Recently, on the Sweeping Zen website, there have been a couple of articles posted that discuss the practice of “Dharma Succession”, the first by Erik Storlie, and a response by Myoan Grace Schireson. There are points in both articles that I agree with, and I am grateful that there is a place where this custom can be discussed.
In my opinion, I don’t think it is a matter of Dharma Succession not having a place, or a value in the authorization of teachers in the Zen Tradition, but rather a question of whether it is entirely appropriate for it to be the sole determining factor of what authorizes a teacher, and what precisely is implied by Dharma Succession.
It seems that there are indeed some traditions of Zen in which Dharma Succession is a process which has oversight and governance, a clearly laid out process of training and examination under supervision, in which several members of the organization can discuss and assess a particular individuals training, insight into the teachings, personal conduct, and capacity to teach and lead, and from there discern whether Dharma Succession is appropriate or not.
There are however, other organizations in which nobody has any idea of what the criteria are, nor the authority to assess, discuss any part of the process, or have any say in the matter, except the great teacher themselves. I have come to call this the “magic wand of Dharma” school. The process in these organizations is that the teacher alone determines when a disciple is anointed, and further, once that person has received Dharma Transmission, the status is irrevocable.
I don’t think that there are many people that have too big a problem with the first scenario. However, I suspect that what Erik Sorlie is taking issue with is the second, and indeed the fact that at present, both of these models simultaneously exist and use the same terminology, so that what you get coming out the end of both systems is called a “Dharma Successor”. This should really bother those that come out of the first model.
The metaphor that Myoan Grace Shireson uses (like blaming a license for an accident) is simplistic at best. It only really works if we presume that there is some kind of logical process and examination behind the awarding of the license (ie. model one).
What if you found after the “accident” took place that in the office where the driver in question had received their license there was no theoretical knowledge examination per se, no visual faculty testing done, and no practical road test took place? How about if you also learned that the authorizing examiner happens to be a well known menace on the roads him or herself? Well, then I think you would have to agree that the validity of the license and the process through which it is rewarded was ripe for criticism. In fact, you might not call it an “accident” at all, but criminal negligence.
I think the comparison of Dharma Succession to a Phd. is okay, but there are some significant differences. Generally speaking, a Phd. (Doctor of Philosophy) represents mastery of a body of knowledge, but in many professions, even with a Phd., an individual has to become licensed by an independent body of peers, and is thereby bound by ethical and professional guidelines in order to take up a practice and maintain their license. If there are violations in conduct, the person’s license is revoked, and if they continue to practice without license, there are consequences.
The problem with the way things are at present is therefore twofold:
- There is no consistent and scrutable criteria for Dharma Succession that extends to all, or even many lineages.
- At present, Dharma Succession serves as BOTH the degree, and the license, and is at the same time irrevocable.
Dharma Succession as a degree, I can get behind. I’m comfortable with it representing a mastery of the “philosophy” of any individual lineage. However, this wouldn’t necessarily make a person a teacher. In order for that to happen, the individual would have to voluntarily subject themselves to licensing by an independent organization of peers, and be bound by its standards. Dharma Succession as a license, I can also get behind, provided it is subject to revocation in the event of gross misconduct.
Another issue that this brings up for me is that in some professions, even without a degree, it is possible for a person to demonstrate a “combination of equivalent training and experience” and earn a license. Currently, as there is no consistent standard of training and experience that is required to receive Dharma Succession, it is totally possible, and demonstrably factual, that unethical, and/or poorly trained (but anointed) “charlatans” are lauded as teachers, while rock solid “vessels of the Dharma” are shut out of a broader conversation because they haven’t been tapped by somebody’s magic wand.
However, as Erik Storlie points out, this certainly doesn’t make it impossible for these people, just more difficult, and in the end perhaps everyone is better for it, as those who would practice with them are not lulled into complacency by the false sense of security provided by the title “Dharma Successor”.