So You Want to Be a Dharma Teacher

When I first started getting into Zen there was a brief period when I thought I wanted to be a dharma teacher. I remember telling my first teacher, Tim, I wanted to be a dharma teacher and he just gave me a look. It’s hard to describe that look, but I remember how it felt. And how that look felt is why I dropped the whole idea of becoming a dharma teacher.

At the time I probably thought of becoming a dharma teacher as a career move. I was a university student and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I didn’t want to end up working for Firestone Tire and Rubber like my dad, or at the Beckett Paper Mill like my grandfather. I had aspirations to be a professional musician, but when I thought about touring the country in a broken down van, eating exclusively at fast food places, and showering exclusively at truck stops, the lifestyle didn’t seem very appealing.

I figured maybe being a dharma teacher would be nice. Saying trippy things to adoring audiences of sincere truth seekers would be an easy way to make a living, I thought. But after Tim gave me that look, I started looking at how he made a living. It was tough. Nobody paid him to teach Zen. He earned his living by teaching courses at Kent State University on philosophy and music. In order to qualify for this line of work, he needed multiple advanced degrees, and still the pay was lousy. I’m not sure how he managed to afford the rent sometimes.

Plus those adoring audiences of sincere truth seekers that I imagined would hang on my trippy words of wisdom were nowhere to be found in his case. Instead, he was surrounded mainly by curiosity-seekers who never stayed around long, or by needy hangers-on who often became angry and belligerent when they weren’t satisfied with what he taught — which was always. He did have a handful of sincere students, but we were not much help when it came to supporting him. I gave up the idea of being a dharma teacher and decided to get a degree in something practical instead.

I hear from a lot of people these days who say they want to be dharma teachers. If that’s what you want to do with your life there are places out there where you can go through a process of training and, if you don’t screw it up too badly, come out with a certificate that says you’re a dharma teacher. I don’t know much about those kinds of places, but I’m sure you can find them if you search online.

It’s sort of like getting certified as a yoga teacher, but worse. Just like with yoga teachers, there’s no real standard of accreditation. If you go through a big institution like Soto-shu, your certificate might mean a little more than, say, a certificate from an individual teacher without a big institution behind him/her. But even if you get your certificate from Soto-shu, you’re still gonna have to figure out a way to turn that into a means of support. Good luck with that! You’re not gonna find many jobs postings on Linkedin for people with certificates of dharma transmission. I know. I’ve looked!

Besides, I have never encountered anyone who started out wanting real bad to be a dharma teacher and then ended up being a good dharma teacher. Their desire to be seen as A Dharma Teacher always overshadowed whatever they were supposedly teaching. It was more about performance than substance.

Dharma teacher wanna-be performers are not entirely useless. Since their performance requires them to sound wise, they tend to repeat the words of people who actually were wise. In doing so, they often end up spreading teachings which they themselves usually don’t understand. Sometimes those teachings reach someone who actually does understand them and the dharma ends up being kept alive in spite of the motivations of the performers.

But I feel like we’ve already got enough of those performers in most parts of the world. There really isn’t a burning need for more.

I’ve never considered myself a professional dharma teacher. I make my living by writing books and by doing all kinds of ancillary things that writers of books (of all kinds, not just Buddhist books) have to do to make it work. When I first started doing this stuff I kept my day job at Tsuburaya Productions. After I lost that job, things got difficult. I had some savings, which kept me going for a while, but I knew that wasn’t gonna last forever.

My first solution was to take my show out on the road. I’d put a bunch of copies of my books in the trunk of my car, drive to some Zen center somewhere, give a little talk and try to sell as many books as I could. I generally barely covered my own expenses. At one point I was doing so much traveling that it made no sense to keep draining my savings by renting an apartment that I rarely stayed at. So I became technically “homeless” for almost a year. I put my stuff in storage and just stayed with whoever would put up with me. 

It took a long time to work out a way to stay afloat financially without having to be out on tour all the time. But I seem to have gotten that together at last — at least for now — with my YouTube videos and tours. One solution that lots of other people have tried but that did not work for me was to have my own Zen center. The Zen center I attempted to establish ended up being a big drain on my personal finances, and the Board of Directors treated me more like a mascot than a teacher. Maybe someday I’ll start a little sitting group, but I’m finished with trying to run a Zen center.

I think most people who want to be dharma teachers ought to try to be dharma learners instead. After doing that for a few decades, if anyone wants your teaching, they’ll ask for it.

Remember that the Buddha himself didn’t set out to be a teacher of the dharma. He left his home and his life as a prince because he had burning questions about the nature and meaning of life. Once he had found those answers, he was initially content to just keep them to himself. He didn’t think that anyone would understand what he had discovered. He had to be persuaded to teach.

So if you want to be a dharma teacher, my advice is don’t try. Just continue to practice and continue to study. If your unique style of teaching the dharma is needed, you’ll know it. There will be no ambiguity at all.