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How to Become a Student: Interview with Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

by Patrick Groneman

Interested in going deeper with your spiritual practice?  Over the next three weeks I'll be posting interviews with IDP's three "lineage mentors", who take time to explain the process of becoming a student in their spiritual tradition. 

This week, we explore Soto and Rinzai Zen forms of Buddhism with Roshi Enkyo O'Hara of the Village Zendo.

Q: Roshi, What is the process of becoming a student in the Soto Zen lineage like?

Roshi Enkyo O'Hara: The process of becoming a student varies from sangha to sangha. And of course, with the adaptation in the West. Further, there are many groups like ours that integrate both the Soto and Rinzai traditions in our Zen practice. The Village Zendo pays respect to a tradition in Eastern Zen in which aspiring monks were required to sit long hours in meditation before being admitted to the monastery for training. In our procedure the candidate sees me in private interview and asks to formally study with me and the other members of the VZ teaching staff.

Next, after receiving my okay, the candidate does one day of student initiation (Tangaryo) which involves sitting in meditation all day with other student candidates. Following Tangaryo, the candidates exchange bows with me in a brief ceremony and I present them with their student certificates. At the sangha’s next all-day sit (zazenkai) there is a brief welcoming ceremony for new students.

Q: Are there any vows or commitments that one must make to become a student?

Roshi: The most important commitment a student makes is to their own aspiration to realize
their true nature and accomplish the Way. The only commitment a student makes to us is to support the teacher and the sangha. In most cases, this begins with a financial commitment and expands from there as the student’s practice deepens. My commitment is to support students in their practice for as long as they desire.

Q: There is this mythicized version of “Zen Master” in our culture as a stoic, quiet monk
who spontaneously gets angry or does something outrageous to wake a student up. What is the teacher/student relationship actually like your community?

Roshi: At the Village Zendo, we have four full-fledged Zen teachers (but hopefully no “Zen
Masters”) and no two of us are alike. There is no particular personality that a Zen teacher is supposed to have. What is most important is that teachers be unwavering in their vow to support the student’s practice. In Eastern monastic cultures, this frequently involved “tough love.” In the context of our Western lay practice, it more often involves patience, compassion and understanding, but still wedded to high standards of practice.

Q: Your title is “Roshi”, which means something like “elder master”. Are there other levels of teacher in Soto Zen communities? What are the differences?

Roshi: When I received dharma transmission from my teacher Bernie Glassman, I became “Sensei,” a person qualified to teach independently. Several years later, he gave me inka, which means his final “seal of approval,” and I became “Roshi,” a senior teacher. In addition to Roshi and Sensei, we also have the title Hoshi, or Dharma Holder, for people who are teachers in training and teach under supervision. That’s how it works in our lineage. Many Soto lineages don’t have the title Roshi at all. Our lineage is a hybrid of the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen because our founder, Maezumi Roshi, received dharma transmission in both lines.

Q: What do the Soto Zen teachings emphasize? More specifically, what emphasis is
placed on the role of the student within the community?

Roshi: The Soto Zen teachings emphasize realizing one’s true nature and then manifesting the wisdom and compassion that arise naturally from one’s true nature. The community is the place where the wisdom and compassion that arise from practice are shared with others. It is also the place where the delusions that keep one from living in harmony with others become more apparent. Participation in community life is an integral part of the training of Zen students. Zen training is not a matter of going off and sitting on top of a mountain.


Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara is Abbot of the Village Zendo and linage mentor of the Interdependence Project.   Her Dharma talks are available on the VZ Website, as well as class schedule and special workshops.

Tune in next week for words from Acharya Eric Spiegel of the Shambhala tradition.


(Painting of Zen Master Dogen from Jan Zaremba)

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Great Idea

Patrick, I've wondered about these lineages and how they work and how to become a student.  Thanks for posting, it's very helpful info. 

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