By Robert Epstein
What is a master?
It’s used in different ways, but mainly it refers to someone who has been teaching for many years and is recognized as an accomplished expert—just as it would be if you were acknowledging Nureyev in ballet or Horowitz in classical piano, both obvious and universally acknowledged “masters” in their fields. Einstein was a “master” in the world of science, and Kant was a “master” in philosophy. There’s no confusion or dispute about those designations.
Likewise, if a zen teacher has reached “grandfather” status and is a universally acknowledged authority on their branch of zen, leading a large group of people throughout the world and known as a “teacher of teachers,” then they get the natural designation as a “zen master.”
It’s not something that is acknowledged casually and it may not be an official title, just an understanding throughout the community.
Although it may be subject to personal opinion, it’s pretty well acknowledged that the great teachers of large sanghas like Harada Roshi, Yasutani, Suzuki Roshi, Maezumi, who also gave rise to whole lineages and gave transmission to other great teachers in their own right, deserve such a designation. Self-designated zen masters who abound on the internet, on the other hand, are laughable.
Being a “master” is an accomplishment of skill, craft and influence, not just of one’s personal understanding according to oneself.
I studied clarinet at one point for a number of years and my teacher was a well-known clarinetist who performed avante-garde classical pieces with various groups. I saw him perform once or twice and he was wonderful. One day he asked me if I wanted to come with him to attend a meeting with his teacher, who was known as a “master clarinetist and clarinet teacher” and was exclusively a “teacher of teachers” in his older age. I went, and this older expert clarinet player had a wonderful presence. My teacher and the others were all extremely grateful for him.
I remember him working with one of them and giving a correction on a technical point that was raised and was giving this very good clarinet teacher in his own right a problem. I was struck by how easily he gave a precise and simple correction—a total expert and right on the money. The teachers in the room, all established teachers, were amazed at his response. It was exact and unexpected.
It is a figure like this who I consider a legitimate “master” and I think of that term in zen in the same way: someone who has devoted themselves to the art of zen, who can see the monk’s or student’s, or even a teacher’s obstacle, and help with an insightful adjustment where others would not see it.
A master can give instruction that clarifies the practice from a place of greater understanding.
I’ll give another analogy. A very nice and humble technician with a foreign accent came to my house yesterday and helped out under long-term warranty with several appliances that had problems. I mention his accent because some folks have a tendency to look down on the foreign-born techs that come to help out with a problem, even though we are all dependent on them.*
When we looked at the washing machine there was a problem with water pooling in the machine even after the final spin. He watched the cycle, and said “the pump is working fine. You can see that the water is draining at a good speed and in good coordination with that phase of the cycle. “But,” he said, “even though you cannot see it, I know what’s wrong with the pooling of the water. I worked with this model washing machine for many years with Sears, and there is a control unit under the hood that controls the draining of the water, and with this model that unit almost always goes bad after a while. I’ll order the unit and put it in next week, and the problem will be solved.”
That man was a master in his field.
Another technician would have had no idea that the problem was with this internal unit, and the problem might not have been solved. Sometimes a master is not well known but is still exceptional in his area.*
My former T’ai Chi teacher in NY, William CC Chen, is now in his 80s. He was known as “Master Chen” back then, because his T’ai Chi was already superb and he was the successor in the Yang family lineage. He did some moves that took my breath away. Now, in his 80s, he has been given the designation of “Grandmaster.”
It’s not a meaningless title.
He has dedicated his life to this art, and was already masterful, but now he has many decades of experience in the art and as a teacher. “Grandmaster” is the appropriate designation, but anyone who claims such a title without good reason will rightly appear to be quite foolish.
*And for more on the theme of misidentifying someone’s status based on appearances, please read Journey to the East by Herman Hesse.
Some think that Robert Epstein has TOO eclectic of a background. He studied three forms of T’ai Chi and Taoist standing meditation, learned The Sedona Method from Lester Levinson and his staff, introduced a friend to his lifelong path studying the Seth work, studied and taught Iyengar Yoga for 15 years, practiced deep tissue massage and was certified in Reiki, studied inner light meditation at the school of Actualism for almost a decade, was ordained an Interfaith Minister after attending an intensive seminary program in NY and did some spiritual counseling, was certified in hypnotherapy, introduced his wife to her lifelong path studying the Course in Miracles. He learned basic Buddhist meditation from zen and Tibetan teachers, briefly met Chogyam Trungpa and attended the Vajra Crown Ceremony in Boston, studied Theravadin suttas, Mahayana Sutras, Abhidhamma and the Blue Cliff Record, studied Advaita Vedanta and attended retreats with Ramesh Balsekar—Sri Nisargardatta’s Dharma heir, and then practiced Vipassana meditation for a period of years. Then a series of events led him back to Chan and zen and his current practice: sitting zazen, koan study, and exploring Hua Tou meditation. Robert was appointed assistant teacher and Hoshi with Open Mind Zen, based in Melbourne, Fla. If hearing that list made you dizzy, think of how Robert must feel! In addition to collecting spiritual practices, Robert plays sax, piano and other instruments, writes poetry, plays and screenplays, and teaches acting classes for a living.
Editor: Dana Gornall