The other night, after returning home from my teacher’s temple, where we celebrated the Buddha’s enlightenment, I fell head first into what I suppose is my own version of internet porn: Zen people arguing with Zen people on Zen blogs about Zen. These days the topic is sex, and the discussion is heated, and like any kind of pornography, it left me simultaneously wanting to see more and never, never wanting to see it again.
Combing through all those hundreds of comments, I read the words “student” and “teacher” over and over — we seem to use them as if we all agree on what they mean. But I think there is very little actual agreement about what either one is. Or does. Or should do. I have my own take on it, but I’m sure I do not represent a majority view. I don’t know if there is a majority view.
Leading up to my ordination and after, what I wanted more than anything was for my teacher to teach me. I wanted to hear his views on Buddhism. I wanted him to challenge mine. I wanted to tangle eyebrows a little. I also wanted homework, some concrete, achievable task that I could take to him so that he could put a check mark in his book and see how serious I was. He gave me nothing. While I was living in a different town, I would call him up and ask, “What do you want me to be doing?” and his reply was always, “Just settle down.” Which drove me crazy. Even then, I was sure that if/when he came to the conclusion that I had, in fact, “settled down,” then the formal teaching would begin. But I’m still waiting on that. He is not what I expected, not what I thought I was looking for. His favorite activity is to walk in the mountains surrounding his temple and collect wild, edible plants. I’ve never seen him do a ceremony the same way twice, and even if a ceremony becomes a total disaster, it doesn’t faze him at all. (Just before the ceremony the other day, after waiting an hour for this conversation, I asked, “So… how do you want to do this?” His reply, as we’re starting to walk into the hall: “Let’s do the Heart Sutra!” That is not enough information.) I used to wonder if all this silence and pointing away was all supposed to be a teaching in itself. After all, he has mastered one of the most basic parts of this relationship: not giving the student what he wants. It’s taken me years to accept that he really just doesn’t care — not about this or that teaching, not about this or that form, not about this or that tradition. Mostly, he goes into people’s homes, does short ceremonies for their ancestors, then sits and talks with them over tea about whatever is going on in their lives. And they trust him. Completely. That is the shape of the practice for him, though I don’t think it would even occur to him to call it practice. It’s just how he spends his day.
So that’s one version of what it is to be a student. It can be frustrating and confusing. My teacher was happy to turn my training over to others — he was honest at the start about being someone who was “opening a gate” for me. He didn’t really expect me to go up through all the ranks, but he was happy when I did. And though my expression of the Dharma and his are very, very different, he has never suggested that he would have it any other way. He doesn’t play guru, but nor does he play “spiritual friend.” He’s something else.
Upon entering monastic life, I started to meet lots of senior priests and see different ways in which people play that role. The monastery where I spent most of my time, Zuiōji, is well known for its emphasis on form and formality, and though I hated it at first, I came to embrace that model of the practice for myself. I saw for the first time how powerful the formal side of this tradition can be, how it can push our understanding of action into something completely new. I saw how the physical expressions of the Dharma — the ritual, the clothes, the etiquette — created an atmosphere for practice unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. And there, in that world, I became a priest very much unlike my teacher.
One of the teachers I met there kind of adopted me; he is not my teacher by any formal definition, but still, he is — he is my “teacher of debt (onshi, 恩師).” He, too, has embraced that formality. We speak often of the Dharma, often until late in the night. I interpret his lectures. When we walk, I walk just a little behind him; when we eat, I am sure to finish just after he does, not before. Our relationship is completely honest, but at the same time, it is a fair description to say that he is playing “teacher” and I am playing “student.” We are trying to do it “right.” We are each making a space in which the other person can explore that role, that way of being. This is another way of being a student.
The man who is formally my teacher does not, by any conventional definition, teach, nor does he permit me to play the role of a student. And the man who has taken the most responsibility for cultivating me as a priest is not, by any formal definition, my teacher at all. I cannot express how fortunate I have been to have entered the spheres of these two teachers, to be pushed and pulled and frustrated and encouraged and challenged by my relationships with them. Together they have offered me models not only of how to invest in students, but also how to let go of them.
But they also did all this in the context of me being a priest. It is understood that priests have things they must learn; later, it is understood that there are things they must pass on. In Western Zen centers, the dynamic is a little different. In most places, only one person is a priest, maybe two. How the lay members of a community are supposed to relate to priests is really new territory.
When I joined the Anchorage Zen Community in 2006, most if not all of the members were older than me. A few of them had been sitting for as long as I’d been alive. Tozen Akiyama, the former resident priest, had just left after being there for five years. A couple of those more experienced members seemed to take on a student stance towards me (one by choice, the other seemingly in spite of herself). Some, I think, felt that they were Tozen Akiyama’s students, and there was no pressing reason to change. After I was there a few months, some young people started to arrive, students who had met me at the university. Many considered me their teacher and called me “sensei,” but I was their Japanese teacher first, their Zen teacher second.
One woman from the university, during sesshin, came to dokusan for the very first time, bowed, sat down, and said, “Well, I guess everything is different now.” And she was right. But she was right because she said it, not because she had come to dokusan.
To some, I was the resident priest; to others, I was the teacher, whether or not they considered themselves my students. And I did not think of them as “my” students — I thought of them as students of Zen. A few people — maybe 10 over the four years — came to me and said they wanted to be my student, formally. I explained to them that in this tradition, the burden is on the student, and the curriculum is proximity. Come sit with me more often, I said. Spend time with me. Talk with me as much as you want, but if you think I have something that you want for yourself, your best bet is to hang around and see if it rubs off. Imitate if you want. Two really tried. The rest came less often after that conversation than they did before. I know they wanted what I had wanted: a curriculum, homework, acknowledgment. I have no problem with giving deliberate shape to that dynamic, but I don’t think it’s the starting point, either. First, just be in the room. Try that.
I have conferred the precepts to about 40 people — are they my students? As a priest, I have a responsibility to offer the precepts to whomever wants to receive them — I cannot deny them. I can make people jump through hoops first, and I do: everyone sews a rakusu. But everyone is welcome. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I have a responsibility to ordain anyone who wants to become a priest — that’s a different conversation. But in any case, the precepts are the same.)
Tracy, my wife, received the precepts from me. Does that cross some kind of line? No — she was never my student, nor could she be (and the precepts, while we’re at it, are not “my” precepts). Even if she were to walk into the dokusan room and sit across from me, that would not be dokusan, because her presence there would make it something else. We would probably act all serious for a minute, then just talk about how cute/exhausting our kids are. (None of this is to say that we have a perfectly equal relationship, because we don’t. She’s much smarter than I am.)
Some teachers take a very authoritative place in even their lay students’ lives, getting mixed up in their day-to-day activities and relationships; others, like myself, often don’t know who identifies as a student and who does not. Even in this tradition, where there has traditionally been a significant vertical gap between teachers and ordained students, some teachers choose the model of spiritual friend, engaging more as a fellow practitioner than as a guide. I know a monk who met his teacher on the day of ordination, after having it all arranged by a third party. And I know another who lived in his teacher’s house for 10 years, essentially living as a member of the teacher’s family. If you are practicing koan Zen, then your teacher holds certain answers, and an authority to pass you or not. You’re probably spending a lot of time talking alone. But take the koan away, and you might have a relationship with your teacher that is almost entirely nonverbal (and relatively public).
All of this is just one simple illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as “American Zen,” much less “Zen.” We have Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen; we have lineages that are neither, and also some that are both. We have what are sometimes referred to as “Catholic Zen,” which embraces form and formality, and “Protestant Zen,” which asserts that form is a distraction from the real point. There is Zen that seeks enlightenment and Zen that says it is already here. Japanese Zen, Korean Zen, Chinese Zen, Vietnamese Zen — each has its own gifts to offer, and each has its own dangers.
Beyond all those categories, there is the place where you actually practice; there is the teacher you actually know. There is what you want from the practice, and there is what your teacher is capable of giving.
As I said, we’re making this up as we go along. But it’s not just about these new shores, or about ordained versus lay. We’ve always been making this up as we go along. Where there are two individuals, it will always be new. It will always be an experiment. Any one of us could probably write volumes about what we think it should be — I could. But it’s not that. It’s not that simple.
This is our beautiful mess. We make it. And we can never completely clean it up.