Lineage Holders: A Short Meditation on Leadership in Contemporary Western Zen Buddhist Sanghas

As I reflect on the nature of Zen coming from the West, I am almost endlessly fascinated by the variety of its forms. There is no doubt that the majority of people talking about Zen on social media have simply read a book, usually by Alan Watts, but perhaps a little deeper, and are more than happy to expose the power from the moment. Of course on them. I hope they will have fun.

Zen is also a marketing thing, apparently in this world Zen means “relax”. Which I believe means pretty cool and aloof. I’m a little less generous in my feelings for them, but in a world of Quaker Oats and spandex yoga pants, Zen could do worse. And maybe again.

For the smaller number of us who have found our life in the Zen way, things are also confusing. Zen emerges in medieval China. While from the beginning, a mysterious permission called dharma transmission was mainly encouraged in Mahayana monasteries, and held mostly by monks and a few nuns. However, the transmission of the dharma was also frequently granted to the heads of families. Mainly imperial officials, but sometimes even rose to royalty. The literature is also replete with allusions to the tea ladies and other unnamed who show up and reorient many monks.

Japan offered an interesting variation on the theme, with a long evolution towards a rush to reform in the Meiji era. The result was a married priesthood, which retained monastic formation and used monastic terminology. And within the larger Soto school, the term dharma transmission has been lost as the first step on a long bureaucratic ladder. Just to keep things hectic in Korea, a minority school, the Taego, while retaining both monasteries and monks and nuns, also has a category of priests similar to what is seen in Japan, although in a creative tension with the monks.

All of this landed in the West. With a very, very interesting variation, the rise of lines of family heads. This opened up a host of questions about training, as well as dharma transmission.

For Zen in the West, there are Chinese monasteries that follow traditional Chinese models, and where Zen (called Chan) is a subset that sometimes and sometimes not can be found. The majority of practitioners are of Chinese origin. The same can be said for Vietnamese Zen (called Thien), where the majority of practitioners are of Vietnamese origin. Zen Koreans (called Son) get a little messier. There are Jogye monasteries and Taego temples, serving both ethnic Koreans and converts. And the Kwan Um school, founded by a monk Jogye, grew into a very large network of centers with few monks, monks and nuns, but the largest number of centers run by Householder teachers.

Rinzai schools have no direct institutional missions, although there are a few Rinzai masters who live more or less full-time in the West. A Rinzai lineage has established itself as an independent American branch of Japanese Rinzai Zen, but with the exception of a training monastery in Wisconsin, it appears to exist primarily within the martial arts community. There are several independent lineages deriving from the early Rinzai teachers. Although there are householders in these lines, it seems that all or certainly the vast majority are led by priests, most with some form of monastic training. They also rely heavily on koan introspection and the koan curriculum system developed in the 18th century and closely associated with Hakuin Ekaku.

Soto is both the largest and most diverse Zen community in the West. The majority transmit a modified monastic formation, and an insistence on priestly ordination. The Japanese Sotoshu has been present in North America since the first decades of the 20th century. Those wishing to be ordained within the Soto school must travel to Japan for certain critical monastic portions of priestly training. The Grandes Ecoles only give unimpeded permits to drive to priests.

But partial authorizations have multiplied. And many of these people, especially when they establish their own centers, are widely recognized as teachers and leaders.

To keep the pot well stirred, lines of Householder emerged. The largest of these, now called Sanbo Zen, derives from a Soto school which incorporated a comprehensive koan curriculum into its training. Many householders as well as priests have been licensed in these lineages.

So two little things. Many Westerners were shocked to learn that dharma transmission, however, is in Japan, at least, a bureaucratic step. In Soto, it is more striking because it is placed at the beginning. In Rinzai, this fact is a bit more hidden. There is a private aspect to these permissions, but in fact everything leads to an office that allows someone to run a training monastery. The relevant rank in both Soto and Rinzai is Shike.

This does not mean that enlightenment and Dharma transmission are not real things. But with institutions, something intimate and complicated is offered. In my opinion, knowing many passed on teachers, and falling into the category myself, is that for the most part the designation is a confirmation of confidence. This shows that a teacher standing in a certain way in a lineage of teachers believes that someone has attained a certain insight and can probably guide others to that insight.

That’s enough. Then they, we, are on our own paths. If we do not forget to continue, other wonders await us.

And no guarantees. In addition to the cheats and the posers, there are the half-crazy, many people for whom anyone with some insight into the big picture can see he shouldn’t be teaching. Sometimes people with totally official titles just shouldn’t have leadership authority.

The transmission is a mess.

And it offers a hint of possibilities.

For me, here is the most important thing. Zen opens the doors of reality. He offers a way for the brokenhearted to find the great healing. It is a practice of life with a door that is both wide open and inviting. His teachers are all imperfect. Some have great ideas. A few small glimmers. But Lineage Holders are bound, whether they know it or not, as custodians of something rare on this planet. An authentic path of depth, insight, possibility.

Something serious and beautiful is happening. Arrived.

And we are at a turning point. What will come with the big death, the passing of my generation (the “ok, Boomer” crowd), is a bit of a mystery.

But there are things on the ground. And this little reflection is inspired by a conversation with Dr. John Jeffery of Pacific Institute for Essential Conversations. They have formed a program offering clinical supervision to chaplains. They and John have accompanied many Buddhist leaders as they sought this certification. And along the way, John had some thoughts.

Perhaps most important at the moment is how he named the leaders of Zen and other Buddhist organizations in our not precisely post-monastic era. Buddhist leaders, Zen leaders, whether they are monks or nuns, priests or heads of families, whether they hold a formal form of ecclesiastical authorization or one of the more vague forms, as they are recognized by other practitioners, all fall under one category:

Lineage Holders.

They are the leaders of our current and emerging sanghas and other named communities of practice.

What John and his associates have noticed is that these Lineage Holders need enriched training. First and foremost is spiritual formation. Lots of zazen. Koan practice. Perhaps a liturgical expertise, a traditional and beautiful form of practice.

But to successfully lead communities of practice, they need additional skill sets.

While many disdain this, and some go so far as to claim that they absolutely do not need it, these things are distractions; if they want to be useful, they do. Even if the project does not exceed the rental of a space and the gathering of a few people, skills are necessary. Or, the lineage holder risks thwarting their own hopes of making themselves useful.

So, in addition to being able to teach and guide meditation and provide spiritual direction, they need to learn something about pastoral care within their communities. I have seen the lack of this skill set tear communities apart. Doubly sad when leaders are actually good at the spiritual leadership part.

What I would add to the list of necessary skill sets that need to be found, and ideally found in a formally recognized way as expected of our new lineage holders, is a solid grounding in traditional teachings beyond specialist knowledge. around meditation (and maybe koans), pastoral skills noted by John, and just some basic administrative stuff.

Lineage owners don’t need to be bookkeepers, but they do need to be able to read a budget. And understand the big picture of paying bills.

Will all this happen?

Maybe. I think most of my generation have to die first. We are full of notions that tend to keep us from truly serving. But this death, well, time will take care of that.

And then those who love the dharma and are ready to devote a significant part of their life to the project must acquire the skills necessary to support the work.

Dharma is too important to waste the life blood that has brought us to this moment.

So, my little appeal to Lineage Holders. Whether you are a nun, monk, priest or head of household.

Get into practice. Know the arts of Zen meditation from within. If the training requires monastic training, get it. If it requires completing the koan introspection, do so. If it’s a relentless commitment to practice year after year, do it. And know that none of this is enough. Critical, but not enough. If you want to be useful, step up, learn the extra skills you need.

A broken world depends on it…


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