A few days ago I read an interesting post on Facebook written by a Zen practitioner about a young man who was, according to the writer, studying to become a Buddhist Priest in one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This amazed me since I had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for years and had never read or heard of any Tibetan school having priests.
As far as I know the only schools of Buddhism that have people who claim the title of priest are those schools that have come to America from Japan. All other schools as far as I know ordain only monks. Generally speaking monks and nuns are a member of a religious order ordained by other monks and receive religious training in the beliefs of their order. Usually being a monk requires taking vows of poverty, chastity and renunciation.
A priest on the other hand is trained in his schools beliefs and rituals. His or her ordination conveys the right of the priest to perform those rituals and usually to preach his religious beliefs to the public. In some religions the preist may also take vows of chastity. I think it would be fair to see a priest as a specialist in rituals including marriages and funerals.
Priests usually are not required to shave their heads, they can eat whatever they choose and in most cases they may and do marry. In Japanese Buddhism such as Zen the folks in America who call themselves priests are usually householders .
I asked myself when or how did Zen monks stop being monks and start being householders. The answer wasn't as clear cut as I assumed it would be. As far as I can tell references to monks being married goes back at least to the early Heian period in Japan (794 to 1185) . Shinran (1173-1262) and Ippen (1239-1289) there were wandering Buddhist mendicants who were married.
But what is still not clear to me is what Buddhist schools and teachers made this change from all other schools accepted by the Japanese. In 1872 the Meiji government issued
Edict 133 which appears to be the first codification allowing monks grow their hair, eat meat and marry. But it appears monks had been doing these things for years, in Japan.
Japanese Buddhism and the Japanese government were by then interlocked Temples all over Japan were now owned and operated by families. The temples and the priesthood had become inherited property , the priesthood being passed down from father to son. This practice seems to be unique to Japan.
The secularization of Japanese monks then seems to have spread across most of the Japanese buddhist schools. The so called "Temple Families " supported by national laws that required all japanese citizens to be associated with the nearest Temple , seem to have turned the Temples into businesses providing the government with a means of rooting out nonbuddist and the families a great profit in conducting marriages and funerals.
In Japan today their are few celibate monks and any distinction between what we call a priest and what we call a monk is for any practical matter non existent. A resident monk in a temple is called a Jushoku. But I don't think the Jushoku would call themselves a priest. A Zen monk living in a temple is a hojo but again I am not positive this word means a priest as we Americans use the word.
I know this will upset many folks but the truth seems to be that the Zen Priest seems to be an American invention. In Japan the married Buddhist monk seems commonplace. Everywhere else the married Buddhist monks simply don't exist. In order to justify the Japanese secularization of monks we invented the Zen priest.
The answer to my original question about the monk vs the priest seems to be that buddist preists are a convenient fabrication by Americans to explain away an aberration that arose in Japan when religion and government became intertwined.