Students often say to me things like, “There are 750 koans, right? I’ve been practicing for five years, and I’ve done thirty of them, which means it will take me another hundred and fifty years to finish my training.” It doesn’t work that way.
The first koan usually takes a long time, but slowly, as you get into the swing of things, you begin to move faster. Then you start a different set of koans and you get stuck again. And this happens over and over in practice, so that there is no way to predict how long it’s going to take. But, after all, what does it matter? We all understand that there is no goal, right? We just practice. We just do. Practice and enlightenment are one. How many of us actually realize that truth?
Regardless of how long formal training takes, there is after that a period of maturation called “the nurturing of the sacred fetus.” This is a period of time in which the teachings are allowed to penetrate one’s flesh and bones and blood so that they become a manifestation of our being. It’s only then that a person is really ready for the seal of approval.
In the literature of Zen there are many examples where after the transmission, the teacher asked the disciple to disappear and let his or her understanding mature. The Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, spent sixteen years in hiding before he emerged and began to teach. The process of training takes a long period of time. There are no quickies in Zen.
Nowadays we see teachers running around with seals of approval who’ve been practicing a year, two years, four years. Some even deny their teachers. This is not new, however. It’s not just a by-product of American greediness. It happened in China, and it happened in Japan. Monastics were buying documents of transmission all over the place. The same is happening now. Self-appointed charlatans are springing up like mushrooms. They have some basic skills—charisma is especially important—a good story line, so people gather around and support them. But mostly, they don’t last very long.
Then there is another trend of the stamping of the face variety that imitates what is happening in Japan—basically, the sausage factory. There are now about 25,000 temples in Japan which need at least 25,000 priests to manage them. There are also two major Soto monasteries, Eiheiji and Sojiji, whose purpose is to train the monastics who will take over those temples. And obviously, the need is continuous, since when one generation dies, another generation is needed to replace it. Unfortunately, the result is that thousands of temple priests get trained, but very few of them become real spiritual teachers. This is not true of all Japanese temples, of course. There are some extraordinary teachers and monasteries, but they are few and far between, maybe fifteen or twenty out of that 25,000.
The commentary continues, “Documents of transmission or seals of sanction are just that, documents and seals, not the dharma.” Having a trophy doesn’t make you a hunter. What does the trophy tell us about the owner? What do the documents of transmission tell us about the teacher? “They don’t liberate people, nor do they relieve suffering. The truth does. The dharma does.” The dharma relieves suffering by transforming our consciousness. “And this is not something that can be given to you. It can only be realized.” The Buddha couldn’t give it to you. My teacher didn’t give anything to me. His teacher didn’t give anything to him. They facilitated the realization of that which was already there, but they didn’t give us anything.
“We should understand that degenerate Buddhism is not something that happens in the world, but rather, it’s a product of our own consciousness. We create it.” There’s a teaching in the Yogacara school of Zen which says that the three worlds are nothing but mind. In other words, we create everything. We create reality. “We make it the living reality it becomes.” What we do and what happens to us is the same thing. And that “doing” includes our actions, our words, and our thoughts. All three produce karma or action, and that action can promote good, harmony, and compassion, or it can produce greed, anger, and hatred.
“It is a product of our collective and individual conditioning.” Our parents, our society, our culture, and education condition each and every one of us, as individuals, and as a society. “It is our self-centeredness, corruption and deceit. It is our institutional mentality which manifests as corrupt government, greedy corporations, war, repression and discrimination.” When we begin with a premise of self-centeredness, corruption, deceit, and the like, necessarily follow. We think that who we are is this bag of skin, and whether that translates as an individual bag of skin or a country, we think we need to defend it. But we don’t do it through skill, understanding, or compassion, but with bayonets drawn. And so, “It is the three poisons, which reveal themselves as excessive self-absorption, attachment, anxiety, depression, malevolence and fear.” But keep in mind that the three poisons are only one side of the equation—the side with a self. When the self is forgotten, greed becomes compassion, anger becomes wisdom, and ignorance becomes enlightenment.