J. Workingman left a comment on my post of a few days ago with questions interspersed with Bishop-elect Kevin Thew-Forrester’s (hereafter “KTF” or “Fr. KTF”) explanations regarding his involvement in Zen whilst being an Episcopalian priest. In reality I suppose that J. Workingman is wondering if Fr. KTF is guilty of syncretism and thus unfit for the office of Bishop for the Episcopalian Diocese of Northern Michigan. I do not believe this to be the case, and I try in my answers to JW’s questions to explain why.
So the structure here is KTF's quote, JW's question, and my answer.
Question: Elsewhere KTF writes that he received Lay Ordination. Is Lay Ordination a lesser thing than "being a Buddhist"? Can one have Lay Ordination and not be Buddhist?
Answer: We should not confuse the Christian concept of ordination and the Zen Buddhist concept of lay ordination. While I do not know the exact ceremony that Fr. KTF used for lay ordination, it is normally about a commitment to practice zazen (meditation) and to strive to heal the suffering in the world. Lay ordination does not create a priest, minister or other leader. You are simply formally recognized as a student, and you are declaring your intent to be a student. Merely learning Hebrew and then trying to learn, understand and utilize Judaism does not make me a Jew; i.e., using Zen traditions and practices to deepen my understanding of the Triune God just makes me more Christian; not less. Zen as a word is simply Japanese for “meditation.”
Question: Is this not the Bodhisattva Vow to help save all sentient beings, before going into full Nirvana or enlightenment. Does this not require the prayer, "May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings"?
Answer: The Christian concept of prayer is non-existent without God. The Buddha is not God nor is he “a” god. He was teacher. Zen practioners do not pray to Buddha or anyone else. This is not to say that there are not Buddhist sects that pray to Buddha as a deity. There are. But Zen is not one of them and views these other sects as having a mistaken understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. The statement of “May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings” is a vow, a goal or expression of intent. “I vow to lose ten pounds” is not a prayer. Neither is seeking to “attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.” Zen rejects “book-learning”, religious rites, good works to earn merit, or devotional practices in favor of meditation as a path to greater insight and awareness. In Fr. KTF case he has said that he uses Zen techniques to further deepen his experience of God. It is a mystical practice for Fr. KTF – this is how it appears to me at least.
Question: “Creatures” seems a curious insertion here. Don't Buddhists believe that all living things have the Buddha spirit in them?
Answer: I cannot answer why Fr. KTF has inserted the word “creatures” at this point. But as to Buddha-nature, a Buddhist will talk your ear off about Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is not a soul or spirit in any sense of the word. Zen Buddhism focuses on attaining enlightenment through meditation as Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) did. It teaches that all human beings have the Buddha-nature, or the potential to attain enlightenment, within them. As to all living creatures having Buddha-nature or the capacity to achieve enlightenment, I can only quote a rather famous Zen koan:
"Does a dog possess Buddha-nature or not?" Chao-chou replied with the one-word answer “Wu” (pronounced "mu" in Japanese) meaning literally "no" but in this context can be understood to indicate that the very question itself was in error.
Question: The Dharma is not just generic wisdom; is it not the sacred doctrine of the Buddha and of Buddhism? Isn't Dharma transmission one function of a Roshi?
Answer: Dharma is not a “sacred” doctrine. The word Dharma has several meanings “truth” or “wisdom” and the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha are not sacred. He told his followers to be “a lamp unto themselves.” In other words to find their own way with their own lamps; i.e., minds! To test his words for themselves and not accept anything he said simply because he said it.
“Dharma transmission” is not some spiritual or mystical event it is simply the recognition by a teacher (“Roshi”) that his student has reached the point that he is considered to understand the teachings and is now authorized to teach the Dharma as that particular Roshi taught that student.
Having a lay ordination is as far from being a Roshi as attending Sunday school as an 8 year old is from being the Pope – no offense intended to Fr. KTF.
Question: Is this not a vow to refrain from critique of the way of the Buddha?
Answer: “Critique” and “disparage” are quite different terms. Disparage would be to “regard or represent as being of little worth.” If you are planning on committing to study and understand something to further your understanding of self and God, “disparaging” that which you plan to study won’t get you far. But “critique” is almost required to explore and understand Zen.
As I mentioned above, the Buddha encouraged his followers to not take anything as true just because he said it. And it is quite something in Buddhist monasteries all over the world to witness a “dharma combat” in which two people will argue, critique and debate the micro and macro points of Buddhist philosophy. So, Fr. KTF has simply stated that he will not disparage Zen, not that he won’t bring his critical powers of analysis to bear on it.
Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself. –Zen Saying