By Daniel Scharepenburg


There’s a lovely story that people tell in some Zen communities.

I’ve heard it more than once and it’s essentially exactly the same. Some of the wording is different but the story is essentially this:

“I was never trying to become a Zen teacher. I was just practicing with my teacher and one day he just transmitted the Dharma to me. It was completely out of nowhere! I wasn’t trying to become a Zen teacher (or priest or lineage holder).”

I suspect the story is nonsense most of the time. It sure does sound great, though, because when you tell it you sound humble. It’s about as common as when people quote their teachers and speak in a (vaguely racist?) foreign accent (so creepy).

It’s probably a western creation.

In the east people train to become priests and lineage holders. Some of them don’t succeed, but they definitely try. They don’t say, “I wasn’t trying to become something.” In a lot of cases sons inherit Dharma Transmission from their fathers. Here, for some reason, we have a different story in a lot of places.

They say that if you’re trying to become a Zen Priest, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t try to become anything. At the same time, that’s how it’s been all through history. People became Zen Priests because they tried. People sometimes traveled long distances to find a teacher who would give them transmission of the Dharma. That’s exactly what Dogen did. Hell, the Buddha became Enlightened because he set out to do it!

There are other ways things are done here too. I don’t want to create the impression that this is the only narrative of Zen in the West.

And sometimes the opposite happens too. People go around collecting lineages, studying with this teacher and then this one and then that one. Why? To strengthen their spiritual resume, of course! These individuals are the opposite of the humble teachers. They want you to know just how many transmissions they’ve received and how much training they’ve done. They want to become the BEST TEACHER EVER and they don’t really hide that ambition very well.

And then there are those who just self-ordain and make up their own lineages. We don’t have many of those in America (there are some but they’re small), but it’s a well known phenomenon in England and Australia. Is that automatically harmful? I don’t know. The Buddha self-ordained.

What are we to do?

Are these things problematic?

I don’t know.

My favorite Zen teacher was Ikkyu. He practiced with a few different teachers. He was ordained, but he didn’t really adhere to a monkish lifestyle, so it might be safe to call him something in between a layman and a monk (which is how many of us think of ourselves). He studied with a few different teachers. He received Dharma Transmission. But, he thought Enlightenment certifications and the whole Zen temple system were political instead of real so, he burned his transmission certificate.

The scholar Alan Watts warned against some of the things that are going on. He said we shouldn’t continue the Temple Zen system that existed in the east. He said we should create something new. We haven’t really done that.

Not yet, anyway.


Photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall