What Makes a Dharma Teacher?

Questions

By Daniel Scharpenburg

Does it mean having the right certificates?

Teachers can be certified just like any other kind of teacher. There are simple certifications to get like: “Meditation Instructor” and (ideally) harder ones to get like “Dharma Transmission.”

Do certificates mean anything? Not really. One of the best Dharma teachers I know taught me “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” and doesn’t have certificates. He’s just been doing it a long time, and he’s really good at expressing the Dharma. I suspect chasing the right certificate can do more harm than good.

There are also fake online colleges where you can engage a course of study over a length of time in order to receive your certificate, like it’s a college degree (where some people have to go through a detailed course of study and others don’t).

One of my heroes is the renegade Zen teacher Ikkyu.

He studied with a few different teachers and was given a certificate as an Enlightened Dharma Teacher, and then tore it up because he didn’t believe in certificates. He felt that he didn’t need a certificate to tell people he was a teacher — he simply was. And the thing about certificates is, of course, this: once enlightenment is boiled down to something that can be certified by someone else, it loses some meaning.

I wonder if we’ve gotten a little too excited about certificates. A lot is made out of certificates in most Zen circles.

Does it mean having the right lineage?

“Do you know who I am? Do you know who my teacher is?”

Lineage theoretically traces a line of teachers down through the ages. Lama Lena gave me some Dzogchen teachings because she was part of a lineage that practiced a great deal with Dzogchen teachings. Shi Da Dao gave me some Hua Tou teachings because that was the primary method of his lineage that he learned from his teacher. Maezen teaches a combination of Rinzai and Soto Zen because her teacher’s teacher held both lineages. What lineage tells you is what kind of teachings a teacher is likely to give.

I was a monk school dropout.

I studied in two different Zen lineages—one was Rinzai Zen, and the other one was Caodong Ch’an. Both of them involved teachers whose lineage aren’t generally recognized. But I just went over how I think certificates aren’t that important, didn’t I?

This is what’s important: if you’re going to make a big deal out of certificates and lineage when yours is in doubt… well, that seems a little weird, right?

I was a Novice Rinzai monk before I dropped out. That organization has a list of scandals that can easily be revealed in a quick google search. Buyer beware when searching for Dharma teachers, and I left because I felt like I wasn’t learning anything.

The second training I joined was all online. That alone makes it hard to take seriously for some people. I received full authorization to teach in the Empty Cloud Zen Lineage, and I received Dharma Transmission, but I didn’t ordain so I’m not a Zen priest.

The thing is, though, this lineage is in doubt too. You can’t even research it if you try. I could go around calling myself a lineage holder, but who would believe me? My teacher Shi Da Dao, was someone no one had ever heard of and even I am not sure about his claim of receiving

I could go around calling myself a lineage holder, but who would believe me? My teacher, Shi Da Dao, was someone no one had ever heard of and even I am not sure about his claim of receiving transmission, so my credentials would (and will) always be in doubt.

Especially since I was once a Novice Monk in an organization with a bad reputation. I also tend to think that this teaching authority was just given to me and I didn’t really earn it. Maybe that’s how a lot of teachers feel, though. Insecure.

Especially since I was once a Novice Monk in an organization with a bad reputation. I also tend to think that this teaching authority was just given to me and I didn’t really earn it. Maybe that’s how a lot of teachers feel, though. Insecure.

There’s a spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. He had a Zen teacher no one had ever heard of. Although he received teaching authorization in the proper and traditional way, because his teacher wasn’t formally recognized, he decided to not call his teachings Zen. He teaches Zen, but he calls it True Meditation instead. Why? Because he didn’t want to deal with the issue of people coming up and questioning his authority all the time.

Does it mean setting a good example, following precepts, living a life of self-denial?

Maybe. This is the one I’m not sure about. I’ve certainly been known to give in to temptation too often, and one needs only to notice my two divorces to be aware that I’m not a role model.

Ikkyu was known to frequent bars and brothels. He took teachings into places where other teachers would never go. And he was part of that world, but separate from it by his monk robes and self-denial.

Chogyam Trungpa did the same thing in the 70s. He was part of youth culture and engaged in the same behaviors they did. He called it ‘Crazy Wisdom.’

Can we be that way too? I don’t know. I do pay a lot more attention to a teacher’s amount of service than I do to their level of renunciation.

If I’m honest here a majority of the Dharma teachers I know, at the very least, consume alcohol. Some a little and some a lot. Is being a human a disqualification? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write a long piece about the precepts in the near future to expand on this.

Teachers Teach.

I’m not talking about people who write about the Dharma (although there are certainly no shortage of those). There’s a lot of value in that, but Dharma Writing and Dharma Teaching can’t be the same thing. If I’m simply reading, I can probably get more from reading Dogen or Bodhidharma or Trungpa.

I’m talking about people who lead retreats or teach classes, who guide students instead of giving lectures, whose primary teaching method is not enjoying the sound of their own voice.

And teachers learn too. When I taught a class on the Diamond Sutra, I’m certain that I got more out of it than anyone because I had to learn how to focus on it in new ways.

Do credentials matter? I’m sorry. I don’t know.

Does lineage matter? I’m sorry. I don’t know that either.

But I do know that you know a good teacher when you meet one. A lot is made out of teachers in the Buddhist tradition. But the truth is within you anyway. We’re only selling water by the river.

I guess this post was just a really long way of saying nothing. It’s empty, just like my lineage, just like everything else.

Photo: Question Mark/Flickr

Editor: John Author

Comments

comments

Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.

He was trained and certified as a meditation teacher at the Rime Buddhist Center, where he also spent four years teaching kids about Buddhism and meditation practice. He received additional training in the Zen tradition, both as a Monk in the Korean Zen tradition and as a lay teacher in the Caodong Chan tradition.

He has taken Bodhisattva Vows and the precepts of a lay zen teacher.

His work is dedicated to both sharing his own story and presenting a variety of Buddhist teachings in a way that shows how they are applicable to real life.

Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook, Youtube,andTwitter

Latest posts by Daniel Scharpenburg (see all)

By | 2016-10-22T12:05:02+00:00 October 22nd, 2016|blog, Buddhism, Striding Through The Universe|0 Comments