the Buddhist Tradition
Each Buddhist tradition has
its own structure, culture, and language. Judging one tradition by
the practices and standards of a different tradition is a source
of great confusion and conflict. If one is sincere about resolving
conflict, it is essential to begin from a place of understanding.
There are many different
Buddhist traditions, each with many lineages and institutions. The
basic classification of Buddhism into Thervada, Mahayana,
Vajrayana, Pure Land, etc is a great simplification of what are
essentially hundreds of lineages that practice and teach thousands
of methods. Because of the diversity, and the many different
cultures and languages, there is no single comprehensive source of
information that explains their training methods or credentials.
Most traditions have a
formal training process but have also engaged in quite informal
methods of transmission as well.
In addition, most Buddhist
lineages are now being spread across the world, and new
institutions are being established, each with their own methods,
and each with their own standards and criteria (or lack of
standards and criteria) for teacher training. What used to be a
clear and limited title of authority indicating completion of a
specific course of training may now be used as an informal title
of respect. And new programs of teacher training are being
organized that may not be recognized by the traditional
authorities of that tradition.
It may be helpful to
consider how Buddhism is organized and taught. One classification
that might be useful is to realize that there are
and nuns ordained in various lineages, who may or may not teach,
or lay teachers who have been trained in a particular lineage and
have been authorized to teach,
teachers who do not have authorization or credentials from a
lineage or institution,
leaders of meditation
groups who are not officially "teachers" but who give
meditation instruction or other guidance.
Teachers are regarded
differently in various Buddhist traditions, and by different
students within those traditions:
a spiritual friend,
a preceptor in the monastic traditions,
a ritual master for certain practices,
a minister of people's needs,
as a examplar of
scholarship, of moral behavior, or as a living Buddha.
To some extent in all
Buddhist traditions, the teacher should be at least to some extent
an exemplar of ethical behavior, an inspiration for training in
meditation methods, and an embodiment of the understanding that is
the fruit of Buddhist practice.
Alexander Berzzin's book
Relating to a Spiritual Teachers: Building a Healthy
Relationship (Snow Lion Publications, 2000) provides a
detailed discussion of the traditional and modern issues involved
in the student-teacher relationship. While his discussion is based
on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, most of the issues and dynamics
also apply to the other traditions.
Buddhist Titles &
Credentials: A Glossary
While the differences
between the traditions go deeper than language, it is helpful to
have a basic understanding of the language used. Some of the terms
used are informal honorifics used out of respect; other terms are
indicators of seniority in monastic systems; other terms are
titles of authorization bestowed upon particular students by their
teacher, or credentials earned by completing a program of
training. Different lineages use terms and titles differently, and
the meaning of terms has evolved over time.
The wide variation in how
teachers are trained and authorized makes it difficult for a
student to judge the legitimacy of a teacher. Perhaps the first
step is to have a basic undestanding of the terms used in
different Buddhist traditions. Here is a preliminary lists for the
Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan traditions:
Japanese tradition unless noted otherwise. Various Zen lineages
use these terms in different ways.
Daishi: great master;
Daiosho: Great Priest.
ceremony recognizing a someone who has completed priest training.
Dharma Heir: hassu; one who has been given
Dharma transmission by a teacher.
Hassu: Dharma successor.
holder; recognition as an apprentice instructor with sanction to
give practice interviews, public talks, and short retreats; is not
equivalent to Dharma transmission (shiho).
shomei: legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof of a
having completed training to the teacher's satisfaction. If the
teacher is also confident that the student has the skills to teach
and lead others, the student may be named a Dharma successor
(hassu) and thus attains status as a master (roshi).
Jukai: lay ordination
ceremony for taking or renewing precepts.
betsuden: special transmission outside the teaching;
transmission from mind to mind.
old teacher; Zen master; some claim roshi status or are
respectfully referred to as roshi without having received
official recognition by a teacher.
Sensei: one who has been recognized as a teacher
in a Dharma transmission (denbo) ceremony. Higher than an
instructor (Dharma holder or hoshi) but not yet a master
Shamon: variously a novice, wanderer,
monk or priest.
Shomon: One who hears: disciple.
Shiso: teacher or tutor.
Shinsanshiki: installation as abbot of a
Sunim (Korean): formal title for Korean monks
Taiko: priest who has undergone at least five
years of training.
Tokudo: leaving home; monk ordination
ceremony. One becomes a novice priests. have ordained in a
ceremony called "Tokudo."
Unsui: cloud water;
terms may be from the languages of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma,
Laos, and India.
teacher or instructor of dhamma or doctrine. (Originally the
acharya was distinguished from the upajjhaya
instructor in moral precepts).
Thai equivalent of acharya.
one, not necessarily a monk.
Bhikkhu: fully ordained
Bhikkhuni: fully ordained nun.
Luang Por: (Thai and Lao)
Venerable grandfather monk.
Mahanayaka: patriarch or
Mahathera: bhikkhu of 20
Phra: Thai equivalent of Thera.
monk who has completed a certain level of Pali studies.
novice monk who follows the monastic precepts but is not yet a
fully ordained bhikkhu.
equivalent of mahathera.
Tan (Than): Thai
equivalent of Venerable.
bhikkhu of ten years or more.
Sanskrit dhutanga): wandering ascetic.
instructor in moral precepts (in distinction to an acharya
instructor of doctrine).
There are four main
Tibetan schools: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug, each with their
own system of training and authorization.
Ani: Literally, aunt.
Used as a title for nuns.
Chogyal: Dharma King.
Lord of Dharma.
Drupon: Retreat Master qualified to
teach, give empowerments, and lead 3-year retreats.
monk; equivalent of the Sanskrit bhikshu.
novice; equivalent of the Sanskrit samanera.
title of academic achievement in the Gelug school.
Khenchen: Great Learned One, a higher order
Khenpo: Learned One; a scholar in the
Nyingma, Sakya, or Kagyu schools. usually a degree received after
9 years of study and some teaching experience.
Protector or Lord of Refuges.
denotes someone who has completed a 3-year retreat and is
therefore qualified to teach (and most strictly to grant
empowerments), but is also used as a more general gesture of
respect. Not necessarily a monk. Equivalent to the Sanskrit
Lharampa: recipient of top honors in a
Lopon: final degree from a monastic
college (shedra). As a master of meditation and study, an official
position in Tibetan monasteries. Equivalent to the Sanskrit
Ngakpa: practitioner of mantras in the
Rinpoche: Precious One; title of
Terton: discoverer of hidden texts.
Questions to Ask
with a Teacher or Group
Since the teacher training
and certification of the different Buddhist schools and lineages
vary so greatly, and in the absence of an agreed registry of
qualified teachers, the sudent is left on their own to decide who
to study with. Fortunately, there are numerous articles, books,
and other resources that offer guidelines and guidance for
choosing a teacher and for differentiating legitimate spiritual
groups from cults.
You are responsible
for yourself as a student of a particular Buddhist teacher or as a
participant of a Buddhist group. Observing a teacher and their
students before getting too involved with them is the ideal, but
even if you have been involved for a while, and feel something is
not quite right, ask yourself, the teacher, and their students
the teacher been trained and authorized to teach by a recognized
the teacher refuse to discuss his background and training?
the group open about its methods and activities?
the group make unreasonable or manipulative demands on the
students' time or money?
there sexual, financial, or other abuse of power going on?
Is the group isolated
from the community and from the students' families and friends?
Does the group allow outside relationships?
For a discussion of these
questions, see Do You
Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship by Ken
Is This A Cult?
Not every unqualified
teacher, or even every charlatan, is operating a cult. But the
consequences of getting involved in a cult can be so serious, and
the psychic and emotional damages so difficult to repair, that the
cult phenomena deserves close consideration.
We donít need to get
lost in the various criteria for whether a group is a cult, and an
organization doesn't have to be seen as a cult by everyone to be
experienced as a cult by an individual. Michael Langone, editor of
Cultic Studies Journal, has
compiled a Checklist
of Cult Characteristics that covers includes these danger
group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment
to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and
practices as absolute. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are
discouraged or punished. The leader is not accountable to any
group is elitist, claiming special status for its leaders and
members. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality
techniques are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about
the group and its leader(s).
leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel. The
group teaches or implies that its exalted ends justify whatever
means it deems necessary, resulting in members participating in
behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible
or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to
family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to
influence or control members. Often, this is done through peer
pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. Subservience to the
leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and
friends and radically alter the personal goals and activities
they had before joining the group.
group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
group is preoccupied with making money.
Members are expected to
devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related
activities. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or
socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members
(the "true believers") feel there can be no life
outside the context of the group, and often fear reprisals to
themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the
Other observers have
observed similar behaviors by cults. Arthur Deikman identifies
four basic cult behaviors:
on a leader
devaluing the outsider.
As Deikan explains, it is
not necessarily easy to identify a cult, and many organizations
that would not typically be identified as cults exhibit some of
the same manipulative and coercive traits (see Arthur
Deikman's website and his book The Wrong Way Home:
Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society).
The bottom line is that it is the student's responsibility to
decide when an organization has crossed a line with which the
student is not comfortable.
J. Lifton's eight criteria for thought manipulation include:
control of information and communication
of "mystical" experiences
for purity in a world that is viewed as black and white
induction of guilt and/or shame, and confession either to a
personal monitor or publicly to the group
that the group's doctrine or ideology is the ultimate Truth,
beyond all questioning or dispute
of jargon such as thought-terminating cliches
or reinterpreting members' personal experiences to fit the
ideology of the group, and
rejecting those outside
the group as unenlightened.
These are discussed in
Lifton's book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
See an excerpt at the REVEAL
Tobias and Janja Lalich
define a cult as "a group or movement exhibiting great or
excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing,
and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of
persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and
family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten
suggestibility or subservience, powerful group pressures,
information management, suspension of individuality or critical
judgment, promotion of total dependency upon the group and fear of
leaving it), designed to advance the group's leaders, to the
actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the
community" (from Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom
and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships, by
Madeleine Landau Tobias, Janja Lalich, and Michael Langone).
Nor does a group have to
satisfy all of the criteria of any one of the systems proposed.
What if it satisfies half, but does so really strongly? Again, the
student's judgement is the ultimate criterion.
Finding and Relating to a
Spiritual Bypassing by Robert Augustus Masters
Eyes Wide Open:
Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path by Mariana
Halfway Up the Mountain
by Mariana Caplan
At Personal Risk by
Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and
by Stuart Lachs
You Need a Teacher? and The Teacher-Student Relationship
a Teacher in the Real World
by Leland Shields
Buddhist Peace Fellowship,
Safe Harbor: Guidelines, Process and Resources for Ethics and
Right Conduct in Buddhist Communities.
Sex and the Spiritual
Teacher by Scott Edelstein.
Wise Student, Wise
Teacher (previously published as Relating to a Spiritual Teacher),
by Alex Berzin (also
Healthy Relationships with Spiritual Teachers by Alex Berzin.
Confusion in the Spiritual Student-Teacher Relationship by
on Abuse of Power
Papers Cult Test
of a Destructive Cult
by Allen Tate Wood
Them and Us by Arthur
Buddhist Ethical Statements &
the Stream Teacher
Code of Ethics
Boundless Way Zen Sangha
Clouds in Water Zen Center
Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji
Dharma Rain Zen Center
and Ethics in Sangha Relationships
Diamond Sangha Teachers
Kwan Um School of Zen
Statement of Ethics
Minnesota Zen Meditation
Center Statement Of Ethical Conduct and Precepts
San Francisco Zen Center
& Reconciliation Council
Shao Shan Ethical Guidelines
Soto Zen Buddhist
Spirit Rock Ethics
& Reconciliation Council and Teacher
Code of Ethics
Victoria Zen Centre Ethics
Organizations Developing Teacher
Zen Teachers Association
Peer-group of ordained and lay
Zen Buddhist teachers. Membership is based on an application
process based on specific criteria to determine prospective
members' eligibility. AZTA is not an authorizing or credentialing
Zen Teachers Association