From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.
Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. Only certified teachers may certify other teachers: genetically not the healthiest way to propagate.
Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error. Just about any topic is taught and certified — just check online or ask the nearest school. For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.
Is that what the Buddha had in mind? As best as I can determine, he wasn’t interested in a hierarchical religion, nor did he want the sangha (community of followers) depend on him and other teachers for their salvation. Based on heresay — his words weren’t written down for 200 years after his death — his dying guidance is significant:
“Therefore be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves.”
In short: there’s no absolute need for teachers — authorized, certified, or otherwise. Teach yourself. Trust your innate wisdom. As to me: yes, I’m a teacher but don’t make me your teacher.
source: Mahaaparinibbaana Suttanta. Burtt, E. A. (1955). (ed.). The teachings of the compassionate Buddha. New York: The New American Library, p. 49.