By Daniel Scharpenburg
My wife and I were out at a restaurant enjoying a meal.
At the end, when we paid the check, our waiter asked if I was interested in Buddhism. He had noticed the mala around my wrist and the Bodhisattva tattoo on my forearm. He had probably been thinking about asking during the entire meal, but chose to wait until we were finished.
I said, “Yes. I’m a Buddhist.”
“I love Buddhism and Hinduism,” the waiter answered and he showed me a copy of the Upanishads that he carries with him all the time.
And that’s when my wife chimed in saying, “He’s a Zen Master.”
Now, this is not technically untrue, but it got me thinking.
I received Dharma Transmission in the Ch’an tradition of Buddhism. Dharma transmission is a custom in which a person is established as a successor in an unbroken lineage of teachers and students—a spiritual bloodline that is theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself.
Does it really trace back to the Buddha? Probably not. But the Dharma transmission lineage does go very far.
Dharma transmission implies the acknowledgement of insight into the teachings of Buddhism, especially seeing into one’s true nature. But dharma transmission is also a means to establish a person into the Ch’an tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. I’m considered a “son of the Buddha.”
That is the long description.
In the West the shorthand term that gets used is “Zen Master.”
I don’t think that title works that well in the modern western world, honestly. We think all sorts of things when we hear the word Master. What it really means is that my teacher endorsed me and before that his teacher endorsed him. This endorsement follows a long succession that can be traced back a long time.
Plenty of people do use the title Master, while a lot of people go by “Zen Priest” or “Zen Monk” instead. But all of these titles can get really confusing. Those words carries a lot of baggage, just like “Master” does.
In my opinion Buddhism—especially Zen—is more of a mystical tradition than a religious one, so labels that are traditionally used in western religion probably do not apply.
Yet plenty of people that use those titles. There are “Zen Reverends” and “Zen Bishops” because people want to make Buddhism conform to traditional Western religious traditions and stereotypes, even if it’s not really like those traditions at all.
Buddhism has more in common with the lesser mainstream religions in the West than the bigger ones. And that is a subject for another time.
So where does this leave us?
I don’t know.
I hate to leave this article with only questions and no answers, but…
The question that a lot of people have tried to answer is “How is Buddhist spirituality taking shape in the west?” There’s not really any consensus on the matter.
Are Buddhist institutions and hierarchies and titles necessary in the modern world? I don’t know.
But please don’t call me Master.
It feels weird.
Editor: Dana Gornall