Some Zen teachers are pussy cats, and some are tigers. Some are emphatic, some are ambiguous, some are dogmatic, and some eschew all dogma. Which Zen teachers are right?

When you are still searching for a teacher to trust, this may feel like a very important question. You are probably drawn to a particular kind of teacher, but you may also have doubts and feel drawn to more than one kind. The teacher at your local Zen center, for example, may present himself as a spiritual friend who can help you find your own way, and who responds to Dharma questions with phrases like, “In my practice, I have found…” This may put you at ease around the teacher, but make you doubt the depth of his Dharma. Another teacher you encounter may present a much stronger and clearer picture of the True Dharma and How to Realize It; she may state things in absolutes, provoking you but also inspiring you. 

It’s important to realize that no single Zen teacher holds the entire Dharma, and every teaching style has strengths and weaknesses. A relatively informal, laid back teacher can make it clear to her students that they ultimately have to find their own path, but she may also fail to motivate her students enough. When the Dharma is presented as a method to improve your life, and is the subject of open, round-table discussions, you may end up thinking there’s not all that much to it. The fact that it is also an urgent matter of life and death can be missed. On the other hand, provocative and charismatic Zen teachers can inspire emulation instead of real practice in their students. They can inadvertently discourage authenticity, or inspire a cult of personality focused on the teacher and his special relationship to the truth.

Still, Zen teachers who dare to take a stand can help wake you up. Zen master Lin-chi said, “Students these days haven’t the slightest comprehension of the Dharma. They’re like sheep poking with their noses – whatever they happen on they immediately put in their mouths.”1 This sounds harsh and judgmental, but it makes you think about whether this is true for you. Have you really understood the teaching you are accepting? Dogen said, “Even if you hope to live for seventy or eighty years, in the end you are destined to die. You should regard your pleasure and sorrow, relationship, and attachment in worldly affairs as your enemy… You should keep in mind the buddha way alone and work for the bliss of nirvana.”2 Yikes, aren’t we supposed to enjoy our lives? And yet, perhaps you are letting precious time slip away without making a diligent effort to fulfill your deepest aspirations and resolve your deepest doubts.  

Modern teachers can be provocative, too. Kodo Sawaki roshi said, “Everyone steeps himself in his own life and lives, blindly believing that there must be something to his daily activity. But in reality, a human being’s life does not differ from a swallow’s, the males collecting food and the females hatching eggs.”3 This may sound like a bleak view of humanity, but if was stated more gently, would you deeply contemplate in what way this is true? While most Zen teachers want to encourage everyone and present almost all Buddhist practices as part of a smorgasbord of options, some will tell you frankly that if you don’t become a monk, or spend thousands of hours in meditation retreats, or have an awakening experience, you are very unlikely to be able to experience the Truth for yourself. Which teachers are right?

Actually, most Zen teachers are right, in the sense that they are honestly and earnestly expressing the Dharma as they understand it, and as they manifest it as an individual. When you become a Zen teacher, you realize that it’s not really up to you how you express the Dharma. You just speak, and act, and your Dharma message comes out with a particular flavor. Any teacher can and should become more skillful and humble over time, but an informal, approachable teacher is not going to be able to be a fierce, charismatic, provocative teacher even if she wants to be, and vice versa. A teacher’s primary duty is to be completely him or herself, and to bravely express the Dharma as he or she experiences it. 

The best approach as a student is to appreciate all the different kinds of Zen teachers for what they have to offer you. The Dharma is richer, and the Sangha benefits, from teachers across the spectrum from mild mannered to fiery. For example, when I tell you that liberation is accessible to you even if you are busy with your family and have little time to sit zazen, I mean it. It is not my way to harangue you about how essential it is to dive into the furnace of meditation retreats; I don’t think saying that would be helpful. It will only make you feel separated from “real” practice – and liberation is, indeed, available to you right now. When and if you are drawn to retreats, you will go. However, I am glad there are other teachers out there who will shout at you, “Wake up! You’re wasting your time!” There is truth in their Dharma, too.


Watson, Burton, trans. The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993
Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans. Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2000
3 Uchiyama, Kosho. The Zen Teaching of "Homeless" Kodo. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Soto-Zen Center, 1990

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