Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Teaching Certificates - Dharma, or Priestcraft?

Mike’s (joke?) about getting a certificate, brings up one of the major difficulties faced by beginning students. This difficulty revolves around propagated distortions concerning the Zen tradition of mind to mind "transmission."

Nor is confusion regarding Zen "transmission" relegated to beginners or non-scholars alone; many scholars as well as those within the Zen orthodoxy openly acknowledge their own muddled understandings about some of the issues surrounding transmission. One of the reasons for this confusion arises from the fact that the term "transmission" has been appropriated by various Zen Schools, in various times, to validate, clarify, and establish a variety of unrelated doctrines, traditions, and rituals. At the risk of oversimplification we could say, "transmission" has meant different things, to different schools, in different times.

The major roles that authentic Zen Schools have appropriated the term "transmission" for include, the transmission of particular teaching "styles," e.g. Rinzai’s dharma, Tozan’s dharma, etc. The secret, or "esoteric" transmission rituals from teacher to disciple (which scholarship has shown to be apocryphal creations designed primarily to legitimize claims of superiority among competing Schools). The tradition of "mind to mind" transmission. Mind to mind transmission is briefly, the transmission of wisdom (prajna) from Buddha to Buddha (that is from the Buddha mind of Buddhas and Zen masters, to the Buddha mind of students and practitioners).

Although there are others, these three include the most common and influential roles that transmission has been called on to fulfill according to the classic teachings of Zen. The distortions of these doctrines that students should be wary of appropriate and combine some or the more superficial aspects from all three authentic roles, while failing to incorporate any of the essential spiritual aspects of them. While the various groups and individuals propagating the distorted teachings on transmission may differ regarding their particular "formulations," these distorted doctrines share enough characteristics to allow them to be described in the same general terms.
The distorted teachings propagate "transmission" as the conveyance of the "Dharma" (essential truth, law, teaching of Buddhism) from one individual human being, to another individual human being, who is thus "certified" as a "Dharma-heir." The human being in the role of transmitter, himself (or, in some Schools herself—at least theoretically) was the recipient of the "Dharma" from another individual human being, and so on all the way back to the "historical" Buddha. The newly propagated "Dharma-heir" is thusly "qualified" to "teach with full authority" and in addition, "empowered" to propagate "Dharma-heirs" of their own.

A few interesting side notes on this "amazing" spiritual tradition include the fact that there does not seem to be any limit regarding the quantity of Dharma-heirs that any single Dharma-heir can propagate. Some Dharma-heirs propagate very few or even no Dharma-heirs of their own. Other Dharma-heirs, especially in the modern West, are quite fruitful, propagating Dharma-heirs left and right, and propagating things other than Dharma-heirs as well. In addition, the charts used by the "orthodox" Zen Church’s to trace the purity of lineages (back to Buddha), which are similar to those the AKC (American Kennel Club) uses to keep track of canine purebreds, fail to acknowledge any women in the entirety of their 2500+ year histories. This in spite of the fact that official dogma of many orthodox Churches acknowledges women as "equally" qualified to be "Dharma-heirs." If it is true that women are equally qualified, one can only marvel at the nearly impossible mathematical odds that have been realized by the astonishing fact that not a single one has yet been recognized.

Returning to the issue at hand, this distorted version of "transmission" is often veiled in mysterious and mystical terms designed to imply that only "enlightened" beings (such as Dharma-heirs) can understand it. Even in Schools that promote milder versions, and clearly deny any supernatural or mystical implications to transmission, the "true" meaning of transmission is discussed in hushed tones and concealed in a hazy cloud of esoteric innuendo.

Objective observers can usually see the motivation behind these distortions of authentic Zen teachings; the age-old lust for power. When we grasp the not so subtle corollary to this subversion of authentic transmission teachings is that it forces a division between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (or in this case, the "enlightened" and the "deluded"). When only "Dharma-heirs" are enlightened, and everyone else is not, they will always be "right"—they can only "appear" wrong to us because we are just too deluded to grasp their profundity(which explains the common "teaching" that "good students" trust the teacher avoid critical questions, and "shut up and sit down"). Also, when only Dharma-heirs are qualified to teach with full authority, students quickly learn that failing to do what the "master" wants them to do will deny them "transmission of the true Dharma" and thus condemn them to eternity as ordinary deluded beings. This is the fundamental art of what William Blake called "Priestcraft."

Since nearly every modern "School," even those that include "authentic" teachers adhere to some version of this distortion of transmission, how should students avoid being exploited? First, by simply being aware of the fact that it exists. Second, by familiarizing themselves with the basic knowledge of the authentic tradition of transmission outlined in the classic Zen texts. Third, apply that knowledge to the evaluation process of discerning the qualifications of particular teachers.

Although very few honest people that know anything about the history of transmission in Zen would seriously claim that certificates prove an "unbroken" lineage going back to Bodhidharma (much less the Buddha), certificates can be useful. Certificates that designate "Dharma-heirs" can be useful for students when it comes to narrowing the field when seeking instruction from a teacher. They can be useful in the same way that a recommendation for a doctor or lawyer can when it comes from a trusted friend. For example, if a student has familiarized themselves with the basic classic records of Zen, and find they harmonize with published teachings of a contemporary Zen teacher, and that teacher has a "Dharma-heir" teaching in the student’s area, that might be a good place to check out.

At the same time, the authentic teachings on Zen transmission continue to be an important part of Zen training. Because of the profoundly subtle implications of the authentic function of transmission, its deeper import cannot be truly appreciated until students have advanced through some of the initial experiences of Zen practice and enlightenment, especially their initial experience of true nature. Nevertheless, an understanding of the fundamental points regarding the function of transmission is easily within the beginner’s ability. While I will present a brief outline here, I urge any serious students to examine the records of Zen for themselves. My summary here is brief and simplified and in no way am I any kind of an "expert." Who knows, I might be trying to lead you astray. Having put my disclaimer in, let us proceed.

The fundamental truth underlying the authentic teachings of transmission concern the conveyance of wisdom (prajna) from the Buddha mind of Buddhas and Zen masters to the Buddha mind of practitioners. This is the function that the term "mind to mind transmission" is used to indicate. Eihei Dogen often uses variations of the term "Buddhas together with Buddhas" when speaking of this function.

Zen transmission is implemented by utilizing meditation (Zazen, shikantaza, no-mind, etc.) to illumine the wisdom of "Buddhas" (as presented by teachers, scripture, treatises, practices, etc.) under the "light" (of Buddha nature) inherent in the practitioner’s own mind. This inherent "light" is the "Buddha nature" that is wakened from dormancy with the practitioners initial experience of "seeing into their true nature" (kensho). When the wisdom of "Buddhas" is illumined by the light of "Buddha nature" that wisdom is realized (made real) in the practitioner. Thus, the "Dharma" (teaching, law, truth, of Buddhism) is transmitted from Buddha (teachers, doctrines, practices) to Buddha (the inherent Buddha nature of all beings).

This summary is of course an oversimplification and as such is no more the whole "truth" than those previously discussed distortions above. Nevertheless, I believe it is closer to the mark than the above distortions, and is much less vulnerable to being used as a tool for exploitation.

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At May 10, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hey Ted,
interesting post...

Oh come on Ted, do you really mean it?

Not really Ted, but somebody had to say something.

I understand. Stay aware Ted!


Don't be fooled by others!


Ted 1 & 2

At May 14, 2008, Blogger Jordan said...

Interesting related materialTo Transmit Dogen Zenji's Dharma


At May 16, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Jordan, thanks for the link...

Although it seems pretty clear to me how Dogen viewed transmission of "Buddha to Buddha," I do not know much about his views on transmission of "teacher to disciple." I do know, however, that various Zen schools (and others, especially Tendai) appropriated the term "transmission" to define, describe, authorize, and explicate a variety of Zen practices, doctrines, rituals, and credentials.

In any case, the author made a good point when he said:

"Thus we in the Soto school need to seriously reflect on the appropriateness of the contemporary state of Dharma transmission in Japan..[snip].. we must take a hard look at the reality of the situation today and ask ourselves whether the custom of familial inheritance of temples is really appropriate."

It is a little late now! Ha!

Take care,


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