A Couple of Words in Favor of Professionalizing Zen Teachers

A Couple of Words in Favor of Professionalizing Zen Teachers April 12, 2011

There appears to be a low bubbling concern raised every now and again about authorization in Zen asking what exactly a Zen teacher is supposed to be, anyway?

It’s an important question.

There are people who claim to be Zen teachers without any justification. They seem to have just awakened one morning (I guess there’s a pun there) and declared themselves Zen teachers. There are people with the normative credentials of the tradition, but little apparent training leading to the titles. There are people who stand in clear and unambiguous lines with years and years of training with prominent teachers, all the right credentials, who do bad things.

Some suggest Zen teachers, at least the real ones, are artists. Maybe. But, beyond the first flush of recognition, I don’t know what this is actually supposed to mean, or what it justifies.

Others, drawing upon the tradition would say there are no teachers. And no students. Let’s stipulate there is an empty place where all words collapse. No Zen in China. No Zen in America.

And the form realm is just as real as the empty.

And in the realm of differentiation we need to act. And our actions have consequences.

Both truths at once.

That, my friends, is Zen.

So, knowing the world of emptiness, what to do in this world of form?

How do make the invisible visible?

This is the work of the Zen teacher…

But how to deal with teachers, how to sort the good, the bad & the indifferent? How are they to be trained? How to be disciplined?

Some think it’s all very personal between one teacher and one student. And, if something goes wrong there isn’t much to do other, perhaps, than blow the whistle on the bad ones. Write scathing blog entries…

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.

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?

Me, I think it is a good idea.

Now the Soto Zen Buddhist Association might be a professional group, I find it a proto-denomination. And, I think such an organization is long over due. We need some commonly acknowledged standards for training and authorization as well as clear, if broad boundaries of acceptable behavior by those generally acknowledged as Zen teachers. And I applaud their efforts.

I am among the few in the AZTA who would like it to have a clear, open and generous, but also unambiguous ethical statement, and that subscription to it is a requirement of membership. But at this moment that seems a bridge too far for many of us.

I hope this will change.

What I think is that we need institutions to support the Zen way.

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?

I think so.

A couple of words…

"I love this reflection on TS Eliott."

| James Ford
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