of itinerant mendicants established by the historical Buddha turned into the married clergy of modern Japanese Buddhism that I now find myself a part of. Furthermore, I want to explore the possible roles of a married Buddhist clergy in the modern world (not just in Japan) and whether such roles can in any way be claimed as authentically Buddhist.

In response to the question asked, the first step to becoming a part of the Nichiren Shu clergy (J. soryo) is to undergo the ceremony called shukke tokudo (lit. to “leave home and attain the way”). In my case, I underwent the tokudo ceremony in October of 1997, my master was (and is for that matter) the Ven. Ryusho Matsuda, who at the time was the head minister of the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist temple and the elected bishop of the Nichiren Order of North America (the association of Nichiren Shu temples in the continental USA and Canada). After tokudo one is considered to be a novice (J. shami; Skt. shramanera). As a novice, one is basically an apprentice minister under one’s master. In the Nichiren Shu tradition, to take this initial step, one must first find a fully ordained minister 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. That can be quite a long process in and of itself, but one that is very personal and has to do with (hopefully) a growing relationship of mutual trust and understanding between the potential apprentice and potential master. To be initiated means that one will undertake the following:

  • To seek enlightenment. While all those who chant the Odaimoku (lit. sacred title) of the Lotus Sutra are “aspiring to awakening” (J. bodaishin; Skt. bodhicitta), the one who becomes a minister 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 awakening 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 Buddhist clergy will literally cut off all family ties. Japanese Buddhism, however, has been more concerned with inner intent than with taking up the lifestyle of Indian mendicants. It is not expected that one should literally cut off one’s family ties. Rather, one should realize that seeking awakening is a higher priority than the ambitions and expectations that are commonly a part of a householder’s 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 (or herself) by the monastic rules. Again, Japanese Buddhism has never 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 (lit. Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra).
  • To wear the robe of the Dharma. 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!

(Murano 1974, pp. 178-179)

  • To take the Three Refuges. In Nichiren Shu Buddhism we take refuge in the Original Shakyamuni Buddha revealed in the “Duration of the Life of the Tathagata” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Odaimoku of the Lotus Sutra which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo as the supreme Dharma, and the Sangha of the Bodhisattvas from Underground led by Bodhisattva Superior Practice who appeared in the “Appearance of Bodhisattvas from Underground” chapter of the Lotus Sutra and were given the commission to uphold the Wonderful Dharma in this age after the Buddha’s parinirvana in the “Supernatural Powers of the Tathagata” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
  • To master the threefold discipline of morality, concentration, and wisdom. In Nichiren Buddhism this means that we live a morally wholesome life 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 (lit. focus of devotion; in this case it refers to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra and/or the Original Shakyamuni Buddha who confers it upon us) at all times so that we can draw upon the tranquility and insight of our own buddha nature; and finally to realize for ourselves the wisdom of the Buddha expressed by 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.” 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 Stupa of Treasures which resides within the depths of our own lives.
  • To observe the precepts. Again, this refers not to the letter but the intention of the vinaya that is crystallized in 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 Sangha and to share the teachings with others.

In the tokudo ceremony, 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 tokudo, the new novice is sent to the docho registration ceremony at Kiyosumidera (aka Seicho-ji where Nichiren was ordained and studied Buddhism as a child) at the earliest opportunity. Docho refers to the ordination certificate that one receives at that time. Until a novice has gone to the docho registration ceremony he or she is not officially recognized by Nichiren Shu.

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. In the case of myself and the two other novices that I trained with, we were all brought together once a year for an annual Shami Seminar that would take place over a three or four day weekend at one of the Nichiren Shu temples in North America. During those seminars we learned more about service manners, were trained in the chanting of the sutra and the singing of liturgical hymns (J. shomyo) and also given classes on the Lotus Sutra, the life of Nichiren Shonin, Buddhist doctrine, and the history of Nichiren Buddhism.

When the master feels that the disciple is ready, the novice will be sent to the 35 day Shingyo Dojo training program at Mount Minobu, where one will complete one’s training and receive the higher ordination as a full-fledged minister. Shingyo literally means “Faith and Practice.” Before being admitted to Shingyo Dojo one must be tested in one’s ability to chant the sutra and also in one’s knowledge of rudimentary Buddhist doctrine. In the case of the other two American novices and myself, we were tested in our ability to chant the sutra by the bishop of the Nichiren Order of North America at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple in the summer of 2000, but our doctrinal test was given at Minobu College at Mt. Minobu in the fall of 2000. It was felt that we should take the test with the other Japanese novices who were applying to Shingyo Dojo, though our test was translated into English for us. We passed both tests, but it was felt that we should have some additional time to acclimate ourselves to the monastic training and to learn the colloquial Japanese way of reciting the Lotus Sutra, so we were sent to join the five day remedial chanting class that is held on the five days immediately prior to the beginning of Shingyo Dojo.

The forty days at Shingyo Dojo were truly grueling but also rewarding. 67 Japanese novices were there as well as the other two American novices and myself. Since we American novices could not speak fluent Japanese, we were provided with translators who would sit behind us and provide the gist of the lectures that were given and/or help us to follow instructions. Fortunately, our training with our masters at our home temples in America and at the annual Shami Seminars was very thorough. In some ways we were better prepared than many of the Japanese novices, for all three of us already knew how to conduct services, fold our robes, and sing liturgical hymns. Much of the time, we could just follow what everyone else was doing, and for services we had all the sutras and liturgy transliterated so that we could follow along. I’d like to note that this made it easier for us than for the Japanese novices. The Japanese novices had to look at the Chinese Lotus Sutra and by memory recite the sutra in colloquial Japanese at times, which involves rearranging the characters and filling in Japanese particles because Japanese grammar is very different than Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra. All we had to do was switch from our transliterated Sino-Japanese reading to our transliterated Japanese reading.

The greatest hardship for us was sitting in the posture known as seiza, the formal Japanese way of sitting with one’s legs directly underneath the body. We did not use benches or cushions, and sometimes there were no mats and we had to sit directly on the hardwood floor of the training hall. We had to sit this way during all services and lectures. I did observe, however, that there were a few Japanese novices who were having as much or more difficulty with this than we Americans. I’d like to note that sitting in this way was not simply to make us uncomfortable (though sometimes that was the aim such as when we had to do extra chanting as punishment for our shortcomings). The average Japanese minister must be able to sit in this formal posture without moving or squirming when doing funerals and memorial services for the members of their temple, and in some temples there may be as many as a half dozen or more such services conducted a day. So it is important to be able to endure sitting in seiza for long periods of time if one is a Japanese minister. Those who persisted in squirming or sitting incorrectly (such as myself at times I must admit) would be yelled at or even kicked until we sat correctly without moving.

Life at Shingyo Dojo was truly a monastic life. We were not permitted to retain any money or personal belongings, we wore clerical robes or work clothes at all times, we kept our heads closely shaven, our meals were all vegetarian, we drank only water or tea, and of course smoking was strictly prohibited (those caught smoking were loudly berated and forced to kneel in seiza on the gravel outside the training hall for up to an hour) and we were on a tight schedule that began at 4:00 am (or even earlier at times) and ended with lights out at 9:00 pm.

At 4:00 am we awoke, swiftly put away our futons and gathered in the main hall to chant Odaimoku until everyone was assembled. Then in shifts we would go the hall for water purification and perform suigyo (lit. water practice). Suigyo is the practice of pouring buckets of icy cold water over oneself while chanting prayers and a passage from the verses of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. I believe this is meant to be a form of austerity, but it also served to get our blood going and to keep us alert and warm during those early morning hours. By 5:00 am we would be dressed in our robes and kesa and gather in the front yard. From there we would march in a procession (while chanting Odaimoku to the rhythm of hand drums called uchiwa-taiko) up to Kuon-ji to participate in the morning service there. This morning service also included chanting long sections from the Lotus Sutra, so that by the time we finished Shingyo Dojo we had recited the entire Lotus Sutra. After the morning service at Kuon-ji we would march back down the mountain to Nichiren Shonin’s mausoleum. There we would hold a brief service. Finally, we would return to the training hall by about 7:00 am and perform one more service. After that we would receive instructions and exhortations from the head instructor and his assistants. Actually, once the head instructor had left, the assistants would usually loudly rebuke us for all our failings and lack of sincerity and try to instill in us a sense of deep shame and determination to do better. On occasion this would actually involve physical rough housing, such as when one older novice was hauled up to the front of the hall by his collar. I think that if you have ever been in boot camp you can imagine what went on at this time, though likely without the profanity once associated with boot camp (though this was all in Japanese so there may have been some but I strongly doubt it). After that we would have breakfast at 8:00 am followed by the cleaning of the dining hall, the training hall, the dormitories, the teacher’s quarters, and the grounds. From 9:00 am until noon we would receive lectures on various topics pertaining to conducting services, singing hymns, instruction in practices like the copying of the sutra, and the logistics of managing a temple. As Shingyo Dojo progressed we even received lectures addressing various social issues (though of course these were Japanese social issues not always relevant to Americans). At noon we had lunch, and from 1:00 pm until 3:30 pm we were given more lectures in the training hall. At 3:30 pm we would assemble in the front yard and then march down to Nichiren Shonin’s mausoleum and perform a brief service there, and then we marched back to the training hall to perform the evening service. The evening service got more and more elaborate as Shingyo Dojo progressed as we incorporated more and more of what we learned – and this involved chanting, hymn singing, the inscription of toban (memorial markers), and the use of various instruments such as the drums, bells, and gongs. Towards the end of Shingyo Dojo we performed a very long and elaborate service for the hungry ghosts (J. segaki). At 5:00 pm we had supper. At 6:00 pm we had evening lessons, but most of the time this period was for the recitation of the sutra and Odaimoku, including the practice of Shodaigyo meditation. Shodaigyo consists of a period of silent sitting to get calm and centered, followed by the chanting of Odaimoku to the rhythm of a taiko drum (starting slow, getting gradually faster, then tapering off again into a slower tempo), and then closing with another period of silent contemplation. At 8:00 pm we had time to visit the hot tubs and then work on copying out the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra (by the end of Shingyo Dojo we had each finished inscribing the entire 16th chapter and these were presented to the Gohonzon during the aforementioned Segaki service). 9:00 pm was lights out. This routine changed a bit towards the last couple of weeks. At that time we began hiking to various temples in the area. At these temples we would stop in front of the hondo (main hall) and recite the Lotus Sutra (usually chapters 16 or 21) and then we would be invited in to receive offerings that we would put into carry bags we brought with us. The offerings consisted of soda, juice, and various pastries. We would bring these back to our training hall and would be permitted to have them in the evening after dinner.

Upon completing our training in Shingyo Dojo, we all became kyoshi, that is to say fully ordained ministers. The newly ordained Japanese ministers were now empowered to be the head ministers of their temples. Most of them were the sons of ministers and in time would inherit responsibility for the family temple, performing funerals and memorial services for the danka (donor families) of the temple. In the case of the three of us who were American ministers with no temples to inherit, we were invited to the private quarters of the current abbot of Kuon-ji, Nichiko Fuji. For each of us he had inscribed the Odaimoku on a banner and he told each of us that it was his hope that we would propagate the Lotus Sutra and Namu Myoho Renge Kyo in North America.

For my part, I have found this to be very difficult. Because of its associations with Japanese nationalism, the alleged intolerance of its founder Nichiren, and the aggressive, intolerant, and materialistic way of presenting Nichiren Buddhism perpetrated by a certain Japanese new religion, the reputation of Nichiren Buddhism outside Japan has been greatly tarnished. Also, many Americans seek out Buddhism as a form of self-help therapy or a meditative discipline to take up in their spare time, and Nichiren Buddhism seems too devotional, too much like a Japanese version of “church.” It does not match people’s preconceptions about what Buddhism should be, and has never been as popular as Zen, Tibetan, or Vipassana forms of Buddhism. The greatest difficulty I have found, however, is in my own position as an ordained Buddhist minister who is at the same time a householder with a full time secular job and a daughter in middle school. What I have discovered is that it is difficult to find a meaningful role in a non-Buddhist society as a Buddhist minister; and even more difficult to even find the time to function in that capacity. The only time that I am able to function as a minister is when I assist at services on Sunday mornings at the San Jose Buddhist temple; when I hold a 2 hour meeting on Sunday afternoons (consisting of sitting meditation, discussion of the Dharma, and a Nichiren Shu service) in San Francisco at a small dojo that has been made available to me; and on Thursday nights when I go to the Nichiren Buddhist International Center to help the manager there translate the Nichiren Shu liturgy into English. It has caused me to wonder about my role, and in turn to wonder about what possible role and meaning there can be for a secularized Buddhist minister. To that end, I have long been contemplating the sutra and vinaya portions of the Tripitika and researching how the Sangha of itinerant mendicants who literally cut ties with the world was transformed into an order of secularized clergy.