September 1, 2014

You are here: Home Dharma Essays

Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America

Ch'an/Zen Buddhism has become widely accepted in the West during the past fifty years. At the head of Zen institutions sits the person of the Master/roshi. Through the mechanisms of sectarian histories, ritual performance, a special language, koans, mondos,[2] and most importantly through the ideas of Dharma transmission and Zen lineage, the supposedly enlightened Zen Master/roshi is presented to the West as a person with superhuman qualities. This presentation, mostly idealistic, is meant to establish, maintain, and enhance the authority of the Zen Master. It is also meant to legitimate the Zen institutions and establish hierarchical structures within it. It is my contention that this idealistic presentation has been widely and uncritically accepted in the West, but more importantly it is the source of a variety of problems in Western Zen.

This revised paper from a presentation at the 1999 (Boston) Meeting of the American Academy of Religion is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Stuart Lachs

pdfMeans of Authorization 205.76 KB26/01/2012, 12:42

Copyright @ 1999 Stuart Lachs

Ch'an/Zen Buddhism has become widely accepted in the West during the past fifty years. At the head of Zen institutions sits the person of the Master/roshi. Through the mechanisms of sectarian histories, ritual performance, a special language, koans, mondos,[2] and most importantly through the ideas of Dharma transmission and Zen lineage, the supposedly enlightened Zen Master/roshi is presented to the West as a person with superhuman qualities. This presentation, mostly idealistic, is meant to establish, maintain, and enhance the authority of the Zen Master. It is also meant to legitimate the Zen institutions and establish hierarchical structures within it. It is my contention that this idealistic presentation has been widely and uncritically accepted in the West, but more importantly it is the source of a variety of problems in Western Zen.

I begin the paper by giving four examples showing the extremely idealistic presentation of Zen in America. The examples will be from American, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese teachers. I will show that this presentation of Ch'an/Zen is widely accepted and in addition, display some of the consequences of this acceptance. The American sociologist Peter L. Berger will be introduced along with his view of the social construction of reality. Berger's theory will be used throughout the paper as a model for viewing Zen institutions. The defining terms of Zen; Master/roshi, Dharma transmission, and Zen lineage as well as koans and ritual behavior will be more closely examined. However idealistically these terms are presented to Zen students, the reality of how they have been used historically and what they mean in an institutional setting is quite different. This idealistic presentation of the defining terms of Zen is used to establish a mostly undeserved authority for the Master/roshi and to legitimate the hierarchical structures of Ch'an/Zen. The result of this presentation of Zen often leads to the Master/roshi being alienated, in Berger's sense of the word. The paper ends with a few suggestions for change in Zen from within the larger Buddhist tradition. Read more ...