For several years now I've wanted to ordain as a priest or monk for reasons which initially weren't all that clear to me. All I knew is that something was clearly pulling me to do this so it felt like it was just a matter of when and not if it would happen. At my age the idea of being a resident in some Zen monastery for an extended length of time just wasn't realistic. And while New York City has several teachers whom I admire very much, none of them resonated deeply enough with me to want to follow them exclusively, nor was there any clear ordination track for someone like me who wishes to serve in a formal role without having to wait ten years or more to get there.
Time’s a wastin’ and there are many people to help in this world.
Buddhists in the West don’t have the same ordination options that Christians have, so many people who have the “calling” to be a clergy person in this country find themselves at a loss about what to do.
In 2009 I became acquainted with Paul Yuanzhi Lynch, the founder and guiding teacher of the Five Mountain Zen Order. He lives on the other side of the country (California) so in my mind the distance between us ruled him out as a potential teacher. Having corresponded with him via email and on the phone many times, I found him to be an incredibly knowledgeable, generous, down to earth, funny, compassionate and loving man who clearly and sincerely just wants to help people. That’s it. He often vocalized and demonstrated his desire to cut through the bullshit found in many large Zen organizations and I admired him greatly for that.
In 2010 when I was checking out the Taego Order and decided to sign up for their seminary program and eventually ordain with them, I checked with Paul first. Sure enough he knew a great deal about the Taego people and was happy to share with me what he knew at that point, which was mostly positive. And instead of trying to talk me into joining his College of Zen Buddhist Studies, he simply supported me and what I was choosing to do without even a semblance of envy or manipulation. He’s a real a mensch.
After almost a year of training and study I discovered some disturbing things about the Taego order and after a lot of careful consideration I decided to pull out of their program. Once again Paul was there as a friend to listen and empathize.
At this point I decided to do koan interviews with him via skype once a week and it’s been the most enriching experiences of my dharma life. He spends heaps more time with me than any local teacher would ever offer me as he does with several other students from all over the world. He never asks for anything in return and always emphasizes how Zen practice and koan study must make sense in our modern day living situation which is right on as far as I’m concerned.
There's a lot of talk about how having a Zen teacher at a distance is somehow less than legitimate or "not really Zen" but based on my direct experience I can say with 100% absolute certainty that having a teacher that resonates with your heart and teaches you well is all that matters, regardless of how geographically close you live to him or her.
During a retreat almost two weeks ago I met the other ordained Five Mountain clergy and was extremely impressed with their sincerity, openness, kindness, and intelligence. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to call my extended sangha.
On January 28, 2012 I had the good fortune to be ordained as a Zen priest with the Five Mountain Zen Order at the Zen Center of Las Vegas along with my new dharma brothers Do Myong Sunim and Doshim Sunim (check out his blog here), both of who live relatively close to me here in Manhattan. I look forward to knowing them both better and finding a way to eventually work together and help people however we can. I was given the dharma name Dō'an which means "clear eyes."
You can see more photos from ordination day here.