Whenever a "Zen master" falls from grace, a series of questions naturally arise. (Since all of these scandals involved male teachers, I'll use the masculine pronoun.) "Was he enlightened?" "How could someone abuse his power like that?" "What does it mean to be a Zen master?"
What Barry Magid points out in his article is the human pitfall to think that there's some essence, not only to being a Zen master, but to the Dharma itself. And if there's one thing that Buddhism teaches us, it's that everything is empty of an essence. Why should the Dharma be an exception?
So what makes someone a Zen master?--enlightenment? And if so, how could someone who is "enlightened" act so unethically? All these questions, while important, beg another larger one, namely: doesn't this presuppose that there's some "essence" to enlightenment, Buddhism, the Dharma?
The beauty of the teaching of emptiness is that it's self-reflexive. And so emptiness itself is empty.
To ask the Zen master question is to assume that there's some "thing" that makes someone a Zen master, or enlightened. To extend this idea to Buddhism itself, the Dharma is just as empty as any other social or mental construct, which explains why Tibetan Buddhism appears so much differently than Japanese of Thai Buddhism. Like everything else in the world, Buddhism changes because it's empty. Often times we hear someone say, "But the heart of the Buddha's teaching is the same" in all these schools.
But, again, doesn't that presuppose some essence or core to Buddhism?
And if so, what is that essence--the Four Noble truths, emptiness, dependent arising/interdependence? All of these are ideas designed to reflect the nature of reality; but the more we try to pinpoint the "heart" of Buddhism, the more we are seduced by the idea that there's some "essence" to it.
In his article, Magid challenges the bedrock of these assumptions by asserting that there is no Zen, only Zen teachers. He uses art as an example:
"Art, ultimately, is simply what the artists of a certain time and placeAfter all, where else can the Dharma be found but in the living embodiment of Buddhist practitioners? To idealize the Dharma is to reify it and assume that there's some "essence" to it, which runs contrary to the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.
create. Artists, musicians, priests, teachers all occupy their respective
cultural niches and the products of their activity are inseparable from the
lives they lead in the making of it. There is no Platonic essence of
capital A “Art” that one generation of artists transmits to the next. Artists
learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the art of their contemporaries and
"Dharma teachers likewise learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the
teaching of their teachers. The nature, the meaning of, the Dharma in any
generation is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are
teaching and living it at any given time. The Buddhism of America both is and is
not the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and our Chinese and Japanese ancestors. The is
no Zen, only Zen teachers."
So when we say that someone is a Zen master, what does that actually mean? Isn't such a title just another form of grasping (and I'm not immune to it; I find myself asking similar questions all the time)?
I think that the questions we ask can help us in our practice. For after all, why do we feel the need to define Zen or the Dharma in the first place? Are we simply grasping at a subtle sense of self by trying to define Buddhism, and by proxy, ourselves?
Emptiness is a tricky thing. The human mind craves something solid to hold onto, to dig its teeth into, and if we're not careful, as Magid reminds us, we'll find ourselves reifying Buddhism itself.