Dharma Heritage Ceremony

Posted in news on September 25th, 2010

The Dharma Heritage Ceremony was developed in the course of preparing for the first National Conference of the SZBA in 2004 at Great Vow Zen Monastery. It is a ritual of affirmation by one’s peers and a welcoming into the circle of Soto Zen leaders in the West. The Dharma Heritage Ceremony was designed, and is performed, collaboratively. The ceremony is structured by a group of “seniors” who welcome the “candidates.” For the first Dharma Heritage Ceremony, the seniors were those who had performed zuisse or haito. For subsequent ceremonies, seniors are those who had previously participated in the Dharma Heritage Ceremony. The first ceremony included 12 seniors and over 30 candidates, the second included around 40 seniors and 9 candidates, and the third included over 40 seniors and 13 candidates.

Professor William Bodiford, in his article “Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practice,” included in the volume Zen Ritual, edited by Steven Heine & Dale S. Wright, writes: “The Dharma Heritage Ceremony serves to remind Soto priests from these dissimilar Centers of the collective tradition they share. It provides a common ritual in which all of them can participate simultaneously, jointly offer homage to the founders of one another’s lineages, and formally acknowledge one another as religious peers. Clearly, it is designed to help foster the development of a new shared culture of dharma transmission. Each of the individual elements with the ceremony (the setting, musical instruments, processions, prostrations, circumambulations, chants, and so forth) consist of standard Zen ritual practices as performed at Buddhist temples in Japan. The ceremony as a whole, however, presents something new and uniquely American. Significantly, it concludes with all the participants chanting the Zen hymn known as the Harmony of Difference and Sameness, a title that aptly expresses the goal of the ceremony itself and the task now faced by the SZBA. Thus, the ceremony represents a development of traditional ritual forms for new purposes in a new land. It is a development that reflects both the growing maturity of Zen traditions in North America and their precarious, difficult quest to harmonize imported and native, old and new, similar and different.”

Similar to zuisse, a Japanese Soto Zen ceremony,  the entering group is offered to officiate the ceremony by the abbot of the temple. First, the candidates pay homage to the founders. The founders are those teachers who have come to this country and now have heirs. The candidate group then enters the Buddha Hall where the seniors have already assembled. The entering group performs a Jundo (circulating through the hall) in appreciation. The candidates then jointly officiate the ceremony. During the recitation of the Sandokai, the seniors circumambulate the candidates. When this is complete, the entire assembly joins in circumambulation. Finally, the lineage is recited. It is basically a ceremony of mutual recognition, enfolding and interweaving.

Although the Dharma Heritage Ceremony carries some of the same functions as the zuisse or haito ceremonies conducted in Japan, it is not a replacement. The Dharma Heritage Ceremony and zuisse/haito each have their own validity. Neither can substitute for the other but there are significant parallels.

Practically, the two ceremonies are quite different. They take place in different countries as part of different and independent organizations. The Sotoshu offers zuise and no ceremony offered here will ever replace it. It is a very particular, historical series of ceremonies built around being honorary abbot of Eiheiji and/or Sojiji, paying homage to the ancestral line, helping to fund those temples with one’s fees, undergoing further training in correct ceremonial performance, and receiving validation by the priests of the temple. It has a vertical quality of being received from above into a hierarchy, and it has a particular role in the Sotoshu certification process.

The SZBA has the Dharma Heritage Ceremony, in which each member coming for the first time to the biennial national conference enters the sangha of SZBA-member teachers. It includes homage to the ancestral line, and beyond that it is largely a horizontal form in which one is received into the group of peer teachers, corresponding to a peer-emphasizing quality of American society.

Zuise and the Dharma Heritage ceremony are alike or have a rough equivalence in that they are both ceremonies of completion and inclusion for Soto priests. In both ceremonies, the candidate is witnessed and affirmed. There is one further connection between them: during the first Dharma Heritage ceremony, the Seniors group was those who had performed zuise or haito, and that group “received” all the other participants at the conference into the sangha of Soto priest-teachers in North America. This was not intended as a kind of formal transmission, but as a way of approaching the process of passing on the tradition. Since the first Dharma Heritage Ceremony, everyone who has already entered the group by doing the ceremony forms the body of Seniors in the ceremony.

Some may hold an informal equivalence or correspondence between zuise and the Dharma Heritage Ceremony, but the Dharma Heritage Ceremony was not conceived to be an equivalent of zuise in a way that the Sotoshu might recognize. Rather, it is a ritual of affirmation by one’s peers, a welcoming into the circle of Soto Zen leaders in the West. This in turn serves to further one of the missions of the SZBA, to “facilitate trust, respect, communication, ethical conduct, and education among the many sanghas of Soto Zen lineages and in the wider community.”


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