What is Transmitted: (6) Responsibility

If Zen teaching transmission is not synonymous with enlightenment, and not centrally about mystical power, authority, leadership, or the content or style of teaching…what, then, is the key feature?

In the final analysis, it seems to me that Zen teaching transmission is primarily of teaching responsibility.

The teacher giving transmission believes that the person named as a successor can be trusted to continue the manifestation of the Dharma, and to open the path for others to the best of their ability. They can be trusted to put the teaching of the Dharma and the well-being and development of students above their personal interests. They can be trusted to serve the Buddha by serving the sangha in a teaching role. The successor merits such trust when they truly take on and fulfill these responsibilities.

To be more specific, the teacher package of course includes “mind to mind transmission” in the sense of mutual recognition “in the room,” as discussed earlier. Presumably, the teacher-to-be has also manifested a substantial integration of their insight into their life in the relative world. They have likely engaged in some study of the scriptures, and perhaps koans, and displayed some proficiency in rituals and form. The transmitting teacher probably has some idea that their successor is articulate enough to deliver teisho (Dharma talks) and has sufficient interpersonal skills to be able to meet students in dokusan (individual meetings). While these seem to have been the prevailing criteria in my lineage, I do not believe they are sufficient.

What has been missing is attention to what makes a teacher trustworthy. Ideally, a teacher should make an explicit sacred commitment to be of assistance to students. And they they should be so fully mature and healthy spiritually, socially, sexually, and emotionally as to able to live up to the commitment at all times. Extremely few if any humans will ever reach such an ideal state. That’s why we recite the Gatha of Atonement at every sutra service. That’s why we need other sorts of structures and resources to help prevent abuses of power.

While perfection may be unobtainable, I believe some changes to teacher training and authorization could help. The most important would be to really stress the importance of putting students’ needs above one’s own. I don’t recall receiving this message during my (early) training as a teacher, and at least one popular but defective training program used by some Buddhist communities also misses this point.

The next most important would be for teacher groups and sanghas to be structured so as to encourage teachers to maintain an attitude of constant humility and openness to learning. We need to remember that we are still climbing the mountain, not standing on its summit. My home sangha now requires training about power and professional ethics (including healthy boundaries). We are also investigating requiring training in pastoral care and in working with one’s own unconscious drives. Anything less feels unsafe. And, since teaching and caring activities are not limited to formally recognized teachers, we are looking at making these opportunities for learning open to anyone in the sangha.  

I have seen what happens when these are not stressed. Both students and teachers, perhaps subtly or unconsciously, may emphasize the mystical experience and authority of teachers. An announcement of transmission will then confer, almost exclusively, an increase in status. The role’s heavy and sacred service responsibilities, as well as the teacher’s innate human fallibility, go relatively unacknowledged. Even though teachers begin teaching with good intentions, and they give good teishos, in such an environment they are likely to eventually become psychopompous. They become prone to believing that they are more advanced, and more deserving of authority (or money, or emotional support, or sexual gratification, or trust, or deference…), than is healthy. Teachers are then ripe for being tripped up by our own clay feet, and doing tremendous harm. 

Yes, Zen practice has mysterious, mystical power. It can free us from being trapped in our limited karmic selves and open us up to our participation in the vast, wonderful, terrible, immediately present world in ways that we could never even imagine. This Buddha nature is our birthright, not something that will be imparted to us by a teacher if we obediently follow their instructions. Yet most of us would remain lost without a safe sangha environment and a trustworthy teacher to aid us in our realization, and even more in integrating this realization into our lives. 

As we invent, and reinvent, Zen in the West, I hope we will keep this in mind.

Full Series:

Introduction: What is Transmitted in Zen Teaching “Transmission”?

(1) Enlightenment?

(2) A Special Mystical Power?

(3) Patriarchal Authority?

(4) Leadership of the Sangha?

(5) A Set or Style of Teachings?

(6) Responsibility (this post)

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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