Daishin has a post up currently that addresses some of the same issues I have been thinking about recently. The subject of Zen teachers in general has been quite hot for obvious reasons, and has probably led more than a few people to consider for going working with a teacher and/or sangha all together. It's understandable, given all the bad news floating around, but might not be the best plan.
At the same time, I think Zen students struggle with the whole notion of a "teacher." What does it mean? Who fills that role? How fluid is it?
If you flip through The Book of Serenity, or any of the other koan collections, you'll find an awful lot of movement between the roles of teacher and student. One minute a teacher, the next a student, the following a teacher again. In principle, this is how life is calling us to be, and yet it's also the case, that we're quite good at designating certain people as teachers for the rest of their lives, often forgetting this fluid nature of things. The designation of someone as "a teacher" isn't the problem. The problems come when people forget the emptiness side and assume that whomever is the teacher is all-knowing and infallible.
Daishin's post brings up another angle on this discussion. Namely, who qualifies as a person able to fulfill the role as "teacher." Specifically here, Zen teacher. He writes:
From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.
Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. By custom, only certified teachers may certify other teachers: a “closed shop” meant to ensure quality.
Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error.
Although it's true that we're all teachers, one of the challenges with those last two statements is that the majority of humans aren't very good at seeing what can be learned from a given "teacher." Time and time again, we miss the dharma being offered by the dramatic friend, disappearing lover, or overbearing co-worker. We're good at fixating on the noise, but not so good at sussing out the gold.
Daishin goes on to speak about his background, in conjunction with his role as leader of a meditation group.
For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.
Is that what the Buddha had in mind?
I also have nearly a decade of Zen practice behind me, as well as over a decade of yoga practice. In addition, I have over a decade of teaching experience, working with both children and adults in various capacities. In one sense, who cares. In another sense, I'd like to think that I - and Daishin, and others with similar backgrounds - have figured out a bit of that gold sussing and might have something to offer others.
Being in a yoga teacher training program has kept all of this up for me as well. Unlike some of those in the training program I'm in, I waited a pretty long time before entering. It didn't feel right to me to practice yoga a few years and then take a training and claim myself as a teacher. Certainly, a few people are able to this remarkably well, but I'd also bet that when it comes to yoga teachers, you'll find an awful lot of these quick starters appearing at the local fitness center or corporate yoga center near you. They might be able to run a fine asana class, but how much wisdom is present in their words? How well can they read their students, and even share the role of teacher when a student is offering something that could move the whole class?
The history of Zen is filled with rascals and fools who were dismissed by the majority of people, but who actually were brimming with wisdom. For every polished looking monastic with all the credentials, you can find a wacky, drunken poet or wise grandmotherly figure lighting a match under a monk with Zen sickness. And I think both ends are needed - the formally sanctioned and the outsiders.
For those of you who are really hung up on one side or another - thinking either that Zen teachers are only those who are dharma transmitted or that everyone is a teacher - you might consider it this way. The classically trained Zen teacher with transmission and robes offers everyone an opportunity to have reverence for the form world. That the very formal-ness of their background symbolizes the value of forms. And on the other end, the rascals, fools, and outsiders offer and opportunity for all of us to have reverence for emptiness. That the very informal-ness of their background symbolizes the value of emptiness.
The photo above is of Phil Jackson, the coach of the LA Lakers basketball team. Often referred to as "Zen master" in the sporting world, there's no doubt that Zen has had some definite impact on this man's coaching and way of life. Perhaps you might dismiss his "Zen" as the sugary pop Zen so common in the "Western" world, and you may be right. But it also might be the case that this guy is one of those rascals, appearing in the odd location of basketball coach, offering whatever wisdom he can to guys who frequently struggle with their lives outside of the game. It might be stretch to call this guy a Zen teacher, but it's worth considering the ways in which people often compartmentalize teaching and learning, and how there are countless examples of people acting in the world that break across those rigid lines.