Saturday, April 25, 2009

student/teacher sticky wicket

How do you help convince people to do what they want to do -- to do what is really best for them? The only answer I can come up with is ... you don't.

What made me think of this was a clip of some young Tibetan Buddhist rinpoche encouraging/chastising his audience. He was full of pep and a bit of scorn as he pointed out the self-centered approaches people could take towards their own versions of "Buddhism."

I didn't watch all of the clip and I could imagine being encouraged by it, but ... well, I guess it wasn't a style I liked much. The clip reminded me of Suzuki Roshi's writing that he would be patient with his students ... he would wait with the patience of an island that was inching up the California coast line. Outside of ego-tripping, Buddha-dripping, confused and self-serving approaches, what other choice is there?

Yesterday I had an email from an Internet friend who commented on the control-freak nature of a Zen teacher we had both studied with. Why, the note wondered, did this teacher attract so many people who seemed to be control freaks ... perhaps it was that the teacher himself was a control freak. It was a reasonable observation I thought ... and yet ....

Who, in their confusions and uncertainties, would not love to be led out of the wilderness? "Teach me!" "Guide me!" "Tell me the answer!" "Be my god!" These are not things to mock or disdain, though there are plenty of people, 'teachers' among them, who are willing to manipulate such longings to their own advantage. And even the best-intentioned instructors are bound to be bombarded with such requests. When people have questions, they long for answers. Suffering is no joke and just because someone pleads for help and longs for those answers in terms that will please them does not mean that the suffering is somehow to be disdained or manipulated. It is not enough to say, "the way out is to enter" and to expect the one who is suffering to hear. What is 'right' or 'true' is only as right or true as the 'disciple' makes it. But you can't say that either to someone wailing, "Tell me the answer!" or "Be my guru!"

It is in this realm, I think, that the instructors of this life are humbled. They too are nothing but students learning from their students. Like shrinks who need skill in the realm of transference, instructors need to nourish the skills that will allow them to be at ease with the blandishments and accolades that students can heap at their feet. Like all students, they sometimes fail and, as with the failures of any student, they are forced to recognize (if they are any good) their failures and pick themselves up ... be patient and determined and not just fall down in a pool of self-adoration or despair. It's tricky shit no matter who teaches and who is taught.

Who can help? Who can be helped? Where is the end of suffering? These are not just airy-fairy religious questions or holy-roller philosophy bullshit. Of course there is a gaming spirit that is necessary in spiritual endeavor: Pick your lie or set of lies and never give up until you find and actualize the truth. Beg and plead for answers and relief. Offer up answer after answer until you are blue in the face. These things are important when it comes to down-home suffering. But ....

I imagine we can all take a lesson from the Zen teacher Huang Po/Obaku who was once addressing his monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." For the purposes of this writing, perhaps we could say, "There is no such thing as any kind of teacher at all." But one of Huang Po's monks stood up boldly and said, "But master, how can you say such a thing when clearly you are standing in front of us and teaching us?" And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there is no such thing as Zen."

Let us all exercise our patience and determination. Wailing and weeping and extolling Buddhism? OK. Gathering up students as numerous as autumn leaves? OK. Let us all help each other as much as we can -- be as kind to others and ourselves as we know how. OK. But let us exercise our own good determination as well ...

Never stop!

Don't be tricked or slowed by desolation or delight!

Return home laughing and victorious!

Have a cup of coffee.


  1. I saw that clip a while ago and it wasn't to my taste either for some reason.

    Hope you're well, Adam.

  2. Some thoughts on teaching:

    Hui-t'ang said "What has been long neglected cannot be restored immediately. Ills that have been accumulating for a long time cannot be cleared away immediately. One cannot enjoy oneself forever. Human emotions cannot be just right. Calamity cannot be avoided by trying to run away from it. Anyone working as a teacher who has realized these five things can deal with the world without being troubled."

    from "The Story of Chinese Zen"