The contemporary and prominent Masataka Toga-roshi has stated, "In Japanese Zen, loyalty is most important. Loyalty to one's teacher and to the tradition is more important than the Buddha and the Dharma." This attitude may be well suited to Japanese culture, a culture very different from our own. However, it may be time for American practitioners to begin to explore structures of practice not modeled exclusively on the Japanese form, but on ways that are more compatible with our own culture of democratic and egalitarian ideals. They might places less emphasis on absolute loyalty to a superior or to an institution and more emphasis on equality and minimizing hierarchical structures.
In a sense, Zen has inverted its self-definition of "a separate transmission outside of words and letters." We should keep in mind that according to the Zen view truth cannot be expressed in words but rather only alluded to in spontaneous and natural activities of daily life. However, Zen gives great prestige and authority to a ceremonially invested institutional role, whether Master, roshi, or Shi-fu, rather than basing authority on the actual lived, observable activity of the individual. At least in theory, this latter criterion is the only legitimate means in the East of discerning the mark of the sage. It is based on the concept of t'i-yung, usually translated as essence-function, which is prominent in all East Asian philosophical systems. According to this view, it is the transformation of the personality reflected in a person's ability to act spontaneously (directly) and without hindrance in response to phenomenal situations, that marks the sage or enlightened one. The Master/roshi is said to be realized, that is to make the ideal of enlightened activity "real in his everyday experience."
Zen has put the cart before the horse. Zen institutions define any teacher having the title Master or roshi as a sage or enlightened being. This imputation of character is independent of the teacher manifesting any qualities that could be seen as marks of realization or enlightenment. Regardless of whether or not the individual can manifest any evidence of such an exalted level of spiritual attainment, this status is conferred upon the teacher with the institutional title. By virtue of the investiture of an institutional position the individual automatically acquires a whole array of impressive qualities. He is extraordinary, or else utterly ordinary. He also gains the ability to act and speak from the perspective of the Absolute, to perform miracles, to always maintain a pure mind, and ultimately becomes the repository, if not the living manifestation of the perfectly realized mind of Shakyamuni Buddha. The students are not empowered to have confidence in their own abilities of empirical observation and intuition to assess the actual moment-to-moment everyday conduct of a teacher.
Though Zen institutions persist in defining themselves as a tradition, "not depending on words or letters," there is an unstated imperative to do precisely that. It is expected and repeatedly taught that the students should defer to and exalt the term "Master" or "roshi," a title and the ceremonial position it stands for, rather than relying on their own good sense and intuition in matters relating to the teacher's authority. There is a deception operating here. On the one hand Zen rhetoric tells its followers to be in the moment, to see what is in front of their eyes- "look look" Lin-chi exclaims. Yet, on the other hand, Zen rhetoric implies to its followers that they are incapable of seeing what is going on in front of them, when seeing is directed towards the Master/roshi. The nature of enlightened activity must be taken by virtue of a title, on faith. What the Master does, is by definition, enlightened activity.
Clearly, this is a situation that is disempowering to Zen students who accept or internalize this construction of reality. It places the Master in a position somehow over and above the human, since all the Masters activities are enlightened, coming from the Absolute. Hence, viewing the Master is tantamount to viewing Buddhahood in the flesh. Not surprisingly, the North American Zen group mentioned earlier, being well socialized into Zen's rhetoric, expressed astonishment that a Zen Master was capable of displaying human foibles. The Master transcending being human, becomes an icon, an idealized representation of a greater truth beyond comprehension and judgment. For example, one bright undergraduate philosophy major, after some reading about Zen and upon seeing a Chinese Master walk across a room for the first time, gave expression to this icon-like view by stating, "it was intense man, it was intense."