Japanese married "monks", theft of status?

I was dabbling in DhammaWheel forum, when an interesting situation pops up.

The discussion was talking about Japanese priests who thinks that they are monks who marries. I commented that they are laity as far as the 4 fold assembly is concerned. And due to the second generation onwards, since first generation of those monks parajika and are not considered monks, the second generation didn’t get proper ordination, they are still regarded as laity. So since they are laity, they didn’t commit parajika by marrying. They could still ordain as a monk.

However, on the issue of theft of status, there’s a good question. Here’s from BMC 2:

“The Commentary to Pc 65 recommends that when a bhikkhu who assumes that he is properly ordained but later discovers that his ordination was invalid, he should reordain as quickly as possible. This shows that such a bhikkhu is also not guilty of theft of status or of affiliation.”

Excerpt From: Thanissaro Bhikkhu. “The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II”. Apple Books.

Does this applies to Japanese monks? So that as soon as they learnt the Vinaya, knew that they are not properly ordained, they can quickly seek proper ordination and be celibate, or are they already guilty of theft of status, regardless of them learning the vinaya properly or not?

It is quite peculiar about East Asia monk orders. They don’t seem to abide Pali Canon much in regard to life styles. There are Japanese monks who married, and there are Tibetan monks who are not married but with children. I have stopped projecting Pali Canon value upon those orders, instead I just consider them Vicar opposing Priest as in God orders.

Let’s say they read up Theravada and wish to ordain in Theravada, are they eligible?

I have very shallow read on Vinaya. But i would think it is a No. It is to keep the order prestige.

Did they ever consider themselves bhikkhshus? If not, then no.

As far as I know, most Japanese traditions of Buddhism do not do full ordination for monks. The terminology “priest” is sometimes used, which is probably more appropriate to make that distinction.

Logically it seems to me that what you say is correct. If from the second generation onwards they were not properly ordained, then from a legal point of view they are not monks and so they did not commit an offence.
Concerning the idea that once they find out the Vinaya they should know

perhpas some of them don’t accept the Vinaya even if they heard of it? I am talking of my own experience: before discovering Ajahn Brahm I explored many tradition of Buddhism and corresponded for a while with a Zen monk living in the West who was married. I remember that someone once made a comment about this and the Zen monk remarked that he wished they had made the comment to his face, since he would have replied that it’s much harder to live a good life as a married person and in this sense it was a more valuable life. I was even arranging to go and meet him; then I discovered Ajahn Brahm’s books and the Theravada tradition so I wrote to the Zen monk saying I was no longer convinced in his teachings and mentioned the Theravada tradition; he replied that he knew about it but it would never work for him. So I think at least some monks of the Zen tradition are aware of the Vinaya, they just don’t accept it (I also remember I asked a philosophy professor, who is relatively well regarded in my home country and is a disciple of that Zen monk, why they don’t accept the Theravada tradition and he just said that it would be too long a discussion).

Yes, in the case of married Japanese monks this is totally a translation issue. They are often hereditary temple owners. It’s largely the result of successive waves of Japanese government oppression “for” and against Buddhism

No, they’re not parajika or living in communion by theft: they simply have not ordained, and choose to live by a code that was developed in Japan instead. There’s nothing in the EBTs either for or against such a thing. One could look, for example, at the cases of lay teachers in the EBTs who are said to have a substantial following. Clearly the Buddha had no problem with that.

Tibetan monks are monks; they ordain according to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, which has pretty much the same precepts as any other Vinaya. You’re thinking of Tibetan lay Lamas, who are not monks and do not follow the Vinaya, but who may wear some robe-like clothes. But Tibetans are well aware of the difference.

Of course there are badly-behaved monks in the Tibetan tradition who break the Vinaya, just as there are in every Buddhist culture.


Just to clarify slightly because I think this could be misconstrued - in most cases this doesn’t mean, “swear to follow a set of precepts that were authored in Japan,” but rather, “live a legitimate life according to Japanese norms laws and tradition.”

Japanese Buddhist priests usually take lay precepts from the time of the Buddha in India and Mahayana Bodhisattva vows that probably originate in India or at least mainland Asia. But this isn’t really what sets them apart from the average Japanese person. Inside Japan, in the majority of cases, a priest is set apart by having inherited a temple from their father, and perusing education in how to conduct the ritual functions of a priest. Further distinction can be achieved by extensive meditation practice, service, discipleship, leadership, and recognition by distinguished priests.

This often includes, confusingly, what I think can be fairly translated as “ordination”. There are rituals early on where one is given robes, rituals slightly further on where one formally enters a transmission lineage, and potentially rituals where one is given higher titles. These just have nothing to do with the Vinaya and becoming a bhikkhu.

It can be compared to Catholic ordination in two ways. First, from a Theravada perspective You can understand that both Catholic and Zen priests are ordained in a separate but legitimate tradition. The other is through a reversed metaphor.

Catholicism started with just priests, ordained through laying on of hands in a continuous tradition dating back to Jesus and the disciples. It later added monastic orders, formally called institutes of religious life, where one could join by swearing a vow to follow monastic code. These are sometimes said to occupy a special place, “neither clerical nor lay”.

In Buddhism, there’s an ordination lineage going back to the Buddha, for monastics. Later, priests were added, occupying a special place, “neither monastic nor lay”.