What do Sōtō Zen teachers do?

Sōtō Zen is not Dōgen's way. Dōgen despised the idea of sects. It is not really a school at all. It is not a building, or a tree with branching trunks, a stream, or a person. Because it is not a person it cannot move, or feel, or have beliefs about something. Like any religion, it is made by people, and specifically, by peoples' actions.

Since the time I started writing this blog, people now and then have written and asked me to be their teacher. I always said "no," and referred them to the nearest Zen center. Brad Warner has written quite well about how weird it is to have a stranger write to you asking to be your student. And I think James Ford also has some good guidelines about how to chose a teacher. I have always said "no" to people because I had nothing to offer; I didn't have transmission when I started writing this blog, and I didn't really have sangha either, which is important, because you need a building to sit zazen in. But now that I am listed as a Zen teacher on two damn websites, it seems harder to flat out deny someone requesting to be a student.

So despite what I'd like to do (hide forever and ever and never be responsible for anything) I have started to think about what I would possible require of a student or encourage them to do. This inevitably begs the question, what does a Sōtō Zen teacher do?

It's helpful to start with what a Sōtō Zen teacher will not do. Quite frankly, a Sōtō Zen teacher will not do what they are not trained to do. They are like deadly robots in this sense, or like puppies who have grown up into dogs. This means they will probably not guide you in something they have no training in. In my case, I have no training in koans, dokusan, or counseling. During my time in Japan, I had dokusan perhaps 4 times. Dokusan was not part of my training, so I will probably not require or invite a student to do that.

All of my teachers, from the official to the unofficial, have had a few things in common. I say this because I've had various teachers. The teacher I received transmission from is only one of them. I had a tea ceremony teacher, a Buddhist hymn teacher, and many friend/mentors who taught me ceremonies and encouraged me during my monastic training. They had very different styles, but a few important commonalities.

1) Teachers exist in a place of practice and encourage you to practice within that space. Not all teachers are abbots; some are just teachers operating out of their living room. But they have a living room, and invite you to come there and sit zazen. Or they're abbots, or teachers in centers. Or they invite you over for dinner. But again, they're in a space, and they invite you into that space.

2) Teachers give you things to do. Maybe it's tea ceremony. Maybe it's learning how to perform a funeral. Maybe it's koans. Maybe it's how to chant. Maybe it's zazen. Maybe it's dharma transmission. It's all just stuff to do, and it usually takes place in the location of #1 above. Zen teachers will tell you to do the things they have trained to do. They will probably want you to replicate their own training experience, more or less.

3) Teachers will help you try to have a good attitude about practice. They will encourage you to play well with others, cooperate, and not to get in fights. They might point out when you are being too serious and when you are being too flippant. They will try to stamp out any sense of mastery you are carrying. They do this by always believing that they themselves are students. I think this is the biggest gift a teacher can give a student, actually-- a real sense of beginner's mind. Teachers are the ultimate students; they will always be looking for something to learn, a new practice, a better way, a new awakening.

Sōtō Zen is just stuff you do. It's certain kinds of stuff, and you try to do it in a kind and simple and concentrated way. That's basically it. So a Sōtō Zen teacher is probably just going to give you stuff to do, like go on a retreat, or sit a sesshin, or read a book. Zen teachers will tell you to do the things they have trained to do. They will want you to replicate their own training experience. They will try to help you with your attitude, but this is really just to make sure you don't crash and burn. It's a way to help you continue practicing, continue doing stuff.

In Sōto Zen, form (stuff to do) is the method. But it's not the end all and be all. In the Sōtō Zen tradition there are a lot of steps, and these steps are just sort of special busy work. I say this because there is never an end to doing stuff. I made a handy flow chart to illustrate this, with the help of my right hand man. The following is how my teachers related to Zen practice.

The point is to continue. It's debatable which "things to do" are "right" or "correct." I won't get into that. My point is just that, if you really want someone to be your teacher, you should probably ask yourself, "Do I like what they are doing?" Do I want to mimic what they are doing? A teacher will encourage you to do the thing they do, to do the things they have done. They will encourage you to be in a place, do dharma stuff, and try to be less of a jerk than you are currently. And that might be all they can do for you.


  1. Is one gold star enough? .... kana.

  2. kabuki in a karaoke bar ... with iphones.

  3. This is really funny, but also true. And helpful.

  4. This is so great for so many reasons. Thanks.

  5. This is really great, as Shodo said. Also funny and true.
    Thank you. (Just fyi-the comment showed up in my husband's column for some reason. The photos enclosed here is not me.) I am Myo-O.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?