Zen Teacher/Zen Student

Recently, I gave a talk at a Zen center about the long process I went through that led to my ordination as a Zen priest. Afterward, someone in the audience commented that in my talk I used the expression, “when I ordained as a priest,” and also the expression “when I was ordained as a priest.” He said the second expression – “when I was ordained” – was the way he was used to hearing other priests describe their ordination. I wasn’t alternating between the two different expressions deliberately, but it occurs to me that the difference between these two ways of describing ordination – one in the active voice and one in the passive voice – points to something important about student/teacher relationships in Zen.

Zen puts a lot of weight on the teacher’s authority. Essential understanding and authority are transmitted intimately from teacher to disciple, independent of a set curriculum or universal standards. And every Zen teacher can theoretically trace her/his line of authority directly back to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. In fact, the unbroken lines of transmission don’t hold up to close scrutiny. But the idea of mind to mind transmission underlines the importance of the Zen teacher holding wisdom and authority and passing them on directly to his/her disciples.

This emphasis on the teacher’s authority, fortified by the Japanese culture whose style of Zen we’ve inherited, has turned out not to be such an easy fit with American culture. Quite a few Zen teachers – both Japanese teachers and their American colleagues and heirs – have abused their authority disgracefully. Many of these abuses are matters of public record, warnings to students and Zen communities everywhere. But there are also subtle authority issues to contend with and one of them is a tendency to infantilize Zen students.

How does this happen? One contributing factor is the emphasis in Zen practice on letting go, coupled with the Zen teacher’s role in challenging students to question and investigate their assumptions, habits, and ideas. Committed students work at setting aside their preferences, opinions, beliefs, and tried and true behaviors in favor of following the teacher’s direction and taking the teacher’s challenging questions to heart. Unfortunately, in the extreme, students’ willingness to let go can turn into unwholesome suspicion that their own deep instincts and intentions are merely delusional ego cravings. And on the other side of the relationship, teachers can become enchanted by and addicted to the power and influence they wield over students, seeing students’ willingness to set aside their own ideas and plans as evidence of their own unerring teaching wisdom.

So the authority and trust teachers rightly require to help students can solidify and become absolute and students can lose confidence in their own judgment, becoming infantilized and dependent on their teachers’ approval. I think this tendency can be especially hazardous in residential Zen practice places where students and teachers often give up outside employment and relationships and effectively put all their chips in one practice center basket.

Unless both parties are watchful and cautious about these tricky tendencies, the student/teacher relationship can become unbalanced. Students have been known to spend years – decades even – waiting for their teacher to grant them some authority and independence, never quite sure about when it will come, about what it depends on, or whether it will come at all; and inquiring about it can be treated by the teacher as an inappropriate expression of craving and an indicator of unreadiness.

This is a stark characterization, but not entirely exaggerated, which brings me back to the two expressions I started with – “I ordained” and “I was ordained.” One reason I wanted to study with my current teacher was his ability to inhabit his authority as a Zen teacher without belittling or disrespecting his students. It wasn’t a zero sum power and authority game. There was never any question about relative positions, about who was the teacher and who was the disciple – that was entirely clear – but the teacher’s authority didn’t depend on the disciple’s subordination. In fact, one of the first things my teacher said to me when we began working toward priest ordination was that our relationship was initiated first by my request to practice with him, then by his agreement to proceed together. This was an explicit acknowledgment that each of us had important cards to put on the table and that we would work together on a foundation of mutual respect.

As a result, my experience of discipleship has been of a kind of collaboration. My teacher has challenged me to deepen my practice, to gain more monastic experience, and to further study essential teachings – both in the Zen tradition and in other areas. But always in a respectful and encouraging way. Our relationship is clearly hierarchical, but the hierarchy isn’t founded on invidious comparisons and it includes an element of collegiality. Each of us has a position and a role appropriate to the arc of our practice individually and together, and our positions have evolved as the relationship has matured and deepened. But there’s never been a feeling that one of us is somehow more important to the relationship or otherwise more powerful than the other.

He has done his part in his position as a teacher and I have tried to do mine in my position as a disciple and it’s in this context that I think it makes sense to say both that I ordained and was ordained as a Zen priest.


  1. Peter Coyote says:

    you’re forging ahead here per usual. This precisely expresses my relationship with our teacher as well, and I’m gratified to see that our reasons were the same. As you may suspect, your convoluted path to the priesthood broke the ground for me to follow so much more easily. (I shudder today at some of my earlier vehemence about ‘priests’, monasteries, formal practice etc. Thanks for this lovely and clarifying piece from your fellow follower of Buddha and worshipper of Murray.