Monday, April 11, 2011

Zen Teachers As Professionals

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"?

Brad writes:

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.


David said...

I think Warner made a valid point but he muddled his message by framing it under the title of “Zen is not the helping profession” because in the responses I’ve seen thus far, everyone has latched onto the “not helping” part (we are bodhisattvas, of course we want to help people) and missed the “profession” part. Professional may be a bad word but it may not be a bad concept.

As far as ethics and conflict resolution policies is concerned, I think we should remember that across the board many of the monks/teachers who have misbehaved were trained under some of the strictest standards possible, and still, they misbehaved. I think the problems lies with the fact that many Western practitioners have inherited and adopted an Eastern tendency to not discuss problems out in the open but instead to sweep them under the rug. That has to change.

Brikoleur said...

I think Brad is wilfully closing his eyes to some really hairy issues inherent in any groups structured like Zen sanghas. Projection, transference, counter-transference, power trips, currying favor, etc. etc. That doesn't just go away by pretending to be all Zen about it. It's inherent to group dynamics, and can spin spectacularly out of control when one member of the group is a spiritual teacher.

So, and I feel very strongly about this, without some kind of safeguards, really bad shit will happen. Therefore, I personally wouldn't go near a group that didn't in some way at least acknowledge that they're aware of these problems and have some ways to address them. And I think most such safeguards would have to involve some kind of connections to society at large, whether it's just plain ol' society or some Zen-specific society.

On the other hand, I think Brad is right that teaching Zen is an art, not a system or profession, and institutionalizing it ain't going to lead to anything good. Wherever Buddhism has caught on in a big way, it's become a bulwark of whatever fucked-up corrupt system happens to be in place, from Tibet's slave economy to Sri Lanka's introverted ethnocentrism, or 'Murican-style Zen-as-self-development-and-consumption-choices.

I think it might be possible to strike some balance between the two; to give Zen teachers enough breathing space to do their thing, but still have some alarm bells and firewalls in place to make the exercise not unduly dangerous. But that would require Zennies to first acknowledge that this is a real problem and to engage with it in a concrete way, not by sweeping it under the rug with 'this is a koan that we must engage with fully' style platitudes as usually happens.

Or maybe not, and it'll remain a godawful travesty of a mess, with a very few genuinely insightful teachers here and there keeping the lamp lit.

Richard Harrold said...

I'm not familiar with Zen organizational structure, but it's my sense that Zen teachers are a fairly independent lot in that there is no ecumenical organization overseeing particular centers or sanghas. Correct me if I'm wrong. I think that may be where the notion of "professionalizing" the system comes from, not a licensing per se, but some type of ecumenical-like oversight.

So what is needed, perhaps, is not professional Zen teachers, but Zen teachers who are professional and ethical in their actions and who have some type of organization looking over their shoulders.

It's not any different really in the Christian realm with more organized denominations that have organizations that oversee things like minister compensation and behavior. I'm not suggesting they do a better job of monitoring and disciplining errant ministers than anyone else, but the structure is there. There is a dispute resolution system in place.

Nathan said...


We're pretty much on the same place here. I feel fortunate to be part of a Zen center that not only has a healthy ethics policy in place, but where people still want to talk about these kinds of issues and take them as a serious part of practice.


"So what is needed, perhaps, is not professional Zen teachers, but Zen teachers who are professional and ethical in their actions and who have some type of organization looking over their shoulders."

I like this way of looking at it. And certainly, at this point, neither organization mentioned in the post are strong enough to do any kind of ethical oversight. But I do think they are moving in that direction.


Yes, I noticed the "not helping" focus as well. Brad's blog seems to attract "lone wolf" and anti-organizational types. And Brad, himself, seems to uphold both of those as positives.

From the little bit of time I have spent with Brad in person, I think the bluntness of his writing often exaggerates the way he actually is. People who just read Brad online might think he's a tough bad boy who has almost zero interest in helping others. Which isn't accurate.

However, it seems some of his readers love the idea that Zen practice is just about them and their enlightenment. Which is unfortunate.

Brikoleur said...

@Nathan, also I salute you for being one of the voices on the Zen scene who regularly bangs this drum. Awareness of these problems is already immensely important, even if nothing else is done. So do keep talking. I'm quite certain it makes a difference, perhaps in ways that aren't immediately obvious.

Algernon said...

I read Brad Warner's post and he has a good point that is perhaps spread a bit too far. He often makes the approximate analogy of Zen teaching and practice as an art, and I have had a similar inclination for years. He stresses the necessary independence, but at the expense of any oversight by peers.

Blanche Hartman once commented to me that Baker roshi's undoing (and the damage it did) had much to do with the simple fact that he did not accept peers. He had peers -- people who had been sitting alongside him for years. He just didn't listen to them, even when things had gone off the rails.

We might not need a "professional association" in the sense that they exist in the capitalist system, but an organization of peers that spans lineages and schools could be very helpful for teachers in the exceptional cases that a teacher gets a little weird. And they could head off a lot of damage, not necessarily by intervening, but by communication with the wider sangha. So much harm comes to sangha members because of the lack of open communication.

He is, of course, right that Zen teaching is not a "profession" in the sense of other professions we pursue for self-fulfillment and abundance. I noticed this when my mother asked me recently if I saw "saw myself in 10 years or whatever" getting inka and becoming a teacher at that level. She spoke of it almost like it was a graduate degree opening the doors to a profession. It was a very foreign way to talk about it, and I explained why as best I could.

Mumon K said...

I finally got around to the looong post on this subject that I wanted to make.

"Profession" is a strange word; professionalism is a medicine that can harm as well as heal.

kevin said...

Zen teachers seem to fulfill multiple roles for the sangha, some of which I don't think should be considered professional, but some of them are.

As meditation teachers, of just technique, not guidance, and educators in the dharma provided in dharma talks, I think that they are professionals.

Those that are priests also serve the sangha in a professional manner by possessing specialized knowledge and using it for the benefit of members.

In the first case money (can) exchange hands as payment for services. In the second, this activity is essentially donated for the benefit of the community.

But no one pays for dokusan or practice advice. Teachers here serve the role of fellow travelers sharing their experience based perspective. Their teachers essentially gave them the okay to act as a proxy for themselves, which traditionally reaches back to acting as proxy for the Buddha himself.

These distinctions may be shallow, basing a title on whether or not money exchanges hands, but I think they are good guides to at least open the eyes to how complex the matter is.

When it comes to doctors, lawyers and therapists, we go to them only when we need their services. Our teachers are our friends. To have that same relationship with other professionals could be not only awkward but potentially unethical.

We rely on our personal relationship to determine the legitimacy of out teacher's advice. You can't do that in the same way with a doctor.

The services rendered by a teacher are different than those of other professionals. Teachers are giving advice to help us get to where they are. Doctors and lawyers provide us with things we have no interest in doing for ourselves. No lawyer is going to show you how to defend yourself in court.

As Zen fits into no particular box and holds every other box at once, we can't use Western labels or conventions to control it. But we can't just let it run freely, so dialogue like this is important. We just can't try to shove it where it doesn't fit.

Thanks for a new perspective on Brad's post. He does usually write to explain and not so much to explore so I appreciate it.

Nathan said...

Hi Kevin,

The money issues are another aspect of this discussion that I have written about before. It's a rich area and I've been noticing my own views shifting around like sands in the wind over the past few years. I'll probably have something more to say about it at some point.

I appreciate, though, the point about relationships - how a person's connection with a doctor or lawyer is rarely beyond the services and expertise they provide. Whereas, anyone with much of a relationship with a Zen teacher tends to experience something quite different.


That point about Baker Roshi is important. I know that our head teacher checks in with a few other teachers - who have been in the position longer than her - on challenging issues. She's open to feedback and ideas generally, but it just seems smart to have peers willing to hold up a mirror sometimes, or who might have been through something similar.

Which to me is about maintaining an attitude of learning - of studenting - regardless of where one is supposedly at on the path.