Well, let me first say that I have studied Tibetan, Pure Land and Zen Buddhism for several years now and I have recently found myself in the Zen camp. I would, however, probably qualify my status as being an "independent Zen" and I am going to try and explain my feelings on schools and teachers.
To help explain my views I am going to be quoting from a wonderful book that I have just read by the very wise, Steve Hagen. His latest book, "Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs" is one of the best books I have read about Zen/Buddhism. He speaks and writes in a clear and concise way that westerners will find refreshing. Anyway, on with my post.
I do not necessarily think that one must join a "group" in order to learn and grow in enlightenment. (some people live in rural areas away from formal "groups" and teachers). Also, I personally feel one does not necessarily need to have a personal, single, "teacher." In one respect here I think of the phrase, "when the student is ready the teacher will appear." The obvious and first conclusion here is that a physical person will appear when one is ready. Another conlusion, however, is that when one finally sees then one realizes that everything and everyone is a teacher and that everything and everyone is apart of their sangha. This may all sound like radical thinking to some of you following traditional, formal schools but (as some have hinted) in the end we have to lose all attachments even to a "teacher" and/or sangha. No one can realize our enlightened nature but ourselves.
Now, to be fair I personally belong to a Sangha in the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Chinese lineage of Master Linji but everyone has to make their own decisions.
Naked Zen so to speak.
"According to Bodhidharma (and to Zen), if we make enlightenment-or enlightened people-into something special and set them apart from others and from ourselves, we abuse them. In the process, we also abuse ourselves. Thus, enlightenment becomes remote, otherwordly, mysterious, and (seemingly) virtually impossible to realize."
"If we don't see then whatever we take up, even the Buddha's teaching itself, becomes bondage." I believe here that Hagen is saying, If we are not careful, the "practice" and the "school" and the "teacher" become more important to us then actually seeing and realizing our enlightened nature.
Again quoting Hagen:
"If you feel like you're getting something out of Zen, this is ordinary stuff. It's bondage, not freedom. There's nothing to get. You're just acquiring one more chain, one more item that keeps you bound, keeps you dissatisified and looking around for the next goody."
"Another Chinese Zen teacher from ancient times, Ying-an, told his students, 'when you pass through, no one can pin you down, no one can call you back."
"Zen is freedom from all entanglements. It's coming into this moment and seeing what's going on, before we make up all kinds of hypotheses and explanations."
I think that teachers are wonderful and they are an essential part of learning one's enlightened state but they can't bring you enlightenment. "Ultimately, we need to abandon any notion that taking hold of some particular thing-some particular idea, belief, ritual, religion, prespective, form of dress, or way of acting-is going to bring us to Truth. Finally we have to stop looking for something to save us, something to stand under, to identify with, to improve us, to make us whole."
"We can't just go through the motions with Zen practive-sitting in meditation, reading books, attending classes, going to workshops and retreats-as if studying the Buddhadharma were just another self-help program. This practice is not about helping the self. It's about seeing this so-called self for what is is-an illusion."
"Swallowing whole whatever a teacher gives you without examining it critically, openly, carefully, fairly, and respectfully-will prove just as barren. Blind, mindless acceptance isn't openness; it's simply another form of grasping-in this case, clinging to the notion that whatever your teacher tells you must be true."
We live in a modern age now where there are many books available written by some great Zen/Buddhist teachers. In the past, following a school with a specific teacher was the only way one could learn or study Zen/Buddhism in depth. Today, however, there are many options and I think that is wonderful. People are reaching out on the internet and creating sanghas (like this site). There are many ways to realize enlightenment and there that is the beauty of Buddhism in my humble opinion. Buddhism adapts to the climate and age in which it finds itself. Which is one of the reasons why (I feel) it is has lasted so long.
"This is why some Buddhist groups get together periodically to examine what they're doing, what works, what still fits, and what does not. Because times change, what might have been appropriate in a different time and place may no longer work here and now. We need not - and should not - lock ourselves in a frame that made sense twenty-five hundred years ago in some foreign country (or even twenty years ago here). Some of it might not apply to us today or might even be downright harmful."
There is nothing wrong with schools and teachers but at some point we have to "ditch the raft" as the Buddha said or it will only weigh us down on our journey. I have studied for some time and I use to have a teacher but he has since died of cancer and I am on my own. His death was kind of a wake-up call to me that it was time for me to "ditch the raft."
Anyway, that is my long, drawn out answer. I hope that it makes sense and is neither confusing or offensive because I do not mean to offend. I guess it kind of ended up being a book review for Steven Hagen's new book but that's just because it is an AWESOME book for helping one realize when to "ditch the raft" and ditch his book too!
I bow to the Buddha in you all.