What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?

Part 2: Ten points to keep in mind about dharma transmission


Before we start, some more things about the physics of zazen. I received an e-mail from Al Coleman of Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change?:

“I found two books that you might be interested in regarding posture. They take an anthropological approach to studying posture 

(cultures that carry heavy stuff on their head as part of their daily life).

The first is the more polished of the two. It is a big book with both beautiful illustrations and great practical exercises. The one odd thing though is that she says if posture is correct then ones breathing should bethoracic instead of abdominal. I asked her about this and she said that in people she has observed belly breathing, if you ask them to breath into the thoracic cage, they will feel like they are suffocating. I’m not sure I agree.

The second is still a beautiful book but lacks on the practical side. www.agelessspine.com

She really emphasizes abdominal breathing as essential to a healthy posture.

Besides that glitch, both approaches are similar.”

I did not read either book, but they seem to be interesting. On his blog, Al also recommends the following video:

Also, there is an article about Hips (and ‘watch yer knees!’) over at Long River Zen:

Here are some basic hip opening exercises suitable for cautious beginners.

Here is a longer yoga-based hip routine that is intended to help people work towards the lotus posture.

Here is another page with preparatory stretches for lotus.

Please heed all the warnings on these hip stretching pages and remember that stretching the hips is a gradual and gentle process.”

Some of the excercises are quite similar to the Makko-ho technique we saw in “Lotus in the fire” of September 2007. Check out. Before I get back to the hips and the rest of the posture, I will continue to deal with the question: What does it take to become a full-fledged Soto-shu priest and is it really worth the whole deal?
This time it is about: Shiho

Now we finally get to the physics of transmission, the third step in the “carrier” of a Soto-shu monk!

c) Dharma transmission (shiho, also called denpo)

The third step in the carrier of a Soto-shu monk is dharma transmission. As with becoming the shuso, in the case of shiho it is the teacher who decides when, in his view, it is time for the step. Again, it would be strange if the student suggests: “I think I have been ready for shiho for quite a while now, how come you haven’t given me the papers yet?”

So what is the actual procedure, when and where does it take place, and how long does it take?

After doing dharma combat (hossenshiki), the student has 20 years of time to receive the dharma (shiho) from his teacher. Usually, it takes less, but there are also monks who lose their status as registered Soto-shu monks because they fail to do shiho. Nevr mind, this only means that your name disappears out of the registers in Tokyo, it does not mean that your robes and bowls are confiscated. Shiho is, unlike ordination and dharma combat, not done in the mainhall before everyone else in the sangha, but one-to-one in the abbot’s quarters (hojo). The students prostrates many times, in a special sequence, first nine, then eight, then seven times… in between pieces of text are recited. Finally the teacher gets off his high chair, that the student had been circling around, and the student takes the seat while the teacher pays his respects to the student this time. Usually the procedure takes time at night, and at one point both student and teacher check the documents that the student had been writing in the week (or weeks) before. They use a candle for this, so if the ceremony took place in broad daylight, this part of the ceremony would not make much sense. Probably the fact that it is done one-to-one and at night time has to do with the story of the transmission of the dharma from the fifth to the sixth patriarch in the Platform sutra. Or at least that is my guess. Besides
teacher and student, there are no other eyewitnesses and no photographs are taken. So the documentation papers that serve as proof of the transmission are the only material evidence of what took place.
Of course, the dharma is not “inside” these papers, but it is not in the head either. The subjective feeling of the student, that he “got it” from the teacher alone is not enough. Therefore the material evidence is of utmost importance. Writing these documents on three (or – in the lineage of Sawaki Roshi – four) sheets of silk paper is what takes most time and concentration.

You receive these three sheets of silk paper from your teacher, together with a sutra book-style manual that explains the procedure in medieval Japanese. The teacher receives the materials from the Soto-shu headquarters in Tokyo, who charge 16.000 Yen for them. The teacher has to apply in advance to the Soto-shu headquarters, and they send the expensive paper with their seals on it to the temple. Necessary requiries are of course that the student has not only ordained but also been the shuso for a practice period during which he performed the hossenshiki. After the empty papers arrive, the student has to write the documents of the transmission in his own hand.
Normally you have about a week to write, although that may depend. I have heard of students who get a whole week off to prepare the documents. In the case of Antaiji, you do not get any time off, so you have to cut down your sleeping time while doing all the farm work etc during the day. In my case, it took me considerably longer than a week to write all the stuff. Of course, you write with a calligraphy brush and you have to take great care NOT to mess those silk papers up, because the head quarters will not send you any extra papers, unlkess you pay another 16.000 Yen.

If you do not finish the writing of the documents in the course of one year though, your teacher has to apply anew and pay for three newsheets of silk. It goes without saying that each of the three papers serves a purpose, because there are three different documents to be written. They are called sanmotsu in Japanese, which literally means “the three things”. These are

a) Shisho (the scripture of transmission, the names of the anscestors arranged in a circle – the dharma has passed on from to Shakyamuni to yourself, and now you give it back to Shakyamuni. There is a small piece of papaer, propably originally written by Sawaki Roshi, with some comments. This paper is also copied by the student when doing dharma transmission at Antaiji.)

b) Daiji (the great matter, a cryptic symbolization of the content of the teaching. Again, there is a small extra sheet of paper that explains about the meaning of the symbols.)

c) Kechimyaku (the blood lineage, looks quite similar to the blood line transmission that you already wrote at the time of ordination)
Actually, in the lineage of Sawaki Roshi (and maybe other lineages as well) a student is told to write a fourth document on an extra sheet of paper,
which is called

d) Hisho (the secret document, which is encoded, but the code for decyphering is on the same paper, so once you hold it in your hands it is not so “secret” anymore.)

Each of the documents comes in a separate envelope. They are signed by both teacher and student and stamped by the teacher in a similar manner like the kechimyaku at the time of ordination.

A few things that are important to know about shiho:

1) Denpo and shiho: Transmitting and receiving are two sides of one coin

Dharma transmission is a mutual thing. It can only happen when both teacher and student agree that this is the time and place for it to take place. When the student is not ready to receive (shi-ho), there is no way for the teacher to transmit (den-po). If the teacher is not willing to transmit, there is no point for the student to claim he “got it”. Dharma transmission is nothing subjective, it does not happen “in the mind”.

2) Once or never

Dharma transmission can happen once, and only once, or never at all. Multiple dharma transmission is nonsense. If you receive dharma transmission from one teacher, from then on that is your one and only teacher, your real teacher (jap. hon-shi). The multiple lineage holders that you hear of in the West are bullshit. Therefore it is important that both sides, but especially the student, make sure that this is the right time for them to make this important step.

When a teacher offers dharma transmission to a student, the student not only has the right to refuse, he actually must refuse if he does not feel that this teacher is his teacher for life. It happens from time to time that a “Zenmaster” suggests that you leave your present teacher and follow him. It has happened to myself a number of times here in Japan. So be carfeul. Because after shiho, you can not change your teacher anymore, as you could still change the jugoshi (ordination teacher) before shiho. The only thing you can do to cut the connection with your teacher (hon-shi) after shiho is to disrobe. After that, you may ordain as a novice monk again.

You can inherit the dharma of one and only one teacher. In the past, monks where allowed to receive transmission from several teachers. The monk who had most dharma transmissions was considered to be the most enlightened and had the best chances to become the abbot of Eiheiji. This was changed by the eminent Soto monk Menzan to the rule that lasts to the present day: Only one transmission from only one teacher. Multiple dharma transmission in present day Soto-shu is considered nonsense. You hear of that a lot in America though, where some peopleclaim to be “both Soto and Rinzai”. Are they authorized by both Soto and Rinzai, as they actually exist in Japan today? No, in reality they are NEITHER Soto NOR Rinzai, but their own hybrid brand. That is OK, it is just a different thing. They play a different game with different rules. To me, saying that you have transmission from three different teachers in a way is like saying that none of these transmissions is for real. Because if only one of them was for real, why bother to shop around for the other two?

3) Who are you?

Dharma transmission defines who you are as a Zen monk. It is like your DNA. The documents of the transmission (that – among other things – list the names of the Buddhist ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha up to yourself) are unique, there are not two Zen monks with identical documents. When you receive dharma transmission from teacher A, it will never be the same as dharma transmission from teacher B. And the dharma transmission you will eventually give to your students will not be the same either. You can only transmit the dharma YOU received from your honshi, nothing else. In fact, this is a little complicated: It is the dharma you received from your teacher, but it is not HIS dharma anymore, it is YOUR dharma now. It would not be the same if you had reveived it from another teacher, but it would not be the same if someone else had received it from the same teacher either. The transmission you could have received from teacher B would not have been the same as that from teacher A. And: The transmission that you reived from teacher A is not the same as the transmission your dharma brothers and sisters received from the same teacher A. Why? Because the receiving side is also part of the “DNA”. The dharma is not only defined by the teacher, but quite as much by the student. Therefore, when you transmit the dharma to your students, not a single one of them will receive the same dharma, each of them will receive their unique dharma. Although it is not just “in the mind”, it is neither like a material object being passed on from teacher to student.

To use two examples that Dogen Zenji gives:

Dharma transmission can be like pouring milk from one cup to the other. No oil, liqour or lacquer must be added, Dogen says in the “Kesa kudoku” chapter of the Shobogenzo. It would not be milk any more. He allows for the addition of water though. This dilution would make the milk thinner, but it would not change the colour, the flavour or taste. If we were Homoepathics, we might even claim that this process is a “potentization” of the original milk. I would like to change Dogen’s metaphor a little and say that dharma transmission is like the pouring of clear water into clear water. Old water that dates back from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha is mixed and “potentized” each new generation. Still, it must never be mixed with oil, liquor or lacquer. It must be 100% water, but half of it is your original water, half of it is the water transmitted from your teacher, containing one drop of each generation dating back to the time of the Buddha. And even that is only half-right: In reality, it is 100% YOUR water, and it is at the same time 100% of the Buddha’s water. When you transmit it on to your students, it is still YOUR dharma, but at the same time it is 100% your students dharma now.

That leads us to Dogen Zenji’s second example from the Gakudoyojinshu. The teacher is like a skilled carpenter, the student is like a piece of wood, he says there. It depends solely on the carpenter what can be made from the piece of wood. Even low quality wood will turn into a piece of art when the right carpenter works on it. This is an important teaching for anyone who is in the position of a teacher: When your students do not develop in the way you wish, do not blame it on them, balme it on yourself. Otherwise you are like a carpenter who says”: “Who built this crooked house? There must have been something wrong with the wood!”

For the student, though, there lies a danger here: You might think that the responsibility for your practice does not lie with you, but with your teacher. You might ask: “How come that after three years I am still not enlightened? Why do I still suffer? What makes me miserable? Maybe I should look for a different teacher!”

No, it is not only the teacher who defines the student, it is also the student who defines the teacher. YOU create the teacher just as much as the teacher creates you. Sariputra, Maudgalyāyana, Mahakasyapa, Subhuti and Anada, even Devadatta all studied with the same Shakyamuni Buddha, but at the same time the all had a different teacher, i.e. the Shakaymuni they created through their teacher-student relationship. None of the twelve deciples of Jesus saw the same messiah. Judas met a different Jesus than Peter met. And Paul, who never met Jesus in person at all, created most of the “messiah” we know of today.

To use a different analogy:

If monk’s ordination is like asking a girl out on a date for the first time, dharma combat ceremony might be like her letting you have sex for the first time (she is quite conservative and might let you wait for some years). Finally, she might ask you: “Will you marry me?” If you answer in the affarmative, what follows will be shiho. You fill out papers at the town office and are registered as an officially married couple. As with shiho, the reality is not in the registration form. That you love each other as a couple is something you will have to proof to each other in the years to follow. It would be strange to say: “We have not seen each others in years, have not exchanged a word, but we are still a married couple!” In that case, you are only married on paper.

On the other hand, what if you say: “Maybe we are not officially married, but we have been together for quite some time now and really love each other. We can have sex and everything, we can even have kids without being legally married, so why get married in the first place? We can do without!”

Maybe you can do without, but most people (maybe including her) will not view it as the same thing. They will ask: “If you really love me (or her) as much as you claim, why not take responsibility and marry me (or her)?”

Or, as is usually the case, if she (the master) is the one who is not so enthusiastic about getting married to you, maybe she does not love you as much as you would like to think? Maybe it is only in your head?

On the other hand, you have those who can not get married often enough. But not only do you hear from teachers with “multiple transmission”, you also hear of teachers who call themselves students of Zenmaster A,
but if you look at their credentials, they have dharma transmisson from Zen master B, who comes from a completely different lineage. There are dozens of others, who call themselves the last or best or only true deciples of Sawaki Kodo Roshi (for example), but never received any documentation for that. They claim to have received some “mind to mind transmission”, but that “transmission” exists only in their mind, nothing more.
It is like you inherit a Chinese noodle shop, but you advertise yourself saying: “In reality I am offering French cousine, it just happens to say “Blue dragon” on the door, that is all!”

From my perspective, there is nothing wrong with Chinese food or French food or Japanese food, this or that lineage of Zen, you should just make clear what you where trained to cook. You can even train with different cooks at different times of your life, or be an auto-didactic cook in your own right, but when it comes to opening your own restaurant, it might be a good idea to decide what food you want to offer. Just throwing all the spices together will not make an “ethnic dish”. If you offer French cousine, get qualification for that. If you run a Chinese noodle shop, get trained for that.

It is as if these people were saying: “I am married to this girl here, but the woman I really love was someone else. Unfortunately, she never got around to asking me if I would marry her, but in her heart she loved me more than anyone else!”
Or it is like telling the new girl you are dating that the marriage ring on your finger is just symbolical and really means nothing.

On the other hand, if a teacher tries to disown a student whom he has given shiho, going so far as saying that he is not a true Buddhist, is like a wife that tries to divorce her husband saying: “I never loved you in the first place, I just married because you insisted on it.”

4) This is the start, not the goal

Dharma transmission is not the last and final step in a student’s practice. Quite the opposite, one might call it the real first step on the way of practice. The way has just begun, but now the student has decided which exact way he wants to follow to the end. But all the real hardships still lay ahead of him. To use the example of boy-meets-girl again: At this point of time they have decided that they are made for each other, so to speak, they want to get married and have kids. Hopefully, that does not mean that the romance is over. It just means that both are prepared for the real struggle to begin.

5) The documents

Proof of the dharma transmission is put in black ink on three (or four) pieces of white silk paper. The paper is not a substitute for the transmission itself, but without the paper, no transmission. The documents are like the sign you put under the marriage papers. You can not say: “Maybe I was married to someone else and had kids with him, but I let him marry me only because he was the richest man in town at the time. My real sweetheart was this cool guy whom I met when I was still in high-school, he whispered “I love you sooo muc” in my ear just before he died. In reality, HE is my real love.” Unfortunately, that is exaclty what many people have to say about their teacher.

I would recommend: “Marry the girl or boy you love! Or do not marry at all!”

Some may say: “I never had the intention to marry anyway. The idea is so old-fashioned! I will just enjoy myself and spred my seeds like that.” In a way, it is true that the instituion that marriage and shiho represent are quite narrow and old-fashiond. “Unnatural” in a way.
I would be surprised if Shakyamuni gave dharma transmission to anyone. Probably the idea never occured to him. It seems to be more of a Chinese concept that you can be the “dharma heir” of one and only one master. But, just as the instition of marriage, which is so un-natural and inconvenient sometimes,
it still has survived for some reason to the present day. There must be some reason why proper shiho is still held in high regard. When I look at the cases of some “Zen-masters” and their students, I think I begin to understand why.

Love is not in the paper, but it does make a difference if you are legally married to a woman or not, even if it does not make a difference to you. And it also does make a difference if you get “married” deep in the jungle in Thailand for the x-th time, or in a chapel in Las Vegas, or officially registered at the town hall.

The papers can not replace the marriage, they are no guarantee for a happy marriage. But there is a difference between being “married in your mind”, or in black and white.

6) Once and forever

Dharma transmission can never be erased. Married persons can get a divorce, but the fact of child birth can never be denied. Once you have transmitted the dharma, you can not claim it back. Once you have received it, you can not return it. But even stupid things like this can sometimes be seen in the “Zen” world.

7) Transmission of what?

What is transmitted when dharma transmission takes place? Just the paper, or some philosophical understanding, or a mystical experience? What is the real content of the transmission? At the transmission ceremony itself, the papers are checked between teacher and student, and many prostrations are done, the student pays respect to the teacher, the teacher pays respect to the student. This is the recognition of the transmission that took place long before the ceremony itself. In fact, it has nothing to do at all with the paper, with philosophy or with mystical experience. The 24 hours of the daily life shared by teacher and student are the content of the transmission, and nothing else.

8) When does it happen?

Dharma transmission does not (or at least: SHOULD NOT) happen “on a whim”. In Antaiji, when you receive shiho after, say, eight or nine years, you will have sat for 15.000 hours of zazen with your teacher. Not only that, you also shared many thousands of meals with him, worked together in the fields for thousands of hours, spread manure, cut grass and wood together, side by side, you sweat together in the summer and froze together in the winter. You cooked for him and filled the bath tub for him, you know how he likes the temperature both of his soup and the bathing water. You also shared many drinks, probabaly. In each of these activities, the dharma is transmitted. None should be left out. Of course, things like weraing the o-kesa, the formal robes, or using o-ryo-ki, the eating bowls, and finally the writing of the shiho documents itself are part of this. Each single one of these day to day activities is of the utmost importance. As with marriage and child birth again, if you do not know each oter and have lived to gether for a long, long time, how can you make a lifetime commitment? Dharma transmission does not happen simply because you sat through a few dozens of “Zen retreats”, finished all the “recommended reading” by your teacher and maybe spaced out once or twice on your bicycle on the way to work (which you mistook for enlightenment). Having received the dharma should never be confused with just having an attitude.

Using the Confucius quote again:

At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.

Although you do not have to be at the age of forty to receive shiho (most people are usually younger, but also many much older), this is the point where you have no more doubts about the direction of your practice and who your teacher is. Not only that, you are also able to teach others now and point them a direction. But you are certainly still far away from the state where you can just “follow heart’s desire without transgressing the norm”. This has also sometimes be misunderstood and led to a lot of trouble in the past, especially sex and drug and money related problems. So maybe we should add another point:

9) Authorization as Zen master?

Dharma transmission does not make you a zen master (what is that anyway? We will see soon…). It does not make you an osho (Japanese for “teacher”) either. It is the first of three steps (shiho, ten-e and zuise), at the end of which you will officially be promoted to the rank of osho. In Japanese Soto-Zen, there more than 15.000 people with this rank. It is not as special as you might believe. If you have only shiho but not performed zuise yet, you are not regarded as a teacher of Zen. That, of course, does not man that you can not share your practice with others. Even if you are not a teacher, you can and should share your practice with others.

And what is a Zen master in the first place?

A Zen master, in Japanese, is a zenji. This title is reserved for the founder Dogen Zenji and all the abbots of the two main temples, Eiheiji and Sojiji. So at each time, there is usually only two zenjis alive, unless there is a zenji living somewhere in retirement (like Itabashi Zenji, who is the third zenji alive right now). So, to become a zenji is not impossible, but it is a long way and shiho alone is certainly not enough. Calling yourself a Zen master just because you have shiho is a joke.

So how about roshi? Is someone with shiho considered to be a roshi?

Again, shiho alone is worthless without ten-e and zuise (which I will write about in the following months). But even with ten-e and zuise, you are not a roshi. What is a roshi? Literally, it is an old master. Someone in America once famously said: “Anyone who calls himself a “roshi” and succeeds in making others call him “roshi” too, is a roshi!”

That is probably true in America. And it is also half-true for Soto-shu in Japan, in so far as there is no official rank of roshi. You can and will not be authorized as a roshi by the headquarters. So indeed, everything depends on whether people (usually your students) are willing to call you “roshi” or not. What makes it more complicated in Japan, though, is: If you call yourself a “roshi” here, people will see it as a clear sign that you are not. They will think you are deluded egomaniac, and probably they are not so wrong. If, on the other hand, you claim: “I am a total fool!” – they will say: “At least he has realized as much as that!”

So in Japan, the rule goes:

“Anyone who succeeds in making others call himself a “roshi” without calling himself a “roshi”, is a roshi.”

A little more sophisticated than the Americanized version of the roshi, but the idea is essentailly the same: Try to make others think of yorself as someone important.

Anyway, having shiho has nothing to do with either being a zenji nor a roshi. Does this mean that it is not so big of a step to make after all? Is it quite meaningless if and when and where you receive shiho? Not at all!

First, if you claim to be a teacher without having shiho, than you should do so without referring to any lineage. It is pretty bad style to say: “I represent this and this lineage, unfortunately my teacher forgot to give me the papers!”

So although shiho alone is not much, no shiho at all qualifies you for nothing but being a dharma practioner in your own right, a follower of the buddha way who may practice on his own or along with others. You may even teach the dharma, but you should not pose as an authorized representative of a lineage or school. Believe it or not, that happens all the time.
If you teach without shiho, you should make clear that you are not part of one of the existing schools, but the founder of your own school (which is OK of course, as long as you state so).

10) Is dharma transmission a guarantee for spiritual attainment, or anything?

No, dharma transmission is no guarantee for anything. It only shows that the person who gave the transmission – and only that one person – was convinced that the student was qualified as a teacher. Could he have been wrong? Yes, he could have been wrong. Therefore, if you want to make sure that a teacher is actually a good teacher, you should not only ask if he or she has dharma transmission or not. The question is: Where does this dharma transmission come form? What lineage does it represent? And even more important: What practice did accompany it? What kind of student was the teacher before he or she became a teacher? What is his or her practice now?

On the other hand, is it possible that somebody is a good teacher but has no dharma transmission at all? Yes, that is possible. Shakyamuni Buddha had no dharma transmission. At least from no historical existing person, and that is the kind of transmission we are talking about here. Still, he is a teacher. OUR teacher, because we made him OUR teacher. But such cases are rare. If you meet a person who claims to be a teacher but has no dharma transmission, you should look even closer at who that person is, what he or she is actually teaching and how he or she is actualizing it in their daily life.