James Ford posted on his blog a dialogue between Kyogen Carlson and himself on some proposals to standardize Soto Zen priest training in the US. It's an interesting and revealing discussion, if for no other reason than it shows that the labels, 'practitioner,' 'priest,' and 'teacher,' do not fall out neatly or intuitively in the contemporary context. They are going to befuddle us for some time to come.
I admit I found myself leaning toward Carlson's side in the debate. The spirit I most resonate with in what he has to say is shown in his point that for him those who are ordained live at or pretty close to the temple. The order of their day, the kinds of decisions they do or do not make, the kind of clothing they don, their rearrangement of lifestyle to square more completely with practice -- all of these strike me as appropriate points to consider in demarcating someone who has taken ordination from one who has not. Then it's not an "ontological vs functional" issue, as Ford wants to make it, but a "form of life" issue. It's not that priests are "differently marked souls" or that they "do a certain kind of service in the sangha," but that they live a life that is more clearly, obviously and, to outside observers, publicly molded by the Dharma.
I often wonder whether the issue of ordination in Zen overlooks a model that's available to us in the West: that of profession in a non-monastic religious order. On this model, one commits to a more practice-centered form of life for its own sake. One does not stand in the position of having something the rest of the community needs (like a Christian priest would have the authority to administer sacraments or a sanctioned Zen teacher would have the authority to confirm insight); rather one makes oneself available for bearing witness to the Dharma and for serving the Sangha.
Who knows? We're still in the infancy of Zen in America. Everyone I speak with about Zen ordination comes at it from their own set of background assumptions and experiences, and I know I'm trotting mine out here, that's for sure. But while we, like the baby, are learning how to stand and walk, there's no harm in taking hold of a few more of the stable elements in the landscape while finding our feet.