How Can I Find a Zen Teacher?

xfilesThis is not an article about why/if you need a Zen teacher. There’s an article about that right here. That article also contains Dogen’s advice on how to decide if a teacher is a good one, and here is what James Ford has to say about it. So you won’t find that in this article either. Nor is it about whether I (Brad Warner) can be your Zen teacher. There’s an article about that right here. This is about how to find a Zen teacher.

About once every couple of weeks someone writes me and asks how to find a Zen teacher. I never know quite how to answer because I am probably the very worst person to ask that question to. The reason I’m the worst is that I found my two main Zen teachers almost totally by accident.

I was not looking for a Zen teacher at all when I found my first teacher. I was a student at Kent State University in Ohio and I signed up for a class called “Zen Buddhism” because it seemed like it might be interesting. It turned out that the guy who taught that class, Tim McCarthy, lived in the same apartment complex as me, in the building right behind the one I lived in. It literally took me about a minute and a half to walk to his place.

I found my second Zen teacher, Gudo Nishijima, not long after I moved to Tokyo. There was a free English language newspaper there called Tokyo Classified. In the back of one issue was a tiny little advert for Zen meditation meetings and lectures on Saturday afternoons. I went to the address in the ad, and there he was.

If you’ve emailed me asking how to find a teacher, please bear in mind that I get that question a lot. What comes next may not apply to you. So don’t get your panties in a twist.

But it often seems to me that many of the people who ask that question fall into two broad categories. One category is those who haven’t really looked very hard. The other is those who’ve looked too hard.

If you’re serious about finding a teacher, you’re probably going to have to do some work looking for one. A combination of dumb luck and possibly karma worked for me and made it real easy. Your luck/karma might be different.

My teachers happened to be very conveniently located. Yours might not. You may have to actually go somewhere. I’ve found that some of the people I’ve exchanged emails with have very unrealistic expectations in this regard.

More than once I’ve had someone moan to me that the nearest teacher to them is an hour’s drive away. One guy even said the nearest teacher took 40 whole minutes to get to.

It’s hard for me to muster a whole lot of sympathy for those guys. Because, while Tim lived about a minute and half’s walk from me, those weekly meetings in Tokyo with Nishijima Roshi took about an hour and a half to get to (on a good day!) and required a long walk plus two train lines. To me, an hour or so to get to see a Zen teacher sounds totally sweet.

Maybe it’s the Age of the Internet that has made some people demand absolute convenience. I don’t really know. But Amazon does not deliver everything right to your doorstep. There’s value to working for things that are important.

Even if your nearest teacher is two hours away or four hours or six, that might just be your karma. Those ancient teachers and students you read about in stories, some of them met together maybe once or twice in their entire lives. That’s just how it was before there were trains and planes and automobiles. They didn’t all live together in temples in the mountains. So if it turns out you can only meet your teacher once a month or twice a year or whatever, that’s no reason to give up. Maybe that’s just how it’s gotta be.

As for the people who look too hard, what I mean is that I often hear this question from people who seem like maybe they’re being a little too picky. They tell me about how they’ve gone to a dozen meditation centers and none of them seem quite right.

Now maybe some of these centers really are pretty dodgy. Ever since meditation became the “it” thing to do among the rich and privileged a lot of centers have sprung up that, frankly, don’t really have much to offer. Some are cults. Some are just clueless. Some are set up by entrepreneurs who see a market and assume meditation must be really easy. I get that. If you find yourself in one of those places, just stop going.

On the other hand, looking for the perfect match is a losing strategy. You’ll never find it. I never have. I pretty much hated Nishijima Roshi when I first started going to his things. I mainly went because the time was convenient. The only places I’d found before his had their meditation meetings at, like, six in the morning on Wednesdays and things like that. I kept going to Nishijima’s classes thinking that eventually I’d manage to find something better. It took me maybe two or three years to finally recognize that he had been my real teacher all along.

Here are a few things people said when I asked Facebook how they found teachers:

“I went on a lot of sesshins with different teachers – not looking or caring much about finding a teacher – I was just drawn to zazen practice. Then after about 5 years I was on a sesshin with a particular teacher, and I knew he was my teacher. He challenged me, his style of teaching resonated with me. I don’t think I chose him… I think it just happened. We formalised it after I requested he ordain me and I’ve been his disciple for 10 years now.”

Here’s another shorter version of kind of the same thing that sums that approach up nicely: “You go on a few dates that don’t work out, then Voila, you click with someone and you start ‘going steady’…”

This is good advice. Finding a teacher is sort of like finding a boy/girlfriend. Try some places out. See if they work for you. If not, move on.

“I looked up ‘Zen meditation’ and my home town name on-line. Turned out there was a Zendo about a mile from me. (It’s weird how few people knew about it.) I showed up, got a short instruction by the head of practice, sat, listened to a lecture by the teacher, decided she was way smarter than me and I should listen to her and I’ve been there ever since.”

The Internet is your friend! (In wheezing “old man voice”) You kids have it easy! Back in my day we didn’t have no top-lap computerizers! You had to walk ten miles through the snow to find a phone book and look it up.

That’s what I did when I lived in Chicago for a little while in my 20s. I found a couple places in the Yellow Pages and just went. They were both nice and I learned a lot from the teachers there.

Here’s another good story: “I tried several buddhist groups in the area, all of which were a little too hippy dippy for me, or tried to explain how I used to be an insect. I signed up for an introductory class at a Zen practice group. The website told me not to be late, but I ran into traffic. The teacher sternly admonished me for being late, then for fidgeting while sitting. Then after sitting/instruction she served tea and gave me a big, warm smile and hug and talked as a friend. I knew I had found someone who would kick my ass when it needed to be kicked, and who also would be my friend.”

Sometimes the best place might not seem the best right from the outset. But sometimes you realize it is later on.

Here’s some more good advice on that point: “I think I might want to add to all of this that there is a real strange idea that practice is all about this blissy, relaxing, simple thing. My impression, which is anecdotal to be sure, is that a lot of people sit down, find that their brain is racing or their body is uncomfortable (I’m 6’11”, so I feel that one.) or that their reading is hard or that they don’t like being corrected and they decide, ‘This isn’t working. I need to find someone/something else that’s more magical.’ But if it were easy, we wouldn’t have to practice it. We wouldn’t need teachers to correct us. That’s what they’re there for. So, I think, there are often unrealistic expectations of the experience which have nothing to do with the merit of the teacher.”

So get out there and look! Go try places out! Man, when I started doing this in the wilds of Ohio in the 1980s it was like a vast Zen desert out there! I got lucky. The only other places I even heard about during my first few years were way out in upstate New York or Minnesota. Nowadays they’re all over!

Remember the Zen lesson of the Nike Shoe corporation: Just do it!