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Are You a Zen Teacher?

Updated: Feb 14



People ask me, “Are you a Zen teacher?” “How do you know?”


It looks like a familiar question but it’s not. It’s easy to say how I know that I’m a social worker. I went to social work school. I passed the required courses and completed the required internships. Because I did these things, I have a diploma from Columbia and on that basis a license from the state.


The Zen teacher question is more like the question my mother asked me when I called to tell her that I’d gotten a job one year out of school as a psychiatric social worker. Mom was a believer in psychotherapy. “What makes you a psychiatric social worker?” she asked. She wasn’t being snarky. She was proud of me. She was curious and probably a bit skeptical.


“My hiring letter from the Brookdale Community Mental Health Center says I’m a psychiatric social worker.” I really couldn’t quite believe it either. What was I doing as a psychotherapist? 

During my first year, I was working with a group of mothers, all of whose kids were in therapy at our clinic. It was a parenting group. What was I doing helping them become better parents? They were all older than me. I had no experience as a parent. I didn’t even have any experience as a sibling. Being a child was the only role in the family that I had any experience with.


As a working therapist in hospitals and in private practice for 35 years, I developed a lot more skill than I had when I was working with my first mother’s group, but I was not always fully present. Part of me was often observing, watching my practice, checking to see that I was behaving professionally. That was the “conscious of use of self” that had been drummed into me in social work school. It was a perspective that was reinforced through all my psychoanalytic training.


It was only much later that I finally began to let go of that self-consciousness and gradually to become more fully and consistently present, to just be helpful without worrying about whether what I was doing looked professional. It took a lot of practice to get to that place. Zen practice helped.


I remember an epiphanous moment when I became aware of the shift. We had founded The Verrazano Foundation to level the playing field for people living with mental illnesses. Our signature project was the Arts of Recovery, opportunities for artists in recovery, often fresh from years in psychiatric facilities, to collaborate with professional artists in multiday workshops, usually during the Spring and Summer. The workshops culminated in an exhibition at a local gallery, complete with opening night wine and cheese, and local media coverage.


My moment of awakening occurred at a big July 4th lawn party. There was gorgeous weather, plenty of wine and live music. In the crowd, across the lawn, I recognized one of our recovering artists. I hadn’t seen her in probably a year. I went over immediately to say hello and we did the usual cocktail party chatter when you meet someone you didn’t expect to see.


“How did you get here? How do you know the host?”


It wasn’t until the party was over that I realized how unusual that interaction was. I had learned, sometimes painfully at first, just how awkward it is for a mental health professional to run into a patient. I remember seeing someone on the street whom I recognized, knew that I knew but couldn’t place. I remember greeting them and the initial shock when they walked by without returning my greeting. 


It would be some minutes, blocks, before I remembered that I knew the person from the hospital, a patient who did not welcome “running into” someone from the other side. I learned to avoid eye making contact. I wasn’t looking to make anyone uncomfortable.


My 4th of July encounter was different. I was happy to see this person, and she was happy to see me. I was different, and I was relating differently. I understood instantly that it wasn’t just that our roles had changed. As a therapist, I had always gotten out from behind my desk — in private practice, there was never a desk in the room where I met with patients — but there was always a symbolic desk between us. The barrier that separated us was enormous. It was only in the uniqueness of my 4th of July moment that I realized how great the barrier had been. 


By the time I got that July 4th moment, I was no longer practicing psychotherapy. When Morrigan was born in 1998, I gave up my private practice — I wanted to make sure I had time for her on evenings and weekends — and a year and a half later I had retired from my position with the state mental health system. And by then, Bernie had made me a Dharma Holder. I was a beginning Zen teacher.


People would ask me, “How did you become a Zen teacher?” They were asking about my credentials. What made me qualified to teach Zen? 


The question made me uncomfortable, tapped into my insecurity. I had less business teaching Zen than I’d had leading that first mother’s group. I had no degree from Columbia to fall back on now. It didn’t make any sense to talk about the number of hours I had spent on my cushion. There were so many people who had been practicing years longer than me who weren’t teachers. It made no sense to talk about the number of koans I had passed. In some Zen lineages, students do many more koans, and in some they do only one. And besides, I had no idea how I had passed most of the koans that I had passed.


There was only one answer ultimately. I am a Zen teacher because Bernie Glassman said I was a Zen teacher.


This didn’t really give me confidence, but it was the best answer I had. I am a Zen teacher because Bernie said I’m a Zen teacher.


But what if he made a mistake? Maybe everyone who becomes a Dharma Holder, maybe everyone who eventually receives transmission, fully empowered to teach and to transmit the Dharma has the same question. What if my teacher made a mistake? 


Once when a group of us were sitting with Bernie, — it may have been in the early years when Bernie and Jishu were still in Yonkers, — one of the more courageous students asked Bernie if he ever worried about making a mistake in the transmission. This is an important question because once the transmission is done, the new teacher is free to manifest the Dharma. The transmitting teacher retains no control, no veto power. There is no bi-annual license renewal for Zen teachers.


No, Bernie was not worried. I was fascinated. Is this arrogance? Can Bernie possibly believe that he never makes mistakes? No one is that enlightened.


Bernie continued. “If a mistake in transmission is made, that new teaching line will die out quickly.” The Universe would take care of his mistakes. There was no need for Bernie to worry. And no arrogance.


“What makes you a Zen teacher?”


Bernie said I was a Zen teacher. And maybe he made a mistake.

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