This month the Tendai-shu New York Betsuin, Tendai Buddhist Institute, will host a Public Tokudo (Ordination) Ceremony. What makes this different from the Betsuin tokudo ceremonies you may have witnessed, why is this important and why is ordination, as a concept, important?

in the Abrahamic traditions ordination is usually administered after a person has completed a specific course of study. A traditional East Asian Buddhist ordination, by contrast, marks the beginning of a person’s journey toward becoming a monk/nun (J. Soryo). In Japan this might occur as early as 10 years of age. The ordination does not indicate accomplishment per se, rather a beginning. Following ordination, a person, a disciple (J. Deshi), then studies and trains with their Master (J. Shisho), as well as with the institutions training facilities, in Tendai in Japan this is Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei. 

When Shumon and I established Karuna Tendai Dharma center, later known as Tendai Buddhist Institute, in the mid 1990’s people requested training as soryo. We had to devise a mechanism that would work outside of Japan. We had seen people who after very little training, in some cases no study and training, claimed to be Buddhist teachers and masters. So the system we devised was intended to insure that we would not perpetuate the sort of spiritual dishonesty we had witnessed.

The gyo (training) in Japan is broken into two halves, the first, Zengyo lasts about 30 days and teaches what a soryo will need to conduct services, meditations, chanting, etc. The second half is referred to as Shido Kegyo and is the esoteric portion (J. mikkyo), learning Juhachido, Taizokai, Kongokai and the Goma, this lasts about 35 days. There are rigorous tests that one must pass during the gyo. I don’t have the space to go into these in detail here.

Even this gyo is considered a beginning, one then spends the next several years as a sort of apprentice, either at one’s family temple, or at another larger temple, practicing what they learned during gyo in order to become proficient. During these years a person undertakes further training, such as Kanjo (Skt. Abhiṣeka) and other more advanced practices.

The gyo we follow is the same basic curriculum as is practiced on Mt. Hiei. The difference is that it is in English, not Japanese, and we do it over a six-year period of 10 or more days each year. There are a few elements that are practiced in Japan but are seldom seen outside of Japanese culture which we do not include. Though we do include elements that have utility outside of Japan.

At the Betsuin people are not ordained before they begin a gyo as is the custom in Japan. However, if a person is able to complete the first three years of training, they take a private, Betsuin, ordination and they are considered Doshu. A person cannot study mikkyo, which is the second half, unless they have been ordained. A Private ordination is acceptable for the purposes of beginning the mikkyo portion. The term Doshu was appropriated from the term for a low-ranking monk who originally functioned as a temple assistant on Mt. Hiei.  People who are Doshu, can lead sangha and may do other functions as permitted by their shisho.  When a person completes the second half and has training in mikkyo they are eligible for soryo tokudo, which again is a Betsuin, private ordination.

A public ordination is necessary for registration with the Shumucho’s office, the administrative branch of Mt. Hiei, in Japan. A difference between a Betsuin ordination and a public ordination is the attendance of a fully ranked soryo to attest that the ordination that took place is authorized and follows the proper form. Rev. Tanaka Shojun, the Jushoku (abbot) of the Tendai-shu Hawaii Betsuin will be joining us as a witness participant in this important ceremony later this month.

Four people will be taking formal public Tokudo to be Soryo registered in Japan by Tendai-shu. They have all completed at least six years of training, including mikkyo, and they are spiritual leaders in their communities. The people receiving Tokudo are: Junshin Chris Nettles, Director of California Tendai Monastery, Yusei Lan Van, Director of Great River Sangha in Arlington, Virginia, Enkei Joseph Mendyka in Minnesota and Ryudo Moses James in New Jersey. They have all completed the first half of their training, Zengyo, and received Betsuin (private) Tokudo so they were able to undertake and complete the mikkyo component of their training.

This leaves the question of so what? Why is ordination important? The history of Buddhism is a 2,500-year story of transmission from teacher to student across generations. Although the idea of direct transmission taking place without an institutional structure may be appealing to contemporary Westerners who often look askance at “institutions” and the abuses they have fostered, history has shown us that non-structured Buddhist organizations die out in a short period of time. A culture and group memory fostered in a ‘school’ assists in maintaining and propagating the teachings. The training for Doshu/Soryo is then, first of all, meant to provide the leadership framework and collective consciousness that will ensure the continuity of Tendai Buddhism in the West into the indefinite future, not dependent on any one person. Further this ensures that the leadership is appropriately trained and will lead sangha based upon knowledge and practices handed down over millennia, not merely good intentions. People in Tendai sangha affiliated with Tendai-shu New York Betsuin, Tendai Buddhist Institute, can be assured that the people leading them are qualified and of good character.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin