The subject of my Zen pedigree has come up a few times recently. I’m sure some of you will remember when Bruce Lambson, Director of the Big Mind Big Heart Institute said I was “not yet even a Sensei” whereas his boss was a Roshi*. While I’ve been making the rounds trying to set up some speaking engagements it came up again. A Zen center someone was trying to talk into booking me for a speaking engagement asked to know if I had permission to teach and said my blog wasn’t very informative about such matters.
OK. Well, now it is. The little profile over to the left now includes a brief rundown of my Zen breeding chart. I do have “permission to teach.” In fact I was actually kind of strong armed into teaching when I didn’t really want to. But that’s a whole other story that I’ve already told in my first book. I have Dharma Transmission from Gudo Wafu Nishijima, who in turn received Dharma Transmission from Renpo Niwa, who was at the time the head of the Soto sect in Japan. My papers are all in order should the Zen Gestapo ever collar me and demand to see them. I wear my brown rakusu and kesa with full impunity. Not very often. But I do. And contrary to Mr. Lambson’s assertions, I am officially a roshi.
Although I’m being kind of snarky about this stuff, I do understand why it matters. The institution that asked about my permission to teach has various affiliations as well as its own good reputation to uphold. They wouldn’t want just any old riff-raff to stink up their hallowed halls. And there are indeed a number of colorful characters running around designating themselves as Zen Masters and suchlike who claim to have received their transmissions in dreams or from disembodied spirits or who, when asked about their lineages simply decline to answer at all. No reputable Zen center would want to suffer the embarrassment of having invited someone to speak at their place who later turns out to be a phony.
The matter of lineage is a serious thing in Zen with a very long history. The legends say the line of Dharma Transmission has been unbroken since Buddha himself transmitted to his student Mahakashapa 2500 years ago. There’s certainly no way to prove the historical accuracy of that story. Nonetheless most folks in the scene believe it. I believe it too.
But what does it mean? That’s a whole different matter. Because there are duly transmitted Zen teachers who have all the proper paperwork but who are truly awful. I won’t name names here. And there are people who don’t claim any Buddhist lineage at all who can run rings around most of us with credentials, like U.G. Krishnamurti for example.
I’ll tell you what it means to me. It means I’m part of the club, whether the club wants me or not. I’m also part of the club whether I want to be or not.
The club, as a club, functions pretty much the way the Elks or the Free Masons or the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo function. There are little secrets known only to members — none of them very interesting in the case of Zen, by the way. There is a social network available only to the higher ups. There are little perks you get for being part of the administration rather than a mere member of the rank and file. There are favors the other members of the club will do for you. There’s a chummy atmosphere when everyone gets together. And so on and on.
While some folks who’ve attained the rank I have within the club are pretty proud of that fact, I tend to be fairly embarrassed about it. I’m not the only person who doesn’t wear his Zen status like a shiny red badge, by the way. I’d say most Zen teachers are pretty humble and try their best not to get too cocky about the whole thing no matter how much their students would prefer them to. Those who enjoy rank and status tend to make themselves more visible, as people who enjoy rank and status are prone to do. But I don’t pay them too much mind myself.
As for myself, I feel it’s important to own up to what I’ve done. Whether it was a momentary lapse of good judgment on my part that caused me to accept a position of rank or whether my teacher was senile and had no idea what he was doing (as some have implied, unfortunately it's not true) or whether it was a real step in the direction of establishing the Dharma, the deed was done. I didn't ask for it. But I said "yes" to it, which makes me just as guilty. I had the ceremonies and signed the certificates. I’ve been pretty public about it, I think, having written a trio of books on the subject. Yet I’ve tried not to hammer people over the head with it every chance I get, for example by having folks address me as “His Holiness” or “the Venerable” or any of that stupidity.
Hierarchies are a fact of human life, as silly and as phony as every last one of them is. Zen has them too. One hopes that hierarchy is Zen society is followed only to the extent that it is logical and practical. For example, when you need someone to lead a chanting service or you want to acknowledge the hard won spiritual growth of a particular individual so that you might better learn from that person. Unfortunately there’s always a certain amount of silliness involved when you get into this business. Hopefully we remain as aware of this as we can and make efforts to transcend it. In Zen there are some traditions established to try and cope with this matter. For example, when a monastic student rises to the rank of shuso or “head student” he or she also becomes the monastery’s official toilet cleaner.
Since there are people out there who wonder about my rank, I’ve decided to make that information more easily available than I have in the past. I do so because it’s expedient and useful. Ultimately these designations don’t mean shit.
I remember when I realized this very clearly. I’d just started working for Tsuburaya Productions and was pretty amazed to be in the company of people I had admired from afar for a very long time, people like Noboru Tsuburaya or Koichi Takano. Yet when I traveled with them I noticed that when they were inside that body of people who knew who they were they’d be treated like royalty (and milked every minute of it for all it was worth), whereas when they stood on a crowded subway platform they’d be bumped and jostled just like anybody else.
I feel sorry for people who get so well known that they transcend that experience and are always treated deferentially. Celebrity spiritual masters must lead a very surreal life, in which it’s a daily struggle just to maintain their simple humanity. I wonder if anyone can really do that? It’s not something I think will ever concern me personally, thank you Jesus. But I am very wary of our current crop of Buddhist superstars. They seem about as valid to me as Top 40 rock bands. Occasionally a bit of truly worthwhile music makes it into the big leagues, like The Beatles for example. But most of what makes the top of the charts is just calculated schlock. It’s the same with the world of Buddhism, sadly.
So there you have a long-winded and probably fairly useless justification for why I’ve suddenly started mentioning my Zen rank on the top page of this blog.
*Here’s the quote in full in case you don’t want to look it up: “I find it ironic and bizarre that a kid like Brad Warner, with a few years of Zen experience, puts himself out there as a ‘Dharma Punk’, which is to be taken I guess as some revolutionary new thing, and then goes on to rip on a guy who has 37 years of Zen experience, and is a Roshi, (Brad is not yet even a Sensei). Genpo Roshi has literally thousands of students, has written 5 books, and is well respected throughout the world.”