Monkish Nomenclature

Jundo Cohen addresses some confusion over the use of the term “monk” in Zen settings and its often tacit association with an ascetic and solitary lifestyle—especially when the term is pointed at him.

In the West, more and more, Zen clergy have come to resemble Protestant Christian Ministers, married with family and, very often, with outside jobs to pay the bills, yet leading a congregation.

That’s why calling many of us “Zen Monks” is kinda funny, excepting those periods of months or years when Zen clergy live and train in a monastery, usually in a celibate situation. (Then, the name “Zen monk” is appropriate). After that, most live in temples, with their families — wife and kids. So, maybe “Zen Priest” is a better term, or “Zen Minister”… or perhaps just “Zen Teacher”or “Zen Clergy”…

An old friend of mine is the son of a Shin Buddhist minister, and he used to routinely refer to his father as a monk. Other Buddhists gave my friend quite a bit of flak over his terminology. In contrast, Cohen is willing to bow to convention and accept the ascetic sense of the word monk, rather than trying to stake a flag in it. He could certainly provide justification to do so, but alternative titles are proposed instead. I find that admirable.

One thought on “Monkish Nomenclature

  1. Archivist’s Note: Comments have been preserved from the original website for archival purposes; however, comments are now closed.

    MuSsang JaegerApril 8, 2010 at 8:06 PM
    Yeah, I’ve dealt with the same issue in my own lineage. In Korea, the majority of teachers are celibate monks, but my teacher, Ven. Pohwa-seunim was willing to adapt that here in America.

    My literal title in Korean is Beopsa, which translates as Dharma teacher, so for brevity & accuracy’s sake, that’s just how I refer to myself, and given the existence of celibate monks in our order, I don’t call myself a monk.

    The point was driven home humerously one Lunar New Year when a young woman visited the temple for the festivities. In the midst of conversation, she had a question for me and seemed to be having problems asking. I told her just to ask directly, and not to worry.

    “How long has it been since you’ve had a woman?”

    WalterApril 8, 2010 at 10:04 PM
    A new terminology is definitely required.
    It is pretty clear that in English “monk” means celibate renunciant who lives in community. As this exact model also exists in the Buddhist world, it is easily transferred.
    If someone has a different role, then surely good old-fashioned “Teacher” is appropriate, or Reverend or Minister. I think Priest can be confusing, as to so many Catholics it also implies celibacy.

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