THE ZEN STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIP

TWO TYPES OF STUDENTS

We recognize that it is important that those very new to Zen take some time to explore the practice experientially and through study prior to taking the larger step of making a commitment to a formal relationship with a Zen teacher. This first stage might be called introductory practice or Zen 101…something along those lines. The amount of time this takes is individually determined, as are all phases of Zen study and practice, but we suggest no less than three months.

After that, there may come a time when a newcomer begins to notice a sense of unity or a feeling or being “at home” with Zen study and practice. For example, after several months of attending Liturgical Services, Study Group and Zazenkai with the Sangha, the student may wish to consider taking the first lay ordination ceremony called Kie San Bo. In this ceremony, the student takes vows in front of the local practice group stating that the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are accepted and that there is an agreement to live by the Buddhist vows to stop doing evil, to do good, and to live in a way that brings about good for all beings.  At that time, the student “becomes” or acknowledges that he or she is, indeed, a Zen Buddhist practitioner. 

For some, that is an endpoint in and of itself. The practitioner may go on to practice independently at home, or find another group or another teacher to work with elsewhere. For others, there is a desire to continue study and practice with the same teacher and the Daibutsuji practice group. When further study in our Order is desired, a more “formal" teaching arrangement is established and these students go on to study for the second ordination called Jukai. This second ordination involves the students acceptance of the Bodhisattva Vows and the Ten Grave Precepts. This is the moral and ethical code that forms the basis and structure of the life of a Zen Buddhist. Jukai preparation may involve  3-5+ more years of self-paced study.  


HOW TO REQUEST A TEACHER AND BECOME A FORMAL ZEN STUDENT

The guidelines below have been written to help potential "formal" students decide if this is a role commensurate with current needs and interests.  It is expected that there will be many further questions to be addressed face to face in the future as this is a complex topic.

Following Kie San Bo (or if this has already been taken elsewhere, an appropriate length of time of general study with a teacher in our Order),  a student may decide to deepen both study and practice by formalizing the student-teacher relationship.  The point of becoming a Formal Zen Student is to accept the Bodhisattva Vows and the Ten Grave Precepts. This is the moral and ethical code that forms the basis and structure of the life of a Zen Buddhist. These precepts are taken in an ordination ceremony called Jukai which may involve about 3-5+ years of self-paced study.  

At this point of discernment, the student requests formal study with the Abbot, indicating an interest in becoming a Formal Student. A meeting is arranged where the parameters of becoming a private Zen student are discussed face to face.  If the teacher then accepts the student, the training begins. 

After Jukai, a very small percentage consider becoming Disciples and study for the priesthood over a much longer time period. 

In order to accomplish any of these goals, the Zen student-teacher relationship requires a commitment from both parties to respect the roles and boundaries set forth and to follow through with plans and agreements for Zen study and practice.  Zen studies and Zazen practice go hand-in-hand. There are no set-in-stone academic requirements, but there are several direct practice requests made of the student.  Each student and teacher work together to develop a cohesive, individualized study and practice plan meant to support and guide the student along a chosen spiritual path.  Additionally, a Zen student understands that the teaching relationship is meant to be kept "for life." Whatever hurdles or challenges the relationship faces, the two are meant to proceed together and come to a workable resolution. Unless there is overt abuse involved, there is no "running away" from this relationship. 

The primary mode of interaction between student and teacher is Sanzen. This is a private, or in some cases group, meeting where study and practice issues are addressed in detail.  As Zen Students we honor and respect the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, Sanzen meetings are dependent on participation in all three.  The remainder of this document describes the roles and basic expectations of a private, formal Zen student to the teacher and to the Sangha at large:

 LIST OF GENERAL EXPECTATIONS OF A FORMAL ZEN STUDENT

  1. Development of a home practice.
  2. Participation in private and/or group Sanzen.
  3. Participation in intensive practice opportunities, either with the local Sangha or in other locations.
  4. Wearing appropriate clothing in the Zendo: black or dark, muted colors are preferred-- martial arts wear-Gi, or black stretchy yoga/sport pants and a suitable top. Shorts, tank tops, tight or revealing clothing are not appropriate. Bright colors, and the color WHITE are seriously discouraged. Brights are a distraction and white is not worn for Zen practice except for funerals.  Jeans and regular pants are not recommended due to restricting circulation at the waist, hips and legs. 
  5. Learning the Zen liturgical service, understand it’s meaning, and becoming able to explain it to newcomers over time.
  6. Learning and performing multiple,  interchangeable roles in the Zendo such as Jikido, Ino, Tenzo, etc.
  7. Arriving at the Zendo well before the Service or event begins to help welcome and orient others who may be new or in need of some support or direction.
  8. Engaging with the Sangha—becoming active role models. Practicing with the Sangha, and attending intensive practice events as often as possible. Attending ceremonies of other students coming into the Order. Engaging one another—in and outside the Zendo.   Finding a direction for one’s practice. Manifesting one’s practice as “engaged Zen.”
  9. Remaining members “in good standing” of the Sangha: following through with mutually agreed upon commitments to the study/practice plan and Dana to the teacher.  Dana to the teacher is a long-standing Buddhist tradition and is the way we recognize and show appreciation for the time our teachers devote to us. 
  10. By definition then, formal Zen Students are leaders in the Sangha. Zen study and practice are central to everyday life, as is commitment to the student-teacher relationship and the Sangha in general. The formal student focuses on developing skills that help others, makes great efforts to satisfy the requests of the teacher, and aims to become a living model of the principles of Zen practice and study. All of this takes considerable time, energy and commitment.

THE NATURE OF SANZEN AND THE PRIVATE ZEN INTERVIEW

Sanzen is a private interview with the teacher, with intense focus on the students Zen practice. In many Centers, students may only meet directly with a teacher 2-4 times a year during Sesshin. Perhaps for 15 minutes or less each time. Currently, the Abbot arranges to meet with formal students weekly, either in person or via Skype. 

Full priests who have received “Dharma Transmission” traditionally give Sanzen. This means that they have been authorized by their own teacher to teach the Dharma independently. Sometimes, senior students are permitted to teach, under the direct supervision of their teacher, much like any other professional training program. You will know who is available to teach at any given time by inquiring of the Abbot at  jiisha2abbot@gmail.com.  Rev. Shukke is currently accepting local students.  Daiho-roshi and Gozen-roshi are no longer taking on private teaching roles with students as they have retired to emeritus status.

Everything that is said within the Sanzen session is confidential between priest and practitioner/s. The exception is when the priest is in training and must disclose information to his/her own teacher for supervisory purposes. OR, if something comes up in the meeting that leads the priest to believe the student is in imminent danger of harm to self or others.  In this last situation, anything that can be done to keep all parties safe will be done.

HOW TO APPROACH SANZEN

Sanzen is essentially an investigation by the teacher of the student’s practice that aims to deepen the student’s understanding and realization. Zen students establish a schedule for private meetings with their teacher, and are dedicated to attending those meetings on a regular basis as a core aspect of their training. 

Teacher and student generally sit facing one another on zafus to hold the Sanzen meeting. They bow to one another at the beginning and at the end, as a sign of respect for the teaching that goes both ways. The teacher begins the meeting with a question, the student answers and the exchange proceeds from there in the same fashion. Question and answer.

Sanzen topics always have a Zen focus. So, it is very helpful to keep a Zazen Practice Journal/Study Journal between meetings to write down thoughts, questions, and general description and flow of your practice. This will provide you with a huge amount of material to draw from in Sanzen.

One way to view Sanzen interactions, for the beginning student, is to look at them as interactions that are focused around three broad areas of practice known as the Three Treasures: Buddha (awakening), Dharma (reality/teachings), and Sangha (community). Teachers may ask about students’ Zazen practice in detail (Awakening), various aspects of Zen teachings that may have been assigned (Dharma), and about any relational issues that may come about within the Sangha or the student’s life in general, including level of participation in Zendo activities (Sangha).

When it comes to Awakening we are looking for manifesting insight, with Dharma study it is the ability to move from intellectual understanding of the teachings to manifesting them in the world, and with Sangha practice, we are looking for ways that the student internalizes and manifests harmony within the community. The teacher’s role in Sanzen is to support the student’s practice at every level, and to gradually move the focus from discussions about “what happened last week” or "I said and then he said" to the student’s direct experience in practice, and questions related to the Great Matters. But this will take time, effort, and diligent practice on the part of the student, and skillful means on the part of the teacher.

 WHAT SANZEN IS NOT

  • Sanzen is not psychotherapy. If therapeutic issues arise, the teacher will refer the student to appropriate community resources to address those particular issues. 
  • Sanzen is not a place to get advice about how to solve life problems.Those questions are very important in  Zen, and are for the student to grapple with through practice and study. A Zen teacher does not “tell you what you should do.”
  • Sanzen is not a place for purely intellectual discussions about Zen Buddhism and the students’ opinions of it. Academic knowledge may be gained in a variety of ways and settings. Study with a Zen teacher focuses on Practice, which is also the focus of Sanzen. 

ACCESSING THE TEACHER

  • If  unable to attend Sanzen, students contact the teacher by text or by phone asap. 
  • Missed appointments are not rescheduled during the same week.  Meetings are resumed the following week. 
  • Questions for the teacher, or thoughts between meetings are emailed to the teacher unless there is another arrangement. 
  • As a rule,  teachers communicate with students during regular business hours: Mon-Fri 9am-5pm.

Please feel free to direct any questions to Rev. Kathryn Shukke Hilbert at jiisha2abbot@gmail.com

We are always trying to make things as clear as possible to our online readers as well as our local Sangha, so your input is very valuable. Please let us know if there are areas that need clarity.