“Can I Be Your Student?” Part One Million and Seven

In the past week I have received more “Can I be your student?” emails than I’ve received in years. Is it a full moon or something? I’m really baffled by this. I am also baffled by how each and every one of these folks is unwilling to come sit with me when I offer that as an option.

John Graves, a guy who started sitting with my LA group perhaps 8-10 years ago, said, “It’s easy to sit with Brad. Just show up.”

If you’re thinking of asking me to be your teacher, you need to read this first. Then read it twelve more times. Then stop pretending that’s not you.

After that, if you still think you want to be my student, show up.

I will not call you my student. If you call yourself my student, make sure not to do it where I can hear you because I will tell whoever you’re talking to that you’re lying and that would be embarrassing. But you can sit with me. If you want a nice place to start, come to one of the many events on my events page.

If you answer, “That’s too far! It’s too expensive to get there!” Then you need to face the fact that you don’t actually want to be my student that badly anyway.

This is not a criticism. It’s fine. It’s better, in fact. I don’t demand that you be my student. I don’t even want you to be my student. Not because you’re a bad person or anything, but because I don’t want students.

But look. You say you want to be the student of the famous teacher who lives far away, yet you’re not willing to go to where that teacher is. What does that say about your desire to be the student of the famous teacher who lives far away?

It’s a fantasy. It’s one of those things that’s way off over there in the land of somewhere and someday. Things that are far off in the land of somewhere and someday always seem much more attractive than anything nearby. There’s no smell to those things. There’s no taste. There are no aching muscles in the land of somewhere and someday. There are no frustrations other than fun frustrations that you can heroically overcome. It’s not cold. It’s not hot. There are no disappointments.

There are no traffic jams on the way to the land of somewhere and someday. There are no delayed flights causing you to have to sit in the St. Louis airport for six hours listening to bad muzak. There are no gross road stops with roaches and stinky toilets.

Teachers in the land of somewhere and someday don’t say things you don’t want to hear – except for the fun things you don’t want to hear that you can heroically overcome. They don’t do things you don’t think they should do. They don’t have bad days and tell you to go away. Except in fun ways that you can heroically overcome.

Be content that you have learned that you don’t really want to be the student of the famous teacher who lives far away. It’s fine. Breathe a sigh of relief. Be happy.

Look. I love you. I’m flattered by the fact that you feel like what I wrote has touched you. It’s nice. It really is. I’m not trying to be a big meanie here. I’m trying to help.

But you don’t even really want to be my student. Which – I’ll say again – is perfectly fine. You just have a very strong fantasy, like all of us get caught up in sometimes. Let it pass and move on.

In the next year or so, I hope to have a center established that you can come to any time. Will you show up there? I wonder. I really do.

37 Responses

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  1. Andy
    Andy October 30, 2014 at 2:18 am |

    My cats don’t want to be my teacher, but one of them rarely fails to make a point of meowing to be let out while I’m sitting.

    No. 1


  2. buzzard30
    buzzard30 October 30, 2014 at 3:12 am |

    My first teacher died and I became a student to his successor. In my lineage you have to be vetted by other students and do Tangaryo before you can even ask to be a student. Weeds out the casual. Zen is a lot of work. Better get started before it is too late.

  3. Hungry Ghost
    Hungry Ghost October 30, 2014 at 5:01 am |

    I think that part of the problem is that there are so many Buddhist books and teachers that say A) you have to have a teacher to get anywhere on the path and B) life is really short so don’t waste it. This can be panic inducing in someone experiencing the kind of existential crisis that leads someone to seek out religious/philosophical answers; and the combination of sincerely not wanting to waste one’s life and sincerely wanting to ‘get somewhere on the path’ encourages people to follow the admonitions they find in books and seek out something called a ‘teacher’. What I’m referring to is, I think, most prevalent in the Tibetan tradition (in books like Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism) but I don’t think it’s absent in Zen, and besides, here in the US people tend to read things from various Buddhist traditions so people are going to come to you with ideas derived from sources you may not be familiar with.

  4. The Idiot
    The Idiot October 30, 2014 at 5:06 am |

    Can I be your student for $558.00 a month?

  5. UnSan
    UnSan October 30, 2014 at 5:18 am |

    I believe this has a lot to do with persona(lity) cult. Just recently my Teachers went on a 6 week vacation and left the duties of doing our wednesday zazen with the ordained sangha members so there would be no interruption (as has been the case in the past…).
    When this modus operandi was announced by the Teachers, there were some voices saying, “Well if the Roshis are not gonna be there why should I come?” Lo and behold, a group normally counting 10-14 was decimated to 5-6… that really made me sad…

  6. AnneMH
    AnneMH October 30, 2014 at 6:05 am |

    I am a peer leader of a local group (not zen) and often there i_ (broken keyboard) not enough for rent. Peer leader_ make up the difference, prepare for the group, deal with drama and then have people not come because _e are not teacher_. I do have a teacher, and have had one before. Large commitment in the traditional manner. There are many people internationally and a non profit to take care of a full time teacher.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles October 30, 2014 at 6:48 pm |
  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 30, 2014 at 7:47 am |

    (off-topic we are, yes!)- Andy, Dr. Robert Fulford stated in his book that he had difficulty feeling the life force in vegans. Fulford was apparently quite amazing, but he stated that his intuitive sense for the life force in large part guided his treatment methods. For what it’s worth. Ah, the video!-

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 30, 2014 at 8:16 am |

    Weil was looking to apprentice to a medicine person in the jungles of Brazil, but they were all involved in protesting the takeover of their land by oil companies, so Weil returned to the U.S. Seeking treatment himself for something, I forget what, Weil went to Fulford. He drove away thinking, “what a quack!”, and then realized he’d been cured of whatever it was he had had.

    Ok, what were we talking about? Oh yeah- ancient and twisted karma, why Brad’s teacher felt moved to give Brad transmission, why Brad considers himself a teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, why people are inspired to emulate Brad and seek to become officially transmitted and ask for his assistance, and what the appropriate response to such a request might be.

    Kick dem buttocks, trete Dir gleich in den Arsch, or– let dem buttocks rock and roll!


  9. Annette
    Annette October 30, 2014 at 8:47 am |

    I thought about this teacher thing a lot. In books about Zen it’s recommended to have a teacher. But what does this word “teacher” mean? For me it could be a book, a blog, a friend, my zazen group, a sesshin and of course a dokusan with a zen teacher. It depends. To be focussed on only one of these is not enough. We have to follow our paths for ourselves. No one can do this for us. So don’t rely on someone or something from outside.

  10. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer October 30, 2014 at 10:41 am |

    “In the past week I have received more “Can I be your student?” emails than I’ve received in years. Is it a full moon or something? I’m really baffled by this.”

    No Brad it’s a was new moon last week.

    Maybe all your wannabe students are werewolves and get the jones for a righteous zen teacher during those times of the moon cycle that they can’t wolf out and be truly in-the-moment.


  11. Harlan
    Harlan October 30, 2014 at 1:09 pm |

    Brad, you forgot this..

    All this fun costs money, your kind donations are always appreciated. You know I can’t tour all year round, so I’m trying to start my own Zen Center. Those things aren’t cheap. So whatever you can send me will really make a difference. P.S. I don’t want you for a student. Thank you!


    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles October 30, 2014 at 6:49 pm |

      Nice music vid tie-in, Harlan!

  12. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm |

    In the Kwan-Um School, there are designated, certified “Zen Teachers.” Students in the Kwan-Um School are encouraged to practice with as many different teachers as they can. I don’t know if it is discouraged, but I’ve never felt any pressure to consider one of them “my” teacher.

    I once thanked Zen Master Wu Kwang for some teaching he had given me during an interview. He immediately apologized for his mistake.

  13. Zentard
    Zentard October 30, 2014 at 4:24 pm |

    This blog is getting really good.

  14. AnneMH
    AnneMH October 30, 2014 at 6:05 pm |

    (my attempt with keyboard problem), to me the point i that teacher are not hiding in a cave in india. Brad and other teacher are available. I have called people a ‘teacher’ of mine if I have meditated ith them many time or gone on retreat (more than one generally). However that mean to me I have learned from them on multiple occasion and offered dana, other thing, many time. I don’t expect them to come to me, I find them on their teaching schedule. They have all been generous of time and teaching, like Brad. I really agree that a teacher i important, but a teacher available to you, that you can develop a relationship ith i a great place to tart. If you ant famou one then plan on moving to them! if everyone mailed $5 and the request then Brad could make a center.

    can you figure out the letter I can’t ue?

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot October 30, 2014 at 6:56 pm |

      “W” & “S”, in’t that right? Hat say you?

  15. minkfoot
    minkfoot October 30, 2014 at 6:59 pm |

    Where are you thinking of locating this center, Brad? The Northeast?

  16. justlui
    justlui October 30, 2014 at 10:22 pm |

    Dear AnnMH,

    I decided not to engage in discussions with the posters on here a while back, and rather just read and reflect. I’m a bit of a meanie. However, I decided to log back in to do my duty here. You should use the $ for the S. That way you can be just like Yo-Landi Vi$$er. She’s awesome. That is all.


  17. AnneMH
    AnneMH October 31, 2014 at 5:26 am |

    thank you for the $ idea!

  18. Michel
    Michel October 31, 2014 at 7:46 am |

    You may also replace the W by simple U. All right, it uould look bizarre, but at least the sound uould be there…

  19. Michel
    Michel October 31, 2014 at 7:47 am |

    And uhy not the S by a TH… ?

  20. Michel
    Michel October 31, 2014 at 10:17 am |
  21. yesno
    yesno October 31, 2014 at 1:15 pm |

    or type VV instead W (vv = w) 🙂

  22. jason farrow
    jason farrow October 31, 2014 at 5:50 pm |

    I don’t understand why it’s better to have a teacher then to be a student?
    I’m not trying to stir the pot, but, if you are making a valid point, I don’t get your p.o.v? What is the lesson?

    But, I agree that unless..well…even though a person is not directly there, does not mean that they are not a student. Idk…my take on it is that we are all students. Students teach students. Sometimes a younger student teaches the old student a trick or two. Sometimes the old student teachers the younger student a trick or two. So, both student and teacher, are both teachers and students at the same time. Especially where Dharma is just simply Dharma. But, I don’t deny that typically the process is that the oldest student has more experience and knowledge then the younger student. Which is why the older student is the teacher. That dynamic allows the younger student to capitalize upon the older students teaching. At least that is perspective of it in Linzi.

    I think, any influence, is a teacher.

    But, at the same time, I do not think that unless you are directly studying under a teacher, you are not necessarily their direct student. I think to say this person is directly my teacher, you have to be able to smell their breath and decide if you can stand it or not l0l! (You know like, spend time studying in the same room as them, learning from them.)

    Some people who put pictures of living teachers on their altars, as if they were already Buddhas, who’ve they never met in real life…kinda weird in my opinion. But, innocent at the same time. I remember one person who put their own picture on the altar l0l! Man! That’s a statement l0l!

    Idk, hopefully I can sit in one of your LA meetings sometime…But, I’ll probably just end up pissing you off like I do with everyone else.

    Idunno why, but I really seem to piss off Buddhist teachers.

  23. jason farrow
    jason farrow October 31, 2014 at 5:54 pm |

    But yeah…there are no guru’s. We are students of the Buddha.

  24. jason farrow
    jason farrow October 31, 2014 at 9:27 pm |

    actually i am wrong. when a man moves in with a women, she is the teacher.
    if he wants to cohabitate that is.

  25. deardorff8x10
    deardorff8x10 November 1, 2014 at 7:04 am |

    I think I get your point, but maybe, “I don’t want students” is a bit of a cop out, depending what “student” means. If you have seen something and have the potential to help people (“face to face”?), then in some way, you have an obligation to do so, even if they think they are “students”. On the other hand, you also need to blow people’s image of what a student is and whatever it might be that makes them think that they want to be such a thing. Also, you need to get rid of whatever brings them to want you to “teach” them.

  26. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara November 6, 2014 at 8:33 am |

    Zen in the Japanese tradition IS like a D/s or BDSM lifestyle in more than just superficial ways. The superficial similarities include wearing medieval style robes and thwacking people on the back with sticks (the thwackee bows gratefully). On a deeper level, both of these human behaviours, zen and sadomasochism, rely on one person handing over control of his life to somebody else. This power exchange is intrinsic to traditional zen training, and might be necessary. It applies maybe more to rinzai… but soto too.

    A bdsm dominant will confuse the submissive with contradictory and arbitrary demands: this puts the sub in a trance-like/infantilised state of mind (‘sub-space’) which involves endorphin release and a paradoxical sense of security and affection. Brad says “I’m the teacher, but you can’t be my student”, and we love him all the more!

    Actually, Brad, this whole post sounds a bit like, “I demand respect as a teacher, but I refuse the responsibility of having someone as ‘my’ student”.

    [I, for one, accept responsibility for bathing and feeding the gimps I keep in my cellar.]

    In both bdsm and zen, the submission can be to either mental or physical ‘abuse’, sexual or otherwise. In either zen or bdsm, a particular Master may be cruel or kind, it is submission to His whim that counts.

    Now, none of this would matter except that these features of Zen are what lead to sex abuse scandals, support for warmongering political regimes, and scapegoating of whistleblowers within sanghas. Also, it matters because these features of zen practice have nothing to do with Buddhadharma, and everything to do with human instinctual behaviour when exposed to violence and trauma – we transfer aggression to the next weakest person in our social group, and have a compulsion to repeat the abuses we ourselves suffered.

    Homo Sapiens has inherited two modes of social organisation from our ape ancestors: a non-traumatic caring, sharing, touchy-feely, group-sexy Bonobo/Gorilla A-mode; and an raging, power-structured, shame-based, sex-repressed, weaponised Chimp/Baboon B-mode. We go into mode B under stress.

    Japanese Zen is a B-Mode behaviour because times were hard in the Kamakura era. European/American culture is also B-Mode for various reasons, including two recent global wars and the Judeo-Christian Bronze Age Death Cult, so we took to the Kyosakus and Shaven Patriarchs of the East quite easily. We tried out a hippy ideal of free love, but it takes time to go A-mode: all sorts of students got their personal boundaries violated by the living buddhas.

    So what now? How does Zen move towards being an A-behaviour? I’d say get rid of lifelong roshi jobs, and let whole sanghas select/deselect their leaders every few years. The whole lineage/transmission thing is a pile of shit anyway, set up to make Chan acceptable to the Imperial States of China and Japan. Let’s get honest about that, cut the crap and the teacher worship.

    Anyway, good luck with the new Zendo. I’ll drop by and kowtow some time!

  27. Shodo
    Shodo November 11, 2014 at 12:01 pm |

    Shinchan Ohara said:
    “Brad says “I’m the teacher, but you can’t be my student”, and we love him all the more!

    Actually, Brad, this whole post sounds a bit like, “I demand respect as a teacher, but I refuse the responsibility of having someone as ‘my’ student”.”

    That is an interesting observation…
    I’ve been wondering that myself for some time, not just this post.
    It has seemed, as my time has increased reading his posts, that Brad has made it pretty clear for some time that he wants all the benefits that being a “Zen teacher” brings, but wants nothing to do with any of it’s responsibilities.

  28. otaku00
    otaku00 December 18, 2014 at 1:11 am |

    Why should the right advice to someone asking: “Can I be your student?” – whom you do not want to be your student – not be: “Sit for yourself!” instead of: “Come sit with me!”?

    No one needs to sit with anyone, sitting can be done right here and now, if considered important. “Come to me” is not the right attitude at all. The student who believes he/she has to sit somewhere with someone is still on the wrong track.

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