Thursday, May 04, 2006

CURRICULUM SHMIRICULUM

Getting back to the questions from the fine, friendly folks of St. Paul. Here’s a funny one. It’s number 3 for those keeping score at home.

“What is the place of common curriculum and established sequence vs. independent response to an individual student’s development in your approach to priest training?”

Say what, now? I mean, I know where this question comes from. But it’s not the kind of thing I’ve ever really had to deal with.

Most people’s model for how one becomes a religious authority of some kind is that they go to a seminary or what-have-you and they study all the approved books and put in the required hours of whatever training is demanded by the organization. After that they graduate and get some kind of official documentation by which the governing body of that organization officially sanctions them to lead a congregation of their own under the in the name of the organization. That’s pretty much the contemporary Western model for how it’s done.

Nowadays more-or-less this same model exists in Japan and, I assume, in other Buddhist countries. One of the ways one can become a Zen Master in the Soto School is to enter one of the training temples officially approved by Soto-shu, the governing body which officially approves such things. You follow their curriculum, jump through the appropriate hoops and at the end you get your certification.

But there’s also another way to do it. See, everyone who goes through this process then has the authority to choose his or her own successors. Those successors do not necessarily have to follow the same curriculum if the teacher does not deem it necessary. When a person becomes a Zen Master that way, he (or she, but since I’m basically talking about myself we’ll skip that from here on) may or may not end up on the official Soto-shu registry of teachers. Whether that actually matters or not is up to the Zen Master himself to decide.

I can understand why that system sounds totally whack-o to a lot of people. I mean, just imagine if your local parish priest could make anyone he wanted into an archbishop. The chaos! The outrage! Yet, this system seems to work pretty much OK within Zen Buddhism. Yeah, a few nutjobs have managed to get Dharma Transmission. But then again look what’s happened in some other religious organizations that have a more carefully administrated system. I don’t think you could say Zen is doing any worse for allowing things to flow a bit more organically.

The folks in St. Paul, like Buddhists all over the country, are concerned about the future of American Buddhism. They want to set up standards so that anyone who wears the robes and calls himself a Buddhist priest can be counted upon to have mastered a specific body of teachings and to have trained in a particular way which will insure that he maintains the spirit of those teachings. Oh, but if it were only that easy…

The problem is that no matter how carefully you set up your standards somebody’s gonna louse it up by being a complete dickhead. And even if that doesn’t happen, there are as many ways to interpret whatever standards you set up as there are people who read those standards. So you’re never gonna satisfy everyone no matter how hard you try. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try. You just have to know that from the outset.

But to get back to the question, if you want to know how I’d deal with it, I’m just not that into the whole curriculum thing. I mean, I could sit down and come up with a list of must-read books and maybe another list of things you gotta have done before you get a set of robes. But I’m just not really interested in setting up things like that. Besides, that isn’t how I did it anyway. So I’d feel a little fakey about the whole thing. And I’m not gonna require students to have played bass in punk rock bands, and to have worn rubber dinosaur costumes in bad Japanese movies before they get their robes.

But as for more standard type curriculums, I mean, look, I think Sobogenzo is a wonderful book. But, frankly, there are people I know who’ve read Shobogenzo a dozen times and still can’t come close to embodying anything even remotely like its teachings, while there are people I know who’ve never even heard of the damned thing and who are far better human beings than a lot of those who’ve studied it to death. There are folks who have practiced and sweated and struggled through approved courses of Buddhist training who I would not want to spend so much as an afternoon with because they’re so completely obnoxious (most trained Buddhist clerics are exceptionally nice people, I’m just citing the exceptions to make my point). I can’t imagine any curriculum I could come up with would do any better to insure that absolutely anyone and everyone who followed it became a decent human being.

Another big problem is that once you’ve set up such a curriculum you’re saying, in effect, “Do this stuff and when you’re done I’ll reward you with some robes and you can call yourself my successor.” Otherwise why would anyone waste years of their lives following such a thing? I can’t see myself sanctioning some obnoxious butthead simply because he passed through a specific curriculum of study and training.

The only way I would ever make someone my successor would be by spending a lot of time with that person over a period of many years making absolutely certain that person was sincere and dedicated and not likely to become a total asshole as soon as I turned my back. So I guess that means that I’m only interested in “independent response to an individual student’s development” and not at all in whether that person has passed through a specific curriculum even if I was the one who designed it.