So, I’ve been doing a lot thinking about Zen teachers, about what it means to have a teacher, about what a zen teacher even is, and about what it means to be a zen student, especially in our particular, modern, Western context or situation. So, let’s talk about that right now!
I guess you could say I’ve predominantly been a kind of a self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from practicing meditation, reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, dharma talks etc. It’s only been in the past several weeks that I’ve found a teacher, that I’ve joined a Sangha, and that I’ve taken the Refuge vows and the Five Precepts. In other words, my forays into Buddhism, and now Zen, has been something of a self-guided or self-directed multimedia production.
Yet, the more I continue to study Zen, the more I realize how much the role of a Zen teacher is emphasized. Zen literature is overwhelmingly littered with examples of would be zen students desperately searching for a teacher, often times doing so with great difficulty.
One of the more famous stories is the story of Huike (hwee-kay) trying to convince Bodhidhamra to take him on as a student. Huike stands in the snow all night, the snow piles up to his waist. Bodhidharma still refuses to accept him as a student, and so in an effort to prove his sincerity to Bodhidharma Huike cuts off his own arm and gives it to Bodhidharma. It’s only then that Bodhidhamra relents and takes Huike on as his student.
Now, don’t get me wrong I don’t think this story is literally true. I think its a highly mythologized tale. However, like all mythology, its purpose is not to convey a facticity of historical events but, to convey a deeper meaning. In this case, I think part of the purpose of this story is to suggest that becoming a zen student and finding a teacher is difficult, it isn’t easy, it will take some effort, and it will probably cost you something.
Dogen, himself, writes that “You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way.” In other words, according to Dogen, seeking out a teacher, seeking out training, one must take on a perilous quest to find one. Dogen seems to suggest that its so vitally important to have a teacher that he even goes so far as to say that “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all.” That seems like a rather bleak prescription.
Now, I can’t help but think about the fact that the world has changed dramatically since the time of these quasi-mythical tales of Buddhist seekers traversing to far-off distant lands, risking and limb (especially in the case of Huike), all in an effort to find someone to provide them information, guidance, and direction. This was not a world of high-speed data and an always-on internet connection. Their world was a world in which google searches had to be performed on foot, their search results could take years, if they came at all.
If there is anything I have learned throughout my academic studies of world religion, it is that religion can be extremely adaptive to cultural and contextual change. Religion seems to be constantly reevaluating itself and its orientation to its particular time and place as the social world continues to shift forward.
This is not to say that there is not always a fundamentalist, orthodox, or conservative element that remains. There will, perhaps, always be those who cling rigidly to the classically accepted and well-fortified demarcations of their religion’s ideologies, those who are unwilling to alter or expand the borders and boundaries of their religion.
Yet, it seems to be an undeniable truth of most religions, that within the changing contexts of each new age or era there is to be found some form of reformational endeavor (i.e. the emergence of varying denominations and expanding theologies in Christianity, the evolution of the different schools of Buddhist thought and their corresponding philosophies, etc.).
In each case, the devotee is tasked with answering the question of what it means to be devoted to their particular religion in their particular time and in their particular place. They must ask what their religion or philosophy means in the present moment. A Christian must grapple with what it means to be a Christian and what Christianity means in what whatever socio-cultural context it is present within. A Buddhist must come to a cognizant understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and what Buddhism means here and now.
Ok, so I’m not totally sure that I think of Buddhism or Zen as a religion, although there are probably those who do, and clearly that is how they have been traditionally defined. Regardless, I think it remains true that whether we are talking about religion or philosophy, we must recognize that times change, people change, things change, everything changes, and if the ideas that we value are to continue to be of any value they must change as well.
Also, I’m not trying to downplay the significance of a zen teacher or the potential importance of having a zen teacher. Honestly, I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to know whether or not a zen teacher is still so necessary in the this burgeoning world resplendent with readily available resources and information. What I am trying to do is mindfully recognize the significant ways in which the world we are all presently a part of has and continues to change.
For instance, Rob Bell is a Christian speaker, writer, and thinker, and in one of his books that I read years ago called Velvet Elvis he writes about the necessity of adapting and evolving our ideas:
“Times change… We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”
Full disclosure, I’m not a Christian or a theist but, I still think he’s making a really important point here, and one that can easily be applied to Buddhism, or any other tradition or idea for that matter.
Everything is impermanent. Nothing is static. Nothings stays the same.
Not only does everything change but, everything is in the constant and never-ending process of actively changing.
The world around us is constantly shifting and as such, we must continue to learn, grow, and evolve. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.
In fact, my Zen teacher recently wrote an article about being a Reluctant Zen teacher, and he makes a very similar point.
“I think we should be re-evaluating our devotion to authority figures all the time and that we shouldn’t be accepting things on tradition alone. And, as teachers, I think we need to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t doing things that drive a lot of people away or don’t work.”
“I wonder if we make a mistake when we think that models of practice that worked in India, China and Korea should be used here. Should we be making our own way instead?”
“I also wonder sometimes if we could reform Zen for the west, in the same way that a few organizations like Insight Meditation Society have been able to reform Theravada.”
So, if we’re going to explore this approach we have to begin to ask “what is a Zen teacher?”
In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” On the one hand a “Zen teachers exist in the context of Zen teaching, Zen communities, a Zen practice environment, so finding a teacher means finding a community, a sangha, a teaching, a context.” But, I also can’t help but think there’s more to it than just that.
As I mentioned Earlier I now belong to the Morning Sky Zen Sangha. In our discussions there, we’ve been going through The Mirror of Zen. One of the verses that really sticks out to me is verse two which says the following:
“The appearance of all Buddha and Patriarchs in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean”.
One way to interpret this verse, as my teacher does, is to say that there is no separation between you and the teacher, both the teacher and student arise from the very same ocean of one-ness, and that “we tend to worship teachers or put them on a pedestal or something” and this is a bit of a mistake. But, also I think that you could read it another way.
Teachers, Buddhas, Patriarchs, arise suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly sometimes from unexpected places. What I mean to say is that because a Zen teacher “inevitably involves a world, a context” and because of this kind on inseparable oneness, anything and anyone that arises can potentially be your zen teacher.
A zen teacher is anyone and anything that you garner experiential wisdom and knowledge from.
I did a four part series on Montaigne and Buddhism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Michel de Montaigne was a French Renaissance writer/philosopher, and certainly not a Buddhist but, while I was reading Montaigne’s essays, it felt as though he was teaching me about Zen and Buddhism, at that moment Montaigne became my Zen teacher.
Returning to my Zen teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg, he says that “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”
In his book, Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner makes the same kind of analogy when talking about a Zen teacher. He says that
“You need to have a mirror to be able to fix your hair or apply your lipstick properly. It’s certainly physically possible to do these things without a mirror and there are no laws against it. But you’d have no real idea what you actually looked like until you walked outside and everyone started giggling at you because you’ve got lipstick all over your nose. A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror. The teacher, in turn, learns to use her students as a mirror in a similar way.”
Brad Warner explains the following in a post on his blog:
“If you’re serious about finding a teacher, you’re probably going to have to do some work looking for one.”
“There’s value to working for things that are important.”
You’re going to have to search. You’re going to have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially in unexpected places, and maybe with unexpected people. You’re going to have to cultivate a kind of open-awareness.
Perhaps, as Dogen says, we do need to climb mountains and cross oceans to find a teacher but, maybe that’s not so much an external journey any more. I think we all have mental mountains that we need to traverse, as well emotional and psychological oceans that we will have to cross if we ever hope to reach the other shore. And what if its the process itself, the journey itself, that is the teacher? What if its the effort and the act of scaling the internal mountainous terrain and sailing across these treacherous and tumultuous seas that teaches us the most?
Maybe its the search itself that is the teacher?
Dogen writes that “You should remember that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. The joyfully seeking mind is primary.” Dogen places special emphasis on the “Way-seeking mind” (doshin).
He says that “wisdom is seeking wisdom” – I think, in a way, he’s suggesting that the act of seeking wisdom is an indication of wisdom or wisdom is attained by the very process of aspiring to wisdom. There is no distance between the two – aspiration is itself a kind of attainment or maybe the aspiration is indicative that you have already attained it, its something you already have. So when he talks about the “Way-seeking mind” or when says that the “joyfully seeking mind” is primary – I think it is an emphasis on the eager openness of beginners mind.
There’s an article I read a few weeks ago by Norman Fisher called “No Teacher of Zen”. In it recounts another Zen story, in which Huangbo says “Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” Imagine his students confusion, their teacher announcing that there are no teachers of Zen – obviously they had questions – if there are no Zen teachers why are they there? Why are there these places of Zen training and study? Why are there people like Huangbo who have set up these places of Zen training and study? Huangbo clarifies stating, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.”
“the teacher can’t teach you.”
“there are no Zen teachers because Zen isn’t a teachable subject matter or skill.”
“students are responsible for their own practice and their own awakening. No one can communicate a truth worth knowing; the only worthwhile truth is the one you find uniquely, for your own life.”
What does it mean to be a student? Perhaps, to be a student of zen it is not to be so fundamentally devoted to a particular ‘teacher’ but, instead to rooted to the practice, rooted to the quest, to search, to the study. Perhaps, it means constantly scanning the horizon in search of any person, place, or thing that can teach you.
Someone recently sent me a great quote from a book called The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by The Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. I think it summarizes what I’ve been trying to get at in this video and I think its a great place to end.
“The teachings and teachers are ubiquitous. Reality is your teacher. Everything that appears can become your teacher. The four seasons can teach you. Anything can be a teacher of Buddhist teachings. Anything.”