A Zen teacher is someone who has done zazen for a long time and allows — tolerates may be a better word — others to join their practice.
A few years ago I did a talk at a Zen center in New York City where several people seemed to be hostile to what I had to say. One of the things I said that seemed to be a trigger was that in the Zen teacher/Zen student relationship, responsibility goes both ways. I, as a teacher, have a responsibility to someone who wants to be my student and the student also has an equal responsibility to me.
It seems weird to me when people find this idea weird. I am not the first person to ever see things like this. In fact, I’d say even a cursory look into the history of Zen reveals that many —perhaps even most — of the Zen teachers of the past thought of it pretty much the same way.
Take the old koan “Why did Bodhidharma come to the East?” for example. If all you know about Bodhidharma is that he brought Zen practice to China, you might not get the point of this question. You have to know how Bodhidharma brought Zen to China for the question to make any sense.
See, Bodhidharma did not enter China as a missionary with a desire to convert the Chinese heathens to the Good News of Zen. It was quite the opposite. He went there to find a peaceful cave where he could meditate undisturbed. And for nine years he got his wish. But after a while people started hearing about this strange hermit up in the mountains and began to wonder what he was doing in that cave.
At first, when people tried to join Bodhidharma in his cave he told them to bugger off. He was probably like that guy in Life of Brian, the hermit in the hole in the ground whose vow of silence was broken when Brian stepped on his foot. I’m sure most of these wanna-be students gave up after being chased away. But some folks were persistent, so poor Bodhidharma finally gave in and allowed five of them to share his private space. These five ended up being the first Chinese Zen teachers.
The point of the koan is that Bodhidharma just wanted to sit. Bringing Zen to China was something that happened along the way.
Getting back to New York, though. One of the people who was upset by my insistence that Zen students had responsibilities to their teachers said she felt the duty of a Zen teacher was to “hold the student wisely.” Her voice was cracking and she looked like she might even cry as she said this. I can’t recall what I said in reply, but I felt then and I still feel now that she was completely wrong. Zen teachers have no responsibility to “hold the student wisely.” In fact if they try to do so, they are actually harming their students.
Learning from a Zen teacher is like an apprenticeship. The teacher isn’t really there to be a teacher as such. It’s like if a young painter finds an older painter whose work he admires. He goes to the older painter and asks to learn. The older painter probably just wants to paint in peace, not teach. But maybe she’s a nice person and says, “OK. If you clean my brushes and stay out of my way I’ll show you how I work.” The apprentice, if he’s any good, will not try to mimic the teacher. He will try to learn a way to make his own kind of paintings.
He will also understand when the older painter just wants to be left alone and he will not be a pain in the ass.
I think quite a lot of the sexual and other scandals in the world of Zen and in other forms of spiritual apprenticeship could be avoided if more students (and more teachers!) of meditation understood this aspect of the relationship a bit better. People respond in strange ways when they’re working on a project that’s important to them and lots of folks start getting in their face demanding things and impinging on their time. This even goes for when the project you’re working on is yourself. My guess is that a lot of these scandalized teachers really just wanted to be left alone, even if they themselves didn’t consciously realize it.
A while back I got into it with someone who said that Zen was one of the “helping professions.” It really isn’t. When you try to turn it into a helping profession you end up creating a world of trouble for everyone involved. Helping professions are fine, by the way. It’s just that Zen can never be one of them any more than a painter is suddenly thrust into the “helping profession” the moment she consents to allow an apprentice into her private painting space.
My friend Rebecca in Hebden Bridge, UK gave me a document called Select Passages from the Perfect and Sudden Ten Modes of Contemplation translated by Stevenson (the print-out doesn’t give his first name) of the University of Kansas. It’s an ancient piece of writing about Zen practice and Zen teaching from China. Referring to teaching Zen to others it says, “At first one’s efforts perhaps prove beneficial. But while benefitting others is noble, one neglects and harms one’s own practice in the process.” Later it says about some famous Chinese masters, “Come to the end of their lives, they all repented (teaching Zen).” Ain’t that the truth!
Having said all this, I wonder how it applies to someone like me doing what I do. I travel around the world teaching people about Zen. I get paid for it too. Not a lot, but I can afford a small one-bedroom apartment in LA. At least for the time being. I’m not sitting in a cave. Not exactly.
Yet in every phase of my career as a teacher, I’ve done what I’ve done because someone asked me to. Nishijima Roshi asked me to take dharma transmission then he asked me to lead his Saturday Zen classes. He and my other teacher Tim both said I should try writing a book about Zen. My friend Kee Kee asked me to teach Zen classes in Santa Monica, which became the foundation of the group I lead in LA. My international travels have all been prompted by invitations. But because I do this, my own practice necessarily suffers for it.
I hope this doesn’t sound like complaining. I’m trying to explain, not complain. I like what I do. Don’t get me wrong there. I really enjoy the heck out of it. I like meeting sincere people and teaching them about this practice and I hope a few of them benefit from what I do. Even so, I’m not really in this business out of a desire to help or to be a teacher, at least not as such.
As things progress, the invitations increase. I feel like, at this point, even if I tried to quit, people would seek me out just like they did poor old Bodhidharma.
So these days I’m doing the opposite of telling people to bugger off. I’m starting a center in LA. I’m trying to find a way to accommodate all the out-of-town requests I get rather than turning so many down. It could end up being a huge mistake. I don’t know.
We’ll see, I suppose.
I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP
September 21, 2015 7:30pm Newcastle Zen, Northern Ireland SHIMNA INTEGRATED COLLEGE (Zazen & Dharma Talk)
September 22, 2o15 6:30pm Belfast, Northern Ireland THE DARK HORSE (Talk: Punk Rock Commentaries on Zen)
September 23, 2015 7:00pm Belfast, N. Ireland BELFAST ZEN MAITRI YOGA STUDIO (Zazen & Dharma Talk)
September 24, 2015 7:30pm Belfast, N. Ireland Oh Yeah, Belfast (Q&A)
September 27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 1-DAY RETREAT
October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
Every Monday at 8pm zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
All the weekly LA area sittings still happen even when I’m out of town and are usually better for it.
Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info
Your donations are important to me. They are my main source of income, far more than book royalties or retreat fees. You are my patrons. Thank you for your support!
“But because I do this, my own practice necessarily suffers for it.”
As a “Zen teacher” isn’t “this” your practice?
It all reminds me of when I first went to college and for some reason got lost in a building and found myself in a Psychology class (I was on my way to an English class, I think). The teacher asked around why people were interested in taking the class, and the overwhelming response was to “help” people or to “help” themselves.
I got the hell out of there.
And whats all this “practice” about, is there going to be a recital?
I used to have the same complaint about the word “practice.” It’s practice as in “the practice of medicine” or a “lawyer’s practice,” not as in practicing in preparation for a musical performance.
Hi mtto – sorry to be off topic with this, but you’re the webmaster here these days, right? I reported a bug with the posting routine a couple of threads ago and that post was mysteriously removed, without the problem having been dealt with. What happens is that the widget responsible for allowing 30 minutes to edit a post has gone haywire (at least for me) in that it replace “minutes” with “undefined”, and it never expires! That means I can always edit my posts hours, days and weeks after I’ve made them. And although there is some kind of vague element of Buddhist poetics operating here (what is time anyway?) , this is a technical problem that ought to be fixed. Probably nobody else can see this, so here’s a link to a screenshot of what I see:
You might want to show this to your WP consultant guy.
mtto, I was just funnin.’
I’ve noticed that, too, mb, but assumed that we were gifted with going back to the good old days when you could edit for eternity…
If you would like to report a bug, please use the contact form, not the comments. Even better, if the bug is with a WordPress plugin, please write to the developer, although chances are someone already has, as in this case. I just updated the plugin, and the new version is supposed to “fix the timer issue on some sites.” If you don’t know what a WordPress plugin is, just have faith in the power of the internet.
If bug reports are posted to the comments, I will probably/maybe delete them, and maybe look into them if they are actually impacting functionality. In this case the bug was purely cosmetic, and the developer is very regular with updates and bug fixes.
Before I installed the “Simple Comment Editing” plugin, I believe there was no comment editing on the site. The plugin defaults to 5 minutes, which I thought was a little short.
If you would like to report a bug, please use the contact form, not the comments. Even better, if the bug is with a WordPress plugin, please write to the developer, although chances are someone already has, as in this case. I just updated the plugin, and the new version is supposed to “fix the timer issue on some sites.”
OK, will make all future bug reports with the contact form. Just to let you know on this item, that the plugin update didn’t do anything, the “problem” still remains. Not that I care! I’m perfectly happy to have unlimited post editing access instead of 30 minutes, but wasn’t sure that my original post was noted when I saw it was removed. This is kind of like in Monopoly when you get a Community Chest card that says “bank error in your favor”!
Would it have freaked you out if someone answered, “because someone asked me to”?
What a blessing. Hope you die in the saddle. Gassho
Shouldering responsibility requires sustained effort, which seems to be distasteful to many people (including me at times). To some, as illustrated by the “hold me wisely” outlook you encountered, it’s downright frightening.
Have you ever read the Shimano archive ( http://www.shimanoarchive.com )? Indeed it is frightening.
A butt holder that types! Did Shimano SCARE you? Good typing.
Dog Star: “Shouldering responsibility (…) is downright frightening”:
I do agree with that!!!
Thanks, Brad, for continuing to write.
I write a lot here in the comments thread, and it’s been a great help to me. I hope that the fact that people enjoy the comments as well as your posts means that you will continue to be able to afford to do what people ask you to do, at least for awhile (I’ll be throwing something in the hat soon).
Because Kobun said “take your time with the lotus”, I worked twenty five years to sit the lotus for forty minutes. Twenty years after that, the first twenty-five minutes I find ease in the lotus; the next five I find my legs; from thirty to thirty-five I find myself on the bridge; the last five I find the involuntary activity that pressurizes the fluid ball of the abdomen/the comprehension of the long or short of inhalation or exhalation.
Walking around Santa Cruz, I see my own unhappiness, and I go for the long or short of inhalation or exhalation. I’m walking around blind. Who does this help besides me!
I don’t want to teach Zen. I want to be like Gautama, able to be happy without moving for a day, for two days, for seven days. I’m a greedy son of a gun, but nobody’s asked me to be anything else. Or maybe it’s because I can’t quite pull it off all day, much less for two days or seven days, that nobody’s asking me to be anything more than a friend.
Bodhidharma went to the East because we think him. Actually Bodhidharma went nowhere.
People pester Brad because he advertises himself. If he doesn’t want to be pestered, don’t advertise.
Self advertising is a relic of the slave mentality.
He only advertises because someone asked him to.
Hey! That provides meaning. Can I be your student?
Any good sheep must comply with your request, because you asked.
So then why did Bodhidharma come to the East?
To get to the other side.
Because someone asked him to, and like a good sheep he went.
People are never satisfied.
Why did the Chicken cross from the West? Because he was stapled to the Bhikkhu.
They don’t have peaceful caves in the West? Lol
You’re spinning a narrative, Mr. Warmer, that’s what shepherds do. That is your only real responsibility. Preaching and developing a system of meaning. And this cannot be done alone in a cave. Religion is necessarily a group activity.
I suppose this is an appropriate statement in a blog post about “The Responsibilities of Being a Zen Student.”
I wouldn’t fault you for not wanting to take responsibility. As always, I only fault you for being dishonest.
Meaning is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone-we find it with meaning.
Typing. So cute. Don’t you stop! Oh, no you DON’T!
I like your attitude about being equal (on a human basis), and on responsibilties on both sides. I agree, especially on the last.
Nevertheless, I dislike your above expressed attitude about how your Zen practice suffers because of working with students. I mean, a Zen teacher und a Zen student have an equal worth – that’s what I am agreeing on. But they have different … skills, experience, whatever. And, let’s face it, as a student I’m happy with sitting and sometimes finding some peace in it, because it’s not very likeli, to sometime see and beginn to understand, what a teacher understood. It’s probably a kind of knowledge that’s beyond words, logic, perception with my senses…
Maybe the girl was refering to that deep knowledge and insight, that might give many more ways of acting in meeting with students, than the students have the other way around. Of course the student has to go by him-/herself and has to take the responsibility for everything he/she does on the way. But if the teacher is kind of showing the way, some wise approach to this might help.
By-the-way: your texts/books speak quiet affectionately about your teachers, Nishiyima Roshi and Tom. Did they give you the feeling of being a waste of time? I assume, they didn’t…
Sorry for my English, I’m German…I hope it’s understandable, what I mean.
I mean Tim as your second teacher, of course. Sorry for the spelling mistake..
There is no deep experience that a person has. You drop the body-mind or you don’t, and a teacher can’t help you.
In Hardcore zen teacher and student have equal responsibility to each other, Sue. That means that the students practice suffers just as much as the teachers. Probably more so, because they don’t know how to paint good, yet.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning
A hermit dwelling in your true abode
People can have a lot of crazy projections about the so called spiritual path and the roll of teachers…
Own your own projections
This one is for the Pisces fishes.
A Pope I can get behind, at least on economy, climate change, and militarism.
Out to see Andy McKee at Moe’s Alley (in Santa Cruz) last night. Some beautiful tunes, many of them Travis picking to my surprise, but toward the end he just rocked:
so I got up on the floor. Walking that log bridge, and comprehending the long and short. The weird thing is, that at the point where my body is asking me to comprehend the long and short, there is infinite space, there is single-pointedness of mind, there is no coughing or sighing (thanks for making the trip, Bodhidharma; see you in the fall).
The light fantasia.
The article that spoke of something beyond emptiness, and made the claim that Buddhism doesn’t go there; the third of the further states, “the plane of no-thing”, is followed by “the plane of neither perception and sensation nor yet not perception and sensation”, which is followed by the cessation of “the plane of neither perception and sensation nor yet not perception and sensation”. Realizing that “the plane of neither perception and sensation nor yet not perception and sensation” is a thing thought-out, a thing constructed, and that all that is thought out must come to an end, one attains the cessation of “the plane of neither perception and sensation nor yet not perception and sensation”; so said Gautama.
Yet his way of life was “the concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths”, which was a thing perfect in itself.
Moments of happiness, I have some work to do finding the range to the surface of the log under my left leg, out on the floor.
“Rigpa is a central concept in Dzogchen. It is “reflexively self-aware primordial wisdom,” which is self-reflexively aware of itself as unbounded wholeness.[quote 2] The analogy given by Dzogchen masters is that one’s true nature is like a mirror which reflects with complete openness, but is not affected by the reflections; or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed. The knowledge that ensues from recognizing this mirror-like clarity (which cannot be found by searching nor identified) is called rigpa.”
1. a primordial awareness which is aware of itself = zazen sits zazen
2. it cannot be found by searching nor identified = goaless sitting
3. Brad cannot help you; drop the body-mind
When I first started formal Zen study, I was just 23 years old. I wanted the teachers to take me by the hand and guide me to enlightenment (or whatever). They did not do this; instead I received the bare minimum instruction in the practice forms. Nobody even told me the right way to do zazen. “Just sit on that cushion on that mat over there.” That’s all. On top of that, in private kong-an interviews, they asked me questions like, “If you were the Zen Master, how would you answer?” So I was expected to teach myself!
This was frustrating at first, but I have come to appreciate it. If the teachers actually “taught” me something, then that would be their understanding, not mine. Also, it would imply that there was something that they had “got,” that I hadn’t. But Zen teaches that we all “have it” already, and in fact there is nothing to “get” in the first place.
Speaking of kong-ans (koans for you Nippon-o-philes), when a visitor asked Joju, “Why did the ancestor come from the West?” He replied, “The cypress tree in the garden.” Was that teaching or not?
“The cypress tree in the garden.” Was that teaching or not?
Sure! It’s a poetic way of saying “Why are you even asking this question?” “What possible difference could an answer to this question have in your actual life?” and “Next!”
Of course this is only my unqualified opinion having had zero Rinzai Zen exposure and minimal Soto – did a 3-day sesshin with Jiyu Kennett in 1975 – and all we got to do then was stare at walls and walk.
Leaving aside for now the place where a needle will not enter, what’s it like when foamy waves are flooding the sky? The bathroom floor?
Does this surprise you that musicians of different genres often like/are influenced by all kinds of music?
Seriously, why this long book quote? What does Jimmie Rodgers have to do with anything? Were you reading this and so moved by it that you wanted to share? I mean, it’s kind of interesting for what its worth, and I’m no stickler for staying on subject in these comments, but this is kind of out of far left field.
Oh, and the *rings bell* shit is pretty tired. Go ahead and do it if you think you’re being cute or a smart ass…Whatever “rings” your bell.
As a student, no one can answer questions about yourself, what is going on in zazen for you. It’s like anything else, you have to rely mainly on yourself with some assistance at times from others. I work in social work and nothing gets accomplished with clients if they see me having all the answers to their problems. Anything lasting in peoples’ lives has to come from them.
” If you would see, then just see immediately. If you don’t see, it’s urgent you avoid entertaining intellectual understanding.”
And 60 other similar reiterations.
For some, all you have to do is ask and people will comply.
Q: Why did the patriarch come East?
Femizenimist: Fuck the patriarchy, Loretta
HardcoZafuist: What is it that doesn’t provide meaning?
Because there are too many fucking feminists in the West.
Comments are closed.