Teaching Credentials in Zen


Sadly, over at Enlightenment Ward we learn two Zen teachers are charging that the other has faked up his credentials.

In Zen this is a big deal.

I think Zen teachers and Dharma transmission are frequently puffed up way too much. Grand and frankly on occasion magical claims have been made by or on behalf of too many Zen teachers. Lots of noise, smoke and mirrors. And it should be challenged when it is oversold.

In my opinion if only because the Zen Dharma is too precious to allow distractions of that sort.

But there are several kinds of distraction.

And another is the self-declared teacher.

There is only one way to become a Zen teacher. A teacher is made by another teacher standing in the traditional Zen lineages. Thus has it always been, well, at least since Zen emerged in early Medieval China.

It is true for monks and nuns, for priests and lay people – all who may be acknowledged as Zen teachers.

Now, there are complexities, as there are in all human enterprises. Occasionally there have been breaks that have needed healing, so there is some mutability in how acknowledgment happens. For instance most notably here in the West, Philip Kapleau, an early Zen teacher, had received permission to teach but not the ritual formal acknowledgement known variously as Dharma transmission or Inka Shomei. (In the West, where formal Dharma transmission has in many instances been broken into two parts, both designations might be used.*) However, Kapleau’s Dharma successors are acknowledged as “real” Zen teachers by their peers, and are invited into the biggest of the Zen clubs, the American Zen Teachers Association. I know I certainly consider them totally legitimate. One could say they have a lateral transmission instead of a vertical one. Having both is probably best…

Still, the Kapleau lineage, also known as the Rochester lineage is a shining exception to a quite strong rule. This exception is grounded in some ways comparable to the Christian Orthodox concept of Economy, where the deficiencies of an individual are covered by the church as a whole, if the majority of Zen teachers accept someone, sure that person is real.

However this points one thing out, Dharma transmission or Inka is not all about magic.

Still, just as one cannot become a Catholic priest without a bishop putting hands on a head, one cannot become a Zen teacher without having been authorized by a Zen teacher. And almost always that authorization is “vertical,” teacher to student.

If someone wants to be a Zen teacher, they must be made one. And that ceremony is public or has a major public aspect to it. And for the most part there are written documents involved. And on those rare occasions if there aren’t documents, there are witnesses. If there aren’t, well…

If you ask someone who claims to be a Zen teacher who authorized them and they throw you out, you may safely assume that person has made it up. If that person says the question proves you’re not enlightened, then this suggests that person has made their credentials up. If they say it is none of your business, they are probably a fraud.

Now, I really believe Zen credentials are often oversold. All they prove is that you have been approved by someone. I’ve met people with wonderful credentials that I wouldn’t recommend anyone study with. For many different reasons…

And I’ve met people who are wise and good teachers, authentic spiritual guides in this life, who have not been authorized as such by anyone.

But if the word Zen enters the picture, well, there are rules to the game. Just like with the Catholic Church, just like with becoming a medical doctor. There is a program. There is a certification. And if you don’t have it, you ain’t one.

I brood over that word fraud. Of course in this enterprise the rewards are usually not very big. Only a few teachers make a professional level living, and to the best of my knowledge they all have the requisite credentials. Those who sign on as teachers, self-declared or otherwise, are signing up for lots of work and little reward. I suspect in most cases deep wounds are involved. And some of these wounded folk are very interesting. Some even have a real teacher in there somewhere, I have no doubt. But… Wounded birds. And in need of getting themselves a teacher rather more than being one…

So, maybe you want to find a Zen teacher.

The larger majority of authentic Zen teachers or their teachers or their lineage peers belong to the American Zen Teachers Association,** which maintains public lists. It is not intended to be a credentialing organization and a number of first rate teachers disdain such ideas as a club like the AZTA. But, it is a good place to start.

If someone presents themselves as a teacher and it isn’t clear who authorized them, or if they say, but the credentials are unclear, or are to people who you can’t find on the web, well then contact someone in the school to which they claim to belong.

It won’t take long to figure out if they’re inside the tent, or not…

* I’m also concerned with this emergent system in the West, where in many cases someone has all the permissions of teaching, except the right to name their own Dharma successor. For various reasons I’m now aware of several people with such credentials who have broken with their teachers and are now teaching independently. I don’t know what’s going to happen when they start naming their own heirs…

** Truth in advertising. I currently serve on the AZTA’s membership committee.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14388857704848706296 Rev. Yuánzhì Dàoqīng

    Perhaps those individuals will try and finish their practice with another teacher.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    If possible that would be the best course, I think, Paul.The problem is being accepted where one is.Particularly if one is crossing traditions.I’m sympathetic to all involved…

  • Anonymous

    There is only one way to become a Zen teacher. A teacher is made by another teacher standing in the traditional Zen lineages. Thus has it always been, well, at least since Zen emerged in early Medieval China.Pssst don’t tell Hakuin Zenji and countless others.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Dear Anonymous,Hakuin was ordained and he studied deeply and for a long, long time with a number of teachers.It appears he never received formal sanction.But he was acknowledged in that lateral sense quite early and throughout his life.But, countless others? Come on…If you work real hard you can cough up a couple. I already named one, Philip Kapleau.Again, I’m not advocating for some magical efficacy in Dharma transmission.I am warning that those who claim to be Zen teachers without it should be regarded with even more than the high level suspicion I commend in encountering any teacher.Yes, including me…Again, the Dharma is too important to play fast and loose with simple facts…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07000933466909212770 Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik

    James, thanks for this post. For anyone interested in this topic, I’d recommend a book that was recently brought to my attention by Jundo (from Trealeaf) called “Zen Ritual” by Steven Heine and Dale Wright. It is a collection of essays, one of which is entitled “Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practice” by William M. Bodiford.He covers:”1) the familial ideal of the dharma transmission in East Asia; (2) the vicissitudes of dharma transmission in the history of Soto Zen in Japan; and (3) issues presented by dharma transmission in America.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Thank you, Jay. There is an emerging literature on the subject. John McRae’s study “Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism: really lays it out. Also Richard Jaffe’s “Neither Monk Nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japan” investigates important aspects of this issue. And I try to touch upon this in several areas in my own study “Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07800258273705288582 Dalai Grandma

    I understand that a Unitarian Universalist society can hire anyone they like as a minister; the candidate doesn’t have to have been Fellowshipped. How do you feel about that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Dear Dalai,A different kettle of fish.The model in Unitarian Universalism is called congregationalism and it is the right of a UU congregation to call anyone they wish. At least in theory. It is a rare congregation that isn’t going to take advantage of the ministerial fellowship system that requires a seminary degree, various internships, and at least minimal vetting…

  • Anonymous
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01116967568502451788 Mumon

    It’s good to have credentials, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to have a good teacher or anything else. In some cases it helps. Trust me. It’s the same whether you have adopted the Chinese word for teacher to Japanese (“roshi”) or whether you’re just a simple Ph.D.

  • Anonymous

    Being born and raised in the Buddhist traditions in the East, I find this whole scenario of discussion quite amusing.The true requirement for teachings Zen is….In every teacher there must embody the joy of being stemming from the practice of Zen.The teachings are meant to remove clinging to traditional dogmas, all forms of idol worship (including that of the teacher), and creating more concepts for students to follow.If the student finds true joy and peace in it…who cares where it came from.The Buddha never taught for money.Isn’t Zen about the understanding and experiencing the state of “no-self”? Why are Zen teachers claiming linage for? To add another layer of self on?Truth will flow irregardless, and it always flow towards those who are sincerely wanting to accept it and those who have it to give it.The rest is just more labels.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    For the Public Recordhttp://ushiiro-geri.livejournal.com/3386.html

  • Anonymous

    I have not been told I am not a member of The Sitting Frog Sangha-More on Genpo Merzel, Roshihttp://buzfree.livejournal.com/31321.htmlWell, that did not take longhttp://buzfree.livejournal.com/31529.htmlEmailshttp://buzfree.livejournal.com/31810.html

  • Anonymous

    Re: Lineage Verification From: "AZTA office" [info]ushiiro_geri March 28th, 15:37 Re: Lineage Verification Saturday, March 28, 2009 7:43 AM From: "AZTA office" To: "James Atkerson" Dear Chugai/James As far as I can see – with the help of other AZTA zen teachers – Dogo is not what he told you. There seem to be no Ando Yamashiro Roshi or Butsudo Zen Center. I personally know Kobutsu, so I believe whatever he would say about the matter. This unfortunately means that your jukai is officially invalid (but it could of course have meaning for you). Zen teachers go incommunicado either because questions put to them are too ridiculous, or they have something to hide. In this case probably the latter. I recommend those searching for a legitimate teacher to look at the American Zen Teachers Association's website. Here you have some good questions to put to a possible teacher: http://americanzenteachers.org/membership.html and you have a list of properly acknowledged and trained zen teachers: http://americanzenteachers.org/AZTAlist.php On behalf of AZTA Denko John Mortensen James Atkerson wrote: > Hello, > I am Chugai AKA James Atkerson here: > > I have a quandry I'm trying to solve — as to whether or not my jukai stands — > recently my teacher, Dogo Nanshin Barry Graham, has been under scrutiny as to the legitimacy of his claims of Dharma Transmission. I won't detail it here but you can read this blog — http://gomyo.livejournal.com/ look for the entry — It's a Riddle — 02/03 and another entitled Comment on the Comments 03/05 > > and this one http://the-urban-monk.blogspot.com/ look for Zen Soap Opera is the Bubbliest 02/03 > > My teacher has gone incommunicado on the subject … > So I'm on my own … > However I'm wondering if you know of his reported monastery or teacher, Butsudo Zen Center in Kyoto, Japan, where he allegedly received Dharma Transmission from Ando Yamashiro Roshi. He has stated it is a Soto lineage. I can not find anything on either of the subjects but I am limited to english language sites. > Thank you in advance for any help you might provide, > peace and gassho, Chugai

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03320860122104064884 James

    Dear James.Regarding the note you received from Denko Mortensen.Denko is a respected Rinzai teacher. He also serves the AZTA as our webmaster. We have no one who speaks officially for the AZTA. A problem, and one we probably need to address.As a member of the Membership Committee of the AZTA I think it important to qualify a bit what Denko wrote.What we know is that a survey of our membership revealed no one who was aware of Ando Yamashiro or the Butsudo Zen Center. We also are aware that an inquiry to the Sotoshu in Japan reveals no one who knows of this teacher or center.Beyond that the only thing we can say is Dogo Graham is not a member of the AZTA.Also, Denko rendered an opinion about your jukai that might be confused as an official statement from the AZTA. We represent a mixed body with a range of opinions about many things. Denko’s response regarding the validity of your jukai was the opinion of a well-informed and well-trained Rinzai Zen teacher.And I disagree with that analysis.We at the Boundless Way see that jukai is more about the intention of the recipient and her or his relationship to the precepts and much less about who officiates.You could find yourself in a new sangha where you would be expected to retake the precepts. This would not be the case at Boundless Way, unless you felt that desire. We in fact have several members who came from a rogue teacher who had no authorization to give precepts but who did. Some have retaken the precepts, others have not.Sincerely,James Myoun Ford

  • angel752

    I find it humorous that one that does not believe this is a religion still insists upon forcing rules and traditions, along with the “can and can’t do’s” for this path , and has absolutely no clue the difference between religion and spirituality. To claim that one cannot be become something because they do not have linage or training, yet teach that the true path is within and cannot be taught is hypocritical.
    You believe in reincarnation yet cannot be a Zen Master without linage, who is to say that the Zen Master reincarnated into a female, or into a Catholic Priest, or even a Mystic so they can continue that training? What right does one have to strip another of that title from another life because those chose another path in this life? And who has the right to say one is enlightened and one is not? Enlightenment is not a state of Nirvana but a state of realization. Without realization, Nirvana would not exist. And what of the teaching of true freedom? How can one be free when they are bound by rules? How can one one find their own selves when they are taught to follow the path of everyone else? Zen is not a religion of Buddah, it is a path of self. If you spend your entire life following the path of another, you will never find your own. Ultimately, isn’t that the point?


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