Buddhists in Toledo, Ohio, gathered in an outdoor ceremony on 8 August for the ordination of Rev. Winifred Shokai Martin, the community’s first locally trained Zen priest. The ceremony was presided over by Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik, abbot of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo, who, along with his wife Rev. Karen Do’on Weik, has acted as the clergy for a growing Zen Buddhist community in the area.
While the ceremony—held outdoors in recognition of the threat of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—marks an official entry into priesthood for Rev. Martin, she has been acting as a priest for some time in her community. Speaking about the ceremony, Rev. Martin reflected that it “is just a recognition of what’s already there.” (Toledo Blade)
Rev. Wiek, for his part, called the event “a real point of pride for everyone here.” (Toledo Blade)
Rev. Martin, 63, was given the Dharma name Shokai. With the formal event behind her, Rev. Martin can now perform liturgies on her own, in a temple or at the request of members of the community, who often ask for house blessings.
“People will often call and say, ‘Can you do a house blessing?’” Rev. Martin said. “We don’t have enough priests to serve all of these requests. Now we can be much more responsive.” (Toledo Blade)
Rev. Martin followed a path familiar to many Western convert Buddhists. While working in the provost’s office at Eastern Michigan University, she encountered a secular meditation teacher who had been invited to help workers reduce stress. She enjoyed the experience and began visiting meditation groups in Ann Arbor, where Eastern Michigan University is located, some 80 kilometers north of Toledo.
Her first experience of the Zen Center of Toledo, she recalled, “was a bit of a culture shock.” (Toledo Blade) The extensive liturgy and bells and robes reminded her of her childhood faith, Irish Catholicism.
She was not expecting “liturgy and robes and bells,” she said, and was not keen on them. She had by that point disengaged from the faith tradition of her childhood in the deeply Catholic Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s, and did not think that she wanted these liturgical trappings. However, she was drawn back again and again, leading to her taking part in a class on the 16 Bodhisattva precepts in 2010, when the Weiks themselves were ordained.
Rev. Martin later went on to develop a formalized student-teacher relationship in what is called shoken, followed by attendance as part of the inaugural cohort of the newly formed seminary at the Buddhist Temple of Toledo. Along the way, Rev. Martin trained in pastoral counseling, liturgy, and other topics necessary for the priesthood.
“Everything around this path is organic. I’m always saying that, and it really is,” she said. “I didn’t go in with the intention of being a priest. Nothing was farther from my mind.” (Toledo Blade)
Describing the learning process, Rev. Martin said: “It’s not that you qualify and then you go do it. You’re actually building the plane as you’re flying it.” (Toledo Blade)
The ceremony was more a recognition of Rev. Martin’s role in the community than an initiator of it. In a tradition dating back to the life of the Buddha, her head was shaved, representing a transition from secular to spiritual life.
“It’s been part of the Buddhist tradition from its very inception, some 2,600 years ago,”said Ven. Weik. “It’s something that’s common in pretty much any Buddhist tradition, from Thailand to Tibet to Japan to China to Vietnam to Toledo.” (Toledo Blade)
Speaking on the transition to formal priest in the Buddhist tradition, Rev. Martin said, “I feel a great responsibility for the mandala of the sangha, for holding that priestly place for now and being joined by others.”
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