Forum, Yvonne Rand, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Buddhadharma, Teachers, Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro, Richard Shrobe, Lion's Roar, Buddhism

Who Will Teach the Dharma?

A panel discussion with Ponlop Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Yvonne Rand, Ajahn Amaro and Richard Shrobe.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Shellaine Godbold.

A panel discussion with Ponlop Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Yvonne Rand, Ajahn Amaro and Richard Shrobe.

Buddhadharma: Perhaps we should start by enumerating the important qualities of a Buddhist teacher, the kinds of things a successful selection process would identify in a candidate.

Jack Kornfield: In short, the qualities are compassion and wisdom. The qualities a teacher needs include: true compassion and connectedness with all beings, so that whatever teaching is offered comes through as an expression of the universal compassion of all the buddhas; emptiness, liberation from the identity with the small sense of self; fullness, an ability to be present and awake; maturity, someone who has a great deal of life experience; and a kind of sensitivity.

And along with all that, profound dharma practice, deep experience of the teachings of the Buddha in their own heart and mind-stream, and a fundamental virtue and morality that is both beautiful and in some ways unshakable.

Yvonne Rand: For someone to be effective in the West, they have to be grounded in their own culture of origin. They need to embody the clear seeing and wisdom that are possible in the world we actually live in, and not merely in the cultures that have carried buddhadharma to the West. As Westerners, we need this integration so we don’t split or compartmentalize the process of spiritual cultivation from our life as ordinary human beings.

Ponlop Rinpoche: As Jack said, the basic qualities are compassion and wisdom. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is important to train in the intellectual understanding of dharma, culture and language, and to achieve meditative realization of emptiness and wisdom. So from a Tibetan Buddhist point of view, the main qualities are intellectual understanding of dharma and the meditative or contemplative realization that manifests as both compassion and wisdom.

Richard Shrobe: I think the quality of ordinariness that Yvonne mentioned is very important—integrating dharma with life in the society in which we’re embedded.

Ajahn Amaro: One of the qualities that I would underscore is morality, sila. Morality refers to a basic kind of trustworthiness and straightforwardness that someone who’s going to be a teacher and guide requires. Students need to know that teachers are trustworthy and have a fundamental empathy, so they can depend on them. This needs to come from a pragmatic rather than an idealistic perspective. Sometimes it’s easy to manifest those larger qualities, but from a very idealistic position that doesn’t connect with people in a direct or heartfelt way. Along with this empathy, which is grounded in practice, should come profound communication skills. To be able to hear others is extraordinarily important.

Yvonne Rand: Something else that’s important for Western teachers, and that I’ve appreciated in my own teachers from Asia, is the willingness not only to take the teacher’s seat but to sit in the student’s seat, too.

Buddhadharma: Now that we’ve laid that ground, by what process have your schools traditionally chosen teachers and spiritual leaders?

Ajahn Amaro: In the Theravada world of Thailand, where my experience lies, there are two basic systems—the bureaucratic system and the actual dharma practice system.

The bureaucratic system deals with who administers the local district or province, and it’s generally based on your academic accomplishment, years of practice and where you were trained. That kind of leadership, then, is transmitted based on quite superficial characteristics. Someone might be a high-ranking monk and head of the province but have very little stature as a spiritual authority or dharma teacher.

Then there is the forest monastic tradition, which is dominated by people who deliberately try to get away from the bureaucratic hierarchy and who avoid titles and positions. In that realm, spiritual authority and the role of being a teacher is passed on in a very organic way. There’s no formal dharma transmission and the teacher does not officially name a disciple as dharma heir. It comes down to which of the students has the capacity—the capacity to practice, to understand the teachings and to communicate. Based on that, a teacher will say, “Why don’t you go start a monastery someplace,” or, “Why don’t you go and look after this particular teaching session.” The person is put into a living situation where they can try things out, and the teacher will watch closely to see how it works. If it succeeds, insofar as people are benefiting and the person teaching is thriving there, then it’s okay to let it keep going. If it collapses in a disaster, then the teacher will draw that person in and try somebody else out. It works in a very hands-on, organic way. It’s generally based on individuals living with a teacher or in close proximity to a teacher for at least ten years before being put in a position of leadership.

Jack Kornfield: Dharma succession, transmission, is a very mysterious and numinous issue to discuss, because it’s about the carrying the lamp of dharma from one generation to another. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha, who is about to die, looks around him and says, “My friends, it may be that you’ll think that the teacher’s instruction has ceased because you no longer have the teacher. Don’t think so. Instead, take the teachings, the dharma that I have taught, and the vinaya, the way of living and the virtue, and let those be the teacher.” So to go along with the dharma and the vinaya, a council of elders was set up.

Within our tradition, as Ajahn Amaro described, there are a variety of ways that people become teachers. Some are handpicked by their teachers. Sometimes a leader is chosen from the council of elders by election or by acclaim. Sometimes it’s by seniority—people actually don’t want the role, but there needs to be an abbot or meditation teacher within a certain community and one of the elders must do it.

Sometimes it’s spontaneous, as with great teachers such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu or Ajahn Dajmmadaro or Paw Ok Sayadaw in Burma. Their vision and understanding was so deep and the impact of their teaching so strong that even though no teacher anointed them, the people proclaimed them a master. Sometimes it can be hereditary. In Sri Lanka, for example, some temples are passed down within a family from one generation to the next.

Yvonne Rand: The Soto Zen tradition of Japan has some of what Ajahn Amaro described in terms of bureaucratic function. For several centuries, you would go to one of the big training monasteries, characteristically Eiheiji Monastery, for a period of formal practice and training, and upon receiving dharma transmission you would then be able to inherit your father’s temple. Dharma transmission wasn’t the big deal we think of it here in the West, with all of the attendant meaning. It was something very functional and ordinary. Although there were exceptions, transmission was not generally an indication of someone’s understanding or spiritual cultivation, the kind of authority that arises out of deep study, training and practice. I think of dharma transmission in the Soto Zen school in Japan as almost like what you have to do to join a union. But in the United States we got so caught up in the reverence for transmission that we assigned it a meaning it hadn’t had in Japan for quite a while.

Richard Shrobe: In Korea, the position of abbot in a temple is not the same as the position of Zen teacher. The abbot is the administrative head of the temple and the Zen master is the one who presides over practice. One way you become a Zen master is if your teacher gives you transmission because he sees certain qualities, levels of attainment and maturity in your practice. In other cases, the sangha will vote someone into the position of Zen master. For example, if the master of the temple has died without appointing a successor, sometimes the sangha will appoint somebody by consensus, someone who has been sitting there for many years and whom they deem a senior monk in terms of demeanor and attainment. Also, there are many older monks in Korea who are called Zen master, but they don’t actually have the lineage transmission. It’s just a sign of respect toward an older monk.

Ponlop Rinpoche: In Tibetan Buddhism, spiritual authority is generally conferred on a candidate on the basis of one of two main qualifications. The first kind of spiritual authority is based on the achievement of high realization in the meditation practice—the realization of the true nature of mind and the true nature of the reality of the universe, as the Buddha taught. The second kind of spiritual authority is based on a candidate’s having gone through a necessary course of study and meditation training and achieving strong results from this training. In both cases, the candidate must possess genuine qualities of a dharma practitioner, such as loving-kindness and compassion toward sentient beings, being very patient and tolerant in nature, and having a good understanding of the culture and society.

The first one is what the Buddha called in the vinaya “qualification by wisdom,” and it is recognized by a teacher, usually after asking all the other monks. The second kind refers to geshe, acharya or khenpo training, where we have a clearly laid out curriculum of both study and meditation.

Lastly, we have the tulku system, which is a way of recognizing an incarnate lama. Once a young child is recognized as being the reincarnation of a previous great master, that child also goes through extensive study and training in meditation. Therefore, tulku recognition is connected to the first qualification, because it is believed that tulkus have some kind of realization. And then they also have the other qualification, because they go through this training.

Buddhadharma: Among the three categories, do the majority of the Tibetan teachers come from tulku recognition, the acknowledgement of direct realization, or from the training systems?

Ponlop Rinpoche: I would say that most come from the training systems. As you can see in the Tibetan Buddhist community, there are a lot of khenpos, geshes and acharyas, and also a lot of tulkus who have gone through these training regimens.

Ajahn Amaro: I would like to add a point that the Dalai Lama made at one of the conferences he had with Western teachers in Dharamsala a few years ago. We were having a similar discussion about authorization and he made the point that essentially the authorization is given by the student.

Yvonne Rand: Yes, I remember that.

Ajahn Amaro: Because if nobody shows up, what does your certificate mean? You can have all the titles and authorization in the world, but if nobody shows up—if no one’s listening and no one pays attention—then it has no meaning. The point is whether people want to study with you, whether people feel your teachings affect them in a beneficial way, whether people are showing up to listen and to practice.

In the Theravada homelands, things get pulled apart by the weather—tropical heat, monsoon rains, moisture and mold. Things don’t last as long as they do in rocky Tibet. Monasteries fall apart very quickly and easily, so someone might have been a great teacher in a particular place but once the teacher dies there’s no compulsion to keep the monastery together anymore if none of the students understood the teachings well enough to succeed him. As a result, monasteries literally fall apart and vanish. There’s no sense that a place has to be held together just because it was there last year or twenty years ago. When you have a living situation where the teaching is being transmitted effectively, there’s a sense that it can work for awhile, but eventually it’s going to fall apart. And when it’s time for it to fall apart, then it can fall apart. It’s not held together out of devotion to some kind of historical momentum.

Yvonne Rand: That kind of forced impermanence could work against a hazard we face in the West, which is building very beautiful places for practice but losing sight of the fact that this path is about being rather than having. In what Ajahn Amaro describes, the physical environment is a great blessing with respect to that particular danger.

Jack Kornfield: In one of the Buddha’s teachings, he says that as long as followers of the way cultivate their own personal mindfulness, as long as followers of the way have unstained virtue and develop compassion, equanimity, and dedication to the path, so long will the dispensation of the Buddha prosper and not decline. In the lineage of Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan practitioners, there is a collective trust in this, and I feel it myself. Although a particular temple may die out, we can trust that people’s dedication is such that the dharma will spring up anew in another province or another cave or another mountain. And so we hear that there’s a new group of people practicing very sincerely over here, and there’s a wonderful teacher who’s spent years in that mountain or cave over there. I expect that this is true of Tibetan Buddhism as well. Is that so, Rinpoche?

Ponlop Rinpoche: Exactly. Many of the monasteries became institutionalized later on. In the beginning, as you can see from the stories like those of Milarepa, the yogis wandered in caves and mountains. There is no big monastery or institution called “Milarepa’s Monastery.” It’s very much like the great masters of Zen or of Theravada. I think that’s something we all share in the Buddhist world.

Buddhadharma: Having outlined the traditional methods, let’s turn to what’s happening in the West now. Are there factors—political, social, practical, psychological—that may cause communities to rethink the way teachers and leaders are selected?

Jack Kornfield: Several questions occur to me concerning differences in the Western and Asian situations. In the Asian lineages of living practice, there are very strong monastic traditions. Many of the teachers are people who have committed themselves to living monastic lives. One challenge here in the West is how this transmission of dharma can happen for a group of people with very few monasteries, where most of the practitioners—and even a generation of teachers—are lay people with families and financial responsibilities and so forth. These are people without the long training, support or protection afforded by a monastery.

Then I have a couple of other questions to raise. In transmission you find a mixture of archetype and history. In Zen, for example, one puts one’s name at the end of a long beautiful scroll that has the name of every teacher who received transmission from the time of the Buddha, up to your teacher and yourself. Beautiful rice paper with a hundred names on it. But it’s not necessarily literal—if you study Buddhist history you see that some of those people didn’t live in the same century, so they couldn’t have known one another. But they might have received transmission in a more archetypal way.

So while there is that luminous, archtypical quality of transmission, how do we also understand it in the most human way? Maybe there’s a monastic community and the teacher has died. Or a group of students has sprung up in New York and they don’t have a teacher. How do they get a teacher in a country that’s not a Buddhist country?

Then there’s the question of isolation. In our tradition in Asia, a charismatic teacher will often live in a monastic setting. By contrast, we have found that being a solo teacher in America is very isolating. Certain Zen masters and Tibetan lamas I have talked to have also found it very isolating to be the only teacher. So our community has tried to have several teachers share the responsibility of carrying the dharma, rather than focusing on just one person. There can be so many expectations laid on that poor person. It helps to create a community of elders who can carry the teachings.

Another issue arises in the Tibetan tradition. I think many Western teachers, even if they have done long years of Tibetan Buddhist training, are not that comfortable being visualized in guru yoga as the lama and vajra master. So instead they’re having their students visualize their own teacher, their own master. It seems like there’s something in our Western culture that makes them hesitant to take on the role that a lama or a tulku would have in Tibet.

Yvonne Rand: Americans these days seem to be hierarchy-averse. Maybe not across the board, but there’s a strong quest, if you will, for the central place of egalitarianism in our culture and history to be reflected in our spiritual practice—focusing on horizontal relationships as opposed to vertical, hierarchical relationships. There are issues that have collected around hierarchy and power and authority, and one of the challenges for those of us who are sitting in the teaching seat these days is to not throw out the baby with the bath water.

The whole focus in American society and culture is on being an individual, while in the way Zen is practiced in Japan, the focus is on the legitimacy and importance of practicing in a group. There is not as much focus on the importance of being able to practice alone.

In Soto Zen there’s a whole hierarchy reflected in the color of the robes you wear, with a resulting overemphasis on the form and not enough focus on one’s authentic experience. I just spent some time with Charlotte Joko Beck and we talked about what happens when the teacher no longer wears robes. What are the hazards of some practitioners in the meditation hall wearing a version of the Buddha’s robe while other people don’t? Are we focused on looking good or being “somebody,” when that’s in exact opposition to what dharma practice and training is about? It is extremely important to address how we understand power and authority and how they relate to American practitioners before getting into the whole question of transmission.

Buddhadharma: How might a community structure, itself, respond to this suspicion or skepticism about hierarchy?

Yvonne Rand: This question comes into focus particularly for communities that come together to practice in retreat, but not continuously as in a monastery. How do we have an appreciation for the kind of hierarchy that inevitably arises when a group of people who have a range of spiritual cultivation practice together? How do we have a hierarchy that is authentic but it does not become solidified in form. A number of the people I’ve practiced with for years—some of whom have taken the precepts and the bodhisattva vows and wear the form of the Buddha’s robes called a rakasu in Soto Zen—are beginning to feel discomfort about practicing with people who don’t have a rakasu. It sets up a kind of tension about who’s been around for a long time; it becomes a distraction and is no longer necessarily useful.

One can also question the tradition of ordaining people to wear robes so that they look like monastics, but who may not be practicing and living as monastics except when they’re on retreat. My own experience in following that model is that it hasn’t worked and I no longer do it. I know a teacher I respect very highly who does occasionally ordain someone as a monk or priest, but does it in the dark of the night and the person doesn’t wear their robes in the community practice.

Buddhadharma: In response to the situation in the West, how do your communities now choose teachers and leaders, and how does that differ from the way that it was done traditionally in your school?

Ajahn Amaro: The way we do things in our monastery is remarkably consistent with the way it’s done in Asia. Our community came to the West in the mid-seventies and we’ve essentially kept up the traditional pattern. We were prepared to change things, but it’s been striking how little we have needed to make adaptations, particularly in the area of training people for the monastic life or bestowing authority on people. It’s quite striking how little we seem to have adapted, yet it seems to work pretty well.

One of the reasons it’s worked is that we don’t charge for anything, so there’s an escape from the hold of commercialism. The whole ethic of, “I bought my product and I’ve got my rights as a consumer,” is circumvented. In our monastery, if you don’t like it, you cannot think, “I’ve paid my money and I’m supposed to be given what I like.” If you don’t like it, you’re free to find somewhere you do like. So the kind of people who are comfortable with a formal system or a hierarchical format find themselves feeling quite at home and others who don’t like that will tend to move on.

The hierarchy in our community is very, very rigid in certain areas, yet it’s also extremely flexible in others. It’s very important to relate to your role in the hierarchy as you would to wearing a piece of clothing, that is, to be able to put it on and take it off when appropriate. If you think you have a rank as an absolute reality, then you’ve really gone too far. To be a monastic for many years and high up in status in some way, and yet also able to step down from that and be on the level of simple friendship with all other beings is crucial for the health of the whole system.

We also have an advantage in that there is no sign of accomplishment, no insignia you acquire. You don’t get a purple robe if you become an abbot or a stream-enterer. Your dress is indistinguishable from that of the other nuns and monks. There’s a simplicity to that.

Personally, I lead something of a double life. Spirit Rock has a community of about twenty teachers, of which I am one, and I also have my life at the monastery. I’ve found a great deal of benefit from mixing in both worlds—the non-hierarchical Spirit Rock lay teacher way of functioning and the hierarchical monastic world. Letting both those worlds inform each other has been a very helpful aspect of being in the West.

Jack Kornfield: Every five years in our community, teachers across the country will consult with one another and talk about who in this last period of practice seems to have matured, whose realization is the most evident, who has the kind of compassionate good heart and other qualities that would make them a good teacher. Then we come to a consensus on several candidates to add to our pool of teachers. If they choose to respond to our invitation, they undertake a training period, usually five years. They engage in extensive practice, train in teaching skills, and study important texts and histories of the tradition. Then they are gradually mentored to become part of a collective of teachers.

We have found that a certain degree of hierarchy is really needed. There has to be spiritual leadership in a community—it can’t just be everybody getting together and voting on what they would like the dharma to be for them. But we’ve found it helpful for the leadership to be collective, so that no single person is the abbot or the leader. So there’s the equivalent of a council of elders, such as you would have at a Theravadin monastery. People who have practiced and dedicated themselves for twenty, thirty or forty years—who are collectively recognized as people with some attainment—gather as a group to make decisions about who should teach. Then we collectively train and mentor them.

Buddhadharma: Do you see this system as being consistent with the way that it was traditionally done, or is it modified in important aspects because of the concerns of Westerners?

Jack Kornfield: This is an amalgam of some different aspects of what one would find in Thailand and Burma. It is altered, however, by the more collective approach. Rather than having an abbot or one clear meditation master, there are a handful of people—a half-dozen, or in a large center perhaps a dozen or more—who collectively hold the teaching responsibility and share decision-making. That’s been very healthy for us. It’s also been much less isolating and healthier for the students, because they hear several different expressions of dharma. Yet there’s also a willingness among each of the teachers to hold the necessary leadership in terms of study, training, virtue and all the requisite aspects of being a teacher.

Richard Shrobe: In the Kwan Um school we have a collective system somewhat similar to what Jack has described. The student has one person who is considered their guiding teacher. If after years of practice together the guiding teacher considers the student ready to take on teaching responsibilities, that student is sent around to four other teachers within the Kwan Um school. Those four other teachers have to agree that this person is in fact a good candidate to take on teaching responsibility. It can’t be just at the whim of one person. A teacher can see something in a student, having been with him or her for a long time, but the students may be missing things that other teachers might see from a different vantage point.

In our transmission ceremonies, which are public, Seung Sahn always used to say, “The sangha is giving the transmission.” As Ajahn Amaro mentioned earlier, you can appoint someone a teacher but if students don’t gravitate to that person and don’t find affinity with him or her, then that person is not teaching. Teaching is a functional responsibility; it’s a process. The title itself is meaningless. The same goes with hierarchy; it should be functional. Anything that goes beyond functionality is in danger of becoming rigid.

Buddhadharma: Ponlop Rinpoche, how are young teachers now being selected and trained in the West and in the Tibetan diaspora, and how will that continue into the future?

Ponlop Rinpoche: It is very hard to group all Tibetan Buddhist lineages into one system, but I think that all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism in the West are trying to train Western students in exactly the same way as Tibetans have been trained traditionally. I don’t think there’s much difference in terms of the quality of the dharma training that they receive. At the same time, of course, the format of the training, and the time required for it, has been modified for Western culture and modern culture throughout the world.

The Tibetan Buddhist traditions have very strong lineages of training in intellectual Buddhist studies, in Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist psychology, logic, and so on. On the other hand, we also have a very strong tradition of meditation training. There is extensive training in shamatha and vipashyana, continuing with different Vajrayana meditation techniques. One of the key elements here is working with the post-meditation training called lojong, which is the Mahayana mind training process in bodhichitta, loving-kindness and compassion. We also work with the post-meditation conduct of the teacher—on how one can manifest in the world in the interest of helping other sentient beings.

Buddhadharma: How would a suitable person be chosen to succeed a teacher such as yourself?

Ponlop Rinpoche: In my view, it would require a few steps. First, the candidate must receive all the necessary training and transmissions. Second, they must also have all these qualities of personality—compassion and so on—that we discussed earlier. Third, there must be a selection by me and other sangha members, together. I do not see it as a process of me alone choosing a successor.

Yvonne Rand: Rinpoche, within Vajrayana is it traditional that if someone has completed the three-year retreat they would be authorized to teach? My sense is that if a Westerner has completed three-year retreat, they take the view that they are now a teacher. Is that the traditional view?

Ponlop Rinpoche: It’s a little bit tricky. Traditionally speaking, the three-year retreat is not necessarily teacher training; it is for personal development. Some of the students who attend the three-year retreat are later chosen to teach meditation, but not everyone who’s done three-year retreat in Tibet or India would be chosen to be teachers.

Jack Kornfield: Rinpoche, in Vajrayana there is a strong emphasis on devotion and guru yoga. Do you think that Westerners can function as vajra masters in the same way that Tibetan gurus of previous generations have, or will Westerners need to continue to take Tibetans as their root teachers?

Ponlop Rinpoche: We have to go back to understanding what devotion means. We need to look not at the cultural aspect of devotion but rather at the pure practice element of devotion. We have a saying in the Mahamudra and the Dzogchen lineages: “Devotion is the path.” That does not mean that we have to have one hundred percent trust right from the beginning. This trust does not necessarily mean trust toward an external master either. The ultimate master is within oneself—basically one trusts one’s own nature of mind, which is reflected externally as the great enlightened masters such as Padmasambhava or Shakyamuni Buddha.

Yes, I feel there have to be some changes made here, but that change is cultural. It doesn’t change anything with regard to the basic principle of devotion. One of the fundamental problems here in the West, in my humble opinion, is that we misunderstand devotion.

Buddhadharma: Most of our main teachers in the West today have been empowered by Asian teachers. Is the current generation of Western teachers going to be perceived as having sufficient spiritual authority to be able to empower a next generation of Westerners so that they may be perceived as sufficiently empowered and legitimized as true spiritual leaders?

Ajahn Amaro: I was first invited to teach by Ajahn Sumedho, who is from Seattle and whom I met in England. I studied for a few years with Ajahn Chah, but most of my training since 1979 has been in the West. I’ve been trained almost entirely by Ajahn Sumedho. So I’m already one link down the chain.

Buddhadharma: And you’ve found it hasn’t hurt your street credentials, as they say?

Ajahn Amaro: Well, Jack and the others still invite me to their parties.

Jack Kornfield: There’s no question that I feel much less realized than the great masters with whom I’ve studied. I think I’ve become a very good teacher for people in certain circumstances. But if I think of my own masters, like Ajahn Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw, they were considered among the greatest masters of this past century in our tradition. I hold them in such high regard—I experienced their freedom and their wisdom to be so deep.

So part of me thinks that we’re in trouble, because when I look at their generation and then look at those who are teaching now, it feels like they had something incredible that isn’t being carried forward quite so clearly and strongly now. So then if I’m supposed to pass this along to another generation, even more is going to get lost. Maybe it always feels this way. I’ve talked about this with masters such as Ajahn Chah and some very senior Tibetan lamas, and they would get kind of wistful and their eyes would moisten and they would say, “You should have met my teacher.”

On the other hand, I believe that what’s carried in this transmission isn’t so personal. It is really the spirit of awakening, it is bodhichitta, it is the true nature of mind—and that can never be diminished. Some may be able to point at it more skillfully, and some may be able to embody or carry it more fully, but it can’t really be diminished. It’s the dharma and it’s just there. It’s not so much our job to be great teachers, but to carry these teachings that have been given to us as a gift and keep them alive as best we can until anot

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