Wednesday, March 14, 2012


After I asked him, "who is the teacher?" my Zen teacher said to me, "Except for me, everything is the teacher." At the time, it struck me as an ornately humble response. But, as usual, I was wrong.

What brought this to mind and chafed anew like a burr under my saddle, was a quick check-in with Zen Forum, a Buddhist bulletin board that includes a thread entitled "Ask a Teacher." Every time I see that title, I am uncomfortable ... if not downright pissed.

To the extent that Zen Buddhism is based in the willingness to examine our lives and correct our mistakes, it is understandable that some may have more common-sensical tools, more experience, than others. And from that premise, it is equally understandable, in conversation-speak, that those with more experience should be called "teacher." Leaving aside those who delight and wallow in the accolades, students are comforted by the notion that there is some light at the end of what may seem to be a very long and very dark tunnel. If there is a teacher, there is hope for me yet.

Ramakrishna used to say that if you got a thorn in your finger, it was acceptable to use another thorn to pick it out. But once the offending thorn was dislodged, no one in their right mind would keep either thorn one or thorn two. So the pain and confusion of this life might understandably be attacked with another thorn or confusion. Sometimes it takes a lie to illuminate the truth. Go ahead, stick in a 'teacher' thorn ... then find the 'teacher' thorn to get it out.

But as I look back, sometimes I think those who were called "teacher" spent a great deal of time trying to disabuse students of their teacher status. (Not the money-makers and charlatans, of course -- they knew a gravy train when they found it.) Those who entered the light knew that the sun did not discriminate between wealth and poverty, spiritual clarity and spiritual ignorance. Just because 'students' did not yet feel the sun's warmth was no excuse for playing the Sun King.

Oh well ... I suppose I am pissing into the wind again. It's just that I hope those making some spiritual effort will keep in mind what once I could not keep in my own.

Obaku wasn't just whistling Dixie when he stood before his assembled monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." A monk stood up and challenged him: "But master, how can you say such a thing when it's obvious you are standing before us, teaching?" And Obaku replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."

Some may take this tale as some 'spiritual' teaching, some quirky, paradoxical, woo-hoo of a story ... a veritable teaching from on high. No, no, no. It's just a fact ... in the same way that a daisy is a fact. And the sooner anyone squares his life away according to facts, the happier he will be. No need to be an asshole any longer than necessary.


  1. The truth that you will never hear from the ZFI teachers is that, actually, no, you don't have to practice for the rest of your life under the guidance of a teacher, sit regularly at a zendo, attend retreats, observe archaic Japanese rituals and traditions, etc., in order to gain insight into your illusions. But to go around telling students to literally find out on their own would send the "Buddhism in the West" cash cow right down the flusher, along with the livelihoods of most pedigreed teachers of Zen Buddhism.

    Here's a scholarly piece that is relevant to the discussion. (Of course, because religion scholars don't usually parrot the standard "find a teacher or else" meme, they tend to find themselves on the ZFI teachers' shit list.)

  2. Thanks for pointing out the piece, Anonymous. I enjoyed it.