By Daniel Scharpenburg
I remember the first time I led a meditation group.
It was at a place downtown called KC Vibe Tribe and before I had a strong enough connection with the Rime Center to lead meditation there. Vibe Tribe was like a hippie collective space in the city. There were drum circles and bellydancing classes and stuff like that there. It was a really cool place that isn’t there anymore. I don’t think they were able to make money. I was a “certified meditation instructor,” which I’m pretending actually means something. Lots of people pretend that means something.
Once in a while in those days (and it still happens now) people would reach out to me and say things like, “Hey, I wanna meditate with you,” or “Can you teach me how to meditate?”
So I created an opportunity for that. It was donation only, no prior experience necessary—the kind of meditation class people really want.
And no one came that first time. People said they would come, but then they didn’t. People have a hard time going to meditation groups. They don’t know what to expect, they’re afraid they’ll do it wrong and everyone will notice—all sorts of reasons. We can try to be as welcoming as possible, but in the end there are limitations to what we, as teachers, can do.
I was ready to be a teacher, I thought, but I didn’t have students. A little later I’d try to lead meditation groups at other places and maybe people would actually come to those.
There’s an old Buddhist saying. It says, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
It’s a basically an argument that you shouldn’t feel discouraged when you can’t find a teacher. People will say condescending things like, “Your karma just hasn’t ripened yet. That’s why you haven’t found a teacher.” But they do mean well…I think.
In actuality, the scarcity of really good dharma teachers in America plays a role and karma sometimes seems like an excuse, doesn’t it? As someone who doesn’t take karma literally, I don’t like it when people say stuff like that.
Truthfully, it’s actually a fake Buddha quote. I didn’t know that until I googled it while I was writing this article. It originated in a Theosophy magazine. There can be wisdom in fake quotes sometimes, and I think that the Theosophist that wrote it did have good intentions. But, in spite of the fakeness, people love this quote. You can see it in memes. Well known dharma teachers will repeat it, not realizing that the Buddha never said anything like that. The Buddha almost never talked about teachers at all.
I don’t really like adages and clichés like this. I think they tend to oversimplify things and people take this oversimplification as a holy truth, something to be repeated on faith, often without giving it much thought. I’d like to suggest that the opposite is true.
When the teacher is ready the student appears.
There are places around where you can train to be a dharma teacher and there are people getting ordained or certified or empowered or whatever else. I’m not making a value judgment about that at all. Training is a good idea, I think. Teachers may or may not have credentials, but the most important thing teachers do is teach. What’s a teacher without students?
There are some great dharma teachers that don’t have any certifications of any kind, and there are some dharma teachers with multiple lineages who are boring and hard to communicate with. It doesn’t matter if you have some title like “Venerable” or “Priest” if you aren’t teaching anyone.
I went through several teacher training programs. The first one I finished, but it was really short. The second one I didn’t finish, and I dropped out for reasons that are beyond the scope of what I’m writing here, but I learned most of what they had to offer during my time there. The third one I completed. It was through an organization called the International Ch’an Buddhism Institute.
I received teachings and was authorized as a teacher in the Caodong School of Ch’an Buddhism. This training was done entirely through the internet.
I always felt like something was off about that, like I couldn’t really think of myself as a teacher. Something about never meeting my teacher in real life didn’t feel right. Not that I haven’t practiced with teachers. I’ve been on dozens of retreats and learned numerous teachings over the years. But a solid teacher training program wasn’t available to me in my area. Especially not one in a tradition that I really like. Ch’an teachers in the west are few and far between.
So, I found a really eccentric teacher online who lives in England and we corresponded for a period of two years. He was a former monk and a lineage holder and he’s not well known. A sad truth of American Buddhism is there’s a kind of celebrity culture. Having a teacher people have heard of is considered important.
We emailed back and forth several times a week, and he repeatedly checked on my progress. He taught me how to do a few meditation methods I hadn’t learned about previously, like huatou practice. And he taught me how to study sutras. But probably the most important thing he taught me was how to write about the dharma.
Master Xu Yun transmitted the dharma to a lot of students in a lot of different ways. No one knows why. He’s a bit of an enigma. If he were around in the age of the internet, he probably would have transmitted through email too. My teacher told me that I’m the fourth generation lineage holder of Master Xu Yun’s Caodong Ch’an lineage. That happened over a year ago, and then he stopped emailing me. He told me my training is over.
But I’ve been hesitant. It’s hard for me to take on that kind of role. The Platform Sutra tells us that when Huineng became the sixth patriarch he went into hiding for years before he started teaching. Have I been in hiding? I don’t think I have.
It’s said that Master Xu Yun held several different Ch’an lineages and he transmitted them to different students. I think I’m the only person in North America who received the Caodong Ch’an lineage, but that could easily not be true. He lived to be 120 and he had a lot of students. He believed the dharma should spread as much as possible and it’s said he was really good at getting students to see their true nature.
I call it The Empty Cloud Lineage or sometimes Empty Cloud Dharma, which is both easier to say and easier to remember than “Caodong Ch’an.”
But I’m someone who’s really skeptical of the whole idea of lineage anyway.
The point is that I received teachings and I’ve felt weird about passing those on. I’ve carried this idea that a lot of us carry in a lot of areas of life. That idea is: “I’m not good enough.” That idea can really poison our potential.
Then students started appearing. I didn’t look for them. They came to me.
First I was just writing—endlessly, endlessly writing about the dharma. I write a little about the dharma every day and sometimes it feels like I can’t stop. Writing about the dharma is a passion for me. The words come bursting out of me in spite of everything, roaring into being whether I like it or not. The fact of the matter is to stop writing would drive me to madness.
Then came the dharma talks. I was recruited to give video dharma talks online. I give a teaching and lead a meditation in a digital sangha and people pay for membership and get access to teachings with a different teacher every day. Once a week it’s me. It’s a great thing for people that are far away from any Buddhist communities, or who have had trouble connecting with the local ones for whatever reason. I’ve learned so much about how to give teachings there. I still like writing a lot more, but teaching in this way feels like a good thing.
Then someone asked me to be my student. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t want it, but there it was.
Of course I wouldn’t turn a student away.
I’ve taken the Bodhisattva Vows. I’ve actually vowed to give the Dharma to any student that asks for it, to the best of my ability so….you know…. I’m going to give someone refuge vows soon, over the internet. Then, who knows?
When the teacher is ready, the student appears.
Editor: Dana Gornall