Holders of Lineage: A Small Meditation on Leadership in Contemporary Western Zen Buddhist Sanghas

Holders of Lineage: A Small Meditation on Leadership in Contemporary Western Zen Buddhist Sanghas June 30, 2022






As I reflect on the nature of Zen come West I am near endlessly fascinated at the variety of its forms. No doubt the majority of folk who talk about Zen on social media have simply read a book, usually by Alan Watts, but perhaps a bit more deeply, and are more than happy to expound on the power of the moment. Good on them. I hope they enjoy themselves.

Zen is also a marketing thing, apparently in that world Zen means “chilling out.” Which I believe means kind of cool and distant. I’m a little less generous in my feelings about them, but in a world of Quaker Oats and spandex yoga pants, Zen could do worse. And might, yet.

For the smaller number of us who found our lives within the Zen way, things are also confused. Zen emerges in medieval China. While from near the beginning a mysterious authorization called dharma transmission, was principally fostered within Mahayana monasteries, and held mainly by monks and some nuns. However, dharma transmission was also frequently bestowed upon householders. Mostly Imperial civil servants, but on occasion even passed on to royalty. The literature is also rife with allusions to tea ladies and others not named who show up and reorient numerous monks.

Japan offered an interesting variation on the theme, with a long time evolution toward a rush of reforms in the Meiji era. The result was a married priesthood, who retained monastic formation, and used monastic terminology. And within the larger Soto school the term dharma transmission was lost as an early step on a long bureaucratic ladder. Just to keep matters stirred in Korea a minority school, the Taego, while retaining both monasteries and monks and nuns also has a category of priest similar to what is seen in Japan, although in a creative tension with monastics.

All of this has landed in the West.  Along with a very, very interesting variation, the rise of householder lineages. This has opened a host of questions about formation, as well as dharma transmission.

For Zen in the West, there are Chinese monasteries which run along traditional Chinese models, and where Zen (called Chan) is a subset that can sometimes and sometimes not be found. The majority of practitioners are of Chinese descent. The same can be said for Vietnamese Zen (called Thien), where the majority of practitioners are of Vietnamese descent. Koreans Zen (called Son) gets a bit messier. There are Jogye monasteries and Taego temples, serving both Korean descent folk and converts. And the Kwan Um school founded by a Jogye monk, has morphed into a very large network of centers with a few monastics, monks and nuns, but the larger numbers of centers led by Householder teachers.

The Rinzai schools have no direct institutional missions, although there are a couple of Rinzai masters who live more or less full time in the West. One Rinzai lineage has established itself as an independent American branch of Japanese Rinzai Zen, but with the exception of one training monastery in Wisconsin seems to exist mostly within the martial arts community. There are several independent lineages deriving from early Rinzai teachers. While there are householder teachers in these lineages, it seems all or certainly the vast majority are led by priests, most with some form of monastic formation. They also rely heavily on koan introspection and the curricular koan system developed in the Eighteenth century and closely associated with Hakuin Ekaku.

Soto is both the largest and the most diverse of the Zen communities in the West. The majority transmit a modified monastic formation, and an insistence on priestly ordination. The Japanese Sotoshu has had a presence in North America since the first decades of the Twentieth century. Those who seek ordination within the Soto school must go to Japan for some critical monastic parts of priestly formation. The larger schools only give unencumbered authorizations to lead to priests.

But, partial authorizations have proliferated. And many of these people, especially when they establish centers of their own are widely recognized as teachers and leaders.

To keep the pot fully stirred Householder lineages have emerged. The largest of these, now called Sanbo Zen, derives from a Soto school that incorporated a full koan curriculum into its formation. Many Householder teachers have as well as priests have been authorized in these lineages.

So two brief things. Many Westerners were shocked to learn that dharma transmission, whatever else it might be, is in Japan, at least, a bureaucratic step. In Soto it is more glaring as it is placed at the beginning. In Rinzai this fact is a bit more hidden. There is a private aspect to these authorizations, but in fact it all leads to an office that allows someone to lead a training monastery. The relevant rank in both Soto and Rinzai is Shike.

This does not mean awakening and dharma transmission are not real things. But that along with the institutions something intimate, and complicated, is on offer. In my view, knowing a lot of transmitted teachers, and fitting into the category myself, is that for the most part the designation is a confirmation of trust. It shows a teacher standing in some manner in a lineage of teachers believes someone has achieved a measure of insight and probably can guide others toward that insight.

That is enough. Then they, we, are on our own paths. If we don’t forget to continue, further wonders await.

And no guarantee. Along with frauds and poseurs, there are the half baked, a lot of people for whom anyone with a measure of insight into the great matter can see should not be teaching. Sometimes people with totally official titles just plain should not have any kind of leadership authority.

Transmission is a mess.

And it offers a hint of possibilities.

For me here’s the most important thing. Zen opens doors into the real. It offers a way for the broken heart to find the great healing. It is a life practice with a door that is both wide open and inviting. Its teachers are all flawed. Some have great insights. Some small glimmers. But the Holders of Lineage are bound together, whether they know it or not, as guardians of something rare on this planet. An authentic way of depth, of insight, of possibility.

Something grave and beautiful is happening. Has happened.

And we are at a turning. What will come with the great die off, the passing of my generation (the “okay, Boomer” crowd), is a bit of a mystery.

But there are things on the ground. And this tiny reflection is inspired by a conversation with Dr John Jeffery from the Pacific Institute for Essential Conversations. They formed as a program offering clinical supervision for chaplains. They and John have accompanied a lot of Buddhist leaders as they’ve sought this certification. And along they way, John has come up with some thoughts.

Possibly the most important in the moment, is how he has provided a name for the leaders of Zen and other Buddhist organizations in our not precisely post-monastic era. Buddhist leaders, Zen leaders, whether monks or nuns or priests or householders, whether holding a formal ecclesiastical form of authorization or one of the more vague forms, as they are acknowledged by other practitioners, all fall under one category:

Holders of Lineage.

They are the leaders of our current and emerging sanghas and other named practice communities.

What John and his associates have noticed is that these Holders of Lineage need enriched formation. There is, first and foremost, spiritual formation. Lots of zazen. Koan practice. Perhaps liturgical expertise, a traditional and beautiful form of practice.

But to successfully lead communities of practice they need additional skill sets.

While many disdain this, and some go so far as to proclaim they absolutely don’t need it, these things are distractions; if they want to be useful, they do. Even if the plan is no greater than renting a space and gathering some people, skills are needed. Or, the Holder of Lineage is in danger of thwarting their own hopes to be of service.

So, along with being able to teach and guide meditation and provide spiritual direction, they need to learn something about pastoral care within their communities. I’ve seen the lack of this skill set actually tear communities apart. Doubly sad when the leaders are actually good at the spiritual direction part.

What I would add to the list of necessary skill sets that need to be found, and ideally found in some formally acknowledged way as expected of our emerging Holders of Lineage, is a solid foundation in the traditional teachings beyond the specialized knowledge around meditation (and perhaps koans), the pastoral skills John notes, and just some basic administrative stuff.

Holders of Lineage don’t need to be accountants, but they should be able to read a budget. And understand the big picture of paying the bills.

Will all this happen?

Maybe. I think most of my generation have to die first. We are full of lots of notions that tend to get in the way of actually serving. But that dying off, well, time will take care of that.

And then those who love the dharma and are willing to give some significant part of their lives to the project need to acquire the skills necessary to support the work.

The dharma is too important to squander the life blood that has gone into getting us to this moment.

So, my small call to Holders of Lineage. Whether you are a nun, a monk, a priest, or a householder.

Throw yourselves into the practice. Know the arts of Zen meditation from the inside out. If formation calls for monastic training, get it. If it calls for completion of koan introspection, do it. If it is relentless commitment to practice year after year, do it. And, know that none of this is enough. Critical, but not sufficient. If you want to be of use, step up to the plate, get the additional skills you need.

A broken world depends upon this…


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