Pretending to Be a Zen Teacher

What is a Zen teacher? I received Denkai transmission and the gold teacher’s rakusu (abbreviated monk’s robe) just this last May. But I’ve had a number of questions about this whole Zen teaching deal.

Is this really what I want to do for the next several years? I’ve recently witnessed a number of Zen teachers acting in very arrogant and high-handed ways, and causing considerable harm. Is there any way I can avoid going down that path, myself? And I really qualified? I now distrust the judgment, concerning a number of important things, of those who gave me transmission. What if they were wrong about giving me transmission, too?

I’ve found this modern koan, from The Book of Householder Koans by Even Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao, to be helpful:

Kit asked the teacher, “What practice should I follow now?”

“Pretend to be human,” answered the teacher.

“But I am human!” protested Kit.

“That is why you must pretend,” replied the teacher.

Part of the commentary to the koan reads,

What do we humans mean when we say we’re human? A cat goes meow, a dog goes ruff, a cow goes moo, and a human goes—what?…Is there any one thing that makes us human?

Marko and Nakao point out how there really is no such thing. Witness, for example, the controversies about when human life starts (in relation to abortion) and when it ends (in relation to end-of-life care). Some have thought it might be thinking or tool use, but we share those with other species. Essential goodness? But what about Auschwitz? Essential badness? But what about helpers and heroes?

In truth, there is no one thing we can point to as being the essence of a human being. We arise out of myriad causes and conditions, everything interdependent. We use the label “human” for some conjunctions of relations; to point to functioning in a vaguely defined set of ways. The commentary to the koan concludes, “Given that, is there anything we can we do other than pretend?”

This reminds me of the following story from The Questions of King Milinda.

King Milinda came to visit the Venerable Nagasena. Nagasena asked,  “How did you get here?”

“I came on a chariot.”

“If you have come on a chariot, then please explain to me what a chariot is. Is the pole the chariot?”

“No, Reverend Sir!”

“Is the axle the chariot?”

“No, Reverend Sir!”

“Is it then the wheels, or the framework, of the flag-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goad-stick?”

“No, Reverend Sir!”

Then,” Nagasena claimed, “There is no chariot at all. This ‘chariot’ is just a mere sound. Your Majesty has told a lie!’

But King Milinda replied: “I have not told a lie. For it is in dependence on the pole, the axle, the wheels, the framework, the flag-staff, etc., there takes place this concept of a ‘chariot’, a current appellation and a mere name.”

“Your Majesty has spoken well about the chariot…”

So we get up each day, starting out from our causes and conditions, functioning in reaction or response to the world outside us and within us. We “pretend to be human” by making it up as we go along. While we may call ourselves “human,” there is no permanent, essential self or permanent essence of “humanness” we carry with us.

“Pretend” in this case doesn’t mean to deceive or fake. It means to recognize that the self is a dream, but still fully carry out the functions of the life we are born into. We don’t have to personally identify with “humanness” just as we don’t have to identify with what we call our “self” to live our lives. In fact we are more fully in our lives when we don’t become attached to a name or a concept, and recognize the impermanence of the states in which we find ourselves.

We can extend this insight to a couple other aspects of Zen practice.

We can “pretend to be” Zen students. Again there is no distinguishing “essence” we can point to. Is it daily zazen practice that makes one a Zen student? Sitting with a group? Wearing a rakusu? Vowing to follow the precepts?  Knowing the forms? Reading books about Zen? Working with a teacher? Going on sesshin? All, one, none of the above? We are students “in dependence on” such things. But it is hard to say exactly when one started being a Zen student, or if it might end. There is no essential identity.

Yet it’s good to pretend. To pretend well, we must take the responsibilities of a Zen student seriously, and “act like a Zen student.” Yet, knowing we are pretending, we may be able to avoid creating a new hard identity, taking personal pride in our practice, or feeling superior. When a person goes about Zen practice in a way that is rather self-conscious and affected, we say they have the “stink of Zen.” But if we remember that we are simply pretending, perhaps we won’t get so stinky.

I especially like the notion of “pretending to be” rather than “being” a Zen teacher. We teach about there being no essence of self, no firm identity, and that everything is impermanent. Yet it seems to me that we can slide into a subtle but pernicious belief about what a teacher “is.” We may have the impression that in Denbo and Denkai ceremonies some kind of permanent essence of “teacherness” is transmitted. Or that such ceremonies are an acknowledgement of Great (and lasting) Enlightenment. We imagine that “transmitting the Dharma” is a sort of handoff of a special package of powers from a teacher to their heir. So we may, even without being conscious of it, believe that a transmission ceremony marks a person’s conversion into a permanently different (and superior) kind of being.

I’d rather approach teaching as a human being who, day by day, has been given the opportunity to spend some of my time manifesting the form and functions of “teacher” as best I can. I hope I can avoid making an identity out of it. I see the manifestation of Zen teaching, including both the words and the robes, as simply a response to a situation in which someone carrying on that role seems to be needed.

I want to take the responsibilities of teaching very seriously, and the title of “teacher” very lightly.

Let me offer a few further elaborations.

  • First, it is the Dharma that should be revered, not teachers. Teachers don’t “give us something”  (since we are already Buddha nature whether we realize it or not) though they can be very helpful as guides along the way. Teachers merit respect, which is different from reverence, when performing the functions of teaching well.
  • Second, “as best I can” means that I will inevitably make mistakes. David Brazier, in The Dark Side of the Mirror, writes, “In practice, in my experience of great masters, they are some of the time great masters and some of the time ordinary beings.” Why would we ever think it could be otherwise?
  • Lastly, pretending to be a teacher is not something I can do alone. I need other people called  teachers” and other people called “students” who also refuse to fall into a firm identity, and call me out when I do so.

The story about the cart, and the stories of pretending to be humans, students, and teachers, reminds me of the first three lines of Dogen’s “Genjokoan,”: ”…there are Buddhas and sentient beings…there are no Buddhas, no sentient beings…thus there are… sentient beings and Buddhas.” Applied to Zen teachers, I would say:

  1. In any sangha you can find teachers who have titles and special clothes and guide people in Zen.
  2. There are no “teachers” in any essential sense–there is no special essence that is transmitted, that converts a person from an ordinary being to a special teacher-being.
  3. Therefore we call people who take on the responsibilities and functions of teaching “teachers.”

So please join me wholeheartedly in this practice of “let’s pretend.”

See the GBZC Podcast Series for an audio version of this essay.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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