On Finding a Zen Teacher
[http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~alb/zen/teach.html] -- It is often said that when you truly need a teacher, one will appear. This may due to some inexplicable serendipity. It may be due to the fact that the seeker has searched deeply within himself or herself and determined what sort of instruction seems to be required. It could be a spiritual desperation on the part of the seeker, or a successful sales pitch by a teacher (sincere or not). It may be a combination of the previous factors, or some intuitive awareness beyond expression. For whatever the reason, the saying often applies.
Do you need a Zen teacher?
Sometimes you can learn what you are seeking from a teacher who is not necessarily a Zen teacher. Many truths are universal. Indeed, one can learn lessons from anyone, anywhere -- whether or not you learn what the person thinks he or she is teaching. Keep your eyes open and watch. Sometimes people are alienated from the religion they were raised in and seek answers elsewhere. If these people were to seek different perspectives in their own faith they might find the answers to their questions. Sometimes by studying Zen for a while one can gain a greater appreciation for one's previous religion and return there with a greater understanding. And sometimes people find just what they are seeking in Zen and make it their personal religion.
Why do you want a teacher?
If you want a teacher to verify what you already see as your great kensho you are probably out of luck. Even a huckster is unlikely to provide this service unless you pay for it. You probably have had some insight to even seek out a teacher. In terms of the old metaphor, though, if you arrive with your teacup already filled then anything added will only spill out onto the floor. (If you are truly certain of your enlightenment, why do you need external validation at all? If you want to tell others that you are enlightened, why is that?)
What is lineage?
In Zen, lineage is a system whereby a teacher is certified to teach by his own teacher, and so forth. This system is claimed by many lines to go back to Gautama Buddha himself. Whether or not that is literally true is a matter for historians, and is for the most part irrelevant in actual practice. A system that goes back for at least several hundred years, or a teacher trained in such a system, is worth noting. It is like an extra seal of approval. There are abusive and exploitative teachers all around. A teacher associated with a known lineage is much less likely to be exploitative. On the other hand, there are many fine teachers not associated with a lineage and certain teachers within lineages who exploit their students. The Buddha undoubtedly knew all this when he set up the lineage system. One thing the system guards against is the establishment of an official government Buddhist hierarchy -- at least in the short term. Time has seen many governments threatened by Buddhism, who then seek to repress it or officially ``tame' it. (This is not just a Buddhist thing. It happens, for example, with Christian groups too.)
What does a teacher claim?
The Buddha himself never claimed to be all-knowing. At the least, there are questions Buddhism does not address. Individual Buddhists may have their own interpretations, but the Buddha purposely left many questions unanswered. A teacher who claims to have all the answers is an obvious fraud. Part of learning Buddhism is to shift which questions you ask and what sort of answer you expect. You should always be perfectly free to leave any Buddhist group if you feel your questions are not being answered -- or more importantly if you feel you are being exploited.
I am still interested in a Zen group, where do I find one?
There are several lists of Zen centers and sitting groups on the web. Find one in your area and check it out. It can be quite helpful to meet people having the same outlook, and a good teacher is invaluable. Even if you choose not to stay with the group you will likely learn valuable lessons.
The wheel keeps on turning.
Sometimes you will feel intensely motivated to study and practice Zen. At other times it will fade out of your life to the point where you almost forget what you learned at all. ``Almost' is the key word there. When you need it, you will be called back to it. It often takes some time to realize what you learned at all by just sitting and breathing. When it comes back, do not expect it to be the same, and do not expect to reach it the same way. Take it fresh and it grows deeper each time around.