What is a Buddhist priest?

Recently, I thought about giving up being a Buddhist priest because I felt overwhelmingly inadequate. After all, what did I “know” that was any different to anyone else who was following a spiritual path? What did I have to share with others that could help them? How could I know whether what I shared was going to be helpful or actually, because of my unskillfulness, might even be harmful? What does it mean to be a Buddhist priest, when I see all the harm that has been done in the world in the name of some kind of religious dogma? These questions troubled me deeply.

On the other hand, I am so grateful to have been greatly blessed by encountering many wonderful people who are the very embodiment of pure spiritual ideals and who live their practice with such compassion, integrity, grace, and honesty. These people have been so generous in teaching me, by their very presence, so many rich spiritual lessons that have helped me enormously in my own life. And so I wanted others to also experience something of the joy these lessons have brought to my own life, but I struggled to find a way to pass that on when I didn’t feel I had the necessary skills to do a good job.

After all, I’m an ordinary housewife, living a pretty typical Australian lifestyle – well, doesn’t everyone have a Buddhist shrine built beside the barbie in their backyard? Okay, so maybe I’m not exactly typical, but I do have three grown up kids who I still worry about even though they are all doing great, and a wonderful husband who is just the best, and a couple of dogs who I swear at vigorously when they dig up the yard, and I worry too much about just about everything and feel guilty when I suggest we get pizza because I can’t be bothered cooking –  just like a regular Aussie middle-aged Mum! However, I don’t live a celibate life retired in a religious community, I don’t shave my head or wear robes or exhibit all the other trappings that seem to go with the title “Reverend”. So, how can I be a “priest”?

As for my own beliefs, the more I explored Buddhism as a religion, rather than the simple philosophy of life which it has always been for me, the more discouraged I became when I saw how Buddhism could be just as dogmatic and narrow-minded and corrupt as any other religion or ‘ism’. There are many conflicting factions all claiming the “Truth” that seem so far away from the Buddha’s simplicity. This disheartened me greatly and I thought I no longer wanted to be a part of it, but at the same time I felt that my teachers had entrusted me with an important role of sharing their teachings with others who might also benefit like I had.

Then last week, out of the blue, I received a letter from my teacher in my home temple of Muryokoin in Koyasan in Japan. He wrote to explain to me that one of the phrases in the morning prayers that we recite every day says that we must never blindly accept the teachings of any one tradition. Instead, we must always be learning from all spiritual traditions because the root of life and all ways of being in the world come from the same great spring of Truth. And even if we never fully apprehend that Truth, if we carefully observe we can find evidence of its existence in all paths and in all beings. Here was an answer for my doubts and the encouragement I needed to continue to have faith in following my own path, even if it seemed to sometimes wander all over the place! Yet my teacher wrote this to me even though I had never expressed to him about any of my doubts!

So being a Buddhist priest is not about how that looks on the outside, or espousing certain doctrines, or what I wear, or even how others might perceive me. With a teacher who I can see by his actions embodies this Truth that is ever elusive, I have taken vows to live an honest life of personal integrity and to share what lessons I learn along the way with others for whom it might be helpful. In Buddhism it is not the case that “practice makes perfect”, but rather than “practice makes more practice” and so my role is to continually practice in every action, word and thought and learn from all living beings (oh yes, my dogs are great teachers!).

This letter from my teacher is a small yet, for me, significant miracle and so I wanted to share this with you. It is so important to have support and not feel that we are alone in having doubts and apprehensions about where this life’s path is going, so even though I am just a simple housewife and I don’t have any “answers”, in this blog I can share with you the lessons that are offered to me each day, as well as other treasures I find along my path that might inspire you (and me!) to continue together on our spiritual journey.

18 thoughts on “What is a Buddhist priest?

  1. Thank you for sharing this lovely teaching. Yes, absolutely – “we must always be learning from all spiritual traditions because the root of life and all ways of being in the world come from the same great spring of Truth. And even if we never fully apprehend that Truth, if we carefully observe we can find evidence of its existence in all paths and in all beings.” Your teacher is most wise. And your “practice makes more practice” is also great wisdom. That is it. There is only ‘gyo’, only ‘gyo’ :-).
    Namo Daishi Henjo Kongo!

    • Thanks Kim for your supportive comments – it’s great to hear from another adherent of the Shingon Buddhist tradition in the UK. For those who are unfamiliar, in Kim’s tag “There is only ‘gyo’, only ‘gyo'” this word “gyo” means “spiritual practice” and it is used in a number of important words in Japanese Buddhism. I hope to explore “gyo” more in my blog. As for “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo”, this is the mantra that we recite in the Shingon tradition to bring to mind and honour the founder of the school Kukai, also called Kobo Daishi, who is revered in Japan as a kind of ‘Renaissance Man’ – a great philosopher, educator, scholar, poet, artist, and engineer. He was a really fascinating and inspiring person and I will also write about Kukai later in my blog.

  2. Wonderful to hear from you Cate, I always feel inspired and uplifted by what you have to say. I especially related to “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes more practice”. Sometimes I feel very alone on the path and like I am making no progress–as if progress were the point of it all!

    • Great to hear from you Judith – I like your wry comment about the paradox of trying to make progress on not making progress! So many tricky paradoxes challenge us on the path! I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

  3. Wow Cate, I had this gut feeling that you had doubt as to your commitment ..and yes, if we are honest we need these ‘doubts’ to sometimes bring us back to reality..It is in the Teachings to doubt and challenge what we are taught or read. How can we grow, unless we live as part of this human race, with all its challenges and rewards…each time I have doubts I take courage in knowing that I have the freedom to doubt and challenge, to make choices, learn by my mistakes and rejoice in the Being that I am right now. xx

    • Thanks Hellen for the reminder that doubt is an important aspect of the Teachings in Buddhism. Yes, the Buddha himself cautioned his followers not to take his word for it but to experience his teachings for themselves. And to do that we have to take risks of making mistakes, which I have always baulked at! Thank you too for reminding us that this doubt is a starting point for leaving our comfort zone to explore the unknown which can lead to great joy and freedom. You are a great inspiration in my life Hellen and I hope you continue to contribute to this blog and share your wisdom with us.

  4. Thankyou Cate for sharing your thoughts. I love the synchronicity of the timing of your own reflecting and then hearing just what was needed from your teacher out of the blue. I love also reading everyone’s contribution. It all seems to point to the idea that we can benefit greatly by sharing and being real , being in the moment and trusting just what is at any moment. Perhaps also that there is no universal one truth except love and acceptance of ourselves and others wherever we find ourselves along the path. Anne

    • Lovely to hear from you Anne. I’m glad that you are joining the sharing too – yes, “trust” is such a crucial part of spiritual practice and I like that word much more than “faith” because trust requires us to enter into a relationship with those around us and again step into the unknown. I hope we can build a community here that is built on mutual trust and even if that sounds a bit cliche, there is a deep implication on what it means to have a spiritual practice. It cannot happen without trust.

  5. Hi Cate, so wonderful to read your blog. My life is made up of many different religions and beliefs and I have taken parts that resonates with me and that I can understand and apply without effort (because it “feels” right). For me I don’t think I could ever just choose one path to follow when there are so many beautiful pathways in life. You are an inspiritation and your honesty is appreciated greatly, because we all have doubts at various points in our lives. The timing of your teacher’s letter is no real suprise is it? Take Care xx

    • Thanks Sha for sharing your path with us and your kind words. Your pure heart is an inspiration to all who are lucky enough to have a reiki session with you and I know that you live your life through your deep intuitive sense which guides you through your own times of doubt. I welcome your contributions to this blog.

  6. Hi Cate,

    I love that you started a blog since I always look forward to your emails. As I began to read your first post, I was instantly connected especially when you mentioned how you became discouraged by the corruption and narrow-minded practices similar to other “isms” that I strayed away from. I lost faith a bit… but I did remind myself of the simple teachings of Buddha (like you mentioned in your previous comments) in which we need doubt.. and to experience his teachings ourselves. I feel comfort that I am not alone feeling this way, and I thank you for your honesty. From the beginning of my journey on to this path, there are some experiences that I cannot account for without crediting to Buddha’s teachings… I suppose that is what I have to put my faith in – as well as people with so much love as you.

    • Thank you Lynn for your lovely warm comments. I feel so happy that I too am not alone – we all need support from one another. I hope this blog helps to bring support and sustenance to all who visit. I too have had some quietly amazing experiences that I cannot explain in rational terms and I agree that these events are best accepted with “faith”. And having this faith is what helps us through in the times of doubt. I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

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