When I was a pimply-faced high school kid, I used to go to a dermatologist I’ll call Dr. Selmer. I disliked him intensely. He was always strongly recommending acne remedies that had, in his own words, “basically the same side effects as chemotherapy.” That seemed insane, even sinister. I never did this to his face, but my way of showing my family how little I respected this man was by refusing to refer to him as a doctor — I called him “Mr. Selmer.” I remember seeing how much power that had, how wrong it sounded, how it made my parents cringe just a little every time.
Titles, at least in Soto Zen, are tricky. When other priests in Japan send me correspondence, they usually append shūshi (宗師, “religious teacher”) to my name; occasionally, they’ll even write rōshi (老師, “old teacher”) — no one uses the term to my face (I’m 39!), but in writing, those kinds of exaggerated honorific titles are just a way of showing respect. It doesn’t mean much. Most people here call me Koun-san, with the san meaning absolutely nothing, but people who know something about Zen might call me oshō-san (和尚, harmony + esteem, often translated as “preceptor”), or maybe Koun-oshō-san (if you hear ossan, that’s just oshō-san getting contracted, usually to convey something a little bit casual). Our neighbors have taken to calling me sensei recently. Sensei is most often translated as “teacher,” but that doesn’t do it justice — it’s used for teachers, but also for doctors, or for the school nurse, or for artists of a particular standing, or for older musicians, and on and on. Sensei is what you call someone when you recognize that their standing or category probably merits its own term, but you don’t know what that term is. It’s handy that way. Literally it just means “one who is ahead,” so it’s a recognition that a person clearly has something to offer. It’s very possible that the neighbors call me sensei because my wife is a university professor, and it’s just more comfortable to give us the same status.
All these titles (and there are many more) share one thing in common: they are never, never used by the person in question. That is, the neighbor can call me Koun-sensei, but I cannot call myself Koun-sensei. Even just to say that I’m a teacher, I have to use a neutral term like kyōshi (教師) — sensei is a term of respect, and here, culturally, it’s understood that one does not do that when referring to oneself. Ever.
So it’s always jarring for me to see Western teachers sign their email with “Roshi” or “Sensei.” The practice is not universal — in fact, the majority of priests in the US don’t do this (a high percentage don’t even use their Dharma names). But nor is it uncommon. I see it all the time. And what I’m mostly seeing is correspondence among colleagues, where, regardless of one’s vocation, it might be a little strange to refer to oneself by title, given that most of your colleagues are basically the same rank. I suspect the self-use of honorific titles is much more common when priests are dealing with laypeople. I realize that for many priests and centers, it’s probably too late to be addressing this; I also know I’m hardly the first to bring it up. But still, I’d like to appeal to those who don’t use these titles publicly, especially young priests at the start of their careers, to not go down that road. I can’t see the benefit of it.
Part of the confusion –among priests and laypeople alike — is that rōshi means something different in the Rinzai world. My understanding is that in much of the Rinzai world, rōshi is a real title, something one graduates to. There is an actual moment when someone becomes a rōshi. Even then, in Japan, that person would not use the word to describe him or herself — there are no real exceptions to that. But at least it’s something measurable. If you ask a Rinzai teacher, “Are you a rōshi?” my sense is that in many cases she could answer definitively “yes” or “no.”
There is no such graduation moment for a Soto priest. If you live long enough, and if the people around you feel either respect or affection for you, you might find one day that you are a rōshi. That’s all. Maybe it will never happen. It’s not really something to aspire to, largely because it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone involved. One priest in his sixties told me that the first time he was called rōshi in a conversation, his response was to go to the washroom and look in the mirror to see if he’d suddenly aged. Many priests are never called rōshi, regardless of how long they live. (There is one exception to this, which is that the central monastic office titles of dōchō, seidō, godō, and tantō often, as a custom, get rōshi appended to them, but even that is not true in every monastery).
But at least in the Soto world of the US, rōshi is often used to signify a specific rank. Some people insist on it the way that an insecure college professor might trip up every introduction by always saying, “Actually, it’s Dr. Smithson.” I think most people find that kind of insistence off-putting, but to be fair, at least “Dr.” is a technical title, one earned in clear and measurable ways. Rōshi and sensei cannot be earned — they can only be given. I’ve met novices who spoke openly of their goal to be a Zen teacher. That’s a serious mistake. That’s something that comes to us, not something we seek.
There’s another phenomenon in the West in which students refer to their teacher not as “Smith-roshi” or “Jones-roshi,” but simply as “Roshi,” with a capital ‘R.’ I can see how that might become a default in a given community, among common disciples of the same person (though it rings very strange in my ear, even then). But to refer to your teacher as “Roshi” when speaking to someone outside of the group reveals a kind of arrogance, a worldview in which only one person in the world deserves such a title.
I want to advocate for us, as westerners, treating these titles as people in Japan do. But I want to be clear: the Japanese approach to this issue is not superior because it’s Japanese, or even because it’s traditional. It’s superior because it’s more respectful — of priests, of the relationships we have with priests, of the relationships we priests have with others, of the living dynamic that is always in play between teacher and student, guest and host.
We say in this tradition that the student makes the teacher; we even go so far as to say that when the teacher confers transmission on the student, the student simultaneously confers transmission on the teacher. We are mutually self-actualizing. A teacher does not exist in a vacuum; a teacher appears at the moment that a student does. I became a father when my son was born, not before. That seems so obvious, yet we have people with no students calling themselves Zen teachers, or even Zen masters. The complement to “teacher” is “student”; the complement to “master” is “disciple.” Whatever language you use, if you don’t have both, you have neither. Zen master, then, is a technical term, nothing more — perfectly appropriate for someone who has disciples, and embarrassing for someone who does not.
Rōshi and sensei are not technical terms, but like teacher or master, their power comes from a relationship with someone else. If someone calls me sensei, that person is taking a step forward, asking me to be that role. When I address an older priest as rōshi, it’s the same thing — it’s me consciously conveying, “I want to relate to you as someone who is learning.” In Soto Zen, so much of the burden is on the student; this is just one simple example.
So these terms are useful, even important. I would like some teachers to stop using them to describe themselves, but I would also like to encourage those teachers who shy away from such terms to stop resisting, to allow the people around them to take that brave step. Making that space for others, regardless of your own discomfort, is a profoundly generous act.
In my experience of this tradition, generally speaking, priests default to humility. When a priest writes a letter, the smallest print on the page is his own name; it’s the same on the return address. When priests introduce themselves, they mention either their teacher’s temple or their own, but they do not say that the temple is big or small, nor do they refer to their own rank in the institution of Soto-shu. They don’t say how many disciples they have, and the more famous and respected their teacher is, the less likely they are to actually refer to that teacher by name. If these things have any relevance, they reveal themselves naturally. If not, then who cares?
At the same time, when someone comes to me as a priest, I understand that I am being asked to serve in a particular function, to stand in that position (I wrote about this a few months ago over at Wild Fox Zen). In that circumstance, in that kind of relationship, Koun is not the point — the role is the point. In a very real way, the robe is the point. And though they’re not separate, they’re also not one and the same. (My karate teacher used to remind us, “I’m friendly, but I’m not your friend.” He’s the teacher; we’re the students. The price of admission to that relationship is the forfeiture of other kinds of relationships. And when it’s worth it, it’s really worth it.) When a priest is called upon to sit on the high seat, to expound the Dharma or confer the precepts, then it is the priest’s job to sit there without apology, without hesitation, and to become that function, to bring all the stillness or thunder to that role that he or she can. That’s our part of the contract, to say yes and yes and yes, to let go of showing who we think we are, and instead to offer ourselves as a mirror for others, to rise to that occasion, that expectation, that moment.
But it’s also the priest’s job, when it’s over, to get down from that seat and to let that moment be over, to let the role be defined by whatever comes next, not by what just happened.
What I can do is offer everything I have; what I cannot do is tell you how to feel about it, or how to label it. My actions and my words should point to the Dharma, not to myself. If my actions are words on a page, people should have to squint to see my name at all.
Another great post. Thanks! A question and a comment. First, how about “Dairo(shi?)sama?” I’ve heard a couple old teachers in Japan referred too with this – like Harada Daiun and Harada Tangen and I think Harada Sekei. What’s up with that?
Also, I agree about the humility point and there’s another one that imv leans the discussion back in the other direction – that is, in the West maybe it’s better to use the Rinzai standard and use it as a term that connotes the completion of some training. The point is that we’re so prone to self-credential in the US, at least, and with the Roshi horse already out of the barn, it may be clearer to use the title here (if it be used at all) like the Boundless Way folks do – connoting a person who has received inka. My understanding is that the White Plum reserves it for those who have received dharma transmission and then taught “independently” for 10 years.
At least then there’s some clarity about it.
We don’t seem to have the group sensibility to move together to recognize someone’s maturity like the Japanese apparently do.
What do you think?
Thank you. I’ve never heard anyone called “Dairoshi,” though it’s not too hard to speculate that some people might use it to designate someone way up there, a roshi among roshis. I’ll keep my ears open for it.
On a practical level, I agree with you — things are easier and clearer if we have concrete standards for using these terms (as I think quite a few groups do). But to me, that totally changes the meaning — in that model, if I am at the technical rank of “roshi,” then not only can I put that on my business cards, I can insist that you use the word when you address me. If that happened, I think we’d need a new word that means what roshi has always meant (again, in a Soto sense), some way to offer up that voluntary respect. For koan lineages, it’s fine — completing a curriculum is a technical benchmark. But in the White Plum line, I’d be closing in on roshi. I don’t feel that it would benefit me or anyone around me to suddenly graduate in that way.
I’m actually not too concerned with the various misunderstandings laypeople might have about these terms; for me, it’s more about the priests. If I live long enough, someone somewhere will call me roshi, I’m sure. If I haven’t hit 60 or so when that happens, I imagine I’ll try to politely explain to that person that there might be other, more appropriate forms of address. If I’m 70 the first time it happens, I only hope that I can take it in stride and meet that person where he/she is, to skillfully address that expectation. For me, I’m not sure it’s so important for the Zen world as a whole to have a group sensibility about it, but it’s not at all unreasonable that with all of our connections (SZBA, AZTA, ASZB…), we could arrive at something of a group sensibility within the priesthood. That would be nice, anyway.
Out of curiosity, what do people call you? I assume you called Katagiri-roshi “roshi” — is that right? If so, then in your mind, would it have felt strange to call him Dainin?
Well, yes, I agree.
Those close to Katagiri-roshi called him “Hojo-san” and others used “Roshi” – and given that back then he was one of a handful of older teachers in the US, that seemed fitting. He preferred “Hojo-san.” In David Chadwick’s book Crooked Cucumber he has an interesting story, btw, about Suzuki-roshi telling people to start calling Katagiri “Roshi”.
Anyway, I prefer “Dosho” and some call me “Sensei” which I don’t correct but the term doesn’t especially make sense here for the reasons you’ve expressed above. It would have been very odd for me to call Katagiri “Dainin” though!
I think I’ve been called “Roshi” about twice and it seemed really odd. I ignored it and it went away.
A related issue is the strangeness that comes when people following different systems of terms come together for practice like in my experience with the Boundless Way crew. David, James, and Melissa are all “Roshi” (and two of the three are very junior to me). In their system I’m “Sensei” because I don’t have inka (as you know, not a general Soto thing). What a great opportunity to see self grasping!
Thank you for responding. I asked about Katagiri-roshi because I can feel that something would be lost if I called my teachers by their first names. When I got to Anchorage, of course, I just told everyone, “Call me Koun,” and I have no problem with that. But I also see that it’s much easier to cultivate casualness than it is to foster formality, and as someone who has found a lot of value in the formality, it can be a struggle to let go of it.
The Boundless Way example is great, by the way. On one hand, yes, if they take you as an insider, you’re sensei, and they outrank you. But they could just as easily call you roshi, based on your background — in doing so, they’d be pushing you out and including you in the same move. It’s complicated.
Years ago, a student came to my office after I’d given her a ‘D’ on a paper. She was outraged. She asked who I thought I was to “judge” her, then she got in my face and asked, “Do you play piano? Do you?” I shook my head. She stepped back and looked at me with disgust: “Well, I do. So who’s the teacher now?” I just laughed — that’s the definition of crazy talk, the ultimate pathological reaction to hierarchy. But I think that kind of thinking, perhaps in more subtle ways, is pervasive, and hard to break through.
Thank you, Koun samma. You speak my mind.
Thank you. Your comment means a lot to me.
I imagine that the SFZC community has struggled with these kinds of terms over the years. Is that true? Is “roshi” used there? If so, are there any guidelines for who is and who isn’t?
I’ll be in the SF area for much of August and September. I sincerely hope that I will be able to see you then. Take care.
We used “Roshi” for Suzuki Roshi , Katagiri Roshi and for Richard Baker, and we became less inclined to use it after the difficulties of 1983. (By the way, I was disappointed that Richard Baker left Zen Center at that time. I had hoped that he could understand that “mutually consensual” does not mean ok in the context of a teacher/student relationship because of the power differential and projections, etc. I had hoped that he would admit error, step down for a while to practice with us as a monk for a time to demonstrate his sincerity and devotion to practice. He had come of age at a time and place in our culture where multiple sexual partners were commonplace.
He was young, talented and ambotious when he became abbot and he was devoted to Suzuki Roshi. I think we may not have survived to celebrate our 50th Anniversary if he had not been here at that time. We owe him a great debt of gratitude. .
To answer your question about the use of “Roshi” currently at San Francisco Zen Center, there are some of us who do use the honorific with the most senior teachers; Tenshin Anderson and Sojun Weitsman, and occasionally me and a few others. I am, of course, uncomfortable with it because I am all too familiar with my limitations, but it also encourages me to work harder to make it more appropriate. I am, literally, “old”, but I was middle aged when I first began to sit, so I don’t think of myself as an “old teacher”. I speak of Kobun Chino Roshi as I greatly appreciate his teaching.
I appreciate your comments regarding Richard Baker’s departure. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine how the trajectory of SFZC (and American Zen in general) might have been different if he had decided to remain within the fold. It’s such a pivotal story in our short Zen history.
This is another great post Osho-san. I couldn’t agree with you more. I remember my monastic teacher, Ajaan Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu), referring to himself as Tan Geoff (the lowest honorific for a monk) although by then I believe he was a Chao Khun (a title conferred by either the King of Thailand or the Thai Sangha hierarchy, I can’t remember, but only two caucasian monks, Ajaan Sumedho and Ajaan Geoff, have been given it, and it’s a fairly high title in the Thai hierarchy). So Chao Khun Phra Acarya Geoff Thanissaro was most likely his full proper title!
In any case, I think you make a lot of great points in this article. For the record, I think that laypeople can be educated about these matters, and that when we understand them we are more often eager to make use of the proper etiquette than to abandon it. At least that was my experience of Theravadin laypeople and most of the Zen sangha I’ve met so far too. Some times we make the mistake of expecting too little of ourselves and each other, a grave error and perhaps even a kind of insult. Another example of this is the decision that seems to have been made by most of the North American Buddhist community to forego the traditional practice of unsolicited donations in place of fees thinly disguised as “suggested donations” or “dana”. This is a complex issue, and I don’t judge individuals who are doing this, but I think this is a harmful collective mistake we are making. For an interesting discussion of this see:
Thank you. I absolutely agree with you that laypeople can be educated about these things. I just think that the ideal way for that to happen would be through the priesthood.
I appreciate the story about your teacher. A favorite of mine: Narasaki Ikko-roshi, former head of Zuioji, got the call near the end of his life to go and serve as godo of Eiheiji (basically, to be second in command). He was already a big shot in the Soto world, so no one would have blinked if he’d shown up at Eiheiji in fancy robes, with an entourage. That’s standard. Instead, when he left Zioji, he did it in the outfit of a traveling novice, robes hiked up, zafu in hand, bamboo hat on his head. It’s such a small thing, but that one choice made a big impression on a whole generation of monks. All the stories about him indicate that he never stopped thinking of himself as just a monk, that he never stopped enjoying being a monk. Holding on to that mind is incredibly rare, at least here.
Footnote to the above: Though I’ve heard this story about Ikko-roshi 100 times from 100 sources, and it’s always told as something amazing and rare, I now have it on very good authority that there is this convention of monastic officers, even at the highest levels, entering the monastery in novice garb. It’s not universal–as far as I know, none of the officers I know personally chose to do it that way; perhaps it’s becoming a thing of the past–but we can guess that Ikko-roshi’s appearance on that day probably had a greater impact on the monks he was leaving behind at Zuioji than it did on the monks awaiting him at Eiheiji, who had surely seen that kind of thing before.
Oh, and thank you for the link. It is a complex issue, and though I agree with you in principle, my own experience is that sometimes education is warranted (the difficulty, it seems, is finding the line between educating supporters and pressuring them, and I sympathize with anyone who has struggled with that issue). In Anchorage, for example, we realized at one point that many, many members didn’t know that we didn’t own the building we used. Asking around, we found that people just didn’t think about those kinds of expenses. There’s a progression from saying, “We rent this building” to “We pay this much per month” to “This month, we’re this much short” to “Could we collectively come together and try to cover the remainder?” to applying some sort of guilt-based tactics. We can probably agree that we’re uncomfortable with guilt-based pressure tactics, but if we take that out, where do we each land on that continuum? I think there are good arguments on both sides, at each step.
Thank you Koun- a great story too. And yes, the dana issue is difficult. One thing I would like to see is clarity and honesty- if it is expected that people pay a certain amount when attending a retreat, I think this should be called a fee, not a “suggested” or even “required” donation (I recently saw “required donation” on a retreat advertisement, to my bewilderment).
If something is by donation, it is by donation. Another issue is the difference between Theravada, where there is a clear and obvious boundary between basically propertyless monastics who publicly and obviously rely on donations and and lay people. When dealing with a Dharma group which is run by laypeople for laypeople, or by priests or monks who handle money and may even have a day job, it’s a different situation. One issue I do think is very important with regard to retreats is to have a number of scholarships available and to make this fact well-known in a way which does not shame those who need them in any way, or make them feel like they have to beg for them.
One example I think is good is the Everyday Zen Sangha associated with Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Their retreats are always advertised with the mention of a limited number of scholarships as well as very inexpensive, seemingly the absolute lowest price possible. On top of that they take voluntary donations for the teachers and the Sangha.
Anyway, I think the three key principles are 1) making the Dharma as available as possible; 2) not selling it like goods in the market place; and 3) being straightforward, transparent, and honest about whatever is going on.
I think your three key principles are completely appropriate. At the AZC, we used the language of “suggested donation.” It was suggested because we knew what we needed to cover costs, and offering that suggestion seemed like a fair way to let others know that same information. But it really was suggested — many people offered less than that, or even none, and very occasionally, someone offered more.
As a point of interest, we never put out a separate box for donations for the teacher (me). I wasn’t comfortable with that. I considered myself to be an extension of the community; I wanted people, when they offered support, to offer it to the whole community, not just me. The board then made decisions about how much, if any, of that came my way. I don’t think there’s a “right” way here, but I do think there’s a real danger of people offering money to the teacher out of love or devotion, and neglecting the organization that actually keeps the practice available day to day.
ps: forgot to follow-up on my intention to call you Osho-san. Education hasn’t stuck yet 🙂
Thank you, Koun, for another wonderful post. Soko Morinaga, the former President of Hanazono University, once famously said, “A roshi is anyone who calls himself a roshi and can get other people to do the same.” (quoted by Stuart Lachs http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~buddhism/aar-bs/1999/lachs.htm).
My father from the Bronx used to say, “Call me anything you want, but don’t call me late for dinner”.
Thank you, and thank you for the quotation. I clicked on the link and read some of Lachs’ article. He’s an interesting figure, someone I haven’t read for years–full of lots of interesting facts, but in his voice, such arrogance. I suspect that his work has found a wide audience, and I wonder how many people have been turned away from this practice as a result.
I would add to the quotation that anyone who calls himself (or herself) a roshi is certainly not seeming like one.
Hi Koun, Yes, Stuart Lachs certainly has a tendency to way way overstate his case, seeing the negatives and forgetting the positives. On the other hand, he also has shed light on many failings, scandals, sexual predations and little bits of abuse and corruption (amongst all the goodness that so far far exceeds all that badness) that certainly have deserved to be pointed out, faced squarely and dealt with. We have a tendency to want to shoot the messenger. If any students have been chased away from Zen by Lach’s writings, I wonder how many more have been chased away or even injured by finding themselves in some of the abusive situations, power trips, cultish goings on and the like that he points out? Certainly those should not be swept under the rug! Yes, Stuart may overstate his case ,… but thank Buddha he hasn’t been like so many who have turned a blind eye to these things either!
Another lovely reflection, Koun. Thank you. A year or so ago I also ruminated on titles from a slightly different angle… http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2011/08/a-meditation-on-titles.html
Thank you. I enjoyed your link–I appreciate your flexibility. I’m also grateful to you for pointing out, gently, the “the” in “the Rev.” No one gets that right. 🙂
Am deeply grateful for the impressionable thoughts shared in your blog-posts. Heartfelt thanks.
From a developmental perspective — childhood to adolescence to youth and on, until old age — the voices placing an importance on “I” become softer or more knowing with experience. Was wondering if you find this to be generally true?
Personally, when the awareness of shifting attention from self to action entered my experience, I had to engage it in a very intentional way. It’s only with constant mindful practice, that the awareness of fruitfulness of action minus self has become a part of my intuitive nature, and even yet, not completely — there’s always more work. 🙂 I know in your past blog-post you shared how new habits when initially cultivated start out as feeling unnatural, until at some point — through consistent practice — settle naturally into the space our practice creates for it. Have felt this in my own life also.
The clarity of your post is appealing.
Dear Shri Koun, Let your work and writing take you to the most peaceful realm. About addressing the other- Don’t you think a casual way of addressing will be opposed to our real purpose? As every new man could be (is) a Buddha. Thank you.
Nice to be reminded of this post by James Ford on Facebook. I think it could act as a general guide about the whole business. I studied with an American Soto teacher for a few years who insisted on being called roshi, by everyone – even (I’ve learned) by other priests whose ordination preceded his (who I think generally rolled their eyes and avoided him after). This indicated a lot more than just adopting a formal title. I lived at his temple for a number of years. I wondered at the time why he seemed to attract so many former followers of creepy boomer gurus (Osho, Franklin Jones aka Adi Da, and others.) I realized more and more clearly in retrospect that it came from certain forms of inflation on his part on the one hand, and a “keeping up with the Guru Jones” becoming a teacher in the American ’70’s on the other. He clearly had a guru complex himself. He often related his participation events with guru figures back in the day, and clearly was very close with Chogyam Trungpa. There was even some tacit approval of “crazy wisdom guru” Lee Lozowick, who visited a couple times. Mainly, he idolized his teacher as his “perfect teacher”, and seemed bent on entraining his students to do something similar. And hey – I chose this guy to go live and study with. Mea culpa.
While I was there, there was plenty of controversy and a high rate of turnover. “Roshi” was the only priest, discouraged relationships with other teachers, and (subtly) voiced open disdain for other Dharma heirs of his teacher and lineage, who were close by and relatively numerous (a fact that he seemed to find particularly scornful.) A young man, I intuited the need for initiation, and encouraged by the stories from our tradition, I readily accepted what I look back and see what others even saw at the time: highly unskillful, even cruel and abusive behavior that hurt not only me, but the community – what I interpreted as “tough love” was just plain wrong, bad leadership. But then, the whole community was pervasively sick from the overemphasis on a skewed “vertical” relationship toward the teacher. The teacher himself often voiced his own dismay – I look back and see a very depressed and isolated person. Of course, there is plenty of precedent for this in the Zen tradition. In the months after I left, the community was rocked with allegations of sexual improprieties on the part of this teacher, though the isolation of the community seemed to keep the lid on it. I only heard about it later from a friend who still was in the area.
I received some good training there, but perhaps the greatest lessons were “negative” ones. Here I am many years later still practicing, even getting ordained, and with a much healthier, I would say pretty mature relationship with my current teacher (whom I call roshi when I feel particularly respect-full, just as you describe, but not in a prescribed manner). So I count it all really as net positive. I can relate my experiences with “roshi” now without the bitterness that characterized my feelings for many years. I am over it. Mostly, I can feel gratitude.
One of the gifts I know I experience from the Zen tradition (and martial arts too) is making a place for healthy “vertical”, hierarchical relationships, and likewise horizontal peer ones. They have to be in balance. It’s tough work. It’s like the essence of the whole thing maybe. An eternity’s more-or-less joyful labor!