Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Titles and Clown Noses

During a ceremony today at the Zen Temple I attend, my teacher became a Roshi, receiving the final “seal of approval” from his own teacher. As the ceremony was beginning, with his students sitting seriously with just a little bit of awe (at least I was), he reached into the sleeve of his robes, pulled out a big red clown nose, and put it on.

Of course, we all began laughing. In that way and in that moment, he reminded us that he was still the same teacher he had been the day before. He was still the teacher we could laugh with, share our suffering with, tell the occasional joke to. He was still a teacher who taught not just from a deep understanding of compassion and wisdom, but from how that compassion and wisdom had been felt in his own life.

The occasion signified the importance of the title, of the long journey in his own life and practice that had brought him to this day… and that he was still able to stand in front of us with a very serious expression and a Binko the Clown nose.

It was an expression of humanity and humility that went right to my soul.

Attending seminary, much of my life and energy could be understood as being focused on attaining a series of titles myself… Chaplain, Reverend… Seminarians are taught, by example and by commission, to show a level of respect for those who have trod this path before us, and we are sometimes chastised when we do not show such respect (or are perceived not to have shown such respect).

It would be all too easy to misunderstand the purpose of such titles. There is indeed a “set apart” nature to a life in the ministry. You cannot do effective ministry long if you are not set apart by healthy boundaries. It would be painfully easy, with all of the importance we are taught to give such titles, to believe they set us apart because we are special. That we are somehow different from others. It is not a far step from “different” to “better”. The more I have come to know members of the clergy from many different traditions, the more I realize just how much like every other human being they are… we are. Ministers and Priests indeed have to have all the same human frailties, because it is in part through understanding those frailties that we can minister.

What I have realized about my teacher’s clown nose is that such titles do not signify how special we are. Rather, they are a regular reminder of the responsibility that we have chosen to carry. Such titles are not directed at our egos, but at our consciences. They are the regular and constant reminder to respect the power to heal and the power to harm that we have been granted by those who place their faith in us. They are meant not to inspire awe in others, or to inspire exceptionalism in ourselves, but rather to continually inspire an internal respect, awe and awareness of the responsibility that we carry.

When I one day turn around at the call of “Reverend” or “Chaplain” it will not be because I have any greater wisdom or because I live a special life… but rather because of the faith and trust granted to me. The title will be a call to remember the responsibilities I have voluntarily accepted; to remember and respect the trust and faith the person who used the title is placing in me. I, my Zen teacher, and all in the ministry need to be regularly reminded of that faith, trust, and responsibility.

The title is less an honorific and more a reminder… and so is the clown nose.

Thank you, Joshin Roshi, for this lesson and for the responsibilities you carry.

Yours in Faith,


One Thought on “Titles and Clown Noses

  1. Your comments concerning Joshin, the Inkan ceremony, and you touched me deeply, David.

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