By Daniel Scharpenburg
I thought my teacher was crazy; I still do.
Maybe crazy teachers are the best ones. I had been studying with him for a while when he suddenly dropped it on me: “I’m transmitting my lineage to you. You are inheriting the Caodong lineage. Proceed as you see fit.”
And just like that, I was a lineage holder. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it, but there it was. He told me he was done teaching me and then he was gone, vanished like a cloud. That’s the thing about receiving teachings through correspondence—your teacher can just disappear.
There’s still debate in Buddhist circles about whether the student-teacher relationship can occur over the internet. There are lots of people trying to do it now, and I think it’s pretty clear that it is working. The internet has brought a lot of teachers and students together.
I’ve been reflecting on that transmission ever since. What does it mean to be a lineage holder in the modern world? Especially since I think Buddhist lineages are largely fictional anyway.
And me, with my two divorces (two kids with different moms), slight alcoholism, anxiety, tendency to always give in to temptations, brokenness, and a touch of the autism spectrum…. how could I be a qualified teacher? Me, a lineage holder? How can I be trusted to spread the Caodong Ch’an lineage or any lineage? I’m supposed to set an example for other practitioners to follow. Me? I think I have more in common with Bukowski than Buddha, but that’s probably just pretentious writer nonsense.
I’ve felt so insecure about that. I’ve felt unprepared to share the teachings that I’ve received. I’ve reached out to other teachers to see if I can learn from them because although I received the dharma seal, I still thought I should have more training. And, in a way, we never stop learning on the path.
The story is that Bodhidharma arrived with the teachings of the Meditation School. The story is that the students he found were really unworthy, so he went to live in a cave and spent nine years staring at a wall until a worthy student just showed up.
I like to imagine it differently.
I imagine a humble Bodhidharma. I imagine him being afraid of the responsibility to spread the Meditation School into a foreign land, wondering if he was really capable, afraid of screwing it up.
What if Bodhidharma spent nine years sitting alone in a cave because he didn’t know if he was ready? I wonder if Bodhidharma was plagued by insecurity, just like me? Also, Huineng went into hiding after he received Dharma transmission. The story is that he went into hiding so jealous students of his teacher wouldn’t attack him, but maybe he just didn’t feel ready.
I didn’t feel ready.
Recently, I was talking to a Dharma teacher named Yao Xin Shakya. He’s a Ch’an Master in another lineage. He referred to me as a ‘Master’ and said that I should be wearing robes and a rakusu and calling myself a Ch’an Priest.
My teacher didn’t like the terms that everyone else uses like priest, monk, and master. He liked the title Ch’an Adept; I don’t really know why. And he didn’t like the idea of laypeople wearing robes either. But I did take the same vows that Yao Xin Shakya did. My teacher was eccentric, and I’ve wondered how much of his style I have to hold onto.
Still, I haven’t felt ready to teach. Students just started coming to me and asking for the teachings, and that has made a big difference.
I’d feel weird about creating a Buddhist order, as so many have done before. I don’t want to make a rigid system where students try to be like their teacher down the line, focused more on perpetuating the teachings in a specific way than anything else. I don’t think the practice of just copying one’s teacher serves anyone very well and I see it all over the place.
But, at the risk of saying something that sounds silly, the teachings want to be shared. A teacher from another lineage once said to me, “What can people get from you that they can’t get from the teachers that are already around?”
My answer was that I’m really relatable. I’m really open and, I think, easy to understand. I’m real, and I would never put myself on a pedestal or think I’m above my students.
Another answer I could have given is that I received the Caodong teachings. As far as I can tell, no one else is spreading the Caodong teachings in the West. Or if they are, they’re just teaching it to monks. I’m a regular person, and I’m teaching regular people.
I received the Caodong lineage of Master Hsu Yun. Master Hsu Yun had several lineages, and he passed each of them on to different students in different ways. I’ve tried to find out why he did it like that, but he was a bit of an enigma; no one seems to know. I think he transmitted them separately in the hopes that each lineage would survive, but who knows.
He passed the Guiyang lineage to Hsuan Hua, who founded the City of 10,000 Buddhas. He passed the Linji lineage to Jy Din. Jy Din’s students founded the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, which is where my new friend Yao Xin Shakya comes from.
And he passed the Caodong lineage to a lay student named Charles Luk. I received that lineage. I can hold it, I can just keep thinking, “I’m not good enough,” or, “I’m not ready.” I can just keep writing and giving Dharma talks over the internet. Or I can pass it on.
I’m trying to figure out how to pass it on. I have a student now, and I’m preparing him to receive refuge vows and the formless precepts. I’m welcoming someone through the gateless gate and into the Ch’an lineage. Once that happens, who knows what could come next?
All I know is that I’m accepting this role as a teacher. I’m going to try to create a modern Caodong Ch’an Sangha called “Empty Cloud.”
I’d still feel weird wearing robes and calling myself a priest, I’m not sure if I’ll settle into that. I just know that I have teachings that I can share and I should be sharing them. Maybe my teacher was crazy to give it to me, but the only question is, “What should I do with it?”
Editor: John Author