A monk named Hui asked the teacher Fa Yen, “Hui asks the teacher, ‘What is Buddha?’

Fa Yen replied, “You are Hui.”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 7

This koan, to me, is kind of an exhortation: “You be you!” There is a little bit Zen in that popular line. But who is the “you” that is supposed to be myself? From where does the color come that glops onto the palette to make the painting called, My Life?

A dab of that question came up for me recently as I was researching Zen Buddhist funeral rights, which I will perform in a month for a dearly departed teacher. In one Zen school’s book of ritual, it reads, “No un-ordained person should ever read or explain the exhortations to the dying since he or she is not a priest.” Well, that is pretty air-tight circular reasoning. But then it has not been unusual in human history for priests to work hard to keep their jobs: due to the large number of expensive funerals they perform, Buddhist priests in Japan have the highest average income of all professions.

For me, in my life, the question “What is the role of priests in our practice?” has been a personal one, and deeply considered. Early on, I often visited a Zen center in Los Angeles that had a pretty thick priestly culture. Becoming ordained was a sign of seriousness and commitment, and it immediately imparted status. For some time, I thought that I, too, would take the vows of a monk’s ordination. But I noticed over a couple of years that there was a fair amount of churn in the monk’s ranks; turnover among the class of the sincere and committed. Some years later, even the two senior monks who largely built the culture at that center, disrobed. I felt crushed. Who, then, will be left to read the exhortations at our funerals?

Well, I for one, am left. As are you. In my book of ritual, the job description for the sincere and committed is short: “You be you.” That makes us the priests of our lives, the masters of our Way, which is the Buddha Way. Who, after all, could be more Hui than Hui?