What is the difference between a Zen monk, nun, and priest?

In most of the Buddhist world, including China, Korea, and Taiwan, monks and nuns take vows to follow hundreds of ethical precepts. There are 311 precepts for women and slightly fewer for men. They include rules on everything from how to tie robes and where to sleep and defecate to prohibitions against sex and alcohol. Monks who take full ordination—follow the full number of precepts—are called bhikkhu (literally meaning beggar or “one who asks for alms”; nuns are called bhikkhuni. In China, the precepts are widely respected by Zen monastics and lay Buddhists alike.

But in 19th- and 20th-century Japan, anti-Buddhist governments imposed “modernization” measures that ended the bhikkhu sangha. Since then, monastics have been required to take only 16 precepts, which prohibit lying, stealing, and other offenses but are less restrictive than the precepts for full ordination. Male monastics in Japan are allowed to marry and have families, and most do. Even more controversially, they can choose to drink alcohol, eat meat, and raise children in “family temples.” Because of cultural prohibitions and personal preference, most female monastics do not marry but live in community with other nuns.

In the English-speaking world, people often refer to Japan’s married male monastics as priests to distinguish them from celibate monks, but in Japan, there is no clear-cut distinction. Unlike in the Catholic Church, where priest designates clergy who can conduct mass and are generally more engaged with society than cloistered monks, in Japan the difference between priests and monks is largely semantic and open to interpretation.

These Japanese customs have been widely adopted in Western Zen communities, where it is common for both ordained men and ordained women to marry, and celibacy is seldom a requirement. While ordained Japanese women may refer to themselves as nuns when speaking English, ordained women in the West are more likely to describe themselves as priests than as nuns. But aside from this nominal difference, ordained women in Japan and the West have the same qualifications, ethical precepts, and training.

In Japanese Zen a female member of the clergy could call herself a monk, a nun, or a priest depending on the situation. However, in other Chan/Zen traditions across Asia, the title of priest is seldom used, and monks and nuns take the full precepts and lead celibate lives.


Tricycle is more than a magazine

Gain access to the best in sprititual film, our growing collection of e-books, and monthly talks, plus our 25-year archive

Subscribe now