Choosing a Zen teacher is one of the most personal things you can ever do. This is someone who you will trust with your deepest life wonders. You cannot just look in the “Yellow Pages” like you were looking for a plumber.
Questions to ask someone who could be your potential teacher (Sensei or Rōshi):
Who was his/her teacher? Zen teachers or masters do not spring up on their own. All teachers had teachers. Normally there is a lineage that is recognized and usually there is a record of this. (Remember, just because it is on the internet doesn’t make it true.)
How long have they studied?
It takes decades of practice to mature to the point where they are qualified to teach. (Our own Mitsunen Roshi, where our lineage came from, practiced for over 30 years before he was authorized.) There is no “University of Zen” where you spend four years and receive a diploma making you a teacher. The process takes years of study, practice, and trials, and most individuals will never become teachers.
Have they received Dharma Transmission or authority to teach and from whom?
Dharma Transmission is a ceremony in which one’s teacher confirms that an individual is ready and able to teach so called others. In some traditions a master may authorize someone to teach on a VERY limited basis such as meditation instruction only. In others, teachers are able to perform all life rituals.
How do you contact their teacher or organization to confirm this?
All reputable Zen teachers are affiliated with some line or lineage. They will be glad to give you contact information to confirm their credentials. It is recommended that you at least check that your potential Sensei or Rōshi is listed on his teacher’s website as authorized to teach. If you don’t find them, don’t get too worried; not everyone is on the web. You can always send an e-mail to the Zen Center that your Sensei or Rōshi comes from and ask if he/she is authorized to teach.
Our lineage starts with Lou Mitsunen Nordstrom Rōshi. He is authorized to teach in the lineage of the White Plum Sangha of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Rōshi, through Bernie Tetsugen Glassman Rōshi, and The Mushroom Monk Lineage of Soen Nakagawa Rōshi.
Some things to watch out for:
There are no shortcuts in Zen! Despite what the popular press might be trying to tell you, anyone who guarantees enlightenment experience or kensho, in a fixed or very short time period (or for that matter, at all), should be suspect.
Ask Around. Choose the person you want for a teacher carefully. Just because you don’t meet a teacher on the street everyday doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Check with other temple members. There are several teachers who are located in the Los Angeles area. Some students have had good experiences with one teacher and not another. Remember, the right teacher can be a wonderful thing.
— Jim Genjo Gallagher Sensei
and Mico Ryutaku Olmos Rōshi