Sunday, May 1, 2011

What's a Zen Teacher Anyway?




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.

8 comments:

Petteri Sulonen said...

Sometimes I think the only—only—characteristic that really matters for a Zen teacher is the ability to cope with the zombie hordes showing up at the door trying to suck your brains out, get what knowledge you have, leeching on your experience, wanting something that passes for enlightenment handed to them on a platter.

All of us have something to teach. Some of us are able to teach it on occasion. Very few of us are able to handle the weight of expectation, projection, transference, and what have you that students throw at a teacher. That's why so many bona fide transmitted teachers fall. Too bad there's no test for it, beforehand.

(And, for the record, I think that whining about not being taken seriously as a Zen teacher despite your credentials and qualifications is a pretty likely indicator that you shouldn't be teaching Zen.)

Barry said...

Perhaps a "real" Zen teacher is someone who knows, from direct and humbling experience, what they can and cannot teach.

Nathan said...

Petteri, "(And, for the record, I think that whining about not being taken seriously as a Zen teacher despite your credentials and qualifications is a pretty likely indicator that you shouldn't be teaching Zen.)

I'd agree, although I'm not sure it's fair to characterize what Daishin wrote as whining. Perhaps he'll come over and make an additional comment.

And having been a teacher, I know the energy demands, projections, and sometimes unrealistic expectations that come from being in the role. And that was in a secular setting - all of that is more ramped up for Zen and other spiritual teachers out there, from what I've seen anyway.

Which is why I like what Barry said about knowing what you can and cannot teach. And also, I'd add, how much support you might be able to offer someone, or better yet, the line between offering support and letting someone figure it out on their own.

David Ashton said...

I like what Barry said too. I think beaking off in a blog is fine so long as you make it clear that you aren't a teacher. However, if you hold yourself out to be some kind of teacher, then unless you have been checked by a transmitted person, I would stay way over on the side of caution.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Perhaps it wasn't whining, it was just a short quote possibly out of context. It sure sounded like it, though.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I went and read Daishin's original post, and a number of things occurred to me.

First off, that quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta always sets off my warning bells. I've seen that quoted way too much, and it always seems to be the Buddhist equivalent of going into a corner to sulk (not meditate). That and that other bit from the Kalama Sutta are like big red flashing warning lights. So yeah, I am inclined to think that Daishin is whining. Why not just answer "No, I'm not a transmitted teacher," and leave it at that?

Second, I think there's an important distinction to be made between teaching meditation and teaching Zen.

Meditation is just another skill. Anyone who's done it is capable of passing along what s/he knows about it. I would certainly be able to explain to somebody how to count breaths. Someone who's been doing it seriously for ten years would be able to explain a lot more. And I don't think there's anything inherently scary about any of that, any more than in any other teacher-student dynamic.

Zen, on the other hand, is what meditation is supposed to help you to get. That transmission separate from scriptures. Maha prajna paramita. Seeing through the illusion of self-and-other. That sort of thing. And that's a whole 'nuther ball game, where all that stuff about realization and transmission and lineage and what not comes in, and with it the problems of projection, transference, counter-transference, power games, and what have you.

I think Daishin's problem might be right there: he's (probably) a highly competent meditation teacher, but he's acting at least in part like a Zen teacher—for one thing, he's using his dharma name. And if that's the case, then I think the question of transmission and credentials is a perfectly legitimate one. Legitimate transmission is no guarantee of competence as a Dharma teacher, naturally, nor does lack thereof mean that you're necessarily not competent as one.

But it is an important question nevertheless. There are way too few ways to assess a Zen teacher's competence. Transmission is one of them.

Therefore, I think it's especially important for anyone hanging up a shingle to be extra clear about them. That clarity is IMO more important than the actual credentials themselves.

Good:
"I received Dharma transmission from Nishijima Roshi, remain his student in good standing, and here's where you can verify it."
"I received Dharma transmission from Nishijima Roshi, but subsequently had a falling out with him and am now teaching independently. Here's where you can verify that I received transmission."
"I am not a transmitted teacher, because I had a falling out with my teacher, Yasutani Roshi. Here's where you can verify how long I studied with him."
"I am not a transmitted teacher, holder of any lineage, reincarnation of any lama, nor have I attained any Paths, bhumis, or perfections. Deal with it."

Bad:
"I received transmission from Nishijima Roshi." (But I'm not mentioning the falling-out.)
"I teach in the tradition of Yasutani Roshi." (But I'm not mentioning that I never received transmission.)
"..." (Not saying anything.)
"I received transmission from Matsutake Roshi." (But he doesn't exist.)
"I received transmission from the Shakyamuni Buddha... IN A DREAM."
"I've taught for 25 years." (Physics, that is.)

Nathan said...

"I think there's an important distinction to be made between teaching meditation and teaching Zen."

Yes, this is an important distinction, I totally agree. Since I don't know all of what Daishin actually does in his group, I have to leave it up to him to comment.

I'm also there with you about the quote from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta - it's almost a bumper sticker at this point, so it's impact on readers isn't going to be the same as something else which has been less quoted and misquoted.

Mostly, I brought up Daishin's post because there seems to be a lot of attachment and drama around the whole transmission thing - and it's also true that transmission hasn't been the only method of "checking," but I think a lot of folks in the "West" believe it is the only way. And that only someone with transmission is worthy of being called a Zen teacher.

Now, I, personally, am not running around looking for "outsiders" without transmission to go study with, nor am I one of those people who says transmission is bunk.

Mostly, I am just remaining open to the likelihood that there are people out there who aren't "official," but are still powerful teachers none the less.

Petteri Sulonen said...

"Mostly, I am just remaining open to the likelihood that there are people out there who aren't "official," but are still powerful teachers none the less."

I'm certain that there are. I've heard of several—many from a Theravadin background—from people whose judgment I respect. As far as I know, they make no bones about their lack of official credentials.

(Captcha: clinge. Hm...)