What’s the Good of Zen Teachers?

Note: I write this essay based on seventeen years of experience as a Zen student, and on observing the teacher-student relationships of others. I am a new, young, teacher, and many of the aspects of the teacher-student relationship I describe here I have not yet experienced from the teacher's side. Still, perhaps you will find this useful! – Domyo

Why, in a tradition like Buddhism in which you are supposed to verify everything for yourself, is there such an emphasis on Teachers?

In Zen our relationships to teachers are complex and multilayered. Relationships with teachers, whether brief and informal or long-term and committed, are every bit as complex, nuanced and varied as any of our human relationships. Every teacher-student relationship is different. Like our other relationships, they can be supportive, rewarding, instructive, challenging, frustrating, painful and ambiguous. Like those other relationships, the teacher-student relationship can be transformative.

Unlike our other relationships, however, the teacher-student one is explicitly based in, and in service of, Dharma practice. As we go deeply into a relationship with a teacher, the relationship can also become a koan for us – a thorny, elusive, apparently paradoxical matter that cannot be understood or explained with the discursive mind but can be understood and appreciated through personal experience.

Guidance

At the simplest level, a teacher provides guidance. The teacher is a senior, someone who has walked the path before us and can advise us how to do so ourselves.

To some extent this is like learning any discipline, in that we turn for instructions to people who know the discipline. Learning from another person who knows their stuff trumps learning from a book anytime. Zen practice is a full experience of body and mind; you wouldn’t think to become a doctor or an aikido master by reading and practicing on your own, would you?

Zen teachers guide us in meditation practice (zazen), in applying the precepts to our lives, in strengthening our practice, in study of the teachings, and in learning how to take a “Zen” approach in any given situation. We primarily get this instruction by meeting with teachers in sanzen and practice discussion, but also through interactions over meals, during ceremonies, social situations, work, etc. Much Zen instruction just takes place through time and proximity to the teacher and other practitioners. There is much happening in our practice below the surface, at the subconscious or unconscious levels, and much of it simply takes time to develop and ripen.

An obvious question is, “How good is this teacher?” To some extent we need to ask this question. Does it seem like they know the teaching? Do their answers ring true to you? Do they seem confident and yet able to admit limitations or mistakes? How well do they walk the talk?

But we can get stuck here, evaluating the quality of a teacher, as if spiritual proficiency or authority is something that can be measured objectively. Perhaps we decide that we can only respect a teacher enough to ask for guidance from them if they are a celibate monk, are a lay teacher, meditate a great deal, act in a dignified manner, are a woman or a man, are morally impeccable, spout obscure teachings, are charismatic, or apparently free from any desire or difficulty.

It is not that these things don’t matter, but rather that a better question to ask is not, “Is this person a good teacher,” in some objective sense, but rather, “Are they a good teacher, or guide, for me?” This is something you have to learn by experience, by working with a teacher for a while.

Sometimes there is a strong resonance between teacher and student. For example, I knew the instant I heard her speak that Gyokuko was my teacher. She heard the question beneath my question. She understood me somehow, and therefore was able to give me effective and appropriate instruction. I never went awry in listening to her, and it built my faith in her guidance and in the practice.

Sometimes it is not so straightforward. Sometimes other aspects of the relationship with the teacher (which I discuss below) are more important or salient for someone. Someone may have a meaningful relationship with a teacher where the guidance is less personal, or where there is little explicit guidance.

Finally, regarding guidance, sometimes it is less about the brilliant response a teacher gives us than it is about the effectiveness of having to come up the question in the first place. Ever have the experience of being in a class, having a question, walking up to the teacher and asking it, and then going, “Oh, wait, I know the answer now”? Sometimes the very process of showing up, of expressing ourselves to another person, helps to clarify what is going on for us.

Encouragement

Much of this practice we do on our own. In the spirit of the Protestants, we need no intermediary between us and the Dharma, or between us and our Buddha nature.

However, if you never think you need encouragement, think again. If you try to do without it, you may be placing a heavy burden of expectation on yourself that you’d be better off without. No one will look down on you around here for needing some encouragement. In fact, it lets us know that you are working hard, pushing the edges of your comfort zone.

Throughout much of my practice, my meetings with Gyokuko involved telling her what I was working on, what I was experiencing, and asking her, “Am I going crazy? Am I way off base? Am I OK? Does this happen to other people? Does this sound like authentic practice?” Because of her own experience and her experience in working with lots of other people, she was (almost) always able to reassure me. My mind would be put at ease, and I could concentrate on the next step in practice.

Zen practice requires incredible spiritual courage and perseverance. We have to face our deepest fears. It is also sometimes runs counter to “common sense” and certainly to cultural norms – where when you encounter something or someone that makes you uncomfortable, you are supposed to get as far away from it/them as possible, as quickly as you can. In our practice we move toward such things, and pay close attention. Most of us find we need encouragement sooner or later to tread in such unfamiliar and scary territory.

Witness

Another aspect of Zen teachers, more subtle, is teacher as someone who bears witness to your practice – in a given moment, and/or over time. There is great value and power in stepping forward to allow someone to see us at what is undoubtedly our most vulnerable – when we are actively examining, questioning, building aspirations, facing doubts, and working on our life and practice.

Most of us (all of us?) have a deep and great fear that if people see who we really are, we will be rejected – everyone will know we don’t really belong, that we are fundamentally flawed. Or perhaps we fear that other people will be malicious and take advantage of us.

I was bullied for various reasons throughout middle school. I learned early on not to let the other kids know what I really wanted, or what I really cared about, because they were sure to take the opportunity to point out my failures, make fun of my preferences or mock my aspirations. I learned to hide my vulnerability and instead to project a persona of competence, confidence and cynicism.

When we gradually begin to show ourselves, we gain trust in others and build real confidence in ourselves. And show not just the bits we want to show, but the parts we can’t hide if someone watches us over time.

Also, it is valuable to be witnessed over time – to have a spiritual friend that gets to know your spiritual practice and life very well. S/he has context for your questions and struggles, as well as for your triumphs. Many of us get to the point that our teacher is the only one who will fully understand or appreciate the significance of particular aspects of our life and practice.

Barrier/Challenge

This is the aspect of Zen teachers that usually shows up in the old stories: teachers as challengers to their students, poking them with questions they can’t quite answer (yet), or pointing out their limitations. Outside the old stories this kind of challenge happens both consciously (on the part of the teacher) and unconsciously, and more often the latter.

Teacher as barrier or challenger is most often something that develops in a very close teacher-student relationship after a long period of time, typically many years. Beware of teachers that present themselves in this way early on, before they really know you and before you have built up a relationship of trust and understanding. This is potentially dangerous territory for both student and teacher. Students can get hurt, and teachers can get lost in an arrogant sense that their spiritual insight gives them access to a kind of omniscience when it comes to dealing with people’s spiritual life and practice.

At the same time teacher as challenger is a potentially transformative opportunity. If we can trust a teacher enough to invite him or her to give us honest feedback on our life and practice, we can address our blind spots. By definition, we can’t see them! We have the opportunity to turn the heat on our practice up a notch, and extend our mastery of our life.

A karmic resonance or intuitive match with a teacher may help her or him be insightful about us, but frankly it doesn’t take a Zen master or an intuitive genius to be able to see our weaknesses, our stuck places and our unresolved karma. If you think of any of your close relationships – significant others, parents, children, friends – you can probably think of things about their life and behavior that you’d like to be able to point out to them.

Sometimes teacher as barrier or challenge has nothing to do with the teacher’s intent: we gravitate toward a certain teacher because they trigger old patterns in us. Like being drawn again and again to the same kind of intimate romantic relationship, we may start to act out with our teacher our unresolved karma from parental, romantic or other relationships.

This is where the teacher’s training is very important! They must have done enough personal work, and have received enough tough training from their own teacher, to be able to recognize their own karmic reactions and know how to deal with them – in order to avoid getting involved in a destructive karmic dance with a student.

Ideally we get to act out our karma while the teacher remains more or less still. Then we have to watch how we dance. We try our demands, or manipulations, or guilt trips, or drama, or projection, or attempts to please, whatever. They don’t work, but they also don’t backfire as they might in other kinds of relationships – for example, when another person reacts to our behavior with defensiveness or anger.

It is sometimes said it is the job of the teacher to “keep pulling the rug out from under us” until we no longer fall down – until we are standing in the unassailable place, not on any simple rug. My teacher did this by not-doing; in a sense she refused to offer me any rugs, at least not when I was being really demanding about it. I craved her approval and understanding, but could never get it when I really wanted it. I struggled with this for many years, until finally I truly didn’t need her – or anyone’s – understanding or approval any more. Not that I didn’t want and appreciate connections with others, I just didn’t need their approval to know I was fundamentally OK.

Pulling out the rug is especially important when it comes to spiritual insight; the teacher must keep testing the student, not allowing him/her to concretize an experience, get stuck in a concept or memory, or become arrogant or complacent because of a sense of spiritual accomplishment.

We may think it is the teacher that makes us doubt ourselves, but actually no one can instill doubts in us about something we have complete knowledge of/confidence in; when someone causes doubts to arise, they were already there. We should become grateful for the challenge, even when it is upsetting.

Establishing a Teacher-Student Relationship

Think again of the people in your life, and how you’d like to be able to give them a little honest feedback about their stuck places and suffering. Actually doing so is rarely ever effective, is it? That is because someone must ask for such feedback first. They must be open to it, and ready for it. They need to have some idea what it is they are asking for, too.

That’s why, in order to establish a formal teacher-student relationship, you have to ask the teacher at least three different times. Each of these must be serious, considered, “asks.” The teacher may put up obstacles, make certain requirements first – for example, that you finish school, clean some particularly disruptive karma, demonstrate stability or just give it more time.

This kind of relationship takes time to form; a teacher must know a student. The student must have come forward to meet the teacher many times, and allowed her/himself to be seen.

The impetus for the relationship must come only from the student; the teacher must examine his or her own motivations to make sure s/he does not nurture any ulterior motives in taking on a student (ego, a sense of self-importance, hoping the student can be useful to the teacher, etc.). Teachers must always understand that someone’s practice is still ultimately their own; that the teacher’s view is limited; that a student has Buddha-nature and must always be respected, and that patience and gentleness are as important to the process as frankness and challenge. This does not by any means require that the teacher must always be nice and polite with us. Some of the necessary messages would not get across this way.

The necessity and significance of the student’s conscious willingness is enacted in the ceremony of discipleship (lay and monastic) when the teacher is about to cut off a small portion of hair on the crown of the student’s head, traditionally seen as the “root” of the small self. The teacher asks, somberly, three times: “This portion of hair is called the shura. I am going to cut it off. Only a Buddha can cut it off. Do you permit me to do so or not?” If the student doesn’t reply, with a determined voice, “Yes,” three times, the ceremony is not completed.