Sunday, December 23, 2018
The lion's golden chime
A Zen teacher friend from a different koan lineage tradition recently told me about the following koan, which I had never heard before: "There is a golden chime attached to the lion's neck -- who can grab it?" He told me that in his tradition, this koan provides an opportunity to explore the deeper meanings around transmission from teacher to student.
My understanding of transmission is that when a teacher recognizes that a student is ready to take on students of their own, it's time to privately and then publicly recognize that shift in responsibility. This is something that can never be taken back. What the teacher recognizes in the student is a certain level of maturity, in life as well as practice, and a capacity to be with people in their suffering and show them the way to liberation. And this liberating teaching has everything to do with awakening, the central experience of Zen.
We awaken out of our dream of a certain kind of consensual and partial reality, and this experience helps us to remember what is most essential, beyond all of the petty traps of the ego. It is inevitable that we fall back into the dream, but the continued devotion to zazen, the exploration of the ethical precepts, and the ongoing relationship with the transmitting teacher, allows the opening to awakening to return again and again.
In my tradition, there are two levels of transmission, called denkai and denbo, after which a new teacher may choose to teach wherever and however they feel is best. Their title, at this point, is sensei. After some years, the newly transmitted teacher may receive inka shomei from their transmitting teacher, which is a recognition of seniority. At this point, they may be called roshi, which literally means old teacher.
I myself received close and personal teachings, and teaching permission, from two Zen teachers. My first teacher didn't give me transmission, but James Ford did. And now I have given denkai and denbo transmission to three of my own students. The first two have chosen to go on their way, but the third teacher remains a close friend and colleague. We work together to keep awake in the face of the inevitable pulls of the dream of ego-based ideas and emotions. In my view, this work never ends.
So returning to the koan, what is this golden chime? What is this little bell that sits around a lion's neck? Who can grab it? Is it awakening itself? The awakening of the teacher, who is perhaps this dangerous lion, and who invites the student to grab it away for their personal use and understanding? Can it be grabbed? Is it anything at all? A bell that sounds forever and never stops? A chime that does not actually exist? The sweet, small voice of a life free from the traps of the self? This is not a matter to be resolved by thinking, but by exploration with another person of the Way in intimate discussion and demonstration. Transmission of the Dharma is a living thing. May it continue forever.