Buddhist Lay Minister Ordination
On August 8, 2015, myself and twelve others were ordained as Buddhist Lay Ministers by the International Center of Chinese Buddhist Culture and Education (ICCBCE). This event has so many layers, I barely know how to unpack it. I could talk about the lineage and organization ICCBCE who made this happen, the precepts masters who administered our vows, the ritual program, the theological content of the ritual and our vows, the practical benefits of ordination to North American chaplains, the ongoing support ICCBCE is eager to provide for Buddhist chaplaincy in America, the generosity of ordaining Buddhists from so many traditions (and insisting they maintain their home traditions) under one organization, the progressive cultural elements of the ceremony, or just the fact that all of these newly ordained people are my friends. For now, let’s just cover a few of the basics.
Three abbots administered our vows, including one who flew in from the Philippines and one from China just for this ceremony. They are seated in the front row in the above photo: Venerable Masters Ben Xing, Chao Ding, and Chuan Yin. This is the first such ordination to be held by this organization in America. The majority of the ceremony and the content of all our vows was in English and I give full props to the abbots for whom this was a clear, but worthwhile, challenge. It is not uncommon for Asian-founded temples in the U.S. to continue to conduct all services in their native language, even when a significant number of non-native speakers are present, so this was a major step simply to accommodate us, English-speaking Americans. The ceremony was held at the ICCBCE U.S. headquarters in Monterey Park, California, and the ordination took place in the beautiful main hall of the Hua Shia Buddhist Association temple.
The ceremony began by inviting the three precept masters to teach and administer the vows, followed by repentance, refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, vowing to uphold the Five Precepts, and making the four Bodhisattva vows. Each section (except repentance) was repeated three times, once for each precept master. Each abbot (precept master) gave a short homily that conveyed how optimistic they too are for Buddhist ministers in America, their hopes for building connections across Buddhist traditions, and their care for us, the first generation. It involved a lot of bowing, prostration, and standing with palms together for those being ordained. The laypeople and monastic volunteers helped us all along the way, indicating where to stand, what direction to face, when to bow, prostrate, and stand, and helped us find our spot when we got lost during the Chinese chanting. It concluded in traditional Chinese chanting followed by endless group photographs. They also prepared a very yummy lunch for after the service. So many people put so much time and effort into a ceremony for our benefit when we are basically strangers to them – it actually makes my heart feel a little bit bigger.
We all received a robe, brown for the men and blue for the women to correspond to the colors of monastic daily-wear robes, stole, mala, and ordination certificate with our Dharma name. In our generation, the Dharma names begin with “pu” which means bodhi in Chinese. My Dharma name is Pu Shan or “bodhi is fit [for enlightenment].” The ICCBCE hopes to hold this event annually. This year seven men and six women were ordained, including Caucasian Americans, Jewish Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans, Chinese Americans, and Taiwanese (apologies if I left anyone out), representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism. All are either working chaplains or chaplaincy students obtaining graduate level education in Buddhism and spiritual care to complement years of personal practice. Eleven are students or alumni of University of the West and three are students of Claremont School of Theology (I overlap).
We provide care and conduct our clinical pastoral education (CPE) in hospitals, hospice, addiction recovery, universities, and elsewhere. Ordination will actually go a long way towards helping us continue to find employment as professional chaplains, where it is the norm and our explanations of “Well, my Buddhist tradition doesn’t really do that” don’t get us very far. So this is a powerful professional credential. Moreover, ICCBCE has indicated it’s willingness to support for our ongoing training in meditation, ritual, chanting, and other studies, through their network of temples and by working with inter-denominational partners in the three main branches of Buddhism. The development of training and work-related materials, like pocket prayer books, is also on the menu. Right now the ICCBCE in the U.S. is relying on a Facebook page to spread the word, while developing a more permanent and informative website.
Overall, I am proud to be associated with this organization, humbled to have been ordained, and grateful for the continued support. I’m sure not everything will be smooth in years to come. We have mountains of cultural differences to explore as Buddhism continues its diaspora, but overall I am optimistic and fascinated to watch this lotus flower bloom.
Before I conclude, I must offer a very sincere thank you to a few special people. My classmates and fellow UWest alumni Venerable Guan Zhen, Venerable Kiet Vo, and Reverend Aroon Seeda worked very hard to make this happen. Ven. Guan Zhen in particular is the ICCBCE secretary in the U.S. and in between his own monastic duties, application and acceptance into Columbia University (PhD in social work program), and many trips back and forth to China, he somehow made this happen. He emcee’d the ceremony on Saturday and, while not included in the photo, was undeniably the lynch pin of the entire event. Thank you and deep bows.