The morning after I decided to become a Zen priest, I went to tell the Archbishop, but all I could get out was, “Last night I made a decision.”
He immediately asked me two questions about my decision: “Will it help end world hunger?” and “Will it bring about world peace?”
Without any hesitation, I answered “yes” to both, even though at the time I didn’t know exactly how.
That was in January 2001.
Over the years of training and teaching as a Zen priest, several lessons have stood out that have strongly reinforced those initial impressions of a priest’s responsibilities.
Lesson 1: When we sit – or meditate, we sit for the world.
While it’s become very popular to meditate to be more “mindful” or to be more “present,” sitting for the world is different. Becoming more mindful or present may be by-products, but for us, this is just the starting point.
When we meditate, we sit hard, with great concentration: we are sitting to end hunger and bring peace to the entire world. That’s a big job.
Lesson 2: Being is more important than doing.
Because this is a big job, our training focuses on developing who the person is on the inside. The being guides the doing. When the person is principled, then actions will be principled. That is why we say human Being is more important than human Doing.
Old Chinese Saying
Lesson 3: There’s an old Chinese saying: When the right person uses the wrong means, the wrong means work in the right way; when the wrong person uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.
Contrast this approach this to the more traditional Western perspective, which puts more importance on the “right” method irrespective of who applies it.
Character is paramount.
All those three lessons are similar in that they stress the importance of developing the True Self. This Self is beyond this present body. It refers to the Self that is connected to the energy that existed before we came into this world and that continues to exist after we exit this world.
Zen priests have many different roles. As teachers we function as guides on the students search to find their True Self. Teachers serve as a proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.” Ultimately, though, each student completes this journey alone.
Letting Go of Ego
This is a critical part of developing character that takes more than attending just one or two classes or meditating a couple of times a week. For most people, letting go of ego requires a lifetime of work
I remember a conversation with a very close friend shortly after I was ordained. Even to this day, she remains committed to forging change through her activism and writing. She asked me if I was going to continue my community work.
I told her that as a priest I no longer felt comfortable continuing being on the front lines, telling people what stance to take on issues. Instead, I felt that my role was more to help people be clearer and more centered so that they could make better decisions about what they should themselves do.
A Few Adjustments
People who know me from the old community activist days of the 1960s through early 2000s have had to make a few adjustments to my changed role.
It wasn’t that I had become “detached.” It was more that I didn’t feel I was in the position to tell another what was “right.” All I felt I could do was to help that person make the best decision for himself or herself.
Being an agent of social change and being a Zen priest are not necessarily exclusive.
For me, as a Zen priest, I must remember that the best decisions are those made when there is no ego – no “I” – involved, so that the focus remains on the Being of those who are Doing on the front lines of social change.
Diane Wong Roshi