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5. Lineage and Teacher

A key Zen story, shared by all the schools: Once Buddha was giving a talk on Vulture Peak. In the middle of the talk he paused and held up a flower. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile. Buddha then said, "I have the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of Nirvana, the real form of No Form, the flawless gate of the Teaching. Not dependent on words, it is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust it to Mahakasyapa."

This story, however historically unverifiable, represents the beginning of the Zen transmission, said to start directly with the Buddha. The story tells us two things: first, although the Buddha taught many true and useful teachings and techniques, the essence of what he taught is simple and ineffable. Holding up a flower is one expression of this essence. Second, the very simplicity and ineffability of this essential teaching requires that it be handed on from master to disciple in mutual wordless understanding. There can't be a Zen training program with exams and certifications, with objectives, goals and demonstrable, measurable mastery.

While wordless understanding seems a bit mystical and precious, it may not be as strange as it seems. We are all familiar with the transformation that takes place in apprenticeship and mentorship relationships, processes that involve a wordless give and take between individuals, and in which something quite hard to define is passed on. My own teacher once made me a calligraphy that read, "I have nothing to give you but my Zen spirit." Although the "Zen spirit" may be hard to define, measure and explicitly verify, it can be appreciated when you feel it.

I referred to "dharma families" in Zen. These are lineage families, and lineage is a key element in Zen training. While Zen practice can be done without benefit of a teacher, having a teacher is important, and, in the end, crucial if one is to realize the depth of Zen practice and make it completely one's own.

Although the Zen teacher must embody Zen and express it in all his or her words and deeds, a Zen teacher is not exactly a guru, a Buddha archetype at the center of a student's practice. To be sure, respect for and confidence in the teacher is essential if one is to undergo the transformation in consciousness that Zen promises. But the Zen teacher is also an ordinary, conditioned human being, simply a person, however much he or she has realized of Zen. This paradox—that the teacher is to be appreciated as a realized spiritual adept and at the same time as an ordinary individual with rough edges and personality quirks—seems to go to the heart of Zen's uniqueness. Through the relationship to the teacher, the student comes to embrace all beings, including himself or herself, in this way.

In Asia, lineages through the generations tended to be separate and usually opposing congregations. It was typical in the early days of the transmission of Zen to the West for teachers of different lineages to be scornful of each other. There were centuries of tradition behind this prodigious failure to communicate. Thankfully, in the West there is now much more sharing between the various lineages. In recent years in America, two organizations have been created to promote warm communication between the Zen lineages: the American Zen Teachers Association, which includes teachers from all lineages, and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, that is made up of teachers of the various lineages of Soto Zen, the largest Zen tradition in the West.

6. Taking the Path of Zen in the West

I've said that Zen is essentially monastic and depends on the intensive practice of sitting meditation. In the West, however, most Zen practitioners are not monastics. While this may seem strange, it is not at all strange if we consider "monastic" to be an attitude and a level of seriousness, more than a particular lifestyle. Unlike Zen laypeople in Asia, whose main practice is to support the monastic establishment, Western Zen lay practitioners want to understand Zen deeply and to practice it thoroughly, regardless of what their life circumstances may be. In this sense, all Western Zen students are "monastic," regardless of their life circumstances. All of them do some form of monastic-style training within the context of their lay lives. They sit meditation regularly, either at home or at a local temple, attend retreats and live their daily lives with full attention (or at least coming as close to this as they possibly can). They take lay or priest vows, and even sometimes enter monastic training at one or more Zen centers for periods of time.

While there is a great deal of variety among the many American Zen centers, in general their programs are open to the public, encouraging all who want to practice Zen at whatever level they wish to practice, but emphasizing committed, ongoing practice—gradually entered into—as the main road.

For someone who is interested in taking up Zen practice in America, the approach is not difficult: surf the Web or the phone book, find the location and schedule of the Zen establishment nearest to you, show up, and keep showing up as long as it suits you. Eventually you will learn the formalities of the local Zen meditation hall (most groups offer special instruction for beginners), and if you feel comfortable you will continue to attend meditation when you can.

Eventually you will sign up for dokusan (private, intense, formal interview with a teacher). At some point you will hear about a one-day sesshin (meditation retreat) and you'll try it out. You'll no doubt find it a daunting and at the same time uplifting experience. After some time you'll be ready to attend a seven-day sesshin, and that experience will feel like a real breakthrough to you, regardless of how many koans you do or do not pass, or how well or poorly you think you sat. Sesshin is a life-transforming experience, no matter what happens.

From there, if you continue, you will deepen your friendships with other practitioners. These relationships will seem to you, oddly, both closer and more distant than other relationships in your life. Closer because the feeling of doing Zen practice together bonds you deeply, and more distant because you may not exchange personal histories, opinions and gossip as you might do with other friends. As time goes on you will establish a relationship with one or more of the local Zen teachers, and you will find these relationships increasingly warm and important in your life, so much so that perhaps some day you will want to take vows as a lay Zen practitioner, joining the lineage family.

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