Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When I began girding up my loins for the spiritual-endeavor challenge -- reading a lot of books, going to lectures, and working up a collection of wows and woohoos -- one of the things that crossed my mind was to become some sort of teacher.

As much as I might try to suppress the dream, still it whispered like some devilish mosquito on a dark night: Robes and accolades and a capacity to teach lots of people ... being oh-so-helpful, dontcha know. It was all subtler than that, of course -- swathed in a beneficent glow of kindness and humility and ....

Of course it wasn't humble at all. It was a pipe dream and if there is such a thing as a humble pipe dream, I'd be pretty surprised. I wanted to do good and, well, if the crowd applauded and found good in my imagined goodness, that would be kool too.

I don't look back on this daydreaming as naughty or stupid or something to disdain. It was par for the course -- another way of encouraging the world of spiritual endeavor as I understood it at the time, another way of asserting a control I did not yet possess. Every boy wants to be a fireman or a cop when he grows up, and I was no different: I wanted to be good ... and the play with the big boys, the boys I admired and revered. OK.

Once, when sitting with a group of Zen students who were idly sipping coffee and passing time expressing "what I want to be when I grow up," a forty-something woman nailed my situation to the wall. "When I grow up," she said, "I want to be a rich ... sexy ... saint." I too wanted to be a saint ... but with all the enjoyments and perks I had experienced in the past.

Time passed and I got my chance to assume various small roles as the 'teacher' I imagined I might be. I gave talks. I went on a radio show to talk about Buddhism. I encouraged those with less time-in-grade than I had.

But it was interesting: No matter what I said or what the result was of my 'teaching,' I found myself dissatisfied afterwards. "If only I had...." seemed to be a mantram. And I was somehow ashamed of myself. My 'teachings' always seemed to occasion regret.

But that regret did not rein in the willingness to practice zazen. If anything, it spurred it on. I wanted to be free of regret and zazen seemed like a good way to accomplish that goal. So I practiced ... and daydreamed.

Bit by bit, the elevation of goodness or saintliness or big boys seemed to wane. And together with it, the need to control, the need for the "rich, sexy" part, dwindled. Practice was more informative and profound and strangely both less and more important than what I had once imagined.

These days, while I would not lay claim to playing with the big boys, still I like the appreciation of Huang Po -- not just as some big-boy story teller, but as a man who simply stated the obvious ... the kind of obvious evident in this tale:

Once Huang Po stood before the assembly of monks giving a talk. In the course of that talk, he said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." One of the monks stood up immediately and challenged him: "How can you say such a thing, master, when clearly you are standing before us, teaching?" And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."

This statement is the kind of thing that rich, sexy and saintly teachers can twist to their advantage and thus improve their rich, sexy and saintly status. Yes, goodness and virtue and altruism can be elevated. Yes regrets by the dozen can natter and swarm. But whatever second-class maneuvering is brought to bear, whatever manipulation or meaning is flaunted, still Huang Po was just telling the truth.

And it is a truth worth actualizing.


  1. I would never presume to teach Buddhism, though I occasionally attempt to explain meditation to people who have never done it before.

    I do teach bellydance. I approach teaching as if I were raising children. I will not do it perfectly, they will not respond perfectly and sometimes we are learning the same thing together.

    You and I are the beneficiaries of thousands of people who passed Buddhism down from hand to hand for nearly 3000 years. It might not a good idea to break the chain because you're worried it's ego trip. It might be, but that's your problem, not the problem of the person waiting with their hand out.

  2. Susan -- Imagining anyone might "break the chain" is just that ... imaginative. In every nanosecond the chain is broken, over and over again ... that's what holds it together.

    The only question is, what chain could there possibly be?

  3. See? You're always putting something in my hand. Even if it's nothing.

  4. If it's nothing, then there's no point in trying to hold on, right?

    And if it's something and you try to hold on, the result is misery.

    What a hell of a way to wake up in the morning ...

    Time for another cup of coffee. :)