February 25, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 4

Note: this is the fourth in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

We’ve finally come to the last talk in this series. Here, I want to discuss Zen teachers, including so-called “Zen masters.” In particular, we should be clear regarding the different teaching titles that people may carry. Most importantly, we should understand what the responsibilities of teachers are…and what they are not.

The first thing I always wish to affirm when discussing teachers is that all Zen practitioners are ultimately responsible for their own spiritual well-being and progress on the Zen path. Naturally, because guidance and practice instructions from those more experienced than us are crucial for navigating the path, and because our own habitual delusion is deeply entrenched, we should seek teachers who can point the way. In Zen, also, there is the fact of kensho – seeing one’s nature, or initial awakening – as both entrance to the path and the basis of subsequent practice; we can say that the Zen teacher’s initial job is to cause us to recognize our nature, to have this awakening. So teachers are important, and in fact the lifeblood of the Zen way lies in the relationship between teacher and student. Nevertheless, we should remember that this need for guidance from someone who has walked where we wish to go, and seen what we wish to see, does not mean that responsibility for discerning that our direction remains genuine—day after day and year after year—falls in the end to anyone other than ourselves.

For this reason and others, we may certainly take our time when choosing a teacher. It is necessary to do so, really, in order to gain confidence that we will indeed be able to work with whomever we choose. We should not rush to commit to a teacher, but rather should examine several, attend retreats with them, listen to or read their teachings and so on, in order to ensure that there is some affinity. Teachers, in fact, should also take their time in accepting students. Both should never lose the mind that all of us—beginner or advanced, student or teacher—ultimately carry the burdens of our own paths. Zen teachers exist to point out the correct direction, to teach us the methods of practice which help us to progress, and to help us return to the path when we drift off course. But we ourselves may choose those teachers

Following a Zen teacher is thus not a mindless act without agency, or one of submission. It requires a continued discernment and engagement. It is a relationship of mutual exploration, and mutual care taking. In fact, the core practice of the student-teacher relationship in Rinzai Zen—sanzen, or face-to-face dharma encounter—is really not even an encounter between teacher and student at all: it is simply an intimate meeting of two human beings, both deluded and both completely Buddhas, who must there reveal themselves openly in a manner beyond rank, hierarchy or titles. If this mood and function of sanzen is ever lost, then it is certain the relationship will become something twisted.

I believe I have stressed these points sufficiently. It may sometimes be necessary to do so, especially since many of us in the West come to Zen with expectations—perhaps conditioned by the orientalist myth still surrounding Buddhism and Eastern spirituality—of finding all-knowing, perfect masters who will simply tell us how we should live. My first exposure to Buddhism, heavily colored by such myth, led me to want to travel to the Himalayas, where I had no doubt a great master in some hermitage or cave would reveal to me the deepest secrets of existence. Such are the kinds of things we may have to see through in order to actually work effectively with a living teacher. 

As an aside, I did go to the Himalayas and did meet great masters. I was not actually disappointed. What they showed me was not a great secret, though…it was simply to point out that which I already did not lack. This was not at all different from what my later Zen teachers also caused me to recognize. So, perhaps such myths and expectations are not wholly useless, if they lead eventually to the crucial recognition that there is neither West nor East in our own nature, no place where the true master is absent, and ultimately no need to seek for anything. 

Returning to the subject of teachers, there is one more thing I would like to mention. There has been a recent tendency in the West to conflate Zen practice with psychotherapy. There are Zen teachers—some, indeed, who simultaneously work as therapists—who have asserted that there are broad similarities between Zen training and psychotherapeutic treatment, and that the Zen student-teacher bond and the client-counselor relationship (including the ethics governing same) are essentially identical.

There are many reasons these kinds of assertions have become popular, but personally I think they are misguided and do a great disservice to both Zen and psychotherapy. I do not say that, broadly speaking, there are no useful connections between Zen and psychotherapy. There certainly are. However, their ultimate intentions are not in all cases identical at all, and the genuine Zen student-teacher relationship is often in fact nothing at all like that between client and therapist. 

I do not wish to get too deeply into this subject here. I will simply say that to assume Zen teachers are, or should be, trained as therapists is a gross error. A student who would benefit from therapy should, in fact, seek it out from someone so trained, and I think ideally should do so before beginning to work with a Zen teacher. Zen teachers, for their part, should clearly know that they are not defacto trained as therapists, and that the intent of Zen practice may, in some cases, actually undermine a course of therapy. They should recognize that factors such as lack of healthy ego development or boundaries—and certainly, acutely dangerous mental illness—may sometimes preclude Zen practice entirely until such conditions are addressed. 

It is similar, in fact, with unrealistic expectations that Zen teachers are, or should be, trained in “pastoral care” or “spiritual direction” in the manner of Christian ministers in the West. This is also not necessarily the case, and so can be a misleading assumption which does disservice to both vocations. Almost without exception the ordained Zen persons I know, including myself, have no such training at all. Our training has almost solely focused on Zen practice methods with the intent of liberation. To use Western religious terminology: we have trained as contemplatives, not pastors, ministers or priests.

So in short, I think we should all be clear what the intent of Zen training actually is, as the Zen tradition itself defines such. We should be clear what role the Zen teacher plays in that. Should students require something outside the pale of Zen training—like psychotherapy, or spiritual direction—they should be encouraged to seek those things out from persons so trained. This is not to say that Zen has limitations, or that a Zen teacher could not theoretically adapt those disciplines to Zen practice in some cases. My personal feeling, however, is that each is most potent when kept separate. The Zen teachers I respect most who happen to also be therapists do not, in fact, permit their clients to be their Zen students, or their Zen students to be their clients.

Let’s move on now, and talk about the categories of Zen teachers. 

In Rinzai Zen practice, after many years a moment may arrive at which the student—having completed formal training including the entirety of the shitsunai, or course of koan practice, carried in that lineage—is judged to be sufficiently advanced to thenceforth self-guide. Such a person may then be able to receive inka shomei: the "seal of proof" which certifies one as a lineage holder. We sometimes call this “mind-seal” or “mind-stamp;” it means that the student’s depth of Zen experiential understanding at least matches the teacher’s.

Who, then, decides all of this? Who verifies the recipient of inka shomei? Solely the teacher. It is not an organizational matter, but one that occurs within the personal relationship between teacher and student; no one else has any say over it whatsoever.

Now, it is important to understand that inka shomei does not mean the student is done practicing. On the contrary, mind-seal only marks the beginning of a most crucial and difficult phase of advanced practice, and one which there is no guarantee the student will be able to complete. But the main point here is that things are now up to that student. The teacher has done everything that can be done, and responsibility for accomplishing the final leap and attainment of Zen’s fruition—to be accomplished over subsequent years and decades of practice to embody and integrate intrinsic wisdom—now lies fully with the student. He or she has been kicked out of the nest, so to speak.

Such persons may sometimes be addressed as Roshi, “venerable teacher,” or Rokoji, “venerable layperson” if they are not ordained. In English, for some reason they are often referred to as “Zen masters.” But I hope I have made it clear that they, in fact, are not done practicing at all. If they are masters, at this point it really just means mastery of certain practice methods, not status as perfected masters far above other students. Actually, I should mention here also that inka shomei itself is not automatically permission to teach or take students at all. There are many persons who might receive inka shomei, but because of their characters, wishes, or other factors might never be suited to the activity of teaching others. Traditionally, in fact, a person receiving inka shomei is advised to avoid teaching for a period of time—even ten or twenty years—in order to first mature; this is the phase of practice called “nurturing the holy embryo.”

These days things do not always happen that way, perhaps especially in the West since oftentimes persons receiving inka shomei are older, or else there may be a need for them to begin teaching quickly because Zen teachers are few. I myself am one of those who began teaching well before the ideal time, and there continue to be many moments in which I am painfully aware of this. 

One difference between ordained persons and laypersons receiving inka shomei, traditionally, is that laypersons generally do not carry the expectation of training a successor or successors to whom the lineage can, in turn, be transmitted. This makes sense, since finding and training successors is a heavy burden, and laypersons generally have other responsibilities precluding them from devoting the necessary time to training such successors. You may recall that in my earlier talk about ordination I defined its essential point to be that Zen-related activity is one’s primary vocation. Of course this is not to say that laypersons cannot teach. There are no fixed rules, and again it all depends on the characters of the people involved as well as the permissions actually granted by one’s teacher.

A final thing I should probably mention regarding inka shomei is this: another term by which it has sometimes been known in English is “dharma transmission.” I do not use this term, however, and not only because it is an inaccurate translation of inka shomei. In fact, this term has caused considerable confusion in the West. The reason is that in Soto Zen “dharma transmission”—shiho in Japanese—in fact refers to something different: a common rank that most ordained persons attain in the course of their training, and which does not in that tradition grant teaching permission. The Rinzai inka shomei, on the other hand, is quite rare, and as noted signifies the completion of formal study and potential qualification to take disciples of one’s own. As a result of this mistaken conflation of shiho and inka shomei, some Soto ordained persons, since they have “dharma transmission,” are incorrectly considered to be fully qualified teachers of Soto Zen. For this reason, I think it best for Rinzai practitioners to not use the term “dharma transmission” for inka shomei, and to just say “mind-stamp” or “mind-seal” instead.

Leaving aside inka shomei now: there is one more certification to mention, which I would like to give to some students in the future. It signifies that they, while not yet Zen teachers or lineage holders, are qualified to teach basic practices such as susokukan (that is, seated meditation using the breath-counting method), fundamental breath practices, chanting, and so on. In other words, these are persons who could be qualified to run practice groups and give basic instruction to beginners. 

Currently I am calling this certification simply “Meditation Instructor.” Since practice group leaders are indeed on the front lines, so to speak, it often falls upon them to give the first instruction to a new Zen student. I therefore do think this certification can be useful. All ordained persons should of course be able to teach fundamentals in this way...certainly at least by the time they receive osho, or senior ordained, status. Laypersons taking Nyudo ordination should also strive to gain these abilities quickly if they do not already have them.

It is my hope to eventually give Meditation Instructor recognition to any such students who are qualified, and for whom it will be useful. Some students who have organized practice groups are already working very hard to introduce Zen training to others. I appreciate this deeply, and wish to support their efforts in this way.

At this point, I hope that these categories of Zen teachers in our tradition are clear: Roshi and Rokoji who have completed formal practice under their teachers, and what I am calling Meditation Instructors who have not yet completed formal practice but may still be able to assist beginners. More importantly, I hope I have sufficiently emphasized that the Zen teacher’s role, even for those we may call “masters,” is not at all to sit in a position above the student, to be aloof and beyond, or to demand complete self-negation. Zen practice itself negates the self, in the most positive manner…there is no need for a person to do it.

Rather, I hope students will view teachers in the manner I have expressed: as experienced guides, as “spiritual friends,” and above all as fellow practitioners. They are human beings who, even if they have climbed a little sooner or higher than us, are now called upon to simultaneously reach down and help others up. Sometimes, actually, they will need our help: "teacher" and "student" are not fixed roles, and we all in the end must be teachers to one another.

When we enter the sanzen room to meet our teachers, it is true that we should view that person sitting before us as a representative of the lineage, carrying its energy and intentions; I for one have no hesitation bowing to such a person. But it is also true that each of us, as students, are the next links in that chain, and the next vessels into which the blessings of our lineages are being poured. This is not something lower; if anything, it is a higher place than that of the teacher. As someone who has now come to teach others in some small capacity, I have to say that in my heart I constantly have the feeling to bow in return—even more deeply than I did to my teachers—to each of these students. Without them there is no lineage, no continuation, and no transmission at all.

I will thus be very pleased—and certainly relieved!—if someday one or a few of them will be able to continue this process onward, and take the teacher’s seat completely away.

With that, I’d like to conclude this series of talks. It was my intention to clarify, for all of us including myself, many of these practices and terms which we use so commonly. Again, I hope it was useful, and I’m grateful to all of you for the opportunity.

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