Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Zen Teachers As Professionals - 2

As far as I have seen, this post by Zen teacher James Ford is the only one expressing an explicit support for professionalizing Zen teaching - at least among recent posts in the Buddhoblogosphere. He writes:

Speaking of such, among the Zen blogging commentariate there appears to be near consensus that the idea of professionalizing the status of Zen teachers is a bad thing.

I beg to differ.

Although I have to admit I'm not in fact finding much of a great push for such a thing among the Zen teachers, themselves. Ourselves.

Now, I've run across one or two assertions about the American Zen Teachers Association as trying to become such a thing. Obviously these are assertions from people who have never attended AZTA meetings. As one who has, I can tell anyone interested, it is a very loose gathering, with no officers and no dues, and limited interests beyond being a peer support group. It has a sole committee, a membership committee which with the consent of the larger gathering defines who may be a member of the body. Which has consequences for people who see it simply as the largest gathering of Zen teachers. But it also publicly acknowledges there are many legitimate teachers not affiliated. Possibly, I would add, the majority of the sum total of legitimate Zen teachers in the West.

Maybe I was one of those "asserters" - who knows. Anyway, one thing I'll say is that I have heard the AZTA described in several different manners by people who have been participants over the past few years (before this, I knew nothing about it). So, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not sure what exactly It is, or where It is going. Along those lines, the training guidelines I mentioned in the last post are from the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, for the record.

Ford continues about the AZTA:

This is not a professional organization.

Would that it were...

Ironically, they, we, have been variously dragged over the coals recently for not disciplining errant Zen teachers, one not even a member of the AZTA, the other a founder but not a participant in decades. Then when a number of us, many AZTA, but not exclusively, wrote letters (individually in the first case, forty-four signing a single letter in the second case, chastising them as people while who while flying the Zen flag have committed egregious violations of trust; they, we've been accused of power grabbing, of over reaching.

Come on folks...

Do we want accountability among Zen teachers or not?

I will say it was interesting to see a fair amount of backlash following the public calls from various American Zen teachers for some kind of action in the wake of the Shimano and Genpo scandals. Some of that backlash was clearly directed at members of the teacher group that had their own ethical baggage, but not all of it. In fact, one particularly disturbing case involved a male zen teacher pointedly telling a pair of female zen teachers to butt out of the Shimano case - which basically meant shut the hell up.

So, I agree with Ford that there are lots of mixed messages about accountability floating around.

At the end of Fords post, are a set of interesting questions.

I think we need to reflect on teachers and how they are supported in their work. Do we really think that there is no price to the Dharma means the laborer is not worthy of support? And, if they are, shouldn't there be obvious minimums in preparation for those titles, Zen teacher, Zen abbot? And, shouldn't there be behavior codes that are binding?

One thing that concerns me is the linking between financial support and "obvious minimums in preparation" here. My gut says this is kind of problematic somehow, but I can't - right now - tell you exactly why.

I'm all for some set of binding ethics codes, but how you go about implementing that is another question.

I also do think that Ford is trying to undermine the persistent inking between spiritual teaching and vows of poverty here. Or the view that zen teachers should earn most of their living doing something else. Both of those views seem flawed to me, just as the money raking of folks like Genpo Merzel seems flawed.

Perhaps, as I think Ford himself suggested in another post, there need to be two sets of folks developed. One set of priests trained in a different, but maybe similar way to Christian pastors, and they being in the role of helping to lead dharma centers and ensure that these centers can be open and spread around. And a second group are what we'd consider more traditional Zen teachers - where the paths are less clear cut and more mysterious in some ways.

*Update - I responded to a few questions from Notes in Samsara blogger Mumon below, which help clarify (I think) some of my points above. I'm probably going to refrain from further comments unless something really compels me to jump back in. I'm sensing that I have hit the wall in terms of what I can say right now about this topic in an articulate manner. Anything further would probably just muddy the waters with excess speculation and abstracting, and no one needs that.

But feel free to continue adding comments if you're so interested.


Mumon K said...

Hi Nathan,

Re: "the view that zen teachers should earn most of their living doing something else," why exactly do you think it's flawed? My "teacher" manages it - with a wife and raised a child that way.

Why exactly is that an issue for you?

To be frank, though I think one quibble is that there may not be a template for everyone. And I admit my ex-Catholic bias leans heavily in favor of making your own way in the world. But, as I said in my blog entry on the subject, I'm not qualified to speak about forest monks and the like. What's your point here?

Mumon K said...

And I'd point out he is ordained formally in Rinzai-shu - a Dharma nephew of D.T. Suzuki, Sokei An, and others.

James said...

Feel free to call me James, Nathan.

Nathan said...


I think we actually agree Mumon. I don't believe there is one template for everyone, but I have seen a fair amount of people arguing in one way or another. In fact, I'd say a big part of the challenge is that we have a lot of collective baggage around money - and thus you have all these people who do gyrations around finances in order to be dedicated students or teachers. I'm thinking of all the students who cycle between any old job and extended time at a monastery, and then find themselves at 35, 45 years old with some health condition, no health insurance, no savings, and a shoddy resume. Or the Zen teacher who cobbles together multiple jobs to pay the bills, and also tries to lead a sangha - and ends up exhausted after 5 or 10 years.

Even though I think the Genpo model of charging piles of money for special retreats is troubling, I also feel like within all the criticism directed towards him is a strand of poverty consciousness. The same strand seems to run through comments on Brad Warner's blog anytime he mentions trying to make money.

There's a rub around money and finances that I see in myself, in discussions at my zen center, and in discussions on-line. Americans struggle with the concept of dana. Certainly, a few sanghas are doing fine running a dana model, but it's a really small minority.

Nathan said...

At the same time, we're predisposed to the idea of fees and salaries: capitalist models of exchange. And mixed in with that are notions of Zen teachers that come from societies where there is much more "built in" financial support.

So, part of my point is that I believe one reason the idea of professional Zen teachers cranks a lot of shafts is that it rubs right up against all those narratives about "paying for dharma," what people think a dharma teacher should be, and also all the ways in which wealth and spiritual/religious paths mix really poorly.

It sure hits all those buttons for me anyway. And although I still think my thoughts in the first post are fine, I can see how those rubs are coloring my view.

And one of the reasons why a tiered model for priests/teachers might make more sense is that you need people who can maintain sanghas. Who can do ritualistic aspects like weddings and funerals. And those people shouldn't (in my view anyway) be cobbling together multiple jobs in order to be able to do those sangha activities.

Perhaps if a class of priests are deliberately trained in that way, there would be less concern around people rushing to transmit to someone before they die - so that the community they lead doesn't disappear.

And those who are on a more "traditional" path - where dharma transmission comes in - would be able to unfold as they will. Perhaps there ends up being fewer transmitted teachers (or Zen Masters), but maybe there'd be more clarity around both roles and financing those roles.

Nathan said...

Hi James,

Thanks for stopping by.


Brikoleur said...

It's interesting how different a color this question takes from the values of the society in which it's embedded. This discussion is revealing a lot that's really very different about American and Scandinavian culture.

Regrettably we've been going in the American direction over the past couple of decades, but a lot remains of our "peasant solidarity" – the idea that everybody should be about average, but the average should be as high as possible. This is just about the polar opposite of the heroic American rags-to-riches idea.

Scandinavian peasant egalitarianism has its drawbacks for sure, but it does defuse some pathologies related to money. Here's how this works for us.

I pay a monthly fee to the zendo, much like a gym subscription; it's adjusted to my (self-declared) ability to pay. Half this goes to support Zengården, the training temple in Sweden; about 80% of the rest, to paying the rent on the Helsinki zendo, and the rest for tea and biscuits (OK, and other sundries). In addition, I throw something into the dana box on retreats and teacher visits and such.

There are also fees for retreats and if you want to stay at Zengården (that goes down over time, so for long stays you end up being supported, not paying to support the place).

It all works pretty well. The cost is far from onerous, and with this model we pay for the city Zen center, the training temple in Sweden (supported by a half-dozen city centers), and two full-time teachers. The teachers live exclusively on dana (no salary, none of the membership fees go to them; only what goes in the dana box on retreats, sesshins, and teacher visits). As to retirement, healthcare and such, they're covered by the excellent Swedish public health and social security net, just like everybody else.

There are pretty strong cultural features in place to prevent this model from spinning out of control. It just wouldn't be... proper... for them to start making a lot of money from what they do. That comes from fairly deep cultural assumptions: making a lot of money is a bit suspicious to start with, and making a lot of money out of being a spiritual teacher of some kind is just wrong. So it's less likely to happen. Our abusive spiritual teachers tend to get into trouble over sex, not money.

Nathan said...

"As to retirement, healthcare and such, they're covered by the excellent Swedish public health and social security net, just like everybody else." Obviously, all of this is being gutted here in the U.S. Or, in terms of health care - has always been precarious.

Thanks for telling us about what your experiences are Petteri. I kind of wish we had a situation more like yours. It would make some of these issues almost go away.

Brikoleur said...

Some, for sure. This ain't no paradise either, though, don't get me wrong, even if on balance I'd rather take our system than yours. The flip side of peasant egalitarianism is that we also hammer down nails that stick out too much, if you get my drift.

kevin said...

Our membership requirements follow a suggested 2% of income model with leeway up or down. Membership gives you discounts on classes, retreats and books as well as voting privileges.

We have a very formal and detailed financial overview listing our total operating budget as well as percents that go towards grouped expenses (including our teacher) and revenues taken in.

I think the level of what could be called professionalism could be determined by how embedded the teacher is within the community. Our teacher solved that by saying she'd only come and stay if the center was a dedicated building.

kevin said...

I don't see what's wrong with the traditional models of what makes a teacher a teacher or an abbot. There will always be issues, and they arise when tradition isn't followed just as unenlightened action arises when we stray from the precepts.

A teacher should decide, for the right reasons, when a student should be a teacher. It should be a long and careful process as tradition is serious business.

Being instated as an abbot is a decision and an action made by the sangha and carries its own beautiful tradition.

It seems some Western teachers are forgetting that things are impermanent in their race to continue their lineage and this is where many of the mistakes are being made.

Individuals are being placed into positions they aren't truly ready for (intellectually they understand, but can't act on that understanding) and when they crack they are labeled awful people.

The fault is cumulative and communal. In a philosophy that preaches interdependence and lack of an individual self, how can anyone try and place blame on an individual whether original teacher or their successor.

But because we don't deny the existence of things that we identify as individuals, we can't just blame the system, individuals must be responsible for their own actions.

Thank you for continuing this discussion and bringing things to our attention that we otherwise been ignorant of.

I just feel this, and many other topics are ghosts we're struggling to nail down. When the ghost doesn't move we think we've succeeded but we really haven't.

Nathan said...


"But because we don't deny the existence of things that we identify as individuals, we can't just blame the system, individuals must be responsible for their own actions."

No doubt. I offer the tiered model that James Ford and a few others I have seen offer partly because the numbers of us between 25-45 years old with serious practice - committed enough to want to become teachers - might not be enough to cover the transition from the Boomers. On the West Coast and in the Northeast, the situation is probably better, but everywhere else, it might be a challenge.

I'm not sure what to think of such an idea, myself. But I appreciate that a few Boomer era teachers are thinking about the next generation in this way, and wondering how to proceed.


If you find anywhere that's paradise, please let me know. And I'll do the same if I find it :)