Wednesday, March 21, 2012

spiritual secrets

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was not so dumb as I became, I was assigned to instruct newcomers to the Zen center I attended. The object was to go through the drills of ritual -- chanting, bowls, walking, sitting, etc. The classes were held once a week for about six months. Afterwards, newcomers could decide whether to become zendo members or not. Most did not.

I instructed such classes three or four times and hardly realized that what I was most learning was how little I knew. I worked hard at the classes and as a result, they were probably not much good. Live and learn.

At any rate, there came a time when I asked the zendo teacher, Eido Shimano, what the best way to offer instruction was. He replied, "Tell them 80% and let them find out 20% for themselves." I pondered this for a while and then found I was not suited to his instruction. My view, even as a wet-behind-the-ears beginner with three or four years of practice under my belt, was, "Tell them 100% and let them find out 100% for themselves." I simply could not fathom the meaning of holding anything back. Right, wrong, or indifferent ... still, 100%!

Today I look back on earlier times and find that I really do agree with myself.

In spiritual life -- Hinduism and perhaps others -- there seems to be room for secret teachings, stuff that is held back because the student is not ready or because the teacher is reluctant. Better to hold things back.

I disagree. A teacher who imagines s/he could hold something back is as deluded as one who imagines there is something to give. I'm sorry -- this simply is not true. And those who parry and dodge under cover of 'compassion' or 'wisdom' or any other cozy camouflage ... well, we all do ego trips and, as well, do what we can to clarify those ego trips.

Students who can not yet ingest and digest what is offered are already protected by their inabilities. Will they be harmed by misinterpreting one secret or another? Of course they will ... just as they are battered and bruised by what is no secret at all. That's the nature of spiritual practice. Praise, blame, elevation, disapproval and on and on ... it's just practice.

Looking back on my own efforts, I want to encourage that oh-so-serious-and-devoted young man: Go ahead, make an ass of yourself. Really and truly make an ass of yourself. Be solemn and serious and wracked by a need to succeed and do well and control things ... go ahead. Do it. If you tell an untruth, there will be harm. If you tell the truth, there will be harm. Just don't hold anything back ... saving it for some ludicrous 'special occasion.'

Of course spiritual endeavor is secret.

Of course spiritual life is not secret.

But none of that means anyone should try to keep secrets.

100% all the time.

Penetrate that secret.


  1. Not to make too much of the how much should a teacher teach to a given student, there is something to be said for not even attempting to teach "everything." Practically speaking this usually results in sensory overload in the short term, and over or micro-management in the long term

    In so many things in life less really is more. Why not in teaching?

    Momentarily ignoring upbringing, personality and style clashes, there are 2500 years of traditions to account for from the Buddhist tradition(s) and the Chinese and Japanese traditions. Confucianism has something to say about teaching that, I think, should not be ignored. One passage goes something like this "“I [i.e. Confucius] only instruct the eager and enlighten the fervent. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson.” (Analects (Lunyu) 7.8). That is much less than 80%! But it is also a much better way to teach some if not most adults.

    From the same passage "He [the teacher] never discourses at length on a subject. Instead he poses questions, cites passages from the classics, or uses apt analogies, and waits for his students to arrive at the right answers." This is not so much different than the Socratic method, I think.

    Yes, in Zen there is a tradition of micro-teaching / micro-management. For example Eihei Dōgen (an early 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk who went to China studied there and is now attributed with bringing the Soto school of Zen Buddhism to Japan) instructed his students in the most minute of details even as to how to brush their teeth.

    While discovering new levels of awareness while brushing my teeth might be a "revelation" having someone tell me how to brush my teeth in a spiritual context would drive me crazy, as do people who need to give or receive that level of instruction and management. No doubt, that kind of teaching suits certain people. Beside the disempowerment it engenders, I fear it leads to cultism.

    As to your alleged secrets, often the best place to hide something is right in plain sight. Like an oak tree in the front yard.

  2. >> As to your alleged secrets, often the best place to hide something is right in plain sight. Like an oak tree in the front yard.

    And then the cool breeze blows past rattling the branches and everybody hears and knows of it yet nobody "discovered" that cool breeze or that oak tree.. they are there all along.