I left Zen behind decades ago, and yet I still feel there is something sacred about Zen lineage. Perhaps this is why I'm so annoyed as I notice, more and more, how half-baked teachers from other traditions —or perhaps from no tradition—apply the term “Zen Master” to themselves. Even someone who has practiced and taught Zen for years is not a Zen Master, or Roshi in Japanese, unless that person's own Roshi has designated him or her as a successor. Certainly, then, someone who has scarcely, if ever, set foot in a Zen center is not entitled to this designation.
My own teacher, Adyashanti, who comes from Zen, doesn't call himself a “Zen Master,” or any other kind of “master,” for that matter. But after a series of awakenings inspired by his presence, there was a period almost a decade ago now when I researched the various American Zen lineages. It seemed—and still does seem—that something incredibly precious was transmitted, and that it didn't start with my teacher but went back hundreds or even thousands of years. Maybe it's this sense of the preciousness of transmission that causes me to feel that it's a travesty for someone who has only the vaguest familiarity with Zen, or even with Buddhism in some cases, to refer to himself as a “Zen Master.”
Still, even those with a little knowledge of the history of Buddhism in America know that those who are legitimate dharma heirs—successors to the lineage holders in their tradition—have sometimes behaved in less than enlightened ways. Thus, people may well ask, “What does it even mean, anyway, to be a Roshi? Does it really guarantee that a person is a completely enlightened teacher? It seems that it doesn't. So if the purpose of lineage is to help potential students decide if a certain teacher is genuine, maybe it isn't that helpful a guide.
This brings up the whole question of teachers and their role. In an interview in Dialogues with Emerging Spiritual Teachers, by John W. Parker (Sagewood Press, 2000), Eckhart Tolle concluded that teachers who are awake sometimes experience return of their ego because of all of the projection from students (p. 122). In other words, when everyone thinks you're a god, it's hard not to buy into that view eventually. Christianity doesn't have that problem because the earthly manifestation of its god came to earth over 2,000 years ago and never since. But for seekers in Eastern traditions, the teacher often unconsciously represents the inner, unmanifest Buddha that is only consciously realized in awakening. This is natural but also causes much confusion.
In response to the quandary over how to find spiritual leaders of integrity, some communities based in Eastern wisdom have decided to elect their head teacher through democratic process. But this solution also raises some questions: Given that we don't know what enlightenment is ahead of time, how is it possible to select the right person to lead us to a goal of which we are ignorant? And how can we choose someone who will not succumb to the egotistic temptation of believing him/herself to be a great master? I continue to think we in the West need to grapple with this issue until we find the right structures through which the teachings transmitted from the East can flourish.