For the past few years a number of people have been suggesting that I join one or both of the current US-based associations of Zen teachers, the SZBA (Soto Zen Buddhist Association) and the AZTA (American Zen Teachers Association). I’ve hemmed and hawed about this for quite some time. Some of those who belong to or even hold important positions in these organizations are friends of mine. I respect their views on most matters. So when they say I ought to join these groups, I believe their opinion on the matter is worth considering.
Yet for all this time I still haven’t joined either organization. Something about them just didn’t seem right to me. It was never anything I could articulate very well. It was just a feeling I had. It seemed to me that to join one of these organizations would go directly against the most fundamental reasons I got into this whole Zen thing in the first place. Yet for a long time I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way.
I’ve finally managed to nail down what it is that troubles me so deeply about these organizations. And it comes down to one single word. That word is “professional,” as well as its grammatical variations (professionalism, profession, etc.).
In the fall out from the sex scandals involving Genpo Roshi, Eido Shimano Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Baker Roshi and whoever else has been caught with their dick where it wasn’t supposed to be, a lot of people are saying the same thing. They say that Zen teachers are very much like therapists, doctors and lawyers and as such should be required to belong to some kind of organization to police their activities the way these other professionals are.
Let me just spell my position out very clearly here.
Zen teachers are not therapists.
Zen teachers are not doctors.
Zen teachers are not lawyers.
I recently came across a piece on the Internet in which someone lamented the current state of affairs in the Zen world and then asked, “Is Zen not, in it’s deepest sense, in the helping profession?”
I also came across a statement by a member of both SZBA and AZTA stating, “the SZBA and the AZTA hold the premises that Zen teaching is a profession.”
These statements are both entirely incorrect. I know it’s far too bold for me to say such a thing when so many people believe that these statements are correct. But this is my firm position on the matter.
Zen is not in the helping profession. Zen teachers are not professionals.
A Zen teacher is someone who has chosen to do serious work on herself or himself. Our experiences in doing this work on ourselves can be useful to others. Many of us allow other people to join us in this work. Those who join us in this work may very well be helped. And most of us will try our best to help them when we can.
But fundamentally a Zen teacher is not a professional who helps students who are non-professionals in exchange for compensation. The so-called “students” are actually companions in work that is being undertaken by both teacher and student. The only real difference is that the teacher is someone who has done this work for a bit longer than the student. Yet the teacher is no more advanced, because the concept of “advancement” is an illusion.
This is why I refuse to accept students. I do not wish to share my work with anyone who defines herself or himself as my student. That would be unfair to both of us. Such a person is only a hindrance to me. They get in the way of what I need to do. Frankly, students are a nuisance. Furthermore, their attitude of viewing themselves as students is a hindrance to them. It’s such a hindrance that it makes it impossible for me to help them even if I wanted to.
Zen teachers are not in the helping profession. That would imply that we charge money to people who come to us to be helped, the way a professional therapist does. It would imply that we promise to help heal them in exchange for that money, the way professional doctors do. It implies that we promise them concrete results from our paid efforts to help them, the way professional lawyers do. No decent Zen teacher I know of views what he or she does in that way.
In fact, I would be so bold as to further state that the root of many of the problems in Zen right now stem from the fact that too many Zen teachers view themselves as “professionals” or as members of the “helping profession.”
I disagree completely with the position taken by the SZBA and the AZTA. They are dead wrong. Zen teaching is not a profession and must never be a profession. A professional is someone who charges for their services and promises some kind of results, even if not necessarily promising what the client views as success. The moment Zen teachers start looking upon what they do in this way, what they do is no longer Zen teaching at all.
Furthermore, whenever I think about joining one of these organizations I have to ask what such an organization would do for me. If I join the Musicians Union, for example, by paying dues to that organization and abiding by its rules I get some form of compensation. The union engages in collective bargaining so that I can earn a living wage and provides members in good standing with group discounts on medical insurance and so on.
But what does any Zen teacher get from being part of one of these Zen teacher unions? I suppose we get their seal of approval, sort of like the Better Business Bureau. Maybe we get invited to big parties once in a while where we can all hang out with each other, although we have to pay our own way to get there. But we don’t get a whole lot else.
I suppose my position on this may strike some readers as an unforgivably selfish attitude. And it would be, if we were talking about an organization of noble bodhisattvas running around trying to help each other save all beings before saving themselves and asking nothing in return.
But that’s not what is being proposed by these organizations. And we can know this for certain because of their use of the word “professional.” What is being proposed here is a professional organization for professional people who, just like the doctors, lawyers and therapists we’re being categorized with, charge for their services and promise results. People who charge for their services and promise results ought to be held accountable for the results of those services.
I, for one, do not promise any results. Nor do I offer any help. I will let you join me in my work if I feel that you won’t get in the way of what I need to do. Historically this has always been the attitude of Zen teachers. Why else do you think it was so hard for people to become students of the Zen teachers of the past? If they were professionals, their rates would have been posted at the door and anyone who was willing to pay would have been welcome to come on in. That was never the case. Until today.
Unfortunately, the position I am taking here is clearly in the minority. It’s obvious that people like me who do not view Zen teaching as a profession are going to lose this battle. Organizations like SZBA and AZTA will become more and more powerful, and teachers who refuse to classify themselves as members of the helping profession will be marginalized. Those who refuse to join will have red flags stuck all over them and few will attend their Zen groups anymore. Which is fine, actually. The majority will, instead, go to the professionals who charge for services rendered and promise results. Good luck with that.