grey robes


By Daniel Scharpenburg

I’m going to be very careful on this one. Normally my writing is very open.

In this case I’m going to be deliberately vague. My hope is that if anyone in the organization that I’m going to talk about reads this, they won’t be upset or offended. I joined a Zen Order. I will not be giving the name of this Zen Order or anyone involved. I don’t want them to be looked at negatively. It’s just a situation that didn’t work for me.

This is an organization that has a bad reputation and there were red flags. I could have gotten out earlier, but it’s okay. I did learn things and also my experience wasn’t horrible. It just wasn’t for me.

So, this organization is inspired by and modeled after the largest Korean Zen community in the United States, the Kwan Um School of Zen, which was founded by a Korean Zen teacher named Seung Sahn. But, this Zen Order that I joined has no connection to Kwan Um, only inspiration.

I joined this Order. No, I was recruited into this order.

A monk in the order who had the title Abbot recruited me. He was looking for more monks for the order and after hearing about my book he came to recruit me. I started monk training. In this lineage monks are allowed to marry and have children. Some lineages have different rules regarding who can be a monk. I took the Five Precepts:

The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, and refrain from objectifying others.
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.

I was given the Buddhist name “Boepyol,” which means Dharma Zeal. Just a few months later I took an additional five precepts that made me a Novice Monk.

It’s important to note one thing: I didn’t ask to be a monk.

I didn’t try to be a monk. My teacher pushed me into it. Now that I think about it, I wonder if he was expected to have a certain number of monks in training. But I can only speculate. I was given the grey robes of a Korean Zen Monk. Anyway, these are the vows I took as a Novice Monk:

The Sixth Precept: I vow to be kind and to encourage others, and to refrain from discouraging others including myself.
The Seventh Precept: I vow to be kind to others and refrain from being boastful and self-centered.
The Eighth Precept: I vow to be generous, to be grateful for what I have, and refrain from yearning for things that do not belong to me.
The Ninth Precept: I vow to promote harmony and refrain from acting in anger or hatred.
The Tenth Precept: I vow to affirm and uphold the three jewels (the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma).

I do think these precepts are great and I do still make an effort to live up to them. I don’t call myself a monk anymore. I prefer ‘Priest’ or some other title.  Or no title at all. My current teacher actually says that the division between monk and layman is founded upon delusion anyway.

What was the problem?

It seemed to me that the founder of the Order gave out promotions a little too quickly and easily.  I don’t have all the information, but it really seemed that way. And students were educated through an online Buddhist university that isn’t accredited and didn’t really seem like a real college.

But, the main thing was this. I don’t feel any connection to the teachings of Seung Sahn. His way of expressing Buddhism is simply not interesting to me. I should have felt inspired by these teachings and by my teacher, but I really didn’t. I didn’t feel inspired at all.

My teacher described himself as someone who hates meditation. That didn’t really sit well with me. (what do you call a Zen master who doesn’t meditate? I don’t know either).However, during my time in this Order I did learn a little about Chinese style Zen (Ch’an). That would have a much bigger impact on me.

So, I was involved but I never got comfortable. I went to meetings of the Order. I had personal meetings with my teacher and we worked on kong-ans (which is a zen practice that some lineages have and others don’t. I’m not a fan).

A turning point came.

A teacher, a Zen priest in a Japanese lineage, named Karen Maezen Miller visited the Rime Center and led a weekend retreat. I went on that retreat and I felt what it was like to be inspired by a Zen teacher. I can’t express how inspired I was by this event. She is a fantastic teacher and sitting with her really transformed me.

Everything was better about this retreat. From the way she talked about the Dharma, to the way she led meditation, to the stories she told about her teacher, to the context of the private meeting I had with her (we had a conversation instead of going through kong-an practice), even the fact that she wore cooler robes. (black robes are cooler than gray ones). I saw how great a Zen teacher can be.

I couldn’t stay with the Zen Order. So I returned my robes.

Now, I would love to take Karen Maezen Miller as my teacher. I felt really connected to her. But she lives in California. I can’t move to California. I have kids and a job here.

So I thought I would look for another teacher. And I found one.

Photo by author
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer