Too many chiefs

I fell down an internet rabbit hole last night–one of those particular holes relating to Buddhist teachers, Dharma transmission, and establishment of centers, with much back and forth on forums, boards, and comments relating to authentic teachers and teaching.

What started me on this trip was an article on the four noble truths, interesting enough on its own. The author bio at the end stated he was a “some sort of monk or something” in a particular order, which set off my curiosity, and also a suspicion related to a particular frustration of mine. Sure enough, when I read further i found he was part of a “new approach” to the dharma, which was also eager to establish its credentials by way of dharma transmission and lineage. Also sure enough, when I googled and read further (once you start, stopping can be harder than closing up a bag of Oreos,) I found there was much controversy and debate over whether the founder in fact had been given transmission or permission to teach, with plenty of assertions and negative comments on both sides of the question. And also wrapped up in it was the issue of this transmission being then spread out to many more ordained students.

Such a rabbit hole is never more than one or two clicks away–this issue is both broad and deep. But it isn’t so much the question of improper credentials or falsified dharma transmissions that this brings up for me. Instead, it’s the issue that I think of as a rephrasing of that old (politically incorrect) adage, “too many chiefs, not enough indians”–too many teachers, not enough students.

We Buddhist students have been fortunate enough to see the blossoming of the Dharma, with a great increase in the number of teachers we have available to choose from. This can only be a good thing for us as students. But there is also a shadow side. Critics of this teacher alleged that he was willing to go so far as to falsify documents and his own history in order to get and keep his title as teacher. To me this shows the intense need some people have to obtain transmission, to have that title that they can flash around.

This creates problems for us as Buddhists. But I’m particularly aware of the problem for us as students as well. As I read postings, blogs and articles in Buddhist media and on the internet, I’m struck by how few people there are who are willing to write about their confusion, their stumbling, their status as students who are learning. Everyone wants to showcase their knowledge, and with the accompanying explosion of places where they can do this, what you end up with is a lot of people who’ve been to a meditation center a few times, or read some books, who then go out and write things as though they are long-time practitioners teaching the Dharma.

Transmission is the gold ring of course–a badge of accomplishment and ticket to go forth and teach. Even for those who don’t have it! I know of one person who writes on forums, disparaging the practice of transmission. Yet this person always makes sure to point out that he was offered transmission and turned it down. So having refused transmission becomes a way to give oneself authority stronger even than having it. There are also teachers who have received it, and minimize it or render it unimportant, but always remember to point out they have it and make use of all the perks that go with it.

Undoubtedly, part of this is human nature. You can find in every subject articles and blogs where people presume to teach the rest of us. There are writers who’ve never had anything published who have blogs with writing advice, endless numbers of blogs and articles that tell us how to be more effective or happy. You name it and someone will tell you how to do it. But Buddhist practice is supposed to be “against the stream,” and so to say it’s just the way of the world is not enough. It’s important to be aware of this tendency.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being enamored of the dharma, with wanting to progress and learn in practice, to help others through our understanding. But when everyone wants to experts, teachers, roshis…it seems we’ve forgotten the importance of being students. Remember, the saying goes that even the buddha continues his practice somewhere.

I say all this with the full acknowledgement that I have gotten caught up in this myself. When I was new to practice, I envied the senior students, particularly those who had been ordained, and later were granted permission to teach. And I admit that for me that envy and desire was a mix of genuine impulse to progress and learn and share the dharma, and at the same time it was the same wish that made me want to get elected to the student council in junior high, or to be picked first when sides were chosen for a basketball game.

I did go to my teacher once after a particularly wondrous sesshin, and asked him about ordination. He looked straight at my chest in a way that made me feel he was looking into the very depths of my heart.

“How old are you?” he asked.

I answered, “27.”

“Well, being a priest is like being a spiritual professional.”

And that was the end of it. I’m wasn’t sure if he saw when he looked into me that I wasn’t ready (I wasn’t) or I was just too young. But I never asked, and we never talked about it again.

I’ve seen too how putting yourself forth to share your understanding can be intoxicating in its own way. I was fortunate enough to write a book some years back, one in which I tried to share my experience and struggle with both depression and the dharma, and how both of them helped me. I have always been a firm believer in not offering teaching or instruction unless you have permission, so I was always very clear I was not a teacher…of either zen or psychology. I was an expert only in my own depression and my own practice.

But once my book was out in the world, there began a strange process. In one review I was suddenly not just a zen student but a “buddhist scholar.” Even more interesting was the fact I saw myself go from being a lowly social worker to being identified as a psychologist, and finally a psychiatrist. That alone can convince you that you know something, but there is something even more seductive that happens when everyone is asking your advice for problems in their lives. There too I tried to maintain in my own heart the reminder I was no expert, certainly not in anyone else’s life.

I remember being at a conference where several presenters all signed our books together. I sat with a man who had written a book about Ayurvedic medicine and a woman who had written a series of bestselling books on intuition. The fellow and I had plenty of time to talk as the line was long for the famous writer, and sparse for us. She was rushed, because she had to leave immediately after the signing to appear on a national talk show.

At one point I heard a couple walk up to her and the woman said, “I just wanted to ask you something. I left my husband for this man I’m with, for my intuition told me he is my soul mate. I just want to know if i did the right thing?”

I leaned in to listen, thinking “Here is the perfect opportunity for this expert to help the woman ask the right questions, to assess her life and take responsibility for it.” Instead, the author looked mystically at them for a moment, and answered, “Yes, I feel it. You did.”

At that moment I strengthened my resolve then not to let myself believe that just because people asked me questions, that meant I had the answers.

Now that I’ve begun koan practice, it’s been interesting to see the drive to work through the koans bring up the same issues again. I wonder where other students are in their progress through the koans. I want so to have the right answer to present each time I go before my teacher. I feel like the 4th grader again desperate to get an A on the assignment. (Student council or a game of basketball anyone?)

As I was reading Dogen recently, his advice in “Guidelines for Studying the Way” about finding a true teacher, what became clearer to me is the importance of being a true student. I can finally say for myself that dream of being a teacher is not what the dream I want any longer. Not the portion of it that is about needing acknowledgement, or advancing in the world. I just want to find how and where I can help others the most.

I have found that when I write something or offer spoken words, if it is done with a desire to show how wise, witty, or enlightened I am, I miss the mark. At those times I am of little help to anyone. But the times people tell me that I have been the most help is when I am honest, when I am willing to let myself be seen as a struggling, confused, stumbling student, and share that with others. And that is just fine with me.


I finished writing and editing this piece, and let it sit for a day before sharing it with anyone–wanting to make sure I hadn’t been too judgmental, too negative. And that I’d looked clearly and honestly at my own feelings and motivations.

That same day the book “Flowing Bridge” by Elaine Macinnes arrived in the mail. I read the first chapter on Mu and came across this passage, and breathed a deep sigh.

“It is important that meditators feel that as they advance in Zen, they will not necessarily become great strong leaders. Perhaps they will, if they have the innate potential. But you will be who you were meant to be, which is the peace of comfort of the satori experience. So if you feel you are just an ordinary person, then that is the most appropriate, and consequently you may be the one to allow things to happen and unfold, when dust storms arise.”

I remembered too, that in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, the most valued writing is the wisdom of the founders put into what people simply call “The BIg Book.” It is said, “Remember, you may be the only Big Book some people ever come across.” And we may be the only Dharma teaching some people come across, so whoever we are, we must manifest our truth as best we can.