Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who’s your teacher?

Where’s your certificate?

What’s your lineage?

Are you qualified to transmit the dharma?

These questions are all too prevalent in Buddhism, and are usually asked by people who doubt or disagree with what you have to say. Unable or unwilling to trust their own judgment of whatever bits of information, wisdom, or foolishness you may have just offered, they want to know if someone else (your teacher or other certifying agency) agrees with what you say. If they have heard of this other person, or if you can sufficiently convince them of that person’s qualifications, then they may believe you and be willing to listen further. Why is this? Why are we so willing to disregard one teacher, then blindly trust another (to the point of exalting and deifying them), entirely on the basis of who did or didn’t sign their certificate? Why can’t we simply evaluate what they’ve said and trust our own insight and judgment as to its veracity?

This need for external verification of authority is most definitely not unique to Buddhism, though it is certainly antithetical to Buddhist teachings. And yet, many Buddhists formalize it, revere it and give it a special name: lineage. Rather than using our own personal experience and innate wisdom to decide if a person speaks true, we instead look to his teacher. And his teacher’s teacher. And his teacher’s teacher. And so on and on, until we come to the name of a teacher that we trust and recognize as an authority on the matter. How far back do we go - to Dogen? Rinzai? Bodhidharma? Buddha? Do we ask who the Buddha’s teacher was? Do we wonder who gave him the right and authority to teach? When the Buddha said “Be a light unto yourself”, I’m quite certain he didn’t add “so long as you can trace that light through an unbroken line of qualified teachers back to me.”

The mistake we make is in equating teachings (or wisdom) with authority, in the process also failing to recognize the very source of authority. The Buddha addresses this himself in the Kalama Sutra. He advises us not to blindly accept teachings, but to critically examine and experiment with them, accepting them finally only if they ring true for us based on our own experience and understanding. That is to say, authority comes from within, and we should grant this authority to the teachings of others only if they accord with our own innate wisdom. Thus does a teacher gain his authority – not from his teacher, but from his student; he is a teacher if and only if he has one or more students who think that there is truth in what he has to say.

When we realize this, we see that teachers are not the sources of our authority, but simply those who have gone before us, and that the purpose of lineage is not to grant them authority, but to preserve and transmit their teachings. In this sense, it doesn’t even matter if the lineage is unbroken, or if such-and-such a teacher was in that direct line. Recalling our geometry lessons from school, a line is defined by two points – no more, no less. Additional points may fall on the same line, but only two of them are needed for the line to exist. This means that as one point of the line, you are in direct lineage with any teacher from whom you learn. You are a direct descendant of Buddha, Jesus, Bodhidharma, Meister Eckhart, Rumi, the raven in the sky, the salmon in the stream, the mountain underfoot, and the neighbor across the street. You belong to as many lineages as there are teachers, and as the center point for all these lines connecting you to the teachers of the ages, you are a veritable sunburst – truly a light unto yourself.


  1. A question that always struck me as potentially much more essential and insightful than any question of the teacher/lineage is:

    Who's really fooling you?



  2. Hadashi,

    The reason these questions arise, is because people have mistaken the messenger for the message. This is like making the envelope more important than the letter, which is just another example of mistaking the finger for the moon.

    As you pointed out, Zen awakening is born of our direct experience and it is impossible to receive this from anyone. For us to receive direct transmission (as opposed to indirect- through someone else) we must simply have faith in our own awakening. In Ch’an/Zen terminology, this is called Faith in Mind (Xin Yin).

    Our tradition is much broader than a single line and is as you describe, a continuous teaching passed on through the generations (through many and various means). Transmission comes to us in broad strokes, not narrow lines. If lineages were based on an unbroken line of teachers, there simply would be no lineages remaining.

    This is why the three treasures of Buddhism are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Buddha as the source of the teachings, the Dharma as the teachings and the Sangha as the keepers and transmitters of the teachings. The idea of specific teachers being something more than just extra helpful members of Sangha is an ancillary sectarian development.

    The importance of Sangha here cannot be underestimated. By keeping the teachings safely in the collective, it does not become misconstrued or reduced to the intellectual property of some elite minority. The true Dharma should always be understood to be as open as the sky, and authentic teachers will always acknowledge this fact.

    This is not to discount the usefulness of teachers or the tradition of lineage as way of identifying a particular stream or style of teaching, but rather to keep clear the differences between transmitting the Dharma and maintaining sectarian traditions. Teachers should always be valued for their willingness to share what they have learned and experienced, while traditions are what keep groups together. However, for any of these individuals or groups to claim some form “authority” is nothing more than vanity.


  3. Thus does a teacher gain his authority – not from his teacher, but from his student; he is a teacher if and only if he has one or more students who think that there is truth in what he has to say.

    This is one of the reasons I've felt at home since I first came in contact with the Boundless Mind Zen school. Sometimes there has been "transmission" where things like "teacher" and "student" just dissapear, nothing left, no image of myself, of you, of him or her; no role to play and thus nothing to identify with, nothing to defend.

    No one there to fool no one.

    But to fool someone or be fooled by someone is actually very easy. That's why the Buddha prompted us to be heedless in our practice. I am fooled by a school that builds an image of itself just in order to protect itself against other competitors; I am fooled by an organization that decides who is in and who is out; I am also fooled by teachers who insist in that I need a teacher, teachers that master the art of liberating from self-identification but that are unable to liberate zen from that same illness. I fool myself when I react to this in any way.

    Better then to renounce to the world, be homeless, take the path of the wayfarer and freely, with an open heart, meet the teachers, those who have gone before us, Buddha ... the raven in the sky, the salmon in the stream, the mountain underfoot, and the neighbor across the street.

  4. Hi Do Jhana et al,

    For me, a nice feature of sincerely (and even insincerely, as it often begins,) practicing the Way is that we can see that, both right within foolishness, and beyond it, foolishness is never hindered by itself nor by anything at all.

    This is why it is that, even within the Big-Bad-Boogey-Man of those evil Zen Institutions, a person who sincerely practices can instantly become a buddha and transmit the truth everywhere. A person, through their own substantial efforts, can become truly homeless anywhere, at any time, in any circumstance. If this were not the case, if the Buddha-dharma was not 'all conquering' like this, then I doubt it would be being transmitted from buddha to buddha now. It would be better if this was the standard of such institutions of course, but, if we don't actually do something about it, we'll just have to dream on I suppose. An 'anti-institution' institution would, of course, have it's own inherent weakness, and would quickly develop it's own doctrines or 'no-doctrine' doctrines (and such baseless and insubstantial iconoclasm has dogged Buddhism from time-to-time I think).

    If we are indeed fooled by other people, or teachers, or schools, it must follow that we alone are not entirely responsible for our own actions. I think the pivotal matter is to realise that, right at this moment, (as it goes in the old koan) 'Truly, I cannot be decieved by another'.

    Freedom that is confined to freedom and that is not free within foolishness and delusion seems only partial. Besides, it would not be relevant to human beings.