By Daniel Scharpenburg
My first blog was called Reluctant Monk.
I named it that because religious authority makes me nervous. Well, I guess authority in general makes me nervous, but especially religious authority. I was a Zen Monk back then. (1) It was only because of a lot of encouragement from my first Zen teacher that I started the teaching path in the first place.
The thought of becoming some kind of authority figure really scared me, but maybe that’s what makes the best teachers. It bothers me when dharma teachers put themselves on pedestals. Some teachers even do it literally. Why are you sitting on a throne? That doesn’t feel weird?
I think following the Buddha’s example involves being a bit of an iconoclast; a little reluctant to take things at face value and go in a straight line.
I think we should be re-evaluating our devotion to authority figures all the time and that we shouldn’t be accepting things on tradition alone. And, as teachers, I think we need to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t doing things that drive a lot of people away or don’t work.
I always had this kind of view and my teacher seemed like one of those, “I want to be on a pedestal” types, so it was probably pretty predictable that I would leave. That’s not to say that he’s a bad teacher, because some people seem to like him. He just wasn’t a good fit for me.
As a Dharma Teacher, I think it’s really important to not be separate from the people we are talking with; I don’t want to be the guy lecturing from the stage. I want to be the guy that is there with students, living the same kind of life they are living so they know that I get it. Once someone called me, “The Ultimate Every Man Dharma Teacher.” I loved that. I want to stay 100% relatable.
I joined that Zen Order in the first place because I was recruited by this young Zen teacher in an offshoot of the Kwan Um School (Korean Zen). He was starting a group in Kansas City and trying to attract people. I joined that group and started going through training to be a Zen teacher.
I spent two years training with this group and did a lot of studying and many gong-ans too. I learned about the different chants and the bows, how to lead walking and sitting meditation, how to bang the wooden fish, and attended some retreats. I took what they call Zen Monk Vows (most Zen groups use the term, priest instead of monk for this).
I don’t really think of myself as a Zen Priest/Monk now, but I suppose that sort of thing doesn’t just go away because you leave the Zen Order.
Anyway, things were going okay, but I really didn’t connect with my teacher very well. I won’t go into detail here, but there were things I found weird that unsettled me. I ignored that for a while, but ultimately I decided to leave. I could have stayed, stuck around to rise up in the ranks or whatever. I also could have asked the Zen Order to give me a different teacher. That was probably a possibility, but I didn’t even think of that at the time. It was that iconoclastic point of view, that tendency to wonder, “Why are we doing this?” that led me out the door.
I found another Zen teacher on the internet. (Kansas City is lacking in Zen opportunities, for some reason.)
This teacher was a student of Wenshu and taught in the Hsu Yun tradtion (Chinese Zen) (2). He learned about my story and he wanted to help so he became my teacher—not a real life teacher, but a teacher over the internet. Some people say you can’t have a real student/teacher relationship over the internet. I disagree. 150 years ago Master Hsu Yun was writing letters to his students and teaching that way. This isn’t a new invention.
He supplemented what I had learned previously with other teachings in order to complete my training as a Zen teacher. He trained me in the Tsaotung Ch’an tradition. I learned about the history of the tradition in China. I learned and how to teach Hua Tou practice and Silent Illumination.
The truth is our training is never complete.
I took precepts with this teacher. I don’t call myself a Zen Priest but, for the second time, I took the vows that a Zen Priest takes.
I didn’t really feel like a teacher until I started teaching at the Open Heart Project, which is an online meditation community that meets through Zoom Video Chat. I give a talk and lead meditation practice three times a month. That has really helped form me as a teacher. These days I do some video teachings of my own too.
To me, being a teacher isn’t about having the right training or wearing the right robes. It’s about actually teaching. Dharma Teachers teach. Dharma Teachers reach people. Dharma Teachers also reach out when it seems like people need it.
A while later I joined the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha. It’s an online Zen organization that’s headquartered in Europe. It’s in the Hsu Yun tradition too. (3).
I have a friend/mentor there named Yaoxin Shakya. He welcomed me into his organization and declared me a Dharma Teacher and Zen Priest. He consistently encourages me to start taking the role of a more traditional teacher. He has suggested I start wearing a robe and calling myself a priest and ordaining students and all sorts of other things.
I’m not sure if I’ll do that but he is someone that I respect a lot.
I try to just be Daniel.
I try to be myself and connect with people that way when I’m teaching them. I think a lot of the people that follow my work don’t like robes and dharma names. And I wonder if we make a mistake when we think that models of practice that worked in India, China and Korea should be used here. Should we be making our own way instead?
I don’t know, but that’s something I think about a lot. From what I understand Sanghas across America are getting smaller instead of growing and it makes me wonder if people are really hungry for something different, if people want more avenues for non-traditional practice.
I also wonder sometimes if we could reform Zen for the west, in the same way that a few organizations like Insight Meditation Society have been able to reform Theravada. I don’t know the answer to that.
My Dharma Name is HengDao Shakya, and I think Dharma Names are really weird. Maybe I’m still “The Reluctant Monk.”
So now I want to ask you, reader.
Should I be more traditional or less? Should I go around calling myself a Zen Priest?
Should I (gasp) wear robes when I’m teaching?
What are your thoughts?
- This particular Zen Order used the word “monk” instead of “priest”, breaking with what every other Zen organization in the west does. I don’t *really* know why. But I want to make sure I’m painting the right picture. I didn’t take vows of celibacy, live in a monastery, or shave my head. I just took a few vows about being harmonious and occasionally wore robes and did some teaching and ceremonial stuff.
- Tsaotung lineage, if you worry about such things.
- Linji lineage. We’re like dharma cousins or something.
Editor: Dana Gornall