How does somebody become a Zen Master?
March 25, 2008 2:44 AM   Subscribe

What is the certification process for a "Zen Master" and a Zen "Priest"?

I understand that a Zen Master is different from a Zen priest, right?

How does somebody attain these titles?

Does a priest go to a Zen seminary? Is it an academic degree like a rabbinate? Are Zen priests professional clergy, or do they generally hold day jobs?

Does the title of Zen Master mean that the holder of the title is Enlightened? Who confers the title?
posted by TigerCrane to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In a nutshell, and bearing in mind you are using fairly colloquial terms:

A zen priest is merely someone who has gone to a temple, wears the robes and meditates. There's no particularly strigent criteria for this, so it implies no actual merit aside from having made the committment.

A zen 'master' could mean a lot of things. In the sense that I think you mean, it's a teacher who no longer has a teacher themselves. Zen has an idea of direct transmission from teacher to student, going right back to the buddha. This is almost certainly bollocks, invented to give zen a prestige and lineage. However, the idea that a teacher teaches you until you are ready to go out without aid, often to teach yourself, is a strong one throughout the many schools of zen. So a zen master, in this case, would be someone who has been authorised by their teacher (who was, themself, authenticated by their teacher) as having received the transmission of dharma (or buddhist stuff) in full and is ready to teach without supervision. Thus, often zen 'masters' run their own zendos/temples/parishes/whatever - it's not a necessary factor, though.

Whether this authentication implies enlightenment is another matter. Certainly it has been abused in the past in situations where it clearly didn't mean enlightenment, but I rather suspect that the answer to the question runs along the lines of 'if you have to ask, you need to do more sitting'.
posted by Sparx at 4:36 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the core concepts of Buddhism in general is the distinction between the laity or householders, and the monks/nuns. Monks and nuns generally have taken vows for life that include poverty, chastity, and other restrictions. Laity may take these vows on a short-term basis but are not expected to hold to them for extended periods of time. Some flavors of Buddhism hold that monastic vows make reaching enlightenment easier by removing distractions from the path and by helping to work away bad karma.

So a "priest" is a person who has taken the priestly vows of an order or tradition, and had those vows accepted by the Sangha or religious community.

A master or teacher is someone who is accepted by the Sangha as an authority on the Dharma. How one becomes an authority will vary quite a bit from tradition to tradition. Some traditions place a strong emphasis on reading and debating texts and commentary on Buddhism. Other traditions place a strong emphasis on time and experience. Succession and transfer of leadership will also vary from tradition to tradition.

Enlightenment is a state of being at which point a person is no longer bound to the chain of reincarnation. Teachers have not necessarily reached enlightenment in Buddhist thought.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:33 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Does the title of Zen Master mean that the holder of the title is Enlightened?

No. Its rare to ever meet an enlightened person, or if even alive today (this assertation varies on what school of buddhism you are talking about and who you ask), but generally the idea that all teachers are enlightened is not a common belief. You should view buddhism as having certain levels and as enlightenment as the final stop. Its also considered rude for people to loudly pronounce what level they are at, and in many traditions it is practically forbidden. The levels, as described by buddha in the pali cannon are:

1. Stream enterer (or stream winner). This person has released at least three fetters to samsara and will achieve enlightenment in 7 or less lifetimes. This person will be reborn on earth.

2. Once returner. Someone who will be reborn on earth one more time.

3. Non-returner. Someone who will be reborn again but not on earth, but perhaps as a Deva on a higher plane/world-system/planet/whatever.

4. Arahat. Someone who has achieved enlightenment and will enter nirvana at death.

I think your chances of meeting even a stream-enterer in your lifetime are pretty slim. That doesnt mean that someone who isnt one of these things cant be a good teacher or that students can't excel past their teachers.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:11 AM on March 25, 2008

A little more info here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:32 AM on March 25, 2008

I was reading the website of a particular zen establishment that listed answers their master had given. One answer was to the question: "How do I become a zen master?"

His reply: "Print up some business cards".

This is an excellent answer. In this vein I suggest that there is no certification for priest in any discipline... either you live a monastic life or you don't.

There is no certification of zen mastery either. I wouldn't consider anyone who wasn't enlightened to be a master. Historically, masters have known each other by the answers they give.

In this sense, masters self certify.
posted by ewkpates at 8:32 AM on March 25, 2008

damn dirty ape is referencing the Pali Canon. That isn't Zen, and I disagree with him on a more fundamental level as well. Zen Master (truly a ridiculous title if there ever was one) refers to someone who has received transmission from their lineage and has the go ahead to teach. There isn't much of a distinction between Zen Master and Zen Priest. Perhaps a layman who was recognized by a well respected transmission holder might be considered a Zen Master but not a Priest. These titles aren't taken all that seriously. For the most part, even the people in the direct line will tell you that's not where it's at.

Enlightenment is a tricky word. Unfortunately it has the connotation of "peak experience", instead it would be more accurate to go with "valley experience". I take the point of view that everyone is already enlightened. There's nothing to make a big deal about. If you want to read someone thoughtful and sober minded who has very carefully articulated what's going on here, then I highly recommend Toni Packer. Some years ago she was picked by Phillip Kapleau to carry on the first Zen lineage brought to the States. There is an experience there, and it's there all the time. If you want to notice it, Douglas Harding has come up with some experiments that point to what all the fuss is about. And sure, there's other takes on it as well. I suppose some might say that the people I'm talking about aren't really Zen at all. Then go read some of the widely accepted verses and see how it matches up with your own experience.
posted by BigSky at 8:34 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

damn dirty ape is referencing the Pali Canon.

Correct, my reply is from the theravadan tradition, which is not zen, but when I find people talking about "is so and so enlightened" it usually means the classical definition. If he meant zen-like peaks then please dismiss my comment.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:53 AM on March 25, 2008

Also you may have better luck asking here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:57 AM on March 25, 2008

To become a Zen Master, you must first not care whether you become a Zen Master. Then print up some business cards.
posted by The World Famous at 10:28 AM on March 25, 2008

The Zen Priest I knew was a carpenter by day. He had been practicing at a particular zen center for several years, and had decided to make a stronger commitment to the practice. There was some sort of ceremony in which the Master of that zen center ordained him and a few others, and from then on they were considered to be Zen Priests. Mostly it just meant that they held themselves to higher standards in terms of commitment to their meditation practice and to the tenets of Right Living. They helped with little tasks around the Zen Center (like restocking the incense in the meditation hall), and tried to serve as good examples for fellow members of the community, but it was about the same as what you'd expect from a highly-involved member of any church. They weren't giving dharma talks, and they all had full-time non-zen-related jobs, which probably differs from how you would imagine a "Priest" if you come from a Christian tradition.

"Master" was the title reserved for the head teacher at the Zen Center. Several of the Priests hoped to one day become Masters themselves. What that meant was that the Master of their center would decide they had reached a point where they could teach others, unsupervised. Therefore they could go start their own Zen Center.
posted by vytae at 10:49 AM on March 25, 2008

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