Brad Warner, in almost punctual fashion, is back at his brand of fist in the face of the establishment Zen. His current post takes aim at what might be viewed as a shift towards "professionalization" amongst American Zen teachers. He writes:
I’ve finally managed to nail down what it is that troubles me so deeply about these organizations. And it comes down to one single word. That word is “professional,” as well as its grammatical variations (professionalism, profession, etc.).
In the fall out from the sex scandals involving Genpo Roshi, Eido Shimano Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Baker Roshi and whoever else has been caught with their dick where it wasn’t supposed to be, a lot of people are saying the same thing. They say that Zen teachers are very much like therapists, doctors and lawyers and as such should be required to belong to some kind of organization to police their activities the way these other professionals are.
Let me just spell my position out very clearly here.
Zen teachers are not therapists.
Zen teachers are not doctors.
Zen teachers are not lawyers.
I recently came across a piece on the Internet in which someone lamented the current state of affairs in the Zen world and then asked, “Is Zen not, in it’s deepest sense, in the helping profession?”
I also came across a statement by a member of both SZBA and AZTA stating, “the SZBA and the AZTA hold the premises that Zen teaching is a profession.”
These statements are both entirely incorrect. I know it’s far too bold for me to say such a thing when so many people believe that these statements are correct. But this is my firm position on the matter.
Just yesterday at our monthly board meeting, we had a long discussion about our center's ethics and conflict resolution policies. Part of the talk zeroed in on how the nature of conflicts within a group are frequently messy enough that it's not always clear whether something unethical occurred, or whether it's something else - like a disagreement over how to spend community money, or a "personality conflict" between people.
Although it wasn't a feature of yesterday's conversation, I know that appeals to the ethical structures found in professional fields like therapists and doctors have come up in discussions we have had in the past. A few months ago, one of our senior students was speaking about an upcoming trip to do a practice period at a monastery. And our head teacher, during that conversation, mentioned the AZTA's recommendation (I think it's the AZTA's) that anyone who might receive dharma transmission should have 6 months of residential monastic experience under their belt before teaching. And then she asked the senior student something like "that's part of you're reasoning for going, right?"
It was an interesting exchange. This particular student has been a sangha leader for years, and is already a wonderful teacher in many respects. I found myself kind of perplexed by the notion that she "needed" to do more training - specifically in a monastic setting - given that we are an urban Zen center service lay practitioners. Mind you, I'm not against monastic training at all. And in this case, I know it's not my dharma sister's main focus. She wants to do it, and has been mostly waiting for the right to go. In addition, I don't believe that our head teacher is really viewing this trip as something that has to happen either. It seems more that our head teacher is aware of where the ATZA and SZBA are going, and responding during that meeting, responded in a way to support my dharma sister's practice and future.
So, what I was more interested in when that discussion occurred was the broader Zen teacher landscape appearing before us in a specific manner.
In reading about the various recent Zen teacher scandals, I have found it disappointing at times how easily conversations fall into one of two camps. The camp that I'd say some of Brad's comments above represent is the "hands off" approach, where any formal organization and ethical oversight is viewed as problematic, or even as somehow "tainting" what Zen teachers are. And on the other hand, there is a large subsection arguing for a vigorously "hands on" approach, which does seem to be leading to views that Zen teachers are professionals, and that the professional ethics guidelines and training required for others - like doctors and therapists - should be tailored to Zen teachers and applied.
Overall, I probably lean in a more hands on direction, and yet I find Brad's specific disagreement with professionalization compelling.
And it makes me wonder: Can we develop a way to oversee the ethics of Zen teaching without turning it into yet another "profession"?
I disagree completely with the position taken by the SZBA and the AZTA. They are dead wrong. Zen teaching is not a profession and must never be a profession. A professional is someone who charges for their services and promises some kind of results, even if not necessarily promising what the client views as success. The moment Zen teachers start looking upon what they do in this way, what they do is no longer Zen teaching at all.
I think this brings up another interesting question. What happens when a person considers themselves a "professional"? And more specifically, would have the norm of Zen teachers viewing themselves as professionals significantly shift the ways in which they practice, teach, and lead?
One thing I wonder, as someone who experienced the drift towards professionalization in the Minnesota adult basic education (ABE) field, is the longer term impact. Many of those in the beginning days have been focusing on the benefits - such as teachers having more formal education and training. However, in the case of ABE, the potential negative aspects are either being downplayed or just can't be seen yet. The increased focused on ABE professionalization has come in almost direct response to a rise of high stakes testing that few in the field support. How much of the decisions being made about what constitutes an ABE professional are coming not out of a creative and diverse understanding of the field, but out of a fear that "not professionalizing" will doom all the adult education programs out there?
Which brings me back to American Zen teachers. Is the drive to professionalize Zen teaching coming from, at least in part, a fear that not doing so will doom Zen in America? And if so, is that a wise place to approach all of this from?
I'd be interested in others' views on this issue. It's an ongoing discussion, and one worth having. And I personally am trying to come at it from different angles, asking different kinds of questions, and seeing what comes forth.