Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zen teacher, Zen student

I was reading Koun Franz' thoughtful and generous take on the teacher-student relationship in Zen Buddhism just now and was swept gently back to another time. I wonder if I had read Franz' words "back then," whether I would have felt the same soft lapping of warm waves. Probably not. Aside from anything else, there wouldn't have been the 40 years of whatever 'experience' is.

I was hot for Zen, "back then." Having discovered a format of sitting and bowing and chanting and ... doing, well, I felt as if I had gotten some segment of whatever big brass ring I was after. But another aspect of this new friend called Zen Buddhism -- hell, sometimes it felt more like a lover ... tempestuous, delighted, scary, and scrubbed with endless novelty -- was the beauty.

I always have been a sucker for what I consider beautiful and the zendo I practiced in, like many others I would later visit, was knock-me-down beautiful. The statues, the calligraphy, the dull richness of the floor, the smell of good incense, the light enfolding the altar, the silence which was not precisely silence and yet was precisely silent ... it took me in its arms the way Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony can.

Truth to tell, I could never quite manage whatever there was to manage about the teacher-student relationship. I would like to say that it was as subtle and nourishing and frustrating as what Franz depicted, but it wasn't. I desperately wanted to believe in it, perhaps, but the bare-butt fact was, I could not do it within those beautiful confines. I do not fault the teacher of the time -- though he turned out to be an utter putz -- but rather look to my own life and doubts. I had an upbringing that would make anyone chary of authority so ... well ... them's the breaks.

But the beauty took me in ways that the teacher did not. And, as a result of my interest in Zen Buddhism, I found several teachers I was more than willing to place in my pantheon of beauty. Some were Buddhists, some were just good people. They never came into my beautiful space as teachers, per se, but they came with a beauty that fit and matched, even if that beauty went unnoticed until later.

Over time, of course, beauty has taken on softer edges. Sure, it can still make me cry and it can still fill me with wonder, but now it is less uncommon and hence more like a pair of very cozy slippers. I still love it, but now it loves me back and we are, rather than impassioned lovers, more like wondrous friends.

All of this blah-blah came to mind when reading Koun Franz' piece and I feel a bit ashamed to drag him into my written mess. But one of the things that occurred to me while reading his Zen Buddhist prism was this:

Everyone builds a beautiful house ... perhaps a spiritual one, perhaps a marital one, perhaps an employment one, perhaps a drinking-buddy one, perhaps an academic one ... always a beautiful house. And it SHOULD be beautiful. Thoroughly beautiful. It should be beautiful because it is beautiful ... but without the effort, the reality is likely to go begging.

Zen Buddhism can wax lyrical about attachment and ego and what a good idea it is to clear the decks ... but I say no ... I say build an utterly beautiful spiritual practice, if that's your style; hang beautiful intellectual pictures; collect beautiful emotional furniture ... collect and furnish with a devil-take-the-hindmost care. Build the additions as they are needed ... and make them beautiful as well.

Isn't that all anyone does anyway ... make things beautiful? choose a beautiful format that is beautiful; pick a partner who is beautiful ... on and on an on and on until, like the Hopis (or is it the Navajo?), the words arise unbidden and probably unspoken: "All around me is beauty."

And then, with luck, the dime may drop: All that effort on behalf of a very personal and very intimate beauty was worth it because ... well, because it really was, without any help whatsoever, beautiful from the get-go.

Don't mind me. I just enjoyed Franz' article and my mind went off on an associative, if incoherent, toot.


  1. Thank you for dragging me in. My little post didn't address at all the questions of why we end up with a particular teacher in the first place, or why we might leave, but for me--though I may be defining it differently, I'm not sure--I think this idea of beauty is a big part of that conversation. Two people can decide to make a beautiful relationship, if they choose to--that is, if they feel that the relationship is the important thing. Teachers and students can make that beautiful house, honestly and generously. But I think that often, one or the other says, "This is my mess. Deal with it." Often, I think both say that. That can make it look dynamic and gritty and honest, but it can also be a way of missing the point altogether. That beauty can be the thing we make together.

    That's what comes to mind, relevant or not. Thank you.


  2. Koun -- An Internet friend of mine -- a guy who once shyly admitted he was credentialed in the Tibetan tradition ("but let's not make too much of it") -- observed aptly, "there are no answers to 'why' questions." For practical purposes, I think he was right. True, the observation irritates the piss out of the intellectual mind and puts 'karma' in its place, but the beneficial effect is that it creates a less-gummed-up arena in which to breathe and dance.

    Your piece did a good job depicting the varieties of student-teacher possibilities. It's all "missing the point," but missing the point is as much a useful delight as it is infuriating. Or anyway that's my take.

    Thanks again.

  3. I think beauty is the reason I went in the Zen direction years ago instead of Tibetan or Tantra or whatever.

    I spent a lot of time in an ugly, sloppy Zendo in the Village (NYC) for a while, and when I it came to the point I had heard every Zen talking point the teacher had to offer, I went to sit uptown at Shobo-ji about 8 years ago. I used to love that place. I rarely talked to anyone, just went there to sit, one or twice a week. I was always worried that someone would ask me if I wanted to be a student of Shimano, but after almost 5 years, no one ever did.

    I haven't gone back since the last big scandal, but I must say I really miss it. I miss the little dry garden in the back courtyard, the beautiful space, the serenity. I left my rakasu and robe there in the changing room upstairs, so I imagine some day they will end up in a dumpster if they haven't so already. Just so sad what happened to that place.

  4. "Anonymous" -- Yours reminded me that I have a photo album with pix of Shobo Ji in the early 80's ... zendo, rock garden, statuary upstairs and down. If you have any nostalgic interest, let me know and I'd be happy to email them.

  5. Thanks Gengaku

    But I'm not really the nostalgic type. It probably hasn't changed that much. I don't know how much statuary, scroll, etc were claimed by Shimano a s personal property, but one of these evenings I'm going to go back if I can muster up the courage and check the place out.

    Shimano is a psychopath, but you've got to admit he had good taste, and knew the role of beauty in the Zen experience and was able to produce it.