The group I spoke with were training to be yoga teachers. One of the questions I got went something like this. “How do you deal with the way people react to you being a white guy from the American suburbs teaching in a tradition that many people see as being foreign, where it’s commonly accepted that the only ‘real’ teachers of that tradition ought to be old guys from Japan who’ve lived on top of mountains for the past 50 years?” Of course, the question was also related to her position as a young white yoga teacher.
This is something I’ve encountered a lot, but I’ve never really thought about it in quite the terms she phrased the question. I remember when we played hardcore, there was always the question of whether you could be an “authentic” punk rocker if you weren’t English and on the Dole. There must be endless other variations. Can white people play blues? Can California Pizza Kitchen make real pizza when it’s owned by two Jewish guys? The list goes on…
One of the issues involved is the language barrier. When you’re listening to a guy who can’t really speak English, there’s a tendency to fill in the parts he doesn’t quite get across with your own imagination. You do that in English, too. But when the speaker has difficulty with tenses and pronouns and what-have-you, there’s much more opportunity to fill in the blanks. Add to this the fact that Buddhism, or Yoga, is pretty difficult philosophically and the potential for this kind of thing is enormous. So what often happens is that, if someone who is fluent in English tries to explain it a bit more clearly, the listeners may react very strongly because it contradicts the bits they’ve already filled in for themselves with their own ideas.
For my part, I feel like the only attitude you can have towards that kind of thing is just to do what you do and not get too worried whether anyone thinks it’s authentic or not according to whatever arbitrary criteria they’ve set up to judge such things.
In answering the question, I also started thinking about why I teach Buddhism at all and specifically why I write this blog, which seems to be one of my main activities as a Buddhist teacher lately. I never really set out to be a Buddhist teacher. I got into Buddhism because I had some personal concerns, some questions I felt I needed to answer. In the course of my practice, I feel I have pretty well answered those questions for myself.
Along with answering those questions, I noticed that the answers I found weren’t really for me alone. They were for everyone. And, not only that, I saw that every single person in the world, bar none, has the capacity to answer these questions for him or herself. Furthermore I came to the understanding that, by answering these questions, people could become much more happy and learn to get along with each other much better than they do.
But, on the other hand, I saw exactly why we do not do that. I saw this by seeing what the blocks were to my own understanding and noticing that these also were not specific to me. They were absolutely universal. The reason we do not see the truth for ourselves is only because we are closing our eyes, holding our hands over our ears and shouting, “Lah! Lah!! Lah!! I can’t hear you!!!!” All we really need to do is to learn how to stop shutting reality out. Once we accomplish that, the truth of the Universe comes flooding over us like a tidal wave. In fact, it’s doing that even as we vainly attempt to shout it down. The pain we experience in life comes not from the outside world and circumstances beyond our control doing awful things to us. It comes from our constant and entirely futile attempts to shut ourselves off from the reality that is actually the largest part of our true selves and to try and live in an absurd and artificial universe of our own mental creation.
This is easier said than done, though. It takes a lot of hard work to unlearn habits that you’ve developed since the moment you were born and that are reinforced by centuries of human thought and activity. There are no quick and painless ways to do this. In fact, I’ve come to believe that none of us ever completely gets away from those habits. But it is the effort to do so that matters. It gets easier. But it is never completely effortless and automatic.
I managed to answer these questions by following the Buddhist tradition. Part of the Buddhist tradition says that anyone who gets to this point has an obligation to tell others about it. I understand that. But, at the same time, I don’t really want to do it. That’s because it was a very personal thing. Intensely personal. In the same way that this understanding is absolutely universal it is also as intensely and painfully personal as you can possibly get. It’s very difficult to lay all that stuff bare before the public. As in the story I put up the other day (see below), most people who reach this understanding are never heard from again. For that, they have my total sympathy. It can be extraordinarily humiliating to dredge up the stuff you have to dredge up in order to communicate this experience. It is also utterly impossible to just tell people “The Answer” and get it over with, which is what I suspect many of us expect. I know I sure did. But it doesn’t work that way. Any answer you receive from someone else will never be convincing no matter what it is. That’s just the nature of receiving answers from others.
I guess all I’m really trying to do is make a public record of my own experience in the hopes that it might be of some use to someone. I’m not trying to win followers or converts to myself or even to Buddhism. That’s a waste of time and effort.
I’ve also taken some wrong turns and I’d like to point those out. Having seen how certain scams work in a kind of universal and comprehensive way, I can spot others like them pretty easily. But here too it doesn’t matter much if anyone believes what I say about these things. If you want to waste time with machines that are supposed to give you instant Enlightenment or teachers that promise you primrose gardens while leeching your money and energy, I won’t try to stop you. Nonetheless, I do feel it’s useful to expose these things for what they really are.
I’m also trying to ruin the ability of people to run scams like this by constantly demonstrating that, in spite of being a Zen Master, I, for one, am still a buffoon. I’m sure a lot of people see this and think, “Brad may be a buffoon in a giant bug costume, but His Divine Holiness Sri Sri Guru Rimpoche of the High Clouds (or whoever) is the real deal.” If you want to believe that, go ahead and believe that. Still, I think it’s necessary and useful for a so-called Zen Master to write about things like how great the movie Godzilla Vs. Megalon truly is, if only to dispel the myth that anyone who gets conferred such a title is somehow above such things. I used to fall for that one myself. I don’t anymore.
In the end, though, I do this because, in Katagiri Roshi’s words, “You have to say something.”