So you want to found a new Buddhist school?

Many westerners starting to practice Buddhism experience an initial euphoria which expresses itself as the wish to share their newly experienced happiness with others. This being in accordance with the Mahāyana ideal of practicing for the benefit of others, one thinks:

"What a magnificent idea it would be to found a new school."

Reading through the Buddhist literature we are inspired by various masters of old who, we read, founded the "So and So" school/lineage and the idea of founding a new school just sounds better and better. So we undertake more and more training often with the idea in the back of our head of taking this newly found wisdom/knowledge "back home" to share with our friends and family and would-be students. After all they were not so fortunate to be able to travel to meet Master so-and-so, and you can share your experience with them, right.

It all sounds too good to be true. Doesn't it? Well, think again. When we read that Master So-and-So founded a school what does this really mean? We probably have the romantic idea that some wise old master makes some sort of highly symbolic action proclaiming publicly: "I hereby found the So-and-So school". This kind of romantic view of the past actually couldn't be further from reality.

So when is the time to start teaching meditation on your own? It is quite simple, when your teacher tells you/asks you to. If it is time for you to teach meditation, when your teacher requests you to do so, you probably won't feel flattered or proud at all (if you do there is something wrong here) but rather understanding that this is a very onerous responsibility, you will probably wish you had never heard his/her request at all. If you act exclusively under his direction and continue to be advised by him, acting as his agent so to say then your teacher is still carrying the brunt of the karmic responsibility.

Unfortunately it is all too easy that a teaching authorization goes to ones head and one might start to think to yourself "my old teacher is not quite with the times/doesn't understand us westerners/etc. and conclude that "I think I can do better on my own." As soon as this has happened then a very serious event has happened.

If you choose to break ties with your spiritual master and the school/lineage which he/she represents and in effect "found a school" or "go independent" this is a grave matter. Firstly you will be taking the FULL karmic responsibility for the consequences of your (imperfect) spiritual training of your students. Furthermore as anyone versed in the Buddha dharma is aware creating a "schism in the Sangha" is one of the 5 gravest infractions of the Buddhist rules of conduct (Vinaya) and should by no means be taken lightly.

Lets assume you are in fact authorized to teach by your teacher (and this authorization was given without coercion on your part or opportunistic motives of your teacher*) Even if you have received FULL authorized from your teacher to teach meditation the question is how to proceed. Once again lets look at history:

The Zen masters of old (Joshu Jushin, Isan Reiyu1, Hui-neng,2 Bodhidharma3 to name only a few) when authorized by their masters to teach, usually sought out other masters from different schools with the intent of sharpening their "Dharma Eye". After years or even decades of "Mondo/Dharma Combat" they unceremoniously built a bamboo hut, often on the fringe of civilization, and then went about their daily affairs, once again for years or even decades. They made no advertisement, didn't look for students, fame, or money. Sooner or later the local villagers noticed that the local hermit had something to teach, word naturally spread, then people came and built entire complexes around the master's original bamboo hut. Only generations later when it became obvious that a "tradition had arisen" or "had established itself" did anyone talk about a School much less of it's founding. The master (like the butterfly in chaos theory who by flapping his wings spawns a hurricane) just went about his daily affairs and by doing so, innocuously "caused" the building of temples, the enlightenment of thousands, and only after the fact, did anyone even talk of "founding" something at all.

In the early Mahāsiddha tradition of India from which the Tibetan schools arose, it was essentially no different. Many of the greatest Mahāsiddhas left so few historical traces that their names often weren't even recorded, however their enlightened often unconventional activity spawned the Vajrayana (Tibetan) tradition which still exists today more than a thousand years later in all it's vitality.

Reading Abhyadatta’s account of The Lives of the Eighty-Four Siddhas it is noteworthy just how many of the Mahāsiddha's Masters go unnamed and are only mentioned as "a monk" or "a yogi". In spite of being unnamed, the lineages which they transmitted still exist even today. Many of the greatest Mahāsiddhas of India and Tibet (for example Tilopa, Maitripa (6), The first Karmapa (7)) shunned fame and hid themselves from notoriety by hiding in the wilderness or by practicing a simple profession. Often enough even their best students were treated in a drastic and demeaning manner for years on end and repeatedly implored to leave. Only a handful of the most serious students tolerated such treatment as we read in accounts about Naropa or Milarepa. Does this seem like the behavior of someone who is trying to "found" a School/lineage? Obviously not!

So how do you proceed when helping others along the Buddhist path??

First off for those starting a Buddhist practice as well as for those who have been practicing for years, one should examine ones intention and motivation daily. If even in the back of your mind there is even the trace of a self aggrandising "Me as teacher and my students" -at least in this lifetime- then something is already off course. The "I" is notorious for deluding itself, so it logically follows that an individual is absolutely not capable of judging whether he has a sufficient realization to lead others in the Dharma.

On the other hand examining the Boddhisattva ideal, of course we should help others and giving them Dharma instructions is one aspect of this. But also consider the paramita Khansi –Patience. Considering that Buddhahood can only be attained after Aeons of practice perhaps we should consider the long term perspective and vow to train ourselves diligently in this lifetime. Exerting ourselves in this manner the time to teach will come, -sometime- maybe in this life maybe the next, but certainly sometime . By never entertaining the thought of teaching (this may sound egotistical but it isn't) we eliminate one of the many distracting ego games our mind plays on us and can dedicate ourselves more wholly to the actual practice of deepening our own experience.

When will the time to teach come you ask?
The bodhisattva ideal of helping all sentient beings to attain unsurpassed enlightenment isn't specifically about "teaching" nor is it about Buddhism as such. How do you help sentient beings the most. Of course this is dependent on circumstances under which you find yourself and the qualities of those around you.

Living as a Buddhist in a non-Buddhist environment presents many challenges to a western practitioner. If we look back into Buddhist history we see that the Mahāyana started as a sort of as an underground network of enlightened beings. Although it definitely existed in parallel with the originally documented Buddhist schools, historically very little was recorded about the Mahāyana for hundreds of years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death. It is not that it just appeared out of nowhere, it just developed outside of the public eye and not in an institutional context. So how does this compare with the introduction of Buddhism in the west?

You can help countless beings without even outing yourself as a Buddhist. Just as many of the Mahāsiddhas diligently and secretly practiced without arousing any notice at all, it is often the case that the best way for some westerners to practice is in secret. Of course other practitioners will recognize you as a Sangha member, but by making it widely known that you are a practicing Buddhist some disadvantages may arise both for you and for those who you have vowed to help.

By making an issue out of Buddhism, resentments and misunderstandings may arise in those who only have a superficial grasp of Religion. Just helping people, if you can, without engaging in Buddhist philosophical discussions (which others probably won't even grasp the basic Buddhist vocabulary). Then maybe someday after others have developed a good opinion of you when they find out you are a Buddhist then they might develop a respect for Buddhism instead of being alienated by it.

Joshu's life can be considered as exemplary. He had his first enlightenment experience with about eighteen. In spite of this he underwent extensive training under Master Nansen from whom he received full authorization to teach. After Nansen's death Joshu was about 50 and started to seek out other enlightened masters to engaged them in "Mondo"/"Dharma Combat" and thus sharpen his own "zen eye". About a decade later Joshu settled down in a hut and meditated further not even making efforts to teach. Slowly word spread of him and hundreds of monks came to study under him. Like many masters of old, none of his students could equal his degree of enlightenment and consequently he left no official Dharma successor. Today Joshu is considered to be one of the most profound masters of old China. His koan "Mu" has without a doubt brought more practitioners to a realization than any other Koan - and all that from someone who just built his bamboo hut on the hill, privately went about his affairs and didn't even leave a Dharma successor.

1 Fifteen years after receiving full authorization Isan started to “teach".

2 Twelve years after receiving full authorization Hui-Neng the 6th patriarch of Ch'an/Zen was recognized and started to teach.

3 Bodhidharma practiced shikantaza in a cave for more than 7 years before a suitable successor approached him.

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