Lay ministers are licensed by the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives and offer practical and spiritual support within their Buddhist lay community.
Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, the late founder of the Order, introduced the lay ministry in 1981 in response to a request by lay practitioners to give meditation instruction and offer spiritual encouragement and support within their local communities. The numbers of lay ministers in North America and Europe, and now other parts of the world, have grown to over one hundred.
The role of lay ministers continues to evolve in response to the changing circumstances within a meditation group, temple, priory, monastery or the immediate community where they live and function. In addition, what each individual lay minister offers is different and evolves in response to their unfolding personal practice and changes in their life circumstances.
Becoming a Lay Minister
Women and men are eligible to be nominated as a lay minister when they have kept up a regular practice within the O.B.C. over many years, have received the sixteen Buddhist Precepts from a priest of our Order and attend a temple and/or meditation group regularly. People are invited to consider the lay ministry when there is a role for them in a meditation group or temple, and occasionally in other circumstances. Such an invitation normally comes from the senior monastic who visits the meditation group, or the temple’s resident monk. A prospective lay minister is counselled to make sure that becoming a lay minister is a good thing to do in light of various considerations, an example being whether the person would be taking on more responsibility than is wise in an already over-committed life of career, family or other concerns. Lay Ministry is not a lifetime commitment and one may choose to step down at any time in response to changing circumstances.
A Lay Minister’s Practice
A lay minister is someone who is well versed in the teachings and practices of the Order, authorized to give meditation instruction, and can give straightforward explanations of basic Buddhist teaching. Additionally, lay ministers help run meditation groups and may occasionally be asked to perform weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies. The specific duties a lay minister fulfils will vary according to the needs and structure of the temple or meditation group that they attend. The rules for lay ministers charge them with the responsibility to keep to, and pass on through practical example, the teachings and practice of Buddhism as taught within our Order. There is a set of rules for lay ministers that describe what they are authorized to do and which outlines disciplinary procedures.
Lay ministers of our Order are re-licensed every year and the renewal is conditional on having regular contact with a senior priest or priests (their refuge monk,) and having kept up their religious practice. Lay ministers are governed by relevant rules of the Order, which are made available at Order temples. The Rules, together with the license, are an assurance to the public that they are supported by and answerable to the Order.
Lay Ministry Vestments
Lay ministers wear the black robe and small blue-green kesa for meditation and ceremonies. The black robe comes from the Chinese Mahayana tradition and the blue-green kesa from Japanese Soto Zen. Together they distinguish the lay ministers and symbolize the commitment to practice embodied in the black token kesa that is given to all trainees at the time of taking the Precepts.
The following questions are frequently asked of Lay Ministers:
Why are lay ministers called ‘ministers’?
Lay ministers are lay Buddhists working and living in society. Because of their particular functions and responsibilities within the Order which can take the form of a more public service, they are called ministers.
Is it a job?
It is a form of offering to the wider public as well as the Order. Lay ministers receive no remuneration; it is not a profession or a job.
What is the role of a lay minister within the lay community and do they have special authority?
Lay ministers have a public role in which they are helped and supported by the Order. They may, amongst other things, give direction to new people in a skilful and appropriate way to help them be clear about the practices of the Order, show an example of a committed lay practitioner, offer spiritual encouragement, and defuse problems and misunderstandings. They are authorised to give formal teaching under monastic supervision; they do not give private spiritual counselling. They are accountable within the local congregation as well as to their refuge monk and to the Order. Lay ministers need the support of those around them in order to fulfil their function.
What do lay ministers do that’s different?
In addition to the specific functions already mentioned, the lay ministers: wear a black robe and blue-green small kesa for meditation and ceremonies (some wear a brown kesa), are linked to a refuge monk for regular guidance and support related to their functioning as a lay minister and on occasion attend regional meetings and retreats to share their practice.
Are lay ministers a separate class of lay person?
It is important not to equate lay ministry with having a higher position or being a sign of advanced training. There is no seniority within the lay sangha as a whole or among the lay ministers. Further, becoming a lay minister is neither a form of higher ordination nor a sign of recognition of a level of spiritual understanding. However, the life of practice can take different forms depending on what is good for each person at any given time. Thus, we have a diverse group of lay people who have taken on differing responsibilities. The potential for the unnecessary perception of divisiveness can be increased by the human tendency to judge and compare ourselves with others. However, within the sangha generally, any difference in appearance or function need not be dwelt upon; differences can be viewed quite neutrally without creating a false sense of inferiority or superiority.
Is becoming a lay minister a necessary step?
Becoming a lay minister is not a necessary step in training; it is just one of the many important ways in which a valuable contribution can be made. Lay ministry is not for everybody since people have different qualities that can be expressed in a variety of ways. It may be helpful, however, for some people to train in this way as they develop their connection with the monastic and lay sangha. The majority of people who receive the Precepts within our tradition continue to deepen their practice of meditation and the Precepts with generosity of spirit and compassionate action. By doing this Buddhist trainees help themselves and all around them; the majority do not become lay ministers.
Should I be concerned that I’ve not been approached about being a lay minister?
No. However, if you are concerned and this persists it is advisable, as with any other persistent concern, to talk about it with a senior monk who can help put it in perspective.
Who do I talk to if I want to know more?
Although this leaflet gives a broad explanation of the scope of the lay ministry, you may want to discuss this in more detail with a senior monk of the Order who knows you. There is a lay ministry advisor, Rev. Master Mugo, who holds the position at the request of the Head of the Order. She is available to talk about the lay ministry in general and can also answer questions.
You are welcome to get in touch with the Lay Ministry Advisor (Mugo) via email using the contact form on this site: or via Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey or Shasta Abbey.