The Debate of Credentials

A piece of paper does not always translate to being a qualified instructor that is teaching anything viable.


By Jeff Eisenberg

There is a lot of interest these days devoted to Buddhist credentials.

Teachers are scrutinized over the lineage they come from, whether they have the right paperwork with the correct ink stamp, the material that they teach, how they teach that material, and most importantly who gave them permission to teach in the first place. But before you freak out that I’m about to dis the need for credentials, let me say that I’m not—so chill.

But maybe if you did freak out, it could be a sign that you are suffering from what I call “world famous master syndrome.” So before I get into the topic of credentials, let me explain this too often, overlooked illness.

Credentials are also a huge topic in the martial arts.

Back in the day when I was a new student, (the ancient 70’s), it was the number one reason that you would choose the dojo where you trained. Why? Because the Asian instructors made us think that it should be the number one reason.

In every instructor’s bio, in their advertising, and on every wall in their dojo, you’d see that the most prominent qualifications that they stressed were their amazingly high ranks, how long that they had been with their particular organization, and most of all, how they were world famous and how their instructor was world famous, and his instructor was world famous and so on…

As some of us American students progressed through the ranks, we quickly learned that none of these credentials were any guarantee that an instructor could actually realistically apply any material, or that the material itself had any value in regard to realistic application. Mostly, we realized that the credentials simply meant that the instructor could teach a specific curriculum in the same specific manner that it was taught to him. The problem with this was that it was keeping a closed mind and just preserving an outdated teaching style and curriculum.

But before you really freak out on me over this statement, let me qualify all this by saying that I understand that there are many goals in the martial arts: Fitness, mental discipline, preserving a historical, cultural or artistic activity, and of course defending one’s self. The irony is that while all the goals other than self-defense can be successfully supported by this outdated teaching, it is this same outdated teaching that is the exact reason why the goal of self-defense cannot be served.

A piece of paper does not always translate to being a qualified instructor that is teaching anything viable.

That said, it’s important to note that in regard to the goal of mental discipline, while a student will definitely improve their mental discipline when compared to their ability prior to any training, this dojo-dependant ability does not actually translate to being able to have a viable mindset for an actual real self defense situation. While it’s a foundational start, the only way to evolve it to be able to be utilized under the stress of a real situation, is to train it under such stress circumstances.

And no, I’m not saying a student must go out and get in a fight to properly train their mental discipline, but rather that the stress symptoms must be simulated in training. This is accomplished by training technique against a non compliant, resisting, attacking opponent in a spontaneous manner, rather than in a choreographed routine with a willing, even helpful partner which is how traditional arts train.

If you are one of my loyal readers, then you already know that I have addressed the issue of being able to realistically apply self defense techniques at length in my first book Fighting Buddha, so don’t worry as I am not going to rehash that all here. In that book, I did so in the context of focusing on the physical and mental aspects of actual application, as well as the mechanics of techniques themselves. What I’m addressing here is the issue of how credentials are wrongly revered and used to influence and manipulate students into thinking that the credential itself is the end all of a teacher’s merit.

So getting back to the “world famous master syndrome,” when we as students realized all this about credentials, the joke became, “If you are world famous, you wouldn’t need to advertise that you are world famous!”

Another joke was the “JFK black belt test.” This joke came about as it was discovered how many of the high ranking masters from Asia had increased their rank themselves after coming to the states. The joke was that if they left their Asian country as a new black belt, when they landed at JFK airport in New York they suddenly were promoted to having seven, eight, even ten stripes on their belts. The punch line being that if you made it to New York you passed with “flying” colors!

So how does this all tie in to Buddhism? In the context of martial arts, a credential being offered is typically “proof” of the quality and ability of an instructor, and it’s the same in the context of Buddhism.

My quest for learning realistic application of the martial arts led me into the world of defensive tactics and working with law enforcement and military trainees. One of my regular students was an officer who was an instructor in the local police academy which was close to my dojo. He tried desperately to get me into the academy to run a training course for the cadets, but unfortunately it was to no avail. The most prominent issue of resistance that came from his superiors was that I was not MOI certified, a credential that you had to have to be approved to teach at the academy.

The second problem was that you could only get MOI certified if you were a sworn police officer which I was not. Even more ridiculous, was that this all important credential—this MOI certification that was the end all of approval—actually had nothing to do with the tactics that I would have been teaching, but only dealt with how to teach them.

MOI stands for “method of operation” and it only provides a credential in being a presenter, as it trains how to present in a specific way, with no interest in whether the tactics that you teach are effective or not. Meaning that if I did have the certification when my student was seeking to get me in, the powers that be would have approved me without investigating what I taught at all!

At the time I was running my own dojo and was a third degree black belt.

According to the head of the organization it was time for me to “test” for my fourth degree. This is possibly the most coveted of rank levels because it’s the credential that gives the instructor “permission” to begin to use the title of “master.”  Now at the time I was not only training in my base art, but also in several other arts that were completely different and dealt with aspects of fighting and self-defense that my base art did not address. Due to this, I felt that there was no need for me to proceed with attaining higher rank in my base art as the material that was required of me to do so, was vastly less than what I now knew due to my other training.

I said as such to the head of the organization, and to say that he was upset would be a gross understatement. I tried to remain respectful, but I frankly told him that I had absolutely no interest in seeking validation by “performing” much less than I was capable of in front of a table full of overweight, out of shape “masters,” who if any of them still even trained at all, were still doing the same old tired crap that they had learned 30 years ago, nor did I want to write a big fat check to the organization for the privilege to do so.

One day a guy walked into my dojo and after some initial small talk he asks me, “So what rank are you?” I surprised him by shooting right back, “What rank are you?” Startled he stammered, “I don’t have any rank, I’ve never trained before.” To which I laughed, “Well, I’ve been training for 35 years, so I guess I have something to teach you regardless of my rank. Would you like to get on the mat and see if you like what I teach?”

Needless to say he didn’t, and never came back. From my experience, it wasn’t because I upset him with my response, but because guys who care about that stuff tend to seek out the easiest training that will afford them a quick trip up the ranks themselves, or they just procrastinate and get so distracted by all their issues in regard to starting that they never get resolution which keeps them from ever starting.

Ridiculous, right? But actually this is a pretty prevalent issue in many areas of expertise—even Buddhism. While I am in no way saying that credentials are not important in Buddhism, I am saying that credentials are never the end-all determining factor of whether a goal is able to be supported by a curriculum or process, nor as “proof” of the facilitator being proficient in demonstrating any skill related to the goal.

Just as in the context of the martial arts I identified my goal as being able to apply technique to defend one’s self, in Buddhism (which like in the martial arts, has similar alternative goals such as, religious devotion, mental discipline, preserving a cultural, historical, artistic activity) my goal was to develop a pragmatic application of the teachings.

I am in no way suggesting that anyone who wants to, should put on robes and hang a shingle out that says “The Zen teacher is in” and do koan work with people.

But just like the martial arts “master” who knows the material but perhaps cannot apply it, we need to understand that just because someone has the legitimate credential to do so, it does not always translate to that person having assimilated the work that they did to achieve those credentials into their own lives in any helpful, meaningful way.

In fact, they too might just know a specific curriculum and how to teach it in a specific way without being able to advise you on how to assimilate it into your life at all. I know, I know, Buddhist practice is really about having to do the work yourself. But in my experience, a teacher that has experienced integrating what they are teaching into their own life, is much more capable to guide you in that work in your life than a teacher that hasn’t.

Now I know some veteran Zenies out there are jumping up and down right now screaming that the only way that they could receive permission to teach or get dharma “transmission” and be “legitimately” credentialed by a “legitimate” master, was to be able to show that they had transcended intellectual understanding and had integrated the teachings into experience. And they would be right. For most this is absolutely true, but I would respond that it would be extremely naïve to think that the people facilitating the process are infallible in the ability to vet someone’s understanding and their “true” nature due to it.

That said, I am not completely disregarding the process or the credentials that come from it. However we must look deeper than the face value of the credential itself when contending with whom we to choose to practice with, as sometimes a graduate of the “Buddhist school of hard knocks” has the most cred when it comes to surviving the reality of the mean streets.


Jeff Eisenberg is a Grand Master level martial arts and meditation teacher with over 40 years of training and 25 years of teaching experience. Trained in a variety of disciplines, he has run his own Dojo for nearly 15 years and has trained thousands of children and adults in martial arts and meditation. He is the author of Fighting Buddha: Martial Arts, Buddhism Kicking Ass and Saving It and Buddha’s Bodyguard: How to protect Your Inner VIP. Check out his website here.


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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