To Lead Is to Serve: The Training of a Buddhist Abbot
Rev. Eko Little, Abbot, Shasta Abbey
- Shasta Abbey, Mt. Shasta, CA - USA -

Early each morning in our monastery's meditation hall, the abbot performs a brief ceremony prior to meditation. Upon entering the hall, the abbot bows three times in front of the Manjusri statue, turns his wooden Sword of Buddha's Wisdom horizontally, and then processes in a clockwise direction around the meditation hall. As he passes by each monk's seat, that monk makes the traditional mudra of gassho to signify that the monk is completely willing to accept and follow the abbot's teaching for that day. After the abbot has finished the procession, he then sits down at his own seat and formal meditation begins. At first glance, this ceremony appears to be an act of willingness on the part of each monk to receive the abbot's teaching, but it is also something else. In performing this ceremony, the abbot promises to serve and to help each and every monk in the community. Although he may appear to be the spiritual head of the community, the abbot is, in fact, the servant of the entire community.
My late Dharma grandfather, Keido Chisan Koho Zenji, served as abbot in a very large Japanese Buddhist monastery. He made it a practice to have each newly ordained monk come to his house, required the monk to strike him on each shoulder with the Sword of Buddha's Wisdom, and then requested the new monk to shave his head. Koho Zenji believed that his own Buddhist training was only as good as the training exhibited by the newest and youngest member of the monastery. The new monk's training served to express the depth of his understanding of Koho Zenji's teaching and training example; therefore, if the new monk was having problems (as every new monk does), it became Koho Zenji's responsibility to see to it that the new monk received help and instruction. If the new monk was doing poorly, Koho Zenji felt it was due to the inadequacy of his, Koho Zenji's, training, teaching, and example that the new monk was experiencing difficulty. Thus, the training of each monk became an example and expression of the abbot's training, and vice-versa. In Koho Zenji's mind, the abbot was only as good as the newest and most inexperienced monk in the community.
In traditional Buddhist monasteries, the abbot is both the spiritual and temporal head of the monastery. He leads all the monks in religious practice and ceremonies. He is the primary religious teacher in the community. He has the final word in all decisions, and the monks are expected to willingly accept his decisions even if they do not like them very much. He is the chief administrator, and has the last word on how the community's funds are spent. He is the final authority of the monastery's rules, and can make new rules when necessary. He appoints all the senior monks to their offices, and can remove them from those offices whenever necessary. It would therefore appear that the authority and "power" of the abbot is seemingly limitless, and that the responsibilities and duties of a Buddhist abbot are both desirable and to be eagerly sought for. However, the reality of the "power" and "authority" which the abbot seems to possess pales in comparison to the weight of his responsibilities and the complexities of his office. Whatever sort of joyful bubble of ability, exhilaration, and "power" which the new abbot has unfortunately allowed to form in his mind usually bursts within the first few years of abbatical service as the reality and weight of his office begin to settle on him. It is no wonder that, in China, monks who had been asked to become abbot of large monasteries sometimes "disappeared" mysteriously before the appointment could be made, while those who accepted the abbatical office in large monasteries would often die in office.
The qualifications for becoming an abbot are not always uniform or explicit, but what follows are some of the issues a Buddhist community will consider when choosing a new abbot. He should be accomplished in the religious practice, and should also be seen to be a living model in the keeping of the Buddhist Precepts: the life of the abbot sets the example for all the other monks. He should be well-experienced and grounded in the doctrines and teachings of Buddhism and possess the ability to teach and inspire both monks and laity alike. He should possess the ability to attract monks to train and study with him for the good of the monastery and for the Sangha. The person should be completely disinterested in fame and gain. In his dealings with others, he should be able to demonstrate compassion to all and treat them with tenderness and "grand motherly kindness." He should be completely willing to serve his monastic and lay community.
Given the heavy responsibilities of leadership in a monastic community and the high standards which must be kept in order to fulfill those responsibilities, it seems to approach the miraculous that there is anyone capable, not to mention willing, to serve in such a capacity at all. Which brings us to the last and most important responsibility and qualification for the abbot: the person has to be human. Even though a monk becomes an abbot, the monk never ceases being an ordinary person and a disciple of the Buddha. Although his role requires him to function as a spiritual teacher and parent to his community, he has to remember that he is, first and foremost, an ordinary monk who lives and trains with other monks. He is just as human as anyone else is, and often makes the same mistakes that everyone else makes. The difference between the abbot and the other monks in the community is that the abbot is expected not to make mistakes and that most, if not all, of his mistakes occur in public, within full view of his community.
If the abbot is doing his religious training sincerely, he often finds himself in a moderate condition of being turned inside out, frequently experiencing periods where things in his own training or in the life of his community make his own life very intense. He is faced with challenges and problems every day, some of which he may have no idea how to approach in the beginning, but is required to solve successfully. He must constantly exercise willingness: the willingness to do his own religious training, to help the community, to solve problems, to help those in need, to settle disputes, and to clean up the inevitable messy situations which occur when any group of people decide to live together. The abbot is often challenged to continue to be willing to make offerings of teaching or opportunities of training to monks and laity, and especially challenged during those times when no one seems to understand what the abbot is trying to do. The abbot must also not forget to live with and like the other monks and not neglect his own religious practice. The responsibilities of serving a community in so many myriad ways can cause crushing fatigue and give rise to feelings of loneliness and isolation; the danger of spiritual and physical exhaustion is always lurking around the corner.
Being an ordinary monk and human being, the abbot frequently makes mistakes, but has neither the time nor the luxury to dwell upon any one of them. For the sake of everyone in the community, he has to keep going. It is common for the abbot to feel that he is often coming up short in difficult or painful situations, and handling matters somewhat inadequately. Many of these situations which present themselves to him seem to require something more which can or needs to be done, if only he knows what that something is! At the same time, the abbot must learn to accept the work of each day of training, knowing that his work is never finished, while wholeheartedly accepting the taking of just one step and learning to be content with that. It is vital to have compassion for one's self and for the other monks, to live with the knowledge that it is never possible to do anything perfectly, and to learn how to accept one's best instead of torturing oneself over failing, at the non-attainment of perfection. The Middle Way of Buddhist training is always challenging and the affairs of a monastery are relentless: life never lets up. The abbot must learn to carry his responsibilities lightly and wear the mantle of office as gracefully as possible.
In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Sangha, the religious community. In Buddhist history, the term Sangha originally referred only to female and male monastics, but is often used today to describe the four classes of Buddhists: female and male priests, lay women and lay men. The act of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha has been described as a ship sailing into a safe harbor, or a child throwing itself into the arms of its parents. Taking refuge in the Sangha means being willing to seek the help and guidance of those who are wise and compassionate, to open one's heart and mind to the possibility that one could be wrong about a great number of things without ever intending to be, and trusting in the pure intention of the Sangha to be a real refuge. In other words, a fundamental part of taking refuge is learning to trust other people. Trust is both the lifeblood and glue of a religious community. In our everyday life as a community, we usually do everything together in some way, so the act of participating in the community's life based on one's commitment to do so is, in itself, an aspect of taking refuge. There are endless opportunities for creating and nurturing harmony, for consultation with and communication between each other, and for cultivating compassion and willingness. In one sense, living in a monastic community is no different from living in any other kind of community; however, there is nowhere to escape and no place to hide. There is no place in the monastery where one is inaccessible to others. However, the religious purpose of a monastic Sangha and the degree of intensity with which all its members must continue to train make it a unique experience.
Just as it is necessary for each monk to take refuge in the Sangha and learn to trust one another, so is it especially important for the abbot to do likewise. Because of the unique character and weight of the abbot's duties and responsibilities, it is very easy for him to become exhausted, worried, grieved, or isolated. When an abbot has other supportive senior monks around him who understand the weight of the office and are willing to give him the opportunity to be human and grumble occasionally, they act as "vessels of refuge." The loneliness and isolation which can result from the abbot's onerous duties will be reduced to the point where the abbot can manage them. The abbot needs the support of the senior monks around him who are his peers, as well as the support of the rest of the community in order for the community to function well. In a monastery where the monks live together, it is very dangerous for both the abbot and the community if the abbot becomes isolated. Continual isolation of whatever kind for an abbot is a sure sign of potential trouble, and it teaches that the community has to be just as willing to help the abbot as the abbot is willing to help the community. It is a mutual, symbiotic relationship and responsibility which everyone in the community cultivates and has a role in. When it breaks down, the consequences can result in the fragmentation and eventual destruction of the community. That each and every member of the community, including (and especially) the abbot, accepts their own part of this delicate relationship and commits themselves to carrying out what needs to be done in order to nurture and preserve it is vital to the community's healthy existence and vibrant spiritual life.
The abbot of any monastery lives dead-center in the firing range of expectations and misconceptions about monastic life, the abilities of a Buddhist teacher, and the simple misperceptions of being human. People often fail to remember that the abbot, like everyone else, is still in monastic training and is doing the best he knows how. Abbots are often thought to be endowed with the omniscience, clairvoyance, and infallibility of a deity which is, of course, impossible to approach, let alone live up to. If something is going wrong or is difficult in the monastery, it is often assumed that the abbot not only knows about it in every detail, but plans it to happen that way "for the good of the spiritual training of the community." In fact, he probably doesn't even know that something may be amiss, and is often the last to know about it.
An abbot walks a razor's edge between directing events, responsibilities, and people, and being driven by them. He must learn to trust others to do their work, be willing to invest them with full responsibility for their actions, treat them with love and respect, and stand back and let them do their best so that they may learn directly from their own experience and mistakes. It is better for the abbot and for the community if the abbot points, encourages, and inspires rather than tries to direct or control. I much prefer to be asked for advice rather than have it assumed that I will direct or control events, that things will and should be done exactly as I wish (as if that were ever possible!). I prefer to take counsel with my fellow seniors and listen to their ideas rather than be required to make the best possible decision for everyone's welfare by myself. I cherish living and training with the monks and sharing our life together rather than directing every event and managing every project or decision. Our tradition teaches us to deepen our individual stillness and mindfulness to where we naturally practice bowing and "uncomplaining all-acceptance." The abbot's role is to lead and serve simultaneously, learning how to pull from the top (to inspire others to follow willingly) and push from the bottom (to encourage others when their spirits are flagging).
How sweet is the romantic ideal of living in a religious community! Everyone follows the same practice, has the same or similar goals, lives together, and shares in each other's joys and sorrows. Problems occur, of course, but they always work out for the best and everyone is happy about their outcome sooner or later. Right? In a word. . .wrong. There is nothing romantic or ideal about living with any group of people, and a monastery is no exception. The commitment to monastic life places one in a very interesting situation, where one has to live harmoniously with those who one would not choose to become acquainted with, let alone live with, for 24 hours a day! Harmony, trust, and taking refuge are not something magical that happen by themselves. One has to work at it and be continually willing to preserve and deepen harmony. Harmony is a living, delicate, and fragile state. As monks, we all aspire to it and work for it to manifest naturally while we work with and learn from the religious lessons of our daily life. In a monastery, there is nothing which resembles what the world would call "privacy." There is no such thing as a "vacation," and no possibility of "taking a breath." Monks do rest, of course, and go on retreat, but times of real solitude are rare. Our community has busier and quieter times, yet Buddhist training flows through it all, and the life of a monk is lived every day, week, and year. In every monastery there are usually one or two monks who are approaching sainthood, balanced by one or two monks who are having a really hard time. The rest of the monks fall somewhere in the middle, each alternating and exploring regularly their own personal visions of sainthood and nightmares of personal hell.
It is very important to cultivate a quality of transparency in order to thrive in community monastic life. Transparency is one step beyond the normal ideas of being human, open, and vulnerable. One not only allows others to see us as we really are, but we are willing to let others see through us by not putting barriers in their way, nor attempting to present ourselves as we wish others to see us. One learns to live like water, which flows over everything but holds on to nothing. Because water is clear and transparent, nothing is hidden within it. Transparency also means willing to be human and face the truth of the shallowness and feebleness of one's selfish side, and still be willing to have compassion for it and help transform it into a force for transformation. It means being trustworthy and accountable for one's deeds and actions to everyone in the community. Buddhism is a religion for adult human beings, not something for a coward, escapist, or child. It is a religion in which one learns to cultivate pure faith and trust; it is neither a philosophy nor a lifestyle. When one trains in a genuine Buddhist community, one is constantly having to look at oneself without the usual creation of personae, armor, or escapes which we can easily rely on when we are by ourselves. And, even in the crucible of a monastic community, it is amazing to see the webs we weave in order to hide ourselves from the way we are. One has to learn to accept oneself completely in stillness and mindfulness and to find the source of deep compassion which dwells within each one of us. Along this road there are surprisingly many and frequent painful and difficult twists and turns. Yet, if we can keep true to the purity of our original intention, the source of Buddha Nature which we truly long for is never far away. When we rest in It and take refuge therein, It holds and embraces us completely. It can be a real shock to some to realize that we are not alone, and that Buddha Nature is holding everyone else, too.
The abbot of a monastery does have a central function in the life of his monastic community and to the larger lay Sangha connected with the monastery. He is primarily responsible for the quality of the Buddhist training of the monks in the community, as well as for their spiritual, material, and physical well-being. He gives Dharma talks, teaches meditation, leads retreats, and gives spiritual counseling. If the monastery is connected to a larger lay Sangha, he often serves in the capacity of a parish priest; however, sometimes out of sheer necessity, he may have to ask other monks to act for him. He remains nonetheless responsible for the quality of the teaching, the training, the commitment, and the services which the monastery offers to the public. His position places him in a unique position to continue to offer to all endless opportunities for training and for receiving teaching.
Think of a wooden spoked wheel as a practical example of how an abbot and a monastic community function harmoniously with the lay community and the larger Sangha. The abbot acts like the wheel's hub, the monks as the spokes and the laity as the rim of the wheel itself. At first glance, it may appear that the hub is the most important part of the wheel which seems to hold everything together; instead, it is only the most visible part of the wheel which shows when the wheel is turning properly. After all, the wheel will be unable to turn unless each of its parts is sound, in good working order, and is working smoothly together with all the other parts. Regardless of how strong or visible the hub might be, it will be to no avail if the wheel's spokes or outer rim are weak or damaged. A wheel will break at its weakest point; a Sangha will fragment and collapse if the abbot, the monks, and the laity do not trust each other and train together, each doing their own part for the benefit of everyone else.
The everyday practice of taking refuge in the Sangha is the everyday application of trust, willingness, and harmony which each Sangha member is willing and able to awaken within him or herself, and then in their life with others. We humans love to make things special and celebrate the extraordinary, but the whole point of religious life is to realize that the ordinary things and circumstances of life are already special because religious practice sanctifies that which is mundane. We do not have to do anything different than usual; instead, we do the same things we always do but this time from a heart of trust, willingness, and harmony. Regardless of our religion or spiritual practice, if we want to live together in community, we have to be willing to make it successful by letting go of self and not backing down or allowing our commitment to Truth become thwarted by problems, setbacks, or disappointments.
I have been asked where I find the inspiration to continue to serve as the abbot of Shasta Abbey. My inspiration primarily comes from the monastics and laity who think I am teaching them, but are in fact teaching me all the time. My late master's example continues to both remind and comfort me of how much easier a time I have in comparison to the sacrifices she made. And, there is nothing more wonderful than to see the faith and recognition of "coming home" in the faces and lives of people who have been looking for something like Buddhism and Buddhist training their whole lives, and suddenly discover that they have found what they have been searching for so long. It happened to me because one person trained herself and did the best she could as a priest. If I can help someone else find the same joy and peace I have been blessed with because of the Teachings of the Buddha, then my life and efforts will not have been spent in vain.
Within this hall we must love each other and be deeply grateful for the opportunity of possessing a compassionate mind which enables us to be parents, relatives, teachers and wise priests; because of this compassionate mind our countenances will for ever show tenderness and our lives will for ever be blissful. We must never speak ill of another even if his language is coarse. We should speak tenderly to such a one, gently pointing out his fault, rather than defame him when he is not present. When we hear something of value we should put it into practice; by so doing we gain great merit. How fortunate it is that we are together. How fortunate it is that we, in this hall, have been able to make the acquaintance of those who, in former lives, performed good works and have thus become the treasures of the priesthood. What joy! Amongst the laity there is a great difference between related and unrelated persons, yet the Buddhist Sangha possesses greater intimacy than most persons have with themselves.1

1. Zen Master Tendo Nyojo as quoted by Great Master Eihei Dogen,"Rules of the Trainee's Hall," Shuryoshingi, 13th century. Translated by Roshi P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, Zen is Eternal Life, 4th ed. (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1999), p. 109.