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.