115 - Dogen's Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 4 - Beneficial Action
117 - Clarifying the Mind Ground According to Keizan's “Zazen-Yojinki”

Every few weeks or so, I get an email from a listener who feels they need a Zen teacher. Some people have asked whether I might be able to function as a teacher for them long distance. I’m never sure what to say… I mean, what does it mean for someone to “have” a Zen or Buddhist teacher? Do you need a teacher? I’m going to explore these questions in this episode, and I imagine you won’t be surprised that the gist of my answer is, “It depends.”

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Value of Dharma Teachers in a General Sense
Developing a Personal Relationship with a Teacher
Having Realistic Expectations of Teachers
Do You Need a Personal Relationship with a Teacher?
Committing to a Teacher in the Interest of Awakening
The Teacher’s Job
Committed Teacher-Student Relationships Can Be Tough
What’s a Formal Teacher-Student Relationship Good For?

 

The Value of Dharma Teachers in a General Sense

First, do you need a teacher in order to practice Buddhism and/or Zen? It depends on what you mean by “teacher,” and what you want out of practice.

If that’s all you want to do is study Buddhist teachings and practice on your own, you still need a teacher, or teachers, even if you only interact with them through podcasts or books. You can’t come up with all this stuff on your own. Even if you’re really brilliant, you can’t match the collected wisdom and practices of countless people over the last 2,500 years.

But then again, maybe you just want to know how to meditate and learn the barest essentials of Buddhism. In that case, you definitely don’t need a real, live, personal teacher, unless you run into problems in your meditation or find yourself with questions you can’t answer for yourself. In other words, if you find yourself wishing you had a teacher, go look for one, but if you’re happy with your practice as it is, go for it. If you go it alone, though, I strongly recommend you sit for no more than an hour or so a day, and definitely don’t do prolonged solo retreats (yes, some folks do this). Think of meditation and practice like exercise: For most people it’s totally fine to start a habit of taking a brisk walk every day, or even to start jogging or running. You’d better get a trainer or at least some personalized advice, though, if you want to run a marathon or start rock climbing.

So, what if you want to take your Buddhist practice a little further – to intensify it in new ways, expose yourself to new things, or challenge yourself? Then you should get yourself a Sangha, preferably one led by a qualified teacher, or at least associated with a teacher who visits regularly. From the beginning of Buddhism there has been strong emphasis on the importance of practicing with others. We learn from one another, support one another, and inspire one another through what I like to call “positive peer pressure.” Ideally a Sangha is free from the spirit of competition or comparison, but it helps immensely to do something with other people when it’s challenging by nature. Many people would never sit – still and silent – as long as 30 minutes or an hour without being in the same room with other people who are doing it. Others of us may find it possible to meditate on our own, but we’re still encouraged by knowing other people do the same thing. And very few people would ever be able to do a silent meditation retreat all by themselves! Similarly, as fellow Sangha members, we encourage one another to stick with things like practicing the precepts – the moral guidelines of Buddhism – or trying to understand challenging teachings.

I just recommended Sangha as opposed to a teacher, but when a Sangha is guided by a qualified teacher, its practice is more likely to be rigorous, and true to tradition. Innovation and adaptation are fine to a point, but the traditional teachings and methods of Buddhism and Zen have stood the test of time and represent the best our ancestors had to offer. Joe Schmoe may be deeply spiritual, loving, and inspired, but if he more or less creates his own path of practice only tangentially related to Buddhism, I’m going to be very skeptical. We’ve seen many spiritual and religious movements arise through millennia that attracted hordes of enthusiastic followers but then imploded or fizzled, sometimes harming people in the process. Buddhist or Zen traditions may require some interpretation for a modern audience, but they aren’t just a fad, or something you can master after reading a couple books or doing an online course.

A teacher within a Sangha may serve as “your” teacher, then, but not in an exclusive sense. You can have many such teachers. Some of them may be from different forms of Buddhism, or even be non-Buddhist. For example, at my Zen center we recite dedications of merit to past and living Dharma teachers, and we chant the names of quite a few teachers who are not in our Zen lineage but have deeply influenced me or some of the other senior members. Several of the names are of teachers who have had an impact on us only through their writing. You could, in a sense, call anyone your teacher – Dharma teacher or not – who ends up teaching you something important to your life.

Developing a Personal Relationship with a Teacher

Of course, you may end up developing a close relationship with one or more Dharma teachers over time, especially if you ask to talk to them one-one-one about your practice, or practice closely with them in the midst of Sangha activities. A teacher can get to know you over time, and may end up having more insight into you, and may therefore offer more helpful suggestions, than a relative stranger would. Over time you may develop more trust in the teacher. You may find their questions or suggestions helpful, and find yourself returning to them over and over on your spiritual journey.

This kind of natural and organic evolution of a teacher-student relationship is probably the most common kind in Buddhism. For lay practitioners, such a relationship is rarely formalized or exclusive. Just as you might have a yoga teacher who has guided your practice for many years, and you might call her “my yoga teacher,” in most cases identifying someone as your Buddhist or Zen teacher is simply a description of a relationship in which you’re learning something about Dharma practice from someone, not a statement of an explicit commitment.

People who receive ordination as a monk, nun, or priest in Buddhism make an explicit commitment, usually to be closely guided by their ordination teacher for junior period of about five years. However, ordination is a commitment to a lifestyle, and to learning, supporting, and passing on the tradition of Buddhism, so it’s a whole different ball of wax. You might run into the occasional Dharma teacher who says – or implies – you have to turn your life upside-down and get ordained in order to achieve the real rewards of Buddhism, but the growing number of wise, realized, compassionate, and skillful lay Dharma practitioners and teachers suggest they’re wrong. So, if you’re sticking to lay practice, at least for the time being, in most Buddhist lineages you won’t be entering into a formal, committed, exclusive relationship with a teacher. You can have multiple teachers, or one teacher with whom you have a very close and long-term relationship, or some combination of those.

If you’re looking for a teacher to help support and guide your practice over time in a personal way, just start meeting with any teachers who give you the opportunity. Meet with various teachers, and give them a couple chances unless someone really puts you off. There are some wonderful teachers out there who wouldn’t necessarily be the right teacher for you. Look for someone who significantly helps your practice in some way. Maybe they’re encouraging, and give you the moral support to keep going. Maybe they’re a good listener, and help you feel safe, seen, heard, and accepted – and therefore able to open up more fully to practice. Maybe the teacher asks questions or makes suggestions that linger with you after you meet with them, and end up leading to insight and growth. Maybe, on the other hand, a teacher triggers certain things in you like doubt or a desire to impress, and you find yourself intrigued by the situation and want to continue to work with it. A teacher should never be mean or abusive, but someone who is a good teacher for you may not necessarily be warm and fuzzy, easy to talk to, or even very nice. The important thing is they have a positive effect on your practice.

Having Realistic Expectations of Teachers

It’s important to note, here, that Zen and Buddhist teachers don’t have super powers. They can’t read your mind, and they don’t, immediately upon meeting you, have a clear sense of what your problems are and how to fix them. This fantasy about spiritually powerful, practically omniscient Buddhist or Zen masters has some basis in reality, of course; there have been, and are, some teachers with deep insight and long experience, who are sometimes able to diagnose the spiritual “issues” of some people relatively quickly, and then offer a teaching or practice that would help. However, such teachers are rare, and usually quite old, and in high demand. People seek them because of their charisma and insight and experience, but this can also be a trap. Are you hoping for salvation from someone else? Are you hoping to shortcut the need for long years of practice by gaining a quick miracle cure? You’re likely to be disappointed. The reputations of renowned Buddhist and Zen masters are usually overblown, and I don’t know of anyone who can deliver you instant enlightenment, or lay out for you a detailed, personalized spiritual plan guaranteed to deliver liberation within a specified time frame. If anyone claims to offer such things, run away. Quickly.

In reality, even a teacher with depth of practice, integrity, insight, and experience, with whom you have rapport and trust, will not be able to tell you what to do to deepen your practice, or attain whatever peace or insight or liberation you might aspire to. Sure, they’ll have suggestions, but you’ll have to try them out and let the teacher know what happens. Medical doctors face plenty of challenges when it comes to diagnosing and treating anything but the simplest of physical ailments; they sometimes have to guess, try something, and then tell you to come back if the ailment persists. It’s even more complicated when it comes to our spiritual ailments, blockages, attachments, and delusions… and because we’re talking about your subjective experience, there are no objective tests a teacher can run on you to know what’s wrong. A teacher can only go on what they hear you say and see you do, and as human beings we’re often out of touch with what’s really going on for us. We’re often limited in our ability or willingness to express ourselves accurately or honestly, or to be seen without masks or pretensions.

I’m not saying a teacher’s words or guidance is never going to trigger a dramatic spiritual opening or insight for you, but that “turning word,” as we call it in Zen, will usually be one “word” among thousands the teacher has already offered. You’ll likely be very disappointed if you expect a turning word from a teacher shortly after meeting them, or every month, or year. Instead, it’s best not to count on such dramatic moments, and instead gradually build a relationship with a teacher, or teachers, to increase the likelihood that at an opportune moment they’ll know you well enough to offer some guidance that really penetrates and makes a difference.

It may be, at a certain point, you feel pretty comfortable with meditation and practice, and feel as familiar as you’d like to be with Buddhist or Zen teachings, and it feels like the teacher doesn’t have that much more to “teach” you. After all, you’re an adult, and your practice should grow stronger over time. You may find yourself guiding your own practice, only rarely needing feedback.

Do You Need a Personal Relationship with a Teacher?

Do you need a personal relationship with a teacher, at least for a while? Honestly, I don’t really know. It depends on who you are. Some people benefit greatly from interacting with teachers this way, while others find it awkward and unnecessary. Dharma teachers aren’t the only people who can get to know you and have a meaningful conversation with you about your practice. Fellow practitioners can meet this need for each other. And maybe you don’t even want to have conversations about your practice! Still, just because you don’t particularly want a personal relationship with a teacher doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from one. In fact, it may be that particularly independent, proud, and stubborn students of Buddhism would benefit the most from learning to be open and vulnerable with a so-called “teacher,” and at certain times, perhaps, accepting some constructive criticism. However, I don’t think anyone should try to form a relationship with a teacher half-heartedly, just because they think they’re supposed to, or everyone else is doing it.

So far, of course, I’ve been talking generally about Dharma teachers, and what I’ve said applies to my own lineage, Soto Zen, and probably to most types of Buddhism. There are two notable exceptions in Buddhism to this rather informal, optional approach to forming relationships with teachers. The first is Vajrayana Buddhism, where, if you stick around for any length of time, you’re likely to engage in some kind of guru devotion. I don’t know much about how that works, but it basically involves trying to see your teacher as a manifestation of the Buddha, or awakened mind, and that orientation is central to many of the Vajrayana practices and meditations. The other exception is Zen lineages which use formal koan curriculums; the essence of koan work is meeting a teacher, face-to-face, and only a teacher who is empowered to teach koans can assign you one and decide whether you have passed it or not.

You’ll have to investigate Vajrayana Buddhism or koan Zen to learn more about these student-teacher relationships, because I don’t have personal experience with them and don’t want to just tell you what I’ve read or heard. I just wanted to mention them here because yes, you do need a teacher for formal koan work or certain kinds of Vajrayana practice.

Committing to a Teacher in the Interest of Awakening

There is another kind of teacher-student relationship I want to mention, and that’s an explicitly committed one in a Buddhist lineage other than Vajrayana or koan Zen. As I mentioned earlier, this kind of commitment is more common for ordained folks, but in my lineage, Soto Zen, there is also some precedent for lay practitioners making a commitment to a teacher. There may be other forms of Buddhism with a similar, formalized student-teacher relationship, and would be intrigued to hear about them. For this episode, I’ll just describe what we do in my lineage.

We have a ceremony called Zaike Tokudo, which roughly translates as “staying at home to accomplish the way.” The ceremony mirrors, in many ways, our ceremony of monastic ordination, or “Shukke Tokudo,” which means “leaving home to accomplish the way.” In both ceremonies, there is a critical point where the teacher cuts hair from the top of the student’s head, right where there’s a swirl in the hairline. The teacher says:

“The portion of hair that meets in a swirl on the top of the head is called the shura. It is symbolically considered to be the root of self-attachment. Only a Buddha can cut it off.  I am going to cut it off.  Do you permit me to do so or not?”

The student replies, “I do.” The exchange is then repeated three times, as anything significant in Buddhism is. In the case of a monastic, the head has been shaved except for the shura, and the teacher finishes the shaving process. In the case of a lay person, a small lock of hair is cut from the shura with scissors.

To me, this is the essence of a committed teacher-student relationship. At the root of our suffering, delusion, and lack of compassion is our self-attachment – our conviction we have an inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature, and that therefore we need to look out for numero uno at all times. From there our delusion flowers out into all kinds of quirks of selfishness, obliviousness, and unskillful behaviors. In Buddhist practice we work on all this stuff, and no one can do your practice for you. However, every one of us has blind spots – ways of thinking, speaking, and acting we’re not even aware of, or that have impacts we’re not aware of. When we commit to a teacher in the way I just described, we’re asking the teacher to help us see our blind spots – and maybe, if necessary, actually say or do something to help sever our self-attachment. While our human teacher is not literally a Buddha, we invite them to stand in for the Buddha in this compassionate action.

The Teacher’s Job

This is tricky business, because our teacher is a flawed human being, not a Buddha. A teacher isn’t even superior to a student in any absolute sense, and, frankly, it doesn’t take a perfect or superior person to see another person’s flaws and hang-ups. Just think about your partner, family members, or friends. If they were open to your constructive criticism, you could probably tell them a thing or two about how to live their lives in a healthier, happier, more beneficial way. They thing is, though, the people you know probably don’t even want to hear your advice, let alone actually heed it. After all, who are you to tell them what’s what? You’ve got your own problems.

The training a Zen teacher does, ideally anyway, is not about being able see what’s wrong with other people, but about how to appropriately and compassionately offer feedback – when explicitly asked – without getting all self-involved with the exchange. That’s the challenging part, isn’t it, when we’re giving some feedback to the people in our life that might be difficult to hear, or when we’re receiving such feedback? We get pretty quickly caught up in a dance of defensiveness, and it’s difficult for us to be objective because we’re invested in the behavior of the people close to us. For example, we may resist following someone’s advice because then they’ll feel superior about it, and think the floodgates of critical suggestions have now been opened. We may think we’re giving someone feedback in a neutral way, but just our tone of voice will set the other person’s teeth on edge.

It’s not easy to get tough feedback from your Zen teacher, either, but at least – and again, this is an ideal situation – you know she’s not looking down on you, or trying to get something from you, or offering criticism in order to puff up her own sense of self. A Zen teacher who takes committed students should have done lots of work on himself. Through his relationship with his own teacher, he should have been asked to carefully examine all of the skeletons in his closet, one by one. Some of those skeletons may remain in the closet, but a teacher should be aware of them and how to keep them from interfering with what’s best for the student. And the teacher should have no agenda except for what’s best for the student, and never use the student to meet her own needs.

Committed Teacher-Student Relationships Can Be Tough

Of course, the student and teacher may, at times, disagree about what’s best for the student. This is where the commitment comes in. Part of the commitment is about clarity; in our tradition a student has to ask the teacher for a formal relationship at least three times, with some significant time in between requests. At some point in the process, the teacher usually presents a couple hoops for the student to jump through before the commitment is formalized, like attending a meditation retreat, or resolving an ongoing life issue. I also try to make it clear to a student asking for a formal teacher that the relationship will not always be pleasant or easy – and that may be putting it mildly. Over the course of many years, a student will inevitably either conflict with her teacher, be disappointed by her, or both. My own teacher would tell prospective formal students, “At some point you will hate me.”

Only if the student hears all of these warnings but keeps making the request, and in our lineage then sews their own rakusu – a bib-like garment worn as a sign of one’s vows – is the ceremony marking the beginning of a formal teacher-student relationship conducted, along with the bit I mentioned earlier about cutting off the root of self-attachment. Other than the shura thing, the student basically just commits to staying in regular contact with the teacher and seeking their guidance, support, and companionship on their spiritual path. The teacher commits to serving in that capacity as long as the student wants them to.

Depending on the kind of person you are, a formal commitment to a Zen teacher may sound awful, creepy, intriguing, baffling, or attractive. Personally, I wanted a personal, formal teacher from the moment I heard such a thing was possible. Even if you like the idea, though, it’s important to realize it’s not so easy to enter into a formal relationship with a Dharma teacher. It’s kind of like getting married; you may really like the idea of being married, but first you have to find someone who’s willing. You and your potential mate have to be compatible, and your life circumstances need to align to some extent. Marriage is generally not viable if the parties live far apart from one another for extended periods. And even if you find a good candidate for a spouse, you still – at least in most western cultures – have to get to know each other and date for a while before making a commitment of marriage. Sometimes a new relationship leads to marriage, but much of the time – perhaps most of the time – it doesn’t.

Similarly, you may or may not be able to find a Dharma teacher willing and able to take formal students. Not very many Buddhist lineages do this, especially if you’re talking about lay – as opposed to ordained – students. Or you may not be able to find a teacher you resonate with and trust. Or you may live too far away from them to make a committed teacher-student relationship viable. If you find a possible teacher, chances are you’ll need to show up and interact with them often, over a period of years, before they’ll consider taking you as a formal student. (And this takes patience; trying to make a relationship into a committed one from the outset is rather like showing up to your first date, emphasizing that you’re looking to get married asap. It puts a lot of pressure on both parties.)

Finally, frankly, you may pursue this kind of relationship with great determination and enter into one, and then wonder what on earth you did that for, or why you did it with that particular teacher, who didn’t end up being nearly as enlightened or helpful as you’d hoped. The parallels to marriage go on and on, including the expectation that the commitment will be lifelong, but also with the understanding that sometimes things change.

What’s a Formal Teacher-Student Relationship Good For?

Given all these challenges, do you need to have a personal Buddhist teacher in a formal and committed sense? It depends, again, on what you want out of your practice. Plenty of practitioners in my lineage, where this kind of teacher-student relationship is more accessible than in many places, opt not to take a teacher. In fact, most people don’t do it. Within a particular Sangha there are people who relate to teachers only as leaders or resources within the group, as well as people who see teachers as helpful folks to chat with about practice from time to time, or as spiritual companions or mentors on the path in an informal sense. Only a relative handful of people will decide to enter into committed, formal, teacher-student relationships.

A better question might be, “What can you get out of a formal teacher-student relationship that you can’t get other ways?” I have an answer for that, but it probably isn’t what you might expect. For example, you might hope that because of the commitment you make to a teacher, they’ll be able to guide your practice in such a way that you make much quicker progress. Alas, I don’t think that’s usually the case, at least not in the dramatic way we might hope. The Buddhist path, unless you’re in a monastic community or in the midst of a formal meditation retreat, is more or less self-directed. It’s up to you how hard you’re going to work, how much you’re going to meditate, what you’re going to study, what karmic issues you’re going to tackle, etc. A teacher may have recommendations about good things to study or practice, but they’re not a life coach.

What a teacher in a formal relationship can do for you is always be there, a living embodiment of your vows to awaken, and their faith you can do it. They stand also for their faith in the efficacy of the Buddhist path, and, in particular, faith in their own lineage of Buddhism. They stand for your own Buddha-nature, and the fact you already have everything you need, and therefore need nothing from anyone else, including a teacher. The teacher’s job is basically just to stand there, immovable.

This may sound inspiring and encouraging, and sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s absolutely exasperating. As long as you feel separate from your own Buddha-nature, what are they doing just standing there? How does that help you? If you don’t need anything from anyone, why are they offering themselves as a so-called teacher? If you already have, or are, Buddha-nature, why aren’t you the teacher? What’s going on here anyway? If this is about recognizing your own completeness, why create this weird, artificial hierarchy of teacher and student? If they’re a teacher worth their salt, why aren’t they any good at teaching you whatever it is you need to understand in order to awaken? Why do they have so much faith in Buddhist practice when the path can seem so darned hard, long, and sometimes hopeless?

The paradox of the formal teacher-student relationship brings us up against ourselves. It can help turn up the heat on our practice, but it’s still a practice we have to do ourselves. No one else can truly know our mind and heart, and no one else can transform them for us. We already have everything we need in order to see the immaculacy of all Being, but knowing that intellectually is one thing, and experiencing that directly in our body, heart, and mind is quite another. As long as we have any doubt, we will stand in the place of the student. The role of teacher is only meaningful as long as there is a student… once we claim our birthright, we meet the teacher eye to eye and there is only two Buddhas meeting. Still, claiming our birthright isn’t a simple matter of bravado. If our teacher really knows us, they will challenge us until we are no longer bothered by challenge, but can express our understanding with humility and grace.

I don’t know if this kind of transformation is possible without a teacher with whom you have a committed relationship. There are certainly Zen teachings that say you can’t do it without a teacher. However, it’s obvious that profound spiritual transformation can happen in other ways, seeing as it happens to plenty of people who aren’t Buddhist or even religious at all. Perhaps it’s better to say, then, that this kind of transformation is only possible within a committed Dharma teacher-student relationship. I guess, to use the marriage analogy again, it’s like saying you can’t understand the rewards of marriage unless you get married. Or you can’t appreciate what it’s like to have kids unless you do. Are there profound, valuable, transformative lessons to be learned from a formal relationship with a Dharma teacher, or from marriage, or from having kids? Definitely! Are those experiences something every person wants, or benefits from? Definitely not.

So no, you don’t need a personal Buddhist or Zen teacher, especially one with whom you’ve formalized a commitment. Unless…

 


Picture: Kodo Sawaki Roshi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kōdō_Sawaki)

 

115 - Dogen's Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings - Part 4 - Beneficial Action
117 - Clarifying the Mind Ground According to Keizan's “Zazen-Yojinki”
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