You Know This Blog is No Good Because I’m Trying to Write It

The other day, as I was finally emerging from under a large-scale translation project that consumed my time over the last few months (and basically shut down this blog), I checked Facebook and saw this quotation making the rounds:

Teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching something are to be avoided. Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their lives as best they can with others. In this sense the “best” teachers are often the worst teachers; the more brilliant the teacher, the more exciting, the more enlightened, the worse it is for the student. The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher. – Zoketsu Norman Fischer

From the source that I saw, inside of a day, this was shared more than 30 times and “liked” more than 100. So I’m sure it’s all over the place by now. It is not my intention to pick on Zoketsu Fischer, for whom I have a lot of respect. Nor do I know the context in which any of this was said. But this statement — standing alone, which is how it is being embraced — reveals two of the most dangerous ideas we can encounter when we enter into Zen practice.

Of course, there is truth to it, too, so we should acknowledge that first: a lot of Zen teaching (especially in the Soto world) does not always look like “teaching” in a conventional sense. Like any apprenticeship, the first condition is proximity, not words — that proximity allows the student to watch and absorb and question and imitate. It also makes possible a kind of friction between teacher and student — one could argue that this friction is important in any teacher-student relationship, but in Zen, it carries an unusual weight. So yes — a lot of Zen “teaching” rests primarily on the teacher sharing the practice with someone who is invested in receiving it. Also, a teacher with an inflated investment in being a big shot is confused from the start. But that is not at the heart of what the quotation above is saying.

The most obvious problem here is what we might call “Zen exceptionalism,” which reaches back as far as Zen does. Zen exceptionalism, in a nutshell, is the assertion that everything in Zen is a kind of “opposite world” in which the surest way to accomplish a task in a “Zen” way is to do the opposite of what any ordinary person might do. That is to say, Zen has its own rules, its own physics. If I say there’s no truth to that, I’m lying — paradox is at the heart of many Zen teachings. That said, however, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace something that doesn’t make any darned sense.

What if I write that “History teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching history are to be avoided”? Math teachers? Piano teachers? It doesn’t hold up. Not only is it absurd, but it creates a dangerous standard for everyone involved.

Zen teachers might teach in all sorts of covert ways. It might not look like teaching. And Zen teachers — unlike, say, math teachers — may not aspire to that role. They might find themselves there by accident. That’s fine. But for the teacher to actually have no sense of teaching in the moment that teaching is happening is for the teacher to be unaware that there, in front of him, is a student. That is not only dangerously ignorant, but highly implausible. It’s just talk.

Scholars continue to debate the degree to which Taoism influenced Zen after Buddhism reached China, but it seems to me that we can hear a pronounced Taoist voice in these kinds of upside-down Zen assertions. Taoist literature speaks of the sage who always seems to do things by not doing those things: The sage drinks coffee by not drinking coffee. (Or something like that.) But even the sage knows about coffee. The sage, while drinking coffee (however he does that, or does that by not doing that), does not think, “I am not a drinker of coffee. I would never drink coffee.” The sage is not so unaware of the act of drinking coffee that he does not own up to it even as he is doing it.

Yet we are being told not only that the teacher teaches by not teaching, but that the teacher does not recognize her function as a teacher. The teacher who teaches is not a true teacher; the teacher who notices that she is teaching is, by definition, no longer a good teacher. And the more skillful a teacher seems to be, the less skillful that teacher actually is. The more awake, dynamic, or intelligent the teacher, the more dangerous.

If this is true, then how is a student to proceed? How is a teacher to proceed? If I am a new student at a Zen center, armed with this list of criteria for choosing a teacher, I have it easy — the first time the teacher offers me any kind of guidance, I can just write her off. I know she’s a fake, because she’s actually trying to teach me.  Do her Dharma talks leave me inspired and full of questions? Well, she’s no good — I know better, now, than to be seduced by that kind of so-called “skill.” Does she seem awake in her actions — does her presence disarm me a little? That is a definite no. What I need is a teacher who, in addition to having no discernible skill as a teacher — or awareness of the role itself — also makes literally no effort to teach me. That would be the real thing.

I sometimes wince when people talk about robes being “dangerous,” but here, I understand. Robes provide a kind of reverb to even the most absurd (or common-sense) statements, transforming them into something profound and paradoxical. If I sit on the high seat in robes, take a deep breath, lean forward, and say emphatically (maybe with a whisper, maybe with a shout), “You all need to wash your hands,” the audience’s first response is not to look at their hands to see if they are dirty. The first response is to think, “This means something.” If the point I’m trying to make is really as straightforward as it sounds, I may need to change my presentation. If I just put on ordinary clothes, cut out the theatrics, and maybe motion to my hands or others’ hands, and say, “You all need to wash your hands,” there’s a much higher chance of that message getting across the first time. If I say, “A true cook doesn’t cook,” well, we know from that start that something about that is not quite right. But if I make it a Zen thing, if I say, “A true tenzo never cooks,” then that’s food for thought. That just feels true–not in spite of the fact that it makes no sense, but because of it. It’s even more fun if I change it to say something that has no connection to anything: “You cannot eat a sandwich until you forget the sandwich.”  A Zen student hearing that might chew on it for days, convinced not only that it’s meaningful, but that it must be true.

You can eat a sandwich, or you can forget a sandwich, but you can’t do both.

The other, more subtle, issue in this quotation is in the last line: “The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher.” All the various sexual scandals popping up these days should serve as reminders of the dangers of completely losing oneself (and one’s sense of agency) in the face of a manipulative teacher. That’s the truth of it, but again, that’s not really what’s being pointed to here. The message here is this: the practice is about you.

And that’s not true.

We get a hint of this earlier: “Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice….” But “my practice” is not Zen practice, not yet. If you are looking for a criterion by which to accept or reject a teacher, this is a good one: Is he practicing for himself? If he is — if the practice in which he is engaged is best described as “his practice” — then he is in no position to be teaching in the first place, whether he knows he’s doing it or not.

There are two basic ways to talk about the why of practice. The first is to say that we practice and offer that practice to all beings; the second is to say that we practice for the sake of practice, or even that we let practice practice. The second is harder than the first, but that doesn’t mean the first is easy.

The relationship between teacher and student is most definitely not about the teacher, but nor is it about the student. That’s a dangerous trap, one in which the student becomes the customer.  The teacher-student dynamic is exactly that: a dynamic. Not a transaction.  And that dynamic is about the practice. It’s about excluding nothing, expanding and challenging and including and transcending and offering — in all directions, including to each other.

It is an intentional dynamic. It may be messy and complicated, but it is not an accident. It is intimate, and it is mutual, and it is not, strictly speaking, personal. It’s bigger than “my” or “mine.”

To me, describing it any other way just doesn’t make any darned sense.

25 comments on “You Know This Blog is No Good Because I’m Trying to Write It

  1. mtsutra says:

    This morning’s practice was rich and fruitful in that, as I worked through my issues about what was coming up in the readings, my spouse reacted to my manner and style, i.e. intense and forceful, rather than the content, a formal presentation of a koan. I appreciate the ongoing effort my spouse exerts to refine my rough ore. So these mixed messages and metaphors abound, and I’m grateful that she could say “You’re glaring and that makes me feel like something else is going on.” So she opted to read a poem of Mary Oliver, which triggered even more cascade of thought and feelings, as that twanged my heartstrings. http://mtsutra.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/hello-world/
    My intent in taking up this path was to become warm and friendly, isn’t a soft and ready mind what we’re after? In the sufi tradition they’re at least a little more clear about the need to separate the teaching from the character of the teacher, keeping the one and embracing with forgiveness the other.

  2. David Ashton says:

    Bravo! That needed saying. So much paradox talk that is just talk – and dangerous talk. A spade is, after all, a spade. And I’m glad you’re back 🙂

    • Koun says:

      David–

      Thank you. I have at least tried, in the past, to use the blog as a vehicle for advocating for something, not just complaining–in re-reading today’s post, I think I might have thrown that out the window and just tried to get something off my chest. But it feels good to be writing again, and to be reconnecting with the blogosphere. I’ll try to write something more positive next time around. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  3. Tom Eickenberg says:

    Welcome back, thank you Koun, much to think about

  4. doshoport says:

    Yes, welcome back to the blog world! I saw the passage that you’re responding to here in a different forum, noticed feeling a unsettled, and then just moved on. Thanks for unpacking the “it’s just talk” aspect. Your point that the teacher-student relationship is about the dynamic is important. Norman’s point, though, even in it’s one-sidedness, might serve to alert students if they’re working with a narcissistic teacher, to question the lack of dynamism in the relationship.

    Speaking of psuedo-paradox, I’m aware of a situation where a teacher had died without identifying a successor. The advice to the remaining students coming from some Zen quarters was to pick the person who wanted it the least, advice the group followed. Turns out that the person who wanted it the least was also least capable and things did not go well.

    Warm regards,

    Dosho

    • Koun says:

      Dosho,

      Thank you. I know–I suspect that in context, the original quotation is speaking to something a little different from what I read. But on its own, it just feels all wrong; it also felt wrong to see that people were so quick to endorse it in that form.

      Also, thank you for the great example. I do understand the idea behind “pick the person who wants it the least,” but I also think it’s born of confusion. I wouldn’t want my doctor to be the one who least wanted to be a doctor. It seems that when judging teachers, we sometimes place too much emphasis on inner qualities, and not enough on actual competencies–one does not always reflect the other.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  5. Dave Laser says:

    Welcome back, Koun! You may be just ‘getting something off your chest’, but your observations are consistently useful & constructive. (instructive?) For me, ‘let practice practice’! There’s a whole world in there. And, now I’m going to wash my hands & eat a sandwich.
    thank you
    Dave

  6. Stephen Slottow says:

    Good to hear that said. I have thought for years, off and on, that people who say that (unlike a carpenter, a cook, a music theory professor, etc.) a Zen teacher doesn’t TEACH, whereas all these other folks do, doesn’t know anything about teaching carpentry, cooking, music theory, etc. I’ve taught in universities for 25 years, and my observation is that people learn through what is still the apprenticeship system, and that there has to be an affinity with the craft and with the teacher. I’ve practiced Zen with various teachers for about 35 years, and I don’t see that much difference–Zen exceptionalism, as you put it.

  7. Stephen Slottow says:

    By the way, this is also the reason why documented transmission and teaching authority is so important. There are good doctors and bad doctors, but would you really want to go to one who never graduated from medical school and doesn’t have a licence to practice? And the same with plumbers, electricians, teachers, lawyers, etc., etc.

    • Koun says:

      Stephen–

      I agree. There are lots and lots of problems with the documented transmission system, in that it (a) provides no guarantees, and (b) can make ordinary people seem magical. But it rests on the idea that there is some sort of measurable minimum standard. The question of what should happen before transmission is a huge one, but I do think there are ways to build safeguards into that system so that we can have some basic trust in it. It’s what we’ve got.

      I also resonate with your university teaching experience. I wonder sometimes if those who romanticize and mysticize Zen teaching perhaps do not have experience teaching in more conventional contexts…. It just doesn’t seem that special to me. Just hard.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  8. Jodo says:

    Thanks for re-balancing this exaggerated statement (which also may serve well at times as a counter balance to a common problem of over infatuation) In terms of opposite reality; Katagiri Roshi used to say “turn your life around 360 degrees” back to mountain is a mountain, after also understanding many other aspects.
    While it is clear that a good teacher is awake to the fact that they are teaching; they are not stuck in their particular idea –without being alive to its manner and appropriateness at the time. I am reminded of parenting– knowing the right time and touch in using directives; and teaching by example as primary.

  9. Raj says:

    Thank you for the thought provoking post. To create a model for teachers is hazardous. This relationship is perhaps the most beautiful of all, and if there is self interest, let us part for mutual good. Some teachers , in their immaturity, cause much suffering to the students, aggravating their own suffering in real. So it is safe that he does not ‘teach’ anything till there is view of that shore beyond desire- but share. Thank you.

  10. Gavin Michael Hicks says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been struggling with the teacher-student dynamic. In the very beginning of my practice, I was told that I should select a teacher carefully. I’ve found that most often “selecting” a teacher is not really an option; if there is a teacher in the area, this teacher becomes my teacher de facto, based on proximity (Zen teachers are hard to come by in a Bavarian village). But now I find myself confused as to how to even evaluate the ability of any Zen teacher at all. I don’t know what makes a good Zen teacher, but if I decide that a Zen teacher is not good, then my only option is to not practice with a teacher at all. But what is Zen without a teacher? Very confusing.
    Again, thanks for this post.

    • Koun says:

      Gavin–

      You’re speaking to a common difficulty here. It’s one thing to offer up ways of judging/disqualifying teachers, but that only confuses the matter when one has few or no teachers to choose from in the first place. I’ll say just this: much of the burden, in this tradition, is on the student. You can be a very good student if your teacher does not live up to your hopes. And that can be enough. Good luck to you.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  11. Mike Haitch says:

    My first teacher was in no doubt that he was a teacher. He was in no doubt about what he was teaching. He also seemed to be rather good at it.

    He knew he wasn’t anything special. He knew it. He radiated it. He knew that some things can be taught even if they don’t have a lesson plan. He proved it. He taught me a little about what it is like to live well, to live the life which makes you more fully you. One that does not need or encourage hero worship or mediocrity or exploitation.

    The comment you quote may apply to those teachers who have supped from the river but it doesn’t apply to those who are amphibians.

    I left with two tested beliefs.

    1. Zen is something that can be taught – that is can be transmitted in a systematic, deliberate way from one person to another. In order to point to the moon you must know where it is in the sky, where it is in relation to another and where to place your finger with respect to both moon and the other so that they can be seen to align.

    2. Such teachings are best left to those who stand up and say “I am a teacher, here is my certificate. Judge for yourself if I am a good human being who it is worth spending time with”.

    3. Consenting adults are consenting adults. Sometimes one will say to another “I can tell that you see the moon more clearly than I do, what am I not seeing?” What is the natural way to respond to that with that person at that time? Sometimes you ask the same question yourself with an expectation.

    With so many of the scandals flying around it just seems like the result of mediocre attainment – knowing emptiness but not knowing non-emptiness. “You-I” simultaneously with ‘I-and-You” create the balance.

  12. Judith Koshin Haggar says:

    Almost noon here. The sun is up and it is almost13 degrees. Something else to be grateful for: your wisdom and the technology that brings them to me from across the Pacific.

  13. Brad Warner says:

    You cannot forget a sandwich until you have eaten it.

  14. YKM says:

    Thanks for opening this conversation and for the comments that follow. Would add that, in my experience, there is no such thing as a “perfect” teacher. Having a deep commitment to teaching and to the well-being of their students, more experience and/or knowledge than I have and the willingness to be seen as a human being are important to me. Both sides of the teacher-student dynamic have responsibilities, including the responsibility to ethical conduct. It is possible for flawed students to learn from flawed teachers. Happens all the time.

    This seems like one of those conundrums that come up if emptiness is taken too literally. If everything is empty, than what does it mean to be ethical? If there is no teacher and no student, what does it mean to be teacher or student? If there is no cup of coffee, what does it mean to drink a cup of coffee? …..Which is what you said in your lovely blog.

    Thank you so much.

  15. Jundo Cohen says:

    Thank you Koun. A very good reminder. The source seems to be an old interview from SweepingZen, and the original question and first part of the comment were omitted, I read it simply as his counseling against the cults of personality, guru-ism and power inequalities that have infected some Buddhist groups, often leading to scandal and abuse. He is merely calling for some humility, equality, “we’re all in this together” attitude and the teacher’s being in it for the student and not for the teacher. I do not think he meant some celebration of mediocrity. …Gassho, Jundo Cohen

    ————

    SZ: You’ve been practicing and teaching Zen for a very long time and I’m sure you’ve seen periods of ups and downs regarding institutions and teachers. In your mind, what makes for a good practice site and teacher? What should prospective students be looking for?

    NF: Humility is probably the most important thing. Modesty of approach. The spirit that we are all in this together (and I mean all of us, not just the sangha members or the group members, but every human being) and we need to do the best we can. Knowing that human beings are always a little bit off so we have to be careful with each other, and very kind, knowing everyone makes mistakes. Teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching something are to be avoided. Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their lives as best they can with others. In this sense the “best” teachers are often the worst teachers; the more briliiant the teacher, the more exciting, the more enlightened, the worse it is for the student. The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher.

    http://sweepingzen.com/zoketsu-norman-fischer-interview-2/

    • koun says:

      Indeed, Jundo. Thank you. As I wrote in the post itself, I was really more concerned about the enthusiasm for the disembodied quote than what was said; I trust that Norman Fischer is not trying to sabotage Zen. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  16. Gee, I just noticed that this post if from a few years ago. Well, still good. 🙂

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