No Teachers in the West

In a comment – unfortunately lost when the site went down a couple of months ago – someone asked my thoughts on relating to teachers in Zen practice. It’s a theme I’ve long wanted to bring to No Zen, because as those of you who have read Two Shores know, sorting through the mud of master-disciple ideologies and realities was a big part of my experience in Japan. I say much of what I have to say about it through my stories in Chapter 4 of Two Shores, but briefly, it was a changing sense of what a teacher was and wasn’t that more than anything formed my feeling in Japan that truly there was No Zen in the West. Finding my “Enlightened teacher” (who was among the very few, if any, other Enlightened teachers in the world, all we disciples insisted), particularly in a Japanese context of strict master-disciple hierarchy, made me question whether I had ever had a teacher at all in the U.S., or whether there even were any.

The teachers I’d had in the U.S. seemed so fuzzy in their teaching, and the way I related to them felt so different, so laid-back and casual, so lacking in total surrender, that I wondered whether they were teachers at all and whether I’d been a student at all. I came across Dogen-Zenji in his writing making the wonderful and wonderfully humbling point that if you decide your teacher is wrong about something, then that must be because you already know the answer. But if you already know the answer, why did you come to the teacher in the first place? His point of course is to just drop your views and follow the teacher, to thus be free of your own wrong understanding.

This struck me as a strong and direct criticism of our U.S. approach to teachers and students. In Japan, we expressed Dogen’s teaching as, “Roshi is right even when he is wrong.” To go beyond our limited views, to go beyond our egos, we had to completely surrender to him and his rightness. It was clear that any partial surrender could only yield a partial understanding. Feeling that partial surrender was all I could force my over-sized U.S. ego into, I was left with that most terrible of terrible feelings that I could never progress at all on the Way.

There is also a Zen tradition, though, that sees teachers in a radically different way. Case 11 of the Blue Cliff Record reads:

Huangbo, instructing the community said, “All of you people are gobblers of dregs. If you go on traveling around this way where will you have today? Do you know that there are no teachers of Chan in all of China?”

Or, as Huineng says in the Platform Sutra:

Once you have awakened to the fact that you yourself are your own true good teacher, in one awakening you will know the Buddha.

Or again, as we say in the Soto Zen priest ordination ceremony:

From now on enlightenment is your teacher, Buddha is your teacher, all beings are your teacher. Do not be fooled by other ways.

These three all point to the strong stream in Zen that rejects external authority as the mere “dregs” of someone else’s understanding. In that model, we know what we have to do, and shouldn’t rely on anyone else to tell us, much less to somehow do it for us. As soon as we rely on someone else, we lose sight of our own Buddha nature, our own Buddha wisdom. While this wasn’t the style I experienced in Japan, and one I associate more with U.S. approaches, this stream is expressed strongly in some Japanese lineages.

So there are two extremes of teacher-student relationships. The guru approach, which some Westerners strain and struggle and grimace to etch into the marble of their overwhelmingly democratic, self-empowering cultural context, is that of total surrender to an enlightened master as though he (yes, he) were precisely the Buddha. The other, which is far more comfortable but often completely lacks teeth, is the “teacher-as-pal”. It might feel like intimacy, but if there is no gap between you and your teacher – if you’re just peers or beer buddies – what do you have to work towards? Where is the creative tension, the pressure?

The middle between those extremes, as middles do, shifts. To find and ride that middle is to ask, continually, questions like: What is intimacy? What is learning? What is transmission of understanding, of a feeling for life? What is my Way, and what helps to reveal it?

It is finding my way through these questions that organizes the changing ways I relate to my teachers. I trust that inquiry and adjustment much more than I do any formula or habit or ancestral decree, be it Chinese patriarchal or California egalitarian.

I’ll end with those few thoughts, but many issues are here left unaddressed. What about people who don’t have access to teachers? What about books as teachers, recorded talks as teachers? What about the question of one teacher versus many teachers? 

If these questions are alive for you, please share your thoughts.

7 thoughts on “No Teachers in the West

  1. A long time ago I read mythical stories about great martial artists who had fused mind and body into one. I had no idea what that meant or what it looked like, or how to do it, just that it might be a good idea.

    That year there was a big one-off show where lots of clubs in my area came and did demos and you could meet people and so on. I went and watched everything especially what the students were like. From the students it’s easier to judge the teacher.

    I remember 4-5 teachers from the day who had a real sense of ‘otherness’ of aliveness about them. They moved in ways that seemed magical and could do things I could not even imagine a human body doing.

    I spoke to some of them and they all started to seem the same. They may be ‘other’ to me but to each other they were ‘same’.

    In the end I went and joined the club of the guy who most scared me, the one who was most other.

    I know what he taught but I still don’t know what I learnt. He just lived in the world in a way that was different. A way that seemed better. He seemed more-human. He insisted that everything he did could be taught ‘just practice’. He was happy to teach.

    Originally I thought the answer was to be like him, then I realised the answer was to be me.

    Over the years I’ve sought out others who had this ‘otherness’ and ‘sameness’ about them. They are not that rare. Seeing them helps with the “where next?” question.

    Sutras can teach how-tos but don’t cover “issues” often. Koans can twist your world around and help with clarity when nothing else can reach you. Books can explain things – and that can be both addictive and wrong. Sanghas can keep you sane or trap you in same-ness. There is a place for all of them.

    In the end though, if you want to be more fully human it’s best to find someone who is more fully human. You will feel the disconnect and the discomofort. You will notice the ‘otherness’ you will feel the gap. You will feel the difference in health.

    A few years back I went and saw my Kung Fu teacher. We chatted about nothing and what training I could do. He pointed our students who showed promise.

    After a couple of sessions back as a student I realised that I didn’t want to do any more. It had served it’s purpose.

    Im currently rebuilding my life and regaining fitness. I’ve recently enjoyed random walks around my home town. Finding the beauty and the naturalness on my doorstep. Finding the beauty in architecture, not running away to the countryside, enjoying it all.

  2. Like most things involving Zen the teacher student relationship reaches beyond mere discursive analysis. If as you say “ Dogen’s teaching as, “Roshi is right even when he is wrong.” To go beyond our limited views, to go beyond our egos, we had to completely surrender to him and his rightness. It was clear that any partial surrender could only yield a partial understanding.” Were a true statement Dogen would never have left Japan to go to China. Despite the fact that His Japanese teacher was unable to resolve “the great matter” for him he still refers to him as unsurpassed. He went to several teachers until he found “his” teacher.
    He said of “his” teacher “a teacher who, regardless of age or prestige, comprehends the right Dharma clearly and receives the certification of a true teacher. He or she gives no precedence to words and letters or to intellectual understanding. With an unusual ability and extraordinary will power, he or she neither clings to selfishness, nor indulges in sentimentality. He or she is the individual in whom living and understanding correspond to each other.”
    Yet he still did not disparage his root teacher in Japan.
    When looking for a teacher we must try and be aware of our own motivations while looking for our teacher. Are you simply trying to fulfill a preconceived fantasy of what a teacher is. I must observe that people have a tendency to project onto a spiritual teacher all their own fantasies and expectations; this often leads to great disappointment. To maintain the relationship of the blue mountain to the white cloud requires a certain natural balance that can be easily disturbed. Are you merely looking for someone to take the responsibility for your progress out of your hands and relieve you of the burden of finding out for yourself?

    “To find a Buddha, all you have to do is see your nature. Your nature is the Buddha. And the Buddha is the person who’s free: free of plans, free of cares. If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a Buddha. The truth is, there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand…” Bodhidharma

    Your motivations and prejudices need to be admitted to because the teacher you find will be related to your Karma and your Karma and your motivations are inseparable.
    Perhaps there are no teachers for you in the west, or in fact no Zen in the west for you, but that certainly dose not mean there are none for me.
    Many Zen teachers, in their pride, vainly boast that they know nothing, but it is I alone who have truly succeeded in achieving total ignorance….

  3. The solution is simple.

    Find someone who truly embodies the energy and practices of awakening and is doing them themselves, as their highest priority.

    Such a person will not dominate you, nor will they be your friend. They will be friendly, but the friendliness will only be in service of awakening.

    Such people are hard to find, but they are around.

    How do you find such a person?

    You take on that practice yourself. You open your heart. You surrender your life completely. Then, after some time, you will find such a person to work with.

    If YOU don’t do that – then you will think there are no teachers of zen in America.

  4. In the light of the developments of recent months:

    The teacher is right even when she is wrong, i.e., it doesn’t matter ….. MU….. these discriminations do not apply except to illuminate how I buy into them at the expense of enormous suffering.
    The teacher does not need to be ‘enlightened’ – that is not his job…..his job is to bring me to awakening. I personally never expected it of my teacher.

  5. An honorable path of integrity. Fully conscious applying the best attention during communication. All important careful meeting in the understanding of the challenge in the matter at hand. Don’t think the relationship should be comfortable and too loose. It must be active and moving fully in the moment. With a certain creative flexibility with room for laughter if something proves to be just wonderful as the result.

  6. Yes the teaching tradition in the West, especially in California, suffers from the do it yourself ideology and a manic egalatarianism. Most people, especially beginners need guides not only for what they are learning, but also emotionally in some way for the new spaces they are entering. At the very least they need something that is a student-teacher relationship with a sense of rights and responsibilities.

    These largely do not exist in California (at least none that I would conventionally think about) and not so in the San Francisco Zen Center either, at least none that I have seen in any of my interactions there. The student teacher interaction often is purely professional, like a transaction, with little relationship involved and after the transaction is over there is nothing. You interaction meant nothing, you created no history, no bond. Now the typically response would be why do you need this, its all about YOU and YOUR practice, and YOU should look at YOUR response etc etc. but that kind of manic do-it-yourself egeletarianism that throws everything back denies our basic natures and the way we usually learn something new.

    Everyone will pay lip service to this ideology while in private or on their blogs speak about how they are having such a hard time learning anything and how they wish their history with their teacher would matter a little at least.

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