In response to the week 2 talk on koan practice of Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi’s Tricycle Retreat, “The Great Heart of Zen” a participant writes:

One thing I have been wondering about koan practice: Who decides if a student has understood a koan? Is it the teacher? Is it possible the teacher could be wrong? As a former teacher, I know that students can understand something but cannot express that understanding. Does that same situation apply to Zen teaching?
Also, do you believe that the fundamental understanding into the true nature of things goes back to Gautama and that there is an unbroken line of succession leading up to present-day Zen teachers? To me, that implies the teacher-student relationship is essential and that no understanding has merit unless it is certified by a teacher who has been certified him/herself. Is that the way you see it?
Thanks for a challenging talk. I’ve admired Socrates and the Socratic dialogues for a long time–and I find this retreat to provoke all kinds of questions.

to which Shishin Roshi responds,

Yes, the student’s understanding is confirmed by the teacher and, yes, some teachers might not understand the full depth of a koan even after being certified by his or her teacher. There is a misunderstanding that there is one ‘correct’ response to a koan. A skillful teacher will see where a student is stuck and draw out a broader range of insight than might be demanded by a particular koan.
My teacher said that if you understand a koan you will find a way to express it. There is a whole category of koans which are about the use of live words as contrasted with dead words. Live words come from experience and dead words are conceptual in general. The student has to find a way to express their understanding or it is a dead practice.
I do believe that there is an unbroken lineage from the time of the Buddha. It is very rare, but not impossible, for a person to have a great awakening without being with a teacher. The Buddha is one example. The Sixth Patriarch had a great realization hearing a sutra recited in the market place. In Zen, the teacher-student relationship is paramount. There are stories of “spontaneous enlightenment’ in the history of Zen and these people went to an established master to have their experiences verified.
When the Buddha was awakened, he was challenged by the demon Mara about who would witness his enlightenment. The Buddha pointed to the ground and said, “The Great Earth is my witness.”
In these days, I would be cautious about self-proclaimed spiritual teachers who do not have a lineage or a tradition.
Regards, Shishin Roshi

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