Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: A Little Reflection on Recent Zen History, 4

September 16, 2015


This is the final part of this brief discussion. Click to read the earlier installments: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In one sense authorization in the Zen tradition is clear and simple: a master declares a student qualified to uphold the Dharma of Zen, and to guide others in it, and ceremonially endorses them to do so. But in fact, the passing of koan Zen to the West hasn’t been straightforward, at least from some perspectives. Sad to say, our own lineage has had its share of issues in this area.

Without belaboring the story, by the late 1980s when some dozen or so westerners had been authorized as “shi-ke” (master) by the Sanbo Kyodan, the leadership began to get cold feet. Having checked out some of their senior students, they began to be concerned whether these teachers were really clear enough. To help them, they instituted an annual teachers’ retreat, the “kenshukai,” at which they would support them and guide them into greater clarity and depth in their own practice, and at the same time help them toward a deeper understanding of the koans. At the same time, the teachers’ rights in terms of authorization were curtailed at that point. The teachers could recommend their promising senior students for teaching authorization, but the Japanese leadership would “check” the candidates first, and do the actual appointing.

Most of the teachers went along with this, and bowed under the yoke; a few didn’t.

Prior to that, there had already been a few teachers using the Sanbo Kyodan koan teaching methods in the West, most notably Taizan Maezumi and Philip Kapleau, who had either completed their training within the organization, or not done so, but who were already operating independently and continued to do so. A situation thus arose whereby the lineage was trying to exercise “quality control”, and many teachers accepted it gratefully, and a few felt already sufficiently endorsed to go their own way, and did.

From these “off-shoot” teachers a great proliferation of further teachers has blossomed in the West, numbering well over 100. Meanwhile the core lineage has been slow and generally cautious in authorizing teachers, and even now requires all its “associate masters” and “Zen teachers” to bring potential teachers to be checked. Some feel this caution is a good thing; others may feel they’re OK without it, thanks.

My personal view, for what little it’s worth, is that since we are in the very earliest days of what will likely be a 300-year process, as the Dharma transmits itself to the West, it’s best to be as diligent as possible, and try our best to convey the teaching as faithfully as possible. To be guided by a strong and uncompromising master is the greatest gift we could hope for, and I wish the good fortune of that could befall all Zen students.

It seems to me that innovations in koan study are not needed. The system works. If it’s not broken don’t fix it. The truth is, it’s hard enough just to get an accurate and deep understanding of the koan method as it is, without any attempt to “improve” on it, as some teachers seek to do. As long as we find our way to the clearest and deepest teachings we can, then the koan way has a chance of being established here.

Thus while I understand the impulse to innovate and “adapt,” I personally feel we have already done enough innovating for now in this line of Zen, simply by taking it out of the monastery.

I’m happy to be in a lineage where the primary focus is on inner transformation through a traditional ancestral approach to training, leading to a life of outward compassion, rather than being in a lineage heavy with alien cultural trappings.

I guess humility and gratitude are still the most reliable guides, if we can only remember them. There is a tendency, especially after “great awakening,” to feel a great and joyous confidence. But that may lead us into independent-mindedness. A challenging stage of practice is just this post-satori training under a master, where we must wash away all trace of awareness of awakening, and then wash away all trace of having washed it away. So hard! Without a strong, clear, compassionate master to guide us, what hope is there?

I hope we all succeed in following the Way to the best of our ability, and come to rest in its unstainable clarity and peace, and devote ourselves ceaselessly to the welfare and liberation of all beings forever.

Message from Henry is taken from our September 15 Newsletter.
Image Credit: At the Gate, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND, from

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