Clergy shortage in Zen Buddhist communities challenging Buddhist transmission in America

There is a clergy shortage in Zen Buddhist communities in the U.S., leading to new roles for the laity but also greater bureaucracy in some cases and a looming crisis in transmission as teaching and rituals are scaled back, according to sociologist Rebecca S. K. Li of the College of New Jersey. Li presented her preliminary research findings at the late August meeting of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia, which RW attended. Since its introduction to the U.S. in the 1960s, Zen Buddhism has grown to occupy a central place in the Buddhist life of the country, especially among converts. But like many Christian churches, Zen communities have experienced a clergy shortage that has had repercussions for these communities’ offerings and their appeal among both members and seekers. Li studied four Zen communities on the East and West coasts and how they have adapted to the clergy shortage, using ethnography and an analysis of archival materials. In some communities she found that there has been a general weakening of the central role that priests play in training other potential priests, which has affected the overall operations of these temples.

Source: Dharma Rain Zen Center.

There is often a lengthy period of apprenticeship and training for Zen priests and those long years of commitment, often involving the performance of administrative work for little or no pay and with no guarantee of ordination, have lowered the appeal of training for the priesthood. This results in less work for established priests in the training and initiation of novices, but also a shortage of people to do the administrative work needed in these communities. This all contributes to the prospect of the ritual aspects of Zen communities becoming increasingly lax, but also a dearth in Zen teaching, since the priests play the role of primary teacher of the temple. “…Not only will there be a succession crisis in administrative leadership, but the community may also face the prospect of a teacherless Zen community, rendering it even more difficult to attract people to participate in their programs not to mention devoting their lives to a religious community,” Li says. In one community Li studied, administrative roles once filled by novices are now occupied by laity, with a greater emphasis on efficiency and a bureaucratic approach. Another community has increased its strict demands on priests, which may appeal to a smaller portion of Zen students but also creates a strong sense of community. Other innovations among these communities include making it easier for laity to be ordained and minimizing the workload created by the traditional requirement of communal living and allowing priests to take up outside work on a part-time basis.