Hi there - inquiring minds want to know ... are you having some sort of big test coming up in the PZC Dharma Room at Buddha's Birthday weekend this year?
And my response was:
Nope, not me. (Whew!)
She was referring to the upcoming inka ceremony at Providence Zen Center. A brief explanation for folks not involved in this stuff, or who practice in other zen schools.
The Kwan Um School of Zen handles dharma transmission, the process by which a student assumes the role of a teacher, in two stages. The first is inka. It more or less goes like this. Your guiding teacher might say to you, "Hey, student. I think you should be a teacher." Assuming the student does not jump out the window and run away immediately, the student goes and practices with five teachers in the Kwan Um school. If the five teachers concur that the student is ready, there is a public test. The test occurs during an inka ceremony. It is generally held on Buddha's Birthday weekend at the head temple, Providence Zen Center. People come from all over. Hundreds of them. During the ceremony, anyone present can ask the candidate a question. If the candidate's responses are approved by the presiding teacher, the student is given the title of Ji Do Poep Sa and invited to give a talk. A JDPS is akin to a "sensei" in Japanese-derived zen schools. At that point, the student undergoes an undetermined period of training in the role of a teacher in Zen Master Seung Sahn's lineage: leading retreats, guiding zen centers, formally transmitting Buddhist precepts, and teaching kong-an (koan in Japanese) practice.
The name of the candidate is traditionally kept secret until the ceremony, which is why my friend was curious. I enjoy the secrecy. It's like waiting for a Christmas present. Who's it gonna be?
The second stage is called dharma transmission and we'll leave that for another time.
And no, thank you, I'm not getting inka.
Really. No thank you.
The teachers fulfill an important role in a practice community. It is beneficial to have access to people who have been practicing for a very long time and have gone through some formal checks of their maturity and understanding. They offer a lot of themselves, these teachers: they lead retreats, they give private interviews and public dharma talks, they teach and tell stories, and they are highly visible. People watch how they live. The quality of their moment-to-moment practice is measured across time, and comes across in ordinary interactions.
Inka ceremonies are happy, entertaining, inspirational events. Even if the spectacle of inka is largely theatrical, even if "teacher" is a provisional role and we are all in fact simply practicing together, the formalities are joyous. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to call this "dharma candy." Although we don't want students to become goal-oriented in their practice, once in a while a celebration like this perks things up. The "behind-meaning" of an inka ceremony might be, "If I can do this, so can you."
On the other hand, a lot of people make a really big deal about teachers. They come to be regarded by some as some kind of special human being. An "enlightened" one. It is even more intense around people with the title of "zen master." Many people who have read books like Peter Matthiessen's Nine Headed Dragon River expect zen masters to exude mystical enlightenment in some objective way, like Soen Roshi.
There is a perennial idea that anything a "zen master" does is an expression of enlightenment. A lot of harm comes from this idea. It is rife with opportunity for delusion. And abuse.
One would like to say that people in this position don't let this go to their head -- and most do not. Zen schools serve some important functions, not least of which is vetting people for the role of "teacher."
We are, however, talking about human beings. There is pressure to live up to an idea, and there are temptations. The mantle of "zen master" authority may have been abused by some back in the east but in North America the zen scandal has been elaborated into a highly publicized and sadly repetitive spectacle involving sex, money, and institutional power. North Americans have responded to these in various ways -- leaving the community, leaving zen practice altogether, calling for teachers to be prosecuted or at least tarred and feathered; some engage in denial and concealment in order to protect institutions; some envision new institutions to police the other institutions. What a mess.
Dharma candy is addicting for some. There is an awful lot of unexamined desire, ambition, and jockeying around the role of the "zen master." The hunger for recognition, lusting to sit in the position of a teacher's authority, leaning on the traditional zen teaching stick, lingering in the awe of "our students."
That desire has even led to some, shall we say, non-linear authorizations. With a little charisma and talent, it is not hard to get some people to follow you and regard you as a teacher.
The desire for that kind of attention is one thing. A sincere aspiration to share your practice is another thing. For the latter, no credentials are necessary.
An old friend of mine embodied this beautifully. He really taught me what it was to be a senior student. He did not look or behave like a cliche of a zen person. Yet he really helped people; and this sincerely nourished and inspired his own practice. I could see that in him. Through example, he taught me something about service -- about practicing for others. He gave meditation instruction and talks, he organized ceremonies, he managed the zen center, and he often lead practice himself. Just a big, sweet, irreverent guy doing his job as a dharma teacher. When his guiding teacher left our school to start a new organization, my friend loyally followed and continued to train with him, continued helping other students. Eventually, he received inka from his teacher and everyone was very happy.
We lost touch for a while and lots of things happened. He separated from his teacher, so he started a place where he could practice and teach. Now he's got multiple temples and at some point he started calling himself a zen master. I don't know what that's about.
But back in the day, when we were both simply "older students," he inspired me quite a bit.
He never needed a title or a zen stick for that.
You don't need credentials to help people.
Formal meditation practice (J., zazen; K., cham soen)
Using precepts with an open mind
Sincerity in all things
Twenty years into this zen thing, those seem like plenty to keep a person busy.
And yeah, my kong-an.
[Image: You want inka? Here's your inka.]