Being a Zen Priest with Chronic Illness

confined to bed
I climb the mountains
of my mind

So, I became a Zen priest.  Well, okay, not exactly as the Zen Buddhism Shukke Tokudo (“home-leaving”) ordination is only the beginning of priest training.  But, even given that proviso, the thought of someone who can hardly walk and spends most of the day in bed being a priest of any religion seems pretty unlikely (except, perhaps, one whose primary modes of worship are lying down in a quiet room and leaving offerings of unfinished nutritional supplements).  So how did it happen, and what use is a priest who is mostly housebound?

Many people with chronic illness find that their life develops a more spiritual aspect after becoming ill.  Partly this is to answer questions such as “why me?” and “how can I make peace with my pain and restricted life?”, and partly because chronic illness tends to come with long periods of being alone with our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.  In many ways, it is like an enforced and unasked for spiritual retreat of the toughest kind.


Mindfulness meditation has recently become a very popular method of coping with pain and negative thinking but even before that became the mainstream treatment it currently is, many people with chronic illness had turned to meditation and yoga as part of a toolkit for living with their condition.  Buddhist and other retreat centres have become used to dealing with the requirements of the long-term sick, accommodating the need for ground floor rooms close to the practice space and special diets.

After some time meditating in my teens, I rediscovered the practice again at Brighton Buddhist Centre in 1997, a year or so after becoming ill.  Since then it has been a pretty much daily feature of my life and, whereas I do not know if it has led to improvements in my physical condition, I would not be without the balance it brings to my life as a whole.

At some points in time I have been physically well enough to attend meditation retreats and Buddhist centres but mostly this has not been possible.  For this reason, I have been extremely grateful for the increasing number of online Buddhist forums and audio teachings and some Buddhist teachers have also made themselves available online.  Many other people with chronic illness have told me that they also listen to such material, whether Buddhist or not.  Finding moments of peace between medical appointments and worrying about interviews from welfare providers is a wonderful thing and the basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence is something we have all likely experienced far too often, feeling okay one moment and curled up in bed the next.

TreeleafMy own Buddhist community, Treeleaf, is physically in Tsukuba, Japan where my teacher Jundo Cohen lives with his wife and two children.  However, the membership is geographically spread and consists of people not able to access a physical Buddhist centre or just drawn to Jundo’s pragmatic and down-to-earth style of teaching.  I became a member in 2012 and have been impressed by the dedication of Treeleaf’s members which include a fair number of people with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses.  We are currently working to see what we can do to become even more inclusive in that way.

Although the majority of Treeleaf happens online, we all feel a genuine and heartfelt connection to each other and our teacher that is as real as in any ‘bricks and mortar’ temple.  We welcome anyone who genuinely wishes to practice meditation and Buddhism and seek to work with less able-bodied members by suggesting alternative meditation postures, including lying down, and other ways of involving them in all aspects of practice.

After thinking about it for some time, Jundo and I agreed that my physical condition should not prevent me from becoming a priest.  In addition, we thought that my own experience of practicing with illness could help me to support others doing the same.  So, in August this year, I was able to take part in an ordination ceremony taking place in San Francisco with Jundo and three other ordainees.  I joined via a Skype connection and became part of a long line of men and women taking the Buddhist ordination vows.  In terms of the actual training, accommodation has been made for me around body work such as repeated full prostrations which are too exhausting for me at present but otherwise I hope to fulfil a full and active role – teaching meditation and the history and philosophy of Sōtō Zen practice, acting as a mentor to new members of the sangha, writing articles and engaging with other Buddhists – even if a lot of that happens online.  I especially hope to support other people with varying physical abilities to engage with Buddhist practice.

The reason for writing this piece is part of that desire to reach out to other people with chronic illness who have considered practicing Zen Buddhism and encourage them to take the leap.  Zen practice is for everyone, not just those who are able-bodied and full of vigour.    If it is something you have considered but have thus far thought that it would not be possible I say, “follow me, we have a meditation cushion waiting for you.”


Kokuu Andy McLellan was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis in 1996 and, despite several periods of improvement, is currently housebound.  In addition to practicing as a Zen priest in training, he writes haiku poetry, knits hats and tries to get his teenage children to pick up their bath towels.  He lives near Canterbury in south-east of England.

Treeleaf Zendo can be found at and is an online community of Buddhist students which costs nothing to join and participate in (small monthly donations are accepted to help with running costs but are in no way compulsory).  The resident priest and founder, Jundo Cohen, is an internationally recognised teacher of Sōtō Zen Buddhism.


Published by Kokuu

Novice Zen priest and haiku poet. I am a tea drinking father to three teenagers living in Kent, UK. I have a chronic illness and far too many books. Sometimes I grow plants.

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