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.
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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.
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