Dharma Transmission and Zen Issues by Stuart Lachs
NDM: If someone were to have a satori experience while meditating or some other way, how would this roshi determine if this student had really woken up? Would this be through a series of tests, or interviews of some kind?
Stuart Lachs: It seems you are asking if someone thinks they had a satori experience, how would the Zen master/roshi determine if this student had really woken up.
The master/roshi would interview the student and prod him/her with questions to see how they answer. The student’s demeanor when answering the questions can also be used to gauge the experience. He/she would also be looking to determine the depth of the experience. Depending on the tradition, the roshi may use set or given testing questions that the particular tradition uses. Different traditions maintain secrecy about what these questions are and what are the standard replies. I have been told that different traditions may have different replies as accepted understanding of a given koan. I also think that even if the roshi had not seen his own nature, he would still interview the student with questions.
It should be understood that judging someone's meditation experience is not like asking if there was a war between Southern and Northern states in the USA in 1865. It is not necessarily a black or white issue. I think at times certain masters/roshi pass someone with a "oneness" experience, which by my view is not a Chan/Zen experience. A “oneness’ experience is where a practitioner may feel a oneness of their own body and mind, and/or as if they are unified with their immediate surroundings or even with the entire universe. Telling someone they have seen the nature may be given for other reasons as well. For instance, I have seen a master tell a disciple he had "seen the nature," that is, had a Chan experience, when the master knew he did not. In this case the master told the student that he had "seen the nature" because the teacher wanted to give this disciple a "present" and to "encourage him to continue practicing" as the student, after many years and much work for the Center, was moving away. It struck me as a rather strange "present" and hardly the only way to encourage some one to continue in their practice. But that is what I was told by the master when I questioned him about his public acknowledgement of "seeing the nature" for this person. Another reason may be to empower someone for whatever reason, or because they are making them a leader or a roshi. In a word there can be a number of motives for "approving" someone's Zen experience; the same goes for giving Dharma transmission. Perhaps close to this, but slightly different, is moving the student along going through the koan course.
NDM: Now if someone had seen their "Buddha nature" and this person wished to teach others. What kind of training would this person undergo and for how long before they could teach? Then how long before one would be a candidate for becoming a roshi?
Stuart Lachs: There are no set answers for these two questions.
The more important question to my mind is what does receiving Dharma transmission mean?
Also, how has it been used historically? These questions are rarely discussed in any depth around Zen centers; instead the focus is on who has it and who does not have it. But in reality most people know they will never get it. Zen institutions lead you to believe that having Dharma transmission is a hard line in the sand separating the master/roshi, whose mind is supposedly unfathomable by regular folk, from the rest of ordinary humanity. In reality it is mostly shades of grey, while depending on the variable or quality being measured, a different hierarchy of people will occur.
NDM: In the Zen book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Richard Baker, says: A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary-buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, security, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity and unfathomable compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another's whole way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher that perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher's utter ordinariness.
Would being a roshi supposed to mean that one is like the original Buddha? "Fully enlightened" as they say?
Stuart Lachs: Good- this question is a good follow-on to the previous one. Let’s lookat this quote a little closer. It was actually written by Trudy Dixon, though used by Richard Baker in his introduction to his teacher,Shunryu Suzuki roshi's book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. I think the book is the biggest selling book about Zen in the English language; at least it for some time. It has certainly sold well over a million copies.
There is some interesting background to know about this quote. For one, when Baker used this in his introduction to the book, he already knew that he was chosen by Suzuki to be his Dharma heir. From that perspective, he was painting a picture of how he would like to be viewed by his followers when he took leadership of the San Francisco Zen Center and would be known as Baker roshi. The quote supposedly was about Suzuki as the book contains his words and teachings. But the quote begins, "A roshi is a person..." implying that all roshi fit this description. In reality this is the most idealistic description of a roshi in the English language, perhaps any language. It is also highly questionable if even one roshi fits this description, not alone the "A roshi is..." implying all roshi, as Baker inserted it in his introduction...
But back to your question about being a roshi; “Would being a roshi supposed to mean that one is like the original Buddha? "Fully enlightened" as they say?”
I guess it depends on who you ask and when. I can imagine that some people may think this about their master/roshi, though clearly I am not one of those people. I also think anyone believing this is part of a small minority of believers. Roshi is a very broad term that covers an enormous range of cases. I think each case has to be looked at individually to get any sense of what the title means, but in virtually no case does it mean "Fully enlightened." “Roshi” is basically an institutional title for a role necessary to maintain Zen’s constructed or made-up form of legitimacy, that is, an unbroken lineage of supposedly enlightened teachers going back to the historical Buddha. One could argue that the roshi supposedly has had the same insight/enlightenment experience as the "original Buddha" in the sense of having a direct experience of their true or Buddha nature. Also recall that having an enlightenment experience is not a criterion for many master/roshi. For those roshi or other people who have had a Zen experience to say it is the same as the original Buddha's seems quite speculative to me. This clearly side steps issues like the depth of the experience, the integration into one’s life, other qualities/powers the historical Buddha supposedly had, and so on. Too, what was the enlightenment experience of the historical Buddha, which was only put in writing hundreds of years after his death? Basically, we should be careful about mixing up an institutional role, however it is defined or talked about, with spiritual attainment, especially with being "fully enlightened."
NDM: It seems that some roshis scatter their seeds far and wide, in more ways than one, while others seem to be more careful with this. For example Richard Baker has been publicly criticized for his behavior at San Francisco Zen Center. Former students have said that he was addicted to power, abusive of his position, extravagant in his personal spending, and inappropriate in his love life. Another Zen teacher named Maezumi, after many years spent struggling with his alcoholism, died in Japan in 1995 following a night of drinking—drowning in a bath after falling asleep.
In your article "Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi" You wrote "The San Francisco Zen Center "scandal" was not unique in American Zen history. In fact there are few major centers not touched by sexual or other scandals, but the SFZC case suffices for the discussion we will have here". www.mandala.hr/5/lachs3.html
Beginning in 1965 and continuing to this day, a series of scandals has erupted at one Zen center after another revealing that many Zen teachers have exploited students sexually and financially. This list has included, at various times, the head teachers at The Zen Studies Society in New York City, the San Francisco Zen Center, the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles, the now-defunct Kanzeon Zen center in Bar Harbor, Maine, the Moon Spring Hermitage in Surry, Maine, the Providence Zen Center and the Toronto Zen center. These are some of the largest and most influential centers. In most cases the scandals have persisted continually for years, or seemed to end only to arise again. At one center, for example, sex scandals have recurred for approximately forty years with the same teacher involving many women. These scandals have been pervasive as well as persistent, affecting almost all major American Zen Centers. It should be emphasized that the source of the problem lies not in sexual activity per se, but in the teachers' abuse of authority and the deceptive (and exploitative) nature of these affairs. These affairs were carried on in secret and even publicly denied. The students involved were often lied to by the teachers about the nature of the liaison. In some cases the teacher claimed the sexual experience would advance the student ' s spiritual development. One teacher justified his multiple sexual affairs after their discovery as necessary for strengthening the Zen center. Presumably, this was because the women involved were running satellite centers of his and having a secret affair with the "master" would deepen their understanding and practice.
If someone supposedly had this so called "Buddha nature", then why would all these scandals happen? Could there be some kind of a flaw with this dharma transmission procedure? Is there a flaw with Buddhism itself?
Stuart Lachs: Yes- it is true that some Zen masters/roshi "scatter their seeds far and wide, in more ways than one, while others seem to be more careful." There is no fixed law or rule on how many or by what criteria some one gives Dharma transmission. I do not think whether some one gives few or many or no Dharma transmissions is a measure of anything but that. Maezumi and Katagiri each had twelve Dharma heirs, Suzuki had one heir in America, Richard Baker, and two in Japan, his son Hoitsu who did not study with him and some one he did not know but transmitted to as a favor to a friend. Sasaki has no heirs.
I think it is widely believed that Dharma transmission (D.t.) is given to people because of some high level of spiritual insight, attainment and practice. Popular Zen books would like you to think this about their roshi but THIS IS JUST NOT TRUE!!! It is really sectarian propaganda. Dharma transmission (D.t.) is given for many reasons most of which are not related to any high level attainment or especially deep level of insight. For instance, Katagiri roshi of the Minneapolis Zen Center gave Dharma transmission to twelve priests (no lay people) at once shortly before he died. "He said no one was ready to take over, but he hoped to avoid his heirs becoming competitive and political, and maybe in time someone would ripen and would step forward." This is from The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg, a well known author and long time student of Katagiri. The book also discusses Katagiri's own scandals with female students that only came to light after he died.
In your question, above, you mention Richard Baker. No one knows for sure why Suzuki roshi gave D.t. to only Baker, and not to another person or other older students in addition to Baker, but that is what Suzuki roshi did. This presents us with a quandary. If Suzuki gave D.t. to Baker based on what he thought was some high level of spiritual attainment, then it appears that he made a mistake in his assessment of Baker, with whom he spent over 15 years in close contact. After all, Suzuki said that Baker's transmission was "real." So we are left to see that the roshi's supposed deep insight and mind-to-mind transmission which Zen claims is only understandable by their roshi and Dharma heirs, is really quite fallible. This calls into question the validity of the unbroken lineage going back to the Buddha, the basic supposed unquestioned claim to Zen legitimacy and authority.
On the other hand we can say Suzuki gave D.t. to Baker for other reasons besides spiritual attainment and insight. For instance, he may have given only Baker D.t. and skipped other older students because he knew as every one knew that Baker had terrific administrative ability far above everyone else’s, was an outstanding fund raiser, was interested in the growth of the S.F. Zen Center as perhaps was Suzuki and importantly and singularly of all Suzuki’s students, he had the ability to make this growth happen. Baker was also a good speaker so could give fine sounding Zen talks to his followers and to the public. From a certain perspective all these abilities can be important for a Zen group, but none of them have anything to do with spiritual attainment. There could be other reasons that Suzuki picked Baker alone: perhaps a personal attachment to Baker as if Baker was the kind of son he wanted but did not have, Baker's ease and ability among important people and wealthy people, Baker's outgoing public persona, Baker's ability to generate satellite centers across the country, and so on. Whatever the reason, if this is the case, D.t. is not based on spiritual attainment and again Zen's self defined basis for unquestioned legitimacy and authority is open to question.
Of course, this is only one example, but with the amount of scandal and questionable behavior known around Zen, it is hardly the most questionable or is it isolated. So in either case, there is a problem with the unquestioned authority for the Chan/Zen master/roshi and the supposed authority that accompanies Zen sanctioned Dharma transmission. In point of fact the two cases above and all sorts of permutations and combinations of these and other reasons are used as a basis for giving Dharma transmission and historically, have been used that way.
Zen is an old and large institution that in the Far East has worked hard to gain and hold State and elite support that was necessary for its survival and growth. It is perhaps naive to think that they based their existence, growth, and continuity solely on individuals with great spiritual attainment and deep insight into their true nature.
According to Zen, every sentient being has "Buddha nature," not just the Dharma transmitted master or roshi. Some people realize their "Buddha nature" or see into their "Buddha nature" and some do not. Realizing one's "Buddha nature" is not a criterion for becoming a roshi in some sects or lineages of Chan/Zen. It is not in Soto Zen; by far the largest Zen sect in Japan, roughly fifteen times larger than the Rinzai sect, and it is not in Sheng Yen's Taiwanese sect of Chan...
The big flaw to my mind in the "Dharma transmission procedure" is not being crystal clear about what it actually means and afterwards, not being being crystal clear that all the Zen stories and the roshi commenting on the stories of iconic Zen masters of the past does not mean that the living roshi is anything like the roshi in the story. In fact, the roshi in the written text was probably not like the roshi as presented in the text. Zen "biographical" texts were all highly edited over long periods of time to match a desired self image and institutional needs of Zen at the time. These written stories/Zen texts essentially created perfected Zen masters and were meant to serve as models of ideal Zen masters and their behavior and words, probably to be imitated, rather than being biography in the modern sense of our understanding of describing an actual life.
NDM: What is the criteria for a roshi to pass on the dharma transmission to a student? Is there some kind of a test, examination they would undergo to root out this ego, lust for ambition, power, money, sex, fame, position, authority, narcissism, psychopathology and so on?
Stuart Lachs: There is no agreed upon criteria for giving Dharma transmission. There is no test "to root out " attachments or strong interests/concerns for ego, lust, money, sex, fame, ...aside from the specific Zen roshi's judgment of his disciple. As an example, the recently deceased Chan master Sheng Yen received Dharma transmission from Master Ling Yuan who he had spent exactly one night with. Sheng Yen has written that he had a Chan experience at the end of the night, in the morning they parted. Many years later Sheng Yen visited Ling Yuan and told him that he was teaching Chan. Ling Yuan then gave him Dharma transmission. Sheng Yen also received Dharma transmission from another Master he had spent two years with.
As we both have noted, there is a problem with Dharma transmission as so many major Zen Centers have had to deal with scandals involving sex, power, money,…aside from too much concern for fame, narcissism, adoration which pass under the scandal bar, and then there is plain old psychopathology on the part of master/roshi.
NDM: Is there a fundamental flaw of some kind with Buddhism itself. Or have his teachings been misinterpreted, distorted somehow?
Stuart Lachs: I do not think there is "a fundamental flaw... with Buddhism" nor do I think the teachings have been "misinterpreted, distorted somehow." First I think we should be clear that there are many Buddhisms. Like any living tradition or religion it must evolve to reflect the concerns, language, and mentality of place and time as well as the political situation. Buddhism does not occur in a vacuum; it is always embedded in a given society and culture at a given time. Buddhism like any other religion must develop as an institution if it is to thrive in a given society.
Chan is a Chinese development that spread to Korea (known as Son Budd.) and then to Japan, (known as Zen, as we mostly call it today in the West) that is the form of Buddhism we are discussing here. Zen chose Dharma transmission, that is, the supposed mind-to-mind transmission between a master and his heir. The claim is that Zen holds the heart/mind of Buddhism transmitted silently from one generation to another in a unilinear (one person per generation), unbroken chain like manner. Chan mythology has this chain beginning with the historical Buddha Sakyamuni through twenty-eight Indian generations to Bodhidharma the First Chan Patriarch who brought Chan from India to China through to Huineng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch after whom it split into a many branched tree and continues that way to the present.
Zen claims it has the heart/mind of Buddhism while other sects are dependent on texts and translations from quite foreign languages that introduce mistakes and problems.
Because of this manner of establishing legitimacy and authority, the Chan/Zen master/roshi is supposedly connected by Dharma transmission, which is the institutional ritual symbolizing mind-to-mind transmission that connects each roshi with the historical Buddha. It is common in Zen books written by a master/roshi to point out their specific lineage at least for a few generations back and often all the way back showing their connection to the historical Buddha.
That this scheme of legitimation is all pretty much made up is another issue. That the institution needs to keep sanctifying new roshi in large numbers presents another problem. That these roshi must also serve the institutional and as is common of old institutions, their conservative needs is yet another issue. The problem in the end, at least as I see it, is that the master /roshi is conceived and presented as some thing he is not: a highly enlightened/attained individual beyond the understanding of "ordinary" people. He is presented this way along with institutional rituals, the use of liturgical implements as well as a vast array of texts and parts of the liturgy that in one way or another repeat this claim. Not surprisingly people who read Zen literature come to believe it and all too often, the roshi himself internalizes the role and thinks of himself as such. In a sense then, the group and its master/roshi act like theater or play acting, certainly there is a large element of fantasy and wishful thinking.
This is not to say that Zen practice is fake or theater or anything negative, but there are problems. Zen practice, in my opinion is a wonderful practice. It has made my life richer and more fulfilling while helping me be in the world and relate to people in what I feel is a better way, but certainly not without fault and error. I have been at it since 1967...
NDM: I would like to address this roshi named Hakuyū Taizan Maezumi. He ordained sixty-eight priests gave his transmission to a lot of people, but he was also an alcoholic. Jan Chozen Bays said of Maezumi's drinking, "We in subtle ways encouraged his alcoholism. We thought it was enlightened behavior that when he would drink, elements of Roshi would come out we had never seen before. He would become piercingly honest. People would deliberately go—everybody did this—and see what he would say and do when he was drunk, and how he could skewer you against the wall."Stuart Lachs: Yes, by now it is well known that Maezumi was an alcoholic. He entered a detox program but while visiting his brother's temple in Japan, apparently was drinking again and died in a hot tub. I spoke with a person knowledgeable about alcoholism and he said that Maezumi probably drowned on his own vomit. The circumstances of his death were kept secret for some time. I had also heard that his students not only "in subtle ways encouraged his alcoholism" but also supplied the alcohol. It should also be noted that Maezumi had a number of affairs with his students, one of which was with Jan Chozen Bays.
At least some of Maezumi's students saw every act he did as teaching. This is standard Zen rhetoric. Maezumi's students did not make this up. So what Jan says above, "We thought it was enlightened behavior ..." is completely, 100% believable. I heard a story about his "Jisha," his personal assistant. She supposedly said that when roshi threw up, which of course was from his heavy drinking, that he did it intentionally so she would get used to cleaning vomit and not be repelled by it. She saw all Maezumi's actions and behavior as teaching- that is, roshi, according to this view, are teaching in every second of their life. Whether students get it or not is the other part of the Zen rhetoric. It seems hard to believe, but that is the standard Zen line and people believed it and lived by it, as these two stories illustrate.
NDM: Do you think that since he was an alcoholic, his judgment may have suffered and his transmissions should be questioned or investigated or qualified in some way to reflect this?
Stuart Lachs: Let's go back a step. We can ask what does Maezumi's Dharma transmission mean if he was an alcoholic? As stated above he went through detox but as is common with alcoholism, he relapsed, which caused his death. He also had some secret affairs with students while being married. He had to drink to become "piercingly honest." At the least, this is not the picture Zen presents of a Dharma transmitted roshi.
Some people will bring up the example of Ikkyu as a hard drinking carousing priest who liked prostitutes. He entered the brothel wearing his black robes because he viewed sexual intercourse as a religious rite. But he did this openly and lived the life of a vagabond, poet, artist…Late in life he was made abbot of Daitoku-ji, a major monastery in Japan. He was really one of a kind. I think it is dangerous to point to Ikkyu as is commonly done, to justify or excuse questionable behavior of a roshi.
I ask the readers, “Do you know anyone who is an alcoholic whose judgment is not impaired?”
Why would you think someone with the title roshi is any different? Apparently the Tibetan tradition is quite similar to the Zen tradition. Remember, the world famous Tibetan teacher Trungpa drank himself to death. Was his judgment impaired? His number one dharma heir, Osel Tendzin, a westerner from New Jersey was made successor and sanctified with the title Vajra Regent by Trungpa, thought he was special too. Unfortunately he contracted AIDS, knowingly had unprotected sex with his students, and passed it on to some of his partners, at least one of who died. He thought the Dakinis (female embodiment of enlightened energy, sky dancers) were protecting everyone. Trungpa wrote of Tendzin, “As a student and child of mine, Ösel Tendzin has developed his natural ability to respond to the teachings of egolessness.” Interestingly, we see here that the Tibetan tradition of “enlightened “ masters’ as does Zen, refer to their students as a “child of mine”. Their enlightened masters seem as fallible and as affected by alcohol as do the Zen masters/roshi.
NDM: Should his judgment in giving Dharma transmission be questioned?
Stuart Lachs: Well, more basic, and I keep coming back to this, is, "What does Dharma transmission really mean?" How has it been used historically? Look at other people with Dharma transmission; how do they look when examined closely? Look at the history of Zen in America and the recurring scandals and the ineffectual response from the Zen Soto, Rinzai, and Sanbo Kyodan institutions in Japan and other Zen roshi. Look at the history of roshi in Japan, look at the history of the Soto and Rinzai sects say from 1900 through 1945 and beyond to 1995 or so. It is time I think, to stop fetishizing the titles roshi and Zen master, and look at them as regular people with an institutionally sanctioned title. Look at what people do rather than what some old text or a new text claims “a roshi is.” The old texts are mostly "prescriptive," that is,telling us how a Zen master/roshi should act and talk; rarely are they "descriptive", actually describing a real person's life in the modern sense of the word. Are roshi really so special? Some may have some good qualities but it is rare that there are no bad or weak qualities tagging along. Let us do everyone a favor and keep this on the human level. We should not steal the roshi's humanity or throw away our own to satisfy a wish for a perfected person...
NDM: Do you think this roshi business is this simply to keep this hierarchical power structure in certain peoples hands? Are we living in a time that this could even be done away with and to take this back to basics? How it started off ?Stuart Lachs: The Chan master/roshi system or idea developed in China. Though I am not an expert on this, I believe it arose because of the social structure in China which is mostly based on a Confucian hierarchical model. In some ways, Chan/Zen is the most Confucian of Buddhist sects in China. Chan based its legitimacy and authority on a genealogical model (unbroken lineage from the historical Buddha) as Chinese society was based on the family model, with its great emphasis on ancestor worship. The Chan master of a student is viewed as the father, students of the same teacher were viewed as brothers, the teacher's teacher was your grandfather, there is great emphasis on lineage and so on. This is still the situation in Zen circles today...
Quoted from Nonduality Magazine, Interview with Stuart Lachs, 2010.