Do I Need a Teacher?

(This is an excerpt from my book Sit Down and Shut Up)

In a little book called Practical Advice for Studying the Buddhist Truth (gakudo yojin shu) Dogen says, “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all.”

Buddhists are pretty darned adamant about the point that you need to have a teacher to study Buddhism. In fact, it’s a longstanding matter of Buddhist tradition to say there was a mythical teacher who supposedly taught Buddha about Buddhism in another realm somewhere before his birth on planet Earth. No one I know takes the story literally. But this tradition was established just to make sure that not even the Big Man himself gets away without having a teacher. It makes the point that Buddhism is not something you can just sorta pick up on your own or gather from reading books.

Notice, though, that Dogen never said don’t do zazen without a teacher, he just said don’t study Buddhism without one. Although doing zazen is a form of studying Buddhism, it won’t do most folks any harm at all to sit zazen on their own. Just don’t get too gung-ho about it. Don’t push yourself to have some kind of enlightenment experience. If you don’t have a teacher – or even if you do, actually – just do your zazen practice easy. I put in an hour each day, which is fine for pretty much anyone. If you can’t manage that, a half hour in the morning before work can be a very good thing. Even five lousy minutes a day is far better than not doing it at all. Eventually you should seek out a teacher. But there’s no reason you can’t start off doing zazen by yourself.

Why, then, does Dogen say you shouldn’t study Buddhism without a teacher? To answer that, how about we look at an example of what happens when guys who’ve never had a Buddhist teacher set themselves up as experts in Buddhism? The February 21, 2004 issue of the Daily Yomiuri newspaper featured an article about a Japanese Zen priest named Shinzan Miyamae who counsels former members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The Aum cult, as some of you may recall, was the lovely spiritual organization — a Buddhist sangha dedicated to saving all living beings, they claimed — who, in 1996, attempted to give a head start to the apocalypse their leader Shoko Asahara had predicted by gassing the Tokyo subway system with a nerve toxin developed by the Third Reich. Twelve people died in the attack and many more were injured by the panic that broke out in the packed subways that morning.

Miyamae Sensei has made it a point to read up on the “spiritual writings” of Aum leader Asahara. In his books Asahara recounts the experience of the mystical awakening which led him to form his organization. After this enlightenment experience Asahara had no need for a teacher of any kind because, he said, he had completely freed himself of his physical body during deep meditation. When Miyamae Sensei read about this he was struck by the similarities between what Asahara had described as his moment of awakening and some of his own experiences of disembodiment during his training as a Zen monk. “I wasn’t afraid of death,” says Miyamae in describing one of those experiences, “I felt as if I could do anything.”

However, unlike Asahara, Miyamae Sensei had a teacher. When he told his own Zen master about this mystical-seeming stuff that had happened to him his master admonished him saying, “You may get all sorts of experiences while training, but you must not linger on them.” That brought Miyamae back down to Earth. I also had a similar experience, which I talked about in my first book, Hardcore Zen. In my case, I’m absolutely certain that, had my teacher not told me how utterly dorkified my little “spiritual awakening” had been and how I was hardly even unusual let alone unique for having had such an experience, I could easily have decided I was the latest incarnation of God on Earth. Unfortunately, poor Mr. Asahara never had anyone to say anything like that to him.

I’ve noticed that when you scratch the surface you’ll find that just about all of the crackpot “Spiritual Masters” of whichever lineage you choose to look at either don’t have a teacher at all or have, for one reason or another, “broken away” from their teacher to form something they believe is somehow more pure, more true to the original ancient source, or whatever other excuse they like to use to cover up the fact that they probably never understood what their own teacher was talking about to begin with. On the other hand, there are very few examples of people who’ve studied and stuck with a qualified teacher in an orthodox school of thought who’ve gone totally off the deep end. There’s something about having a bit of social control over the situation which helps keep people from getting really nutty and declaring themselves the One True Savior of the Universe. Being part of a group of people who are down to Earth helps keep you from flying off in to the stratosphere. And being part of a group that’s already in the stratosphere…? Well, the Aum cult showed us where that leads.

It’s not hard to understand why you need a teacher. You need to have a mirror to be able to fix your hair or apply your lipstick properly. It’s certainly physically possible to do these things without a mirror and there are no laws against it. But you’d have no real idea what you actually looked like until you walked outside and everyone started giggling at you because you’ve got lipstick all over your nose. A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror. The teacher, in turn, learns to use her students as a mirror in a similar way.

It’s not enough to depend upon the distorted reflections provided by your friends, by society, by your peers and so on. Face it. Are most of the folks you know honest enough with themselves to be perfectly honest with someone else? The criteria most people use to judge what’s acceptable and what’s not are pretty warped. That’s why our society as a whole is so plagued with problems. A decent Buddhist teacher has an entirely different set of criteria from that of society as a whole.

So what’s the criteria for judging if a Zen teacher is the real deal or not? Dogen says, “Generally, when looking for a true master, don’t worry about age or experience. A true master is just someone who has realized the true teachings and received certification of a true master. Knowledge of words is not important. Understanding is not primary. A person of extraordinary power and unrestricted mental vigor, who transcends their own opinions, who does not linger in states of emotional consciousness and in whom practice and understanding meet in equilibrium — this is just a true master.”

As for teachers who are not true, Dogen said, “Some of them teach others to seek enlightenment that is different from a concrete mental state and some of them teach others to look forward to life in another world. Delusion, confusion and wrong ideas spring from these teachings.”

It’s tough to get much more specific than that about what to look for in a real Buddhist teacher. In the end it may come down more to instinct than anything else. When you find a good teacher you’ll have a gut feeling that he or she is right. But be very careful here not to follow your emotions because a deeply ingrained emotional response can often feel like intuition when it’s really nothing of the kind. Examine your reaction quietly. Don’t worry about your own likes or dislikes. I intensely disliked my ordaining teacher, Nishijima Roshi, when I first encountered him. Yet I knew somehow that what he was saying was right even if I hated it. That doesn’t mean you’ll have quite the same reaction. But be aware that just cuz you like what someone says that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doing you any good.

But Dogen’s practical advice isn’t just about finding a teacher. In total he gives ten pieces of advice. Let’s look at the others.

First, he says, you gotta establish what he calls the “will to the truth.” Establishing the will to the truth means you have to have the courage to face up to what’s really true whether it suits you or not. This means you need to turn away from any gaining idea, any desire for fame and profit — including, or perhaps even especially, so-called “spiritual” profit and fame. “If you forget yourself for a while,” he says, “and do your practice in private you will become familiar with the will to the truth.”

Number two is, “When you meet and listen to the authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, be sure to learn them through practice.” In other words, don’t just read about it, do it. Buddhism is a philosophy of action. It’s not just something you carry in your head, it’s something you do.

Just in case the message wasn’t clear enough, Dogen’s next piece of advice rephrases that one saying, “To enter into Buddhism, always rely upon practice.” He says, “we establish practice just in our delusion.” Meaning, we start from where we are right now. It’s easy to want to put off your practice until you think you’ve established some kind of understanding. But that’s just more of your own ego-based bullshit. “If we analyze every step of our practice as a step towards enlightenment our feet will not be able to make contact with a single spec of real dust.” Only by practicing in our delusion, Dogen says, “can we be free forever of our old delusions, seeing the terrible serpent (we thought we were seeing) was in fact nothing more than a creeping vine.” All the stuff in our lives that has us so cheezed off is really nothing at all.

“Buddhas do not make intentional efforts for this to happen,” he says, “it happens when they are activated by the moment of the present.” You get it when you allow the universe to act through you without hindering what it wants with your own petty needs and wishes.

Number four phrases this another way by saying, “do not practice Gautama Buddha’s teachings with the intention of getting somewhere.” We practice Buddha’s teachings for the sake of practicing them. Yet, if we practice sincerely, the resulting balance of body and mind is extraordinarily peaceful and pleasant. “Until the body and mind are pleasantly balanced,” Dogen says, “experiencing the truth may be painful.” But in the balanced state of mind, whatever comes to pass can be experienced with ease and calm. Or, as Henry Rollins said, “sometimes the truth hurts and sometimes it feels real good.” It all depends on your outlook.

Number five is where he talks about finding a true master. He warns that a bad teacher, even if he or she teaches Buddhism, is like a bad doctor. “Even when the medicine is good,” he says, “unless the doctor tells the patient how to take it, it may be more harmful than poison.”

Next up he talks about what we should know in practicing zazen. “People today,” he said way back in 1234, “say that we should practice what is easy to practice. But these words are not Buddhism at all. Even if we chose to practice something as easy as lying on a bed it would eventually become tiresome.” And if Dogen thought folks 800 years ago were looking for an easy way out, what do you imagine he would think of people in the 21st century?

The tough thing about Buddhist practice isn’t so much the postures or the twisted up legs. What’s hardest is the effort to keep and to establish the balance of body and mind. In Dogen’s words, it’s harder to establish this balance than it would be to grind your own bones into powder. Youch! “The Buddhist truth,” he says, “is beyond thinking, discrimination, supposition, reflection, perception and understanding. We spend our lives dallying around in these things, so if the Buddhist truth exists within them, why haven’t we realized it yet?”

And, as if he hasn’t rubbed it in enough already, advice number seven is that, “anyone who hungers to practice Buddhism and transcend society should, without fail, practice zazen.” Again and again he comes back to this one point. Buddhism is not Buddhism without the practice of zazen. Read every book you can find on the subject of old man Gautama and his teachings and you still won’t get one lick of it unless you put those teachings into practice.

Next he writes about the conduct of Buddhist priests who practice zazen. “They remain at no fixed place,” he says, “ with nothing to attach to either in mind or body.” And this doesn’t just go for priests, it goes for everyone who establishes the practice. “Someone who is pursuing the truth,” says Dogen, “is already halfway to the truth. Don’t give up until you get there.”

Number nine says, “direct yourself at the truth and practice it.” The truth is always with you at every moment, or, as Dogen puts it, “the Buddhist truth exists under the foot of every human being.” It’s not something far away, abstract or difficult. It is the uncomplicated and direct truth of what is right here, right now. Truth is not removed from your day-to-day existence. God way up in Heaven on his big gold throne is just an idea. That itch on your left ass cheek right now is the truth. It’s way bigger than God could ever hope to be.

“Belief in Buddhism,” Dogen says, “should be the belief that we ourselves originally exist inside the truth.” When he says “originally exist” he doesn’t mean it in the sense that maybe some time in the distant past we existed there but we don’t anymore. He means that the truth is our roots, which can never be cut from us since they are the basis for everything that comes from them. “If a person genuinely believes that they are already in the Truth, they may even know the origins of delusion and enlightenment.”

Finally he talks about “taking a direct hit here and now.” No, not that kind of hit, you stoner! To explain this Dogen says that there are two ways to regulate body and mind. “One,” he says, “is to visit a master and listen to their teachings.” And the other is — can you guess? — “to make efforts in zazen.” Both of these ways are important to the real practice of authentic Buddhism. “When we practice zazen,” says Dogen, “our practice and experience are securely grounded.”

“Without changing this body and mind which we have had from the past,” he says, “we can say that we are in the here and now and we can call that a direct hit. It is not getting some new state.” Look at what you really are right now.