The TeacherBecause the Zen tradition emphasizes direct communication over scriptural study, the role of the Zen teacher has traditionally been central. Generally speaking, a Zen teacher is a person ordained in any tradition of Zen to teach the dharma, guide students of meditation, and perform rituals.
An important concept for all Zen sects in East Asia is the notion of Dharma transmission the claim of a line of authority that goes back to the Buddha via the teachings of each successive master to each successive student. This concept relates to the ideas expressed in a description of Zen attributed to Bodhidharma:
A special transmission outside the scriptures; (教外別傳)
No dependence upon words and letters; (不立文字)
Direct pointing to the human mind; (直指人心)
Seeing into one's own nature and attaining Buddhahood. (見性成佛)
Since at least the Middle Ages, a claim to Dharma transmission has been a normative aspect of all Zen sects. John McRae’s study “Seeing Through Zen” explores this assertion of lineage as a distinctive and central aspect of Zen Buddhism. He writes of this “genealogical” approach so central to Zen’s self-understanding, that while not without precedent, has unique features. It is “relational (involving interaction between individuals rather than being based solely on individual effort), generational (in that it is organized according to parent-child, or rather teacher-student, generations) and reiterative (i.e., intended for emulation and repetition in the lives of present and future teachers and students.”
McRae offers a detailed criticism of lineage, but he also notes it is central to Zen. So much so that it is hard to envision any claim to Zen that discards claims of lineage. Therefore, for example, in Japanese Soto lineage charts become a central part of the Sanmatsu, the documents of Dharma transmission. And it is common for daily chanting in Zen temples and monasteries to include the lineage of the school, in whole or in part, reciting the names of all dharma ancestors and teachers that have transmitted Zen teaching.
In Japan during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868), some came to question the lineage system and its legitimacy. The Zen master Dokuan Genko (1630–1698), for example, openly questioned the necessity of written acknowledgement from a teacher, which he dismissed as "paper Zen." The only genuine transmission, he insisted, was the individual's independent experience of Zen enlightenment, an intuitive experience that needs no external confirmation. An occasional teacher in Japan during the Tokugawa period did not adhere to the lineage system; these were termed mushi dokugo (無師獨悟, "independently enlightened without a teacher") or jigo jisho (自悟自証, "self-enlightened and self-certified"). They were generally dismissed and perhaps of necessity leave no independent transmission. Nevertheless, modern Zen Buddhists also consider questions about the dynamics of the lineage system, inspired in part by academic research into the history of Zen.
Honorific titles associated with teachers typically include, in Chinese, Fashi (法師) or Chanshi (禪師); in Korean, Sunim or Seon Sa (선사); in Japanese, Osho (和尚), Roshi (老師), or Sensei (先生); and in Vietnamese, Thầy. Note that many of these titles are not specific to Zen but are used generally for Buddhist priests; some, such as sensei are not even specific to Buddhism.
The English term Zen master is often used to refer to important teachers, especially ancient and medieval ones. However, there is no specific criterion by which one may be called a Zen master. The term is less common in reference to modern teachers.