Zen Talk

Zen Training

Zen Training

The Paths of Zen Training

Generally speaking, there are two paths – Monastic and Layman

A person may be curious about Zen, typically from books or videos they watch, and come to a Zen temple and sit Zazen and stay around for the talks from the teacher. 

Most Zen centers encourage the new student to make a commitment to The path. Lay-ordained students are often leading informal tea time talks and performing a lot of the center functions, and that is to indicate to the new person that there is a RANK and STATUS indicated with the level of commitment to the center as well as to The Zen Path.

What of those who don’t wish to make a commitment to either of these paths?

Layman Ordination

Typically, a new person will take Lay-ordination. This is simply a formal commitment made by the person to study The Path of Zen. It is also joining an elite club, that of the Zen Center, where the lay-ordained student is then invited to initiates studies and other functions that are not open to the public-at-large.

Typically, the lay-ordained person will have to purchase or make meditation robes in the style directed by the Zen Center, and the holy ornaments such as the Rakusu.  Zen naming may or may not happen at this time.

Monk Ordination

Not all Zen Centers offer the Monk/Priest path of training. This may be due to a lack of a training temple available, or because the teachers and Zen Center policies don’t allow for that path.

If allowed, it is often that the Zen Center requires one to be Lay-ordination between 1 to 3 years. 

The Zen Center MUST make it clear to the student what paths they offer, and what the requirements are, and what exceptions there are if any.

If any of the above appears arbitrary and ambiguous, this typically indicates that the Zen Center is having problems, and you might want to find another Zen Center to study with.

Layman Training

The typical training of a Layman is:

  • Zazen Instruction and mondo with the Zen teacher, 
  • Ceremony assist – incense handling, bell ringing, drum beating, 
  • Study of Zen Foundational books (Dogen or Rinzai)
  • Study of Buddhist Sutras,
  • Work projects – Gardening, community work, temple building
  • Zen Center task and responsibilities: running the bookshop, repairs, cleaning, greeting visitors, and  outreach projects.

Some Zen Centers offer different levels of Layman training, others even offer Layman transmission. These should be made clear to those who consider layman training at a Zen Center.

Layman life

The life of a Zen Layman is typically one who is content with the teacher, the Zen center and the layman path they are on. It is also that they may have career, positions, social status, and family that makes pursuing a monk path impossible.

One is always reminded of the legendary Vimalakirti, the Buddha’s greatest disciple, who was a wealthy layman with many wifes and high social status. 

The path of the Layman is no higher or lower than the monk path.

Monk Training

Typically, a monk spends one year at a monastic training center. Every 3 months is a new training cycle in the monastery where new monks are initiated to The Path, and the older ones retake vows of commitment to The Path.

The monastic calendar is 10 days of work, one day of rest. Monks are required to attend Zazen, classes, lectures and learn the various ceremonies that are performed everyday.  Monks also learn how to properly attire themselves, keep up a temple and the expected mannerism and behavior while on temple grounds.

Once training is completed, a monk then goes tough the Lineage Transmission training and then becomes a fully Transmitted priest for the Zen organization.

Monastery life

If there is no temple for a monk to go to, then they may be kept at the monastery to further their studies, and help train new monks. There are many roles of responsibility in a temple such as you would find in any school: The Principle, The Cook, The Disciplinarian, The Scheduler, and Groundskeeper. Other roles may be added as needed, or retired.

Often is the case a monk once completed training, is not kept on if they have no temple to go to – simply because there is no space for the monk and no positions open in the monastery for them.The monk then a ‘monk at-large’ and may petition other temples and zen centers if they have an open position, or find benefactors and build a new temple.

Pitfalls and failures

Everything I have talked about to this point is more of the Idealistic, than the actual and the realities of what happens.

My own Zen Path Story, that I will talk about in a later video, I was with a Zen Center that did not have a training temple to send monks to.  So, when I went to a training monastery of a different Zen Center, I was treated as an outsider and ostracized (expelled). I will talk about that in details in another video.

Sometimes the internal politics of the monastic center can be in turmoil, creating confusion, disarray, and disorientation for the membership. In the case of the monastic training center I was at, they were in the middle of impeaching their head abbot, and that created vicious internal fighting and bickering to where outsiders, like me, where treated as an interloper (an unwanted person).

That experience left quite the sting on me! Yes, I became a failed monk 🙁

Success and happiness

Though my attempt at monastic training ended up in disaster, this is not the case for many others.

For most, the monastic training works out well, and they become ordained monks of The Zen Path. For many at the very same Zen Center that I started with, went to the very same monastery I did, though years later after I was there, and everything worked out well for them. They returned to be fully ordained and transmitted as Zen Monks and hold the rank of Zen Teacher at the Zen Center that same Zen Center I started at.

Now, I do have to confess to you that I hold a lot of anger and spite about what happened to me. Its now 26 years later and I still feel that sting. It has taken me that long to even begin to speak about it, but it’s the only way we clean the mirror (samadhi). 

One never just gets rid of their scars of past stings, 

one just transcends them (relinquishment and forgiveness).


Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website