Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Useful Practice and Its Professional and Amateur Enemies

The title of this entry's a bit overblown, to be sure. It's taken from a book by Ivan Illich (which, oddly enough is not mentioned on the Wikipedia entry on him;  for more background on the thinker go here; start with Deschooling Society. )  The book from whose title I morphed into the title of this post is "The Right to Useful Unemployment and Its Professional Enemies.")  I thought I would visit this question because of recent posts on the subject from Brad Warner and Nate, . dealing with the question  of whether "Zen teachers" should be accredited in some way or not.

The reason I've quoted Illich above is because the  relevant and salient point Illich makes in his writing  is relative to the whole question of profession, and how we in the West have tended to turn "professions" into a kind of mystical priesthood, with a division between those who "know" and are "trained to know" and those who are recipients of that grand knowledge conferred by the priesthood of professionals.   In particular, Illich noted a couple or three decades ago or so, that the idea of a medical profession often result in people not actively taking responsibility for their own health. Yep. I read it in Illich first.  Too bad I lost the book.  I have no idea where it went, but if he had heard that he probably would have been pleased to hear it.

I tend to view this whole question of profession, qualification, and what-not from the perspective of my own déformation professionnelle: I am a "Doctor of Philosophy" in Electrical Engineering.  I am not, in the legal sense, a "Professional Engineer."  I can design communication systems, queuing systems a signal coding and processing systems, and   control systems.  I can  balance a portfolio according to some predefined risk/loss criteria, predict and estimate all kinds of things.  I've done all of the preceding. I cannot, at present, sign off on your building plans or even the wiring used in your house (though I've put wiring in my houses, thank you very much).  

As a systems engineer with a heavy focus on mathematics, operations research, statistics, and what-not the thing that ties all the aforementioned things together (which involve all kinds of things technical from natural resource  or space exploration to genetics, for Void sakes) is they all have expressions in the common language of mathematics.  One of the  ongoing frustrations/problems/"challenges"  of my work though is explaining and convincing to others who do not have this training that these analogues exist, allowing for new research opportunities.  It is often not understood that training in a specialized area such as I have means that training is highly adaptable to a number of areas.  But it is not readily adaptable in other areas: Even though much of my research work was very heavy on theoretical statistics even today I can only read about 2% of the papers in the Annals of Statistics.  And I am not trying in any way to minimize my responsibility for the aforementioned frustrations/problems/"challenges":  I not not without responsibility for shaping my organization's future; I am a part of that organization.

In a nut, the "professional" training and education I've achieved has given my very narrow - and yet broadly applicable - skills. It's useless for skydiving - or even designing a parachute.  To get back to "Zen teachers," then, let's consider what  Brad Warner writes:

Zen is not in the helping profession. Zen teachers are not professionals.

A Zen teacher is someone who has chosen to do serious work on herself or himself. Our experiences in doing this work on ourselves can be useful to others. Many of us allow other people to join us in this work. Those who join us in this work may very well be helped. And most of us will try our best to help them when we can.

But fundamentally a Zen teacher is not a professional who helps students who are non-professionals in exchange for compensation. The so-called “students” are actually companions in work that is being undertaken by both teacher and student. The only real difference is that the teacher is someone who has done this work for a bit longer than the student. Yet the teacher is no more advanced, because the concept of “advancement” is an illusion.

This is why I refuse to accept students. I do not wish to share my work with anyone who defines herself or himself as my student. That would be unfair to both of us. Such a person is only a hindrance to me. They get in the way of what I need to do. Frankly, students are a nuisance. Furthermore, their attitude of viewing themselves as students is a hindrance to them. It’s such a hindrance that it makes it impossible for me to help them even if I wanted to.

Zen teachers are not in the helping profession. That would imply that we charge money to people who come to us to be helped, the way a professional therapist does. It would imply that we promise to help heal them in exchange for that money, the way professional doctors do. It implies that we promise them concrete results from our paid efforts to help them, the way professional lawyers do. No decent Zen teacher I know of views what he or she does in that way.

I am doubtful that one can be a "teacher" if there are no "students." But that fits with my own "teacher's" point in that there is no teacher.   On the other hand,  Warner's not entirely incorrect here: "Zen teachers" are like swimming coaches, or perhaps martial arts teachers: they are also perfecting their skills as they try to impart what they know to others.  If you're not trying to impart what you know, then I can't really think you're a teacher, and if you are ignoring those to whom you're trying to impart your experience of "serious work" on yourself,  I can't really think you're a teacher.  All the rest is form, and form has its place where it has its place. And I personally do think it has its place in the fact that a Buddhist clergy is needed to minister to a sangha.  But also, let's face it: if you wanted to learn how to scuba dive, you'd want to learn it from someone who would teach you how not to get the bends.  If you wanted to learn to fly, you'd best learn it from a guy who already can fly.  And in a very real sense, Zen training is just like that.  So you'd want to know that the person from whom you're learning is good at a Zen Buddhist way.  But, unlike PADI certification or whatever the pilot's certification society is called, you, dear reader, will ultimately have to authenticate your "teacher."

There's a real problem with errant Zen teachers, entrenched organizations, and the very real fact that the great innovators in Zen have often been outsiders.   I've written in the past that the student authenticates the teacher as much as the other way around - and I qualify that to note that I agree with my "teacher's" saying that "There is no teacher."  Ultimately, this way though is about "your" way - and making "your" way is not isolated from the 10,000 things and All The People.
Warner makes another point with which I agree: you can't charge for this service. So I largely agree with Warner, but I do think that some form of a meta-sangha - to coin a phrase from cojoining Greek and Sanskrit - is necessary.  But I think the whole "professional Zen teacher" thing is an entree into all the abuses we've ever seen by clergy of all kinds of religions.  "Zen teachers" should be able to support themselves  and should support themselves and their families in ways separate from their official clergy function.  If they're hermits, that's another story.  And mention of hermits brings to mind the wild sexual escapades of some cloistered monks I have been told about second hand.  That's why to me, why they're another story: (as well as solitary hermits).  I'm sure there's  solitary hermits and monastic communities for which "outside means to live" does not apply; maybe it doesn't even apply for a majority of such communities.  I'm sure those monks who still beg for a living have a few of them that haven't become cynical in the original derogatory sense of the world.  But then again I'm not qualified to sign off on your building plans. I know what I know.

Nathan writes:

One thing I wonder, as someone who experienced the drift towards professionalization in the Minnesota adult basic education (ABE) field, is the longer term impact. Many of those in the beginning days have been focusing on the benefits - such as teachers having more formal education and training. However, in the case of ABE, the potential negative aspects are either being downplayed or just can't be seen yet. The increased focused on ABE professionalization has come in almost direct response to a rise of high stakes testing that few in the field support. How much of the decisions being made about what constitutes an ABE professional are coming not out of a creative and diverse understanding of the field, but out of a fear that "not professionalizing" will doom all the adult education programs out there?

Which brings me back to American Zen teachers. Is the drive to professionalize Zen teaching coming from, at least in part, a fear that not doing so will doom Zen in America? And if so, is that a wise place to approach all of this from? 

And that's a good point: if the goal of all of this is to keep something, to gain something, or the like, then this motive should be examined: if the keeping or gaining is not in the service of all beings, what's the point? Or to quote Martin Buber (maybe it's only a paraphrase): If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am for myself only, then what am I?

That ought to enter into the conversation as well.

So maybe the "solution" is an "organization" that promises exactly none of the "benefits" of professionalism, doesn't certify anyone for anything, but still propagates information related to "Zen teachers" for good or for ill.  Maybe to a certain extent that "organization" already exists: it's part of humanity.  Or maybe it doesn't.


anon #108 said...

Hi Mumon,

I enjoyed your post ( = I agree with a most of it!).

Just on a point of information, the Martin Buber quote/paraphrase was originally recorded as a saying of the Talmudic Rabbi, Hillel the Elder (c.110 BCE, died 10 CE), whose more liberal ideas contrast with those of his near contemporary, the traditional, hard-line Rabbi, Shammai.

The full quote is:

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

and comes from the Pirkei Avot, "Chapters/Ethics of the Fathers", included in the Talmud.

Hillel is also credited with:

"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."


As a jewish kid I was taught that Jesus of Nazareth was a follower of Hillel.


anon #108 said...

...also (quoting Wiki) "Modern-day Rabbinic tradition descends from the law that Hillel recorded."

Off topic, but perhaps of interest.

Mumon K said...


You're right I'm sure; I don't know why it's been attributed to Buber; I have heard of Hillel of course. Jesus & Hillel were very similar in outlook. There are people walking around who claim descendancy from him, too. I met one once.