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.