Teacher? Student?

in a row ganzoujiThe 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.

17 comments on “Teacher? Student?

  1. Koun, thanks, as usual, for this. I’ve been describing my consumption of the ongoing mess as porn too. Like you I think some of the difficulty in the conversation has to do with people using words and concepts in ways that don’t line up with each other (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”).

    I’d like to make an observation about another wire I think keeps getting crossed in this conversation. I see some comments in the threads on this topic that read something like “Maybe you should be sitting more”. I’m unlikely to disagree with that, but it keeps bringing a question to mind. There are so many numbered lists I tend to get a bit boggled and confused, but there is one that goes something like this: the three practices in Buddhism are 1. Precepts 2. Meditation 3. Wisdom.

    So, I notice that Precepts are first on that list. To me that’s interesting. I think it challenges an idea that many of us carry into and through our life as zazen practicing Buddhists – the idea that zazen is the be all and end all, that zazen is the one and only point. I understand where that idea comes from (Hey Dogen, I’m looking at you), but from my very limited understanding I think that represents an incomplete reading of what Dogen taught.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that there is a lot of speaking at cross-purposes on this topic (and everywhere else I suppose). This instance feels important to me. I try to face in the direction of manifesting the precepts, manifesting zazen, and manifesting wisdom. These are not separate things. One of them can’t really manifest without the others. But I do think I need to tend carefully to all three, together and separately, so they can nourish each other and everyone.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you. I actually started out writing a response to the idea of “Maybe you should be sitting more,” but found myself on another track and ran with it. There’s a lot to be said there.

      As you say in your last paragraph, I think it’s truer to say that for Dogen, the precepts = zazen. For that matter, in the Dogenverse, any list of 3 is probably going to be (eventually) described as either three faces of the same thing, or three things that mutually create one another in the singularity of past, present, and future…. You know. It gets a little predictable, but in this case, I would definitely say that all three are #1. Another wrinkle, maybe, is the teaching that the precepts are not rules but a description of how a bodhisattva lives.

      Dogen absolutely did not teach that there was only zazen to this practice, but as you say, to put that out there is to question many, many of the working assumptions of the contemporary Zen world.

      In the case of these Zen scandals, it seems that we are collectively attacking the idea of piercing, cold realization that stands out of ethics or empathy. But so much of the discussion betrays the fact that deep, deep down, we would rather say something that jolts the other person into our idea of truth than say something from the heart, something with a question mark on it.

      As an aside, I feel grateful every day for the articulate, thoughtful civility I find in the comments section of this blog. I know I’ve been very lucky in that regard. Thank you again.


      • Koun,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. It is packed full of things for me to think about.

        And as I attempt to construct a clever response that oh-so-subtly betrays what I see as my brilliant and deep insights, I realize that I am exactly trying to “say something that jolts the other person into our idea of truth than say[ing] something from the heart, something with a question mark on it”.

        If I’m honest, if I speak from the heart, my expression can only be riddled with question marks.


  2. Shuji Valdene Mintzmyer says:

    My former teacher said, ‘just watch me, and that’s how you become a priest’, but the more time I spent with him, the less I wanted to be like him. Then I went to a monastery and I too met different priests, with different ways of being a priest. When I tried to talk to my teacher about needing another teacher, all he said was “you have to give me back your robes”. End of discussion. As his student, he would not let me talk to other teachers, even his other disciple. That was about one year ago, and I found another teacher, Sangha, and way of being the priest I want to be. You are very lucky to have a teacher that let you grow, and have other teachers be a part of your life.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you. Clearly, we had similar experiences (though my teacher was, lucky for me, much more open). The monastery showed me a different world, one which (ironically) I could not have seen without first committing to my teacher. I have heard well-respected teachers in the US express real concern about sharing the training of their disciples with other teachers, or of their students, through taking a formal training path, ending up with some sort of credentials that the teachers themselves do not possess. I don’t think American Zen, in these early stages, can afford that kind of insecurity.


  3. Raj says:

    Thank you for the marvelous post

  4. Cliff Clusin says:

    Wonderful, wonderful. I find great clarity here that is very helpful

  5. Peter Ehrhardt says:

    Koun, Perhaps its ego or my jittery nature but I’ve never been teacher oriented. I don’t take instruction kindly. Nevertheless a few choice words have stuck. Katagiri-roshi telling me that I needed to speak up; Tozen pointing out the passage in Genjokoan about carrying the self forward; You sitting in my car and allowing that perhaps Dogen’s writings are not metaphorical; And watching Eshin Nishimura eat breakfast.

    I’m not even sure these things were meant as teaching. I’m not even sure what teaching is but the best helps one approach the profound. Shams — Rumi’s spiritual friend — is the best we can hope for.

    On another note, we have restarted the Redoubt Mtn Sangha. Come visit sometime. We’d love to see your kids.

    • Koun says:


      I’m so glad that you remember that conversation in the car. So do I.

      I’m sure you know what I’ll say next: “I don’t take instruction kindly” suggests, to me, that you might have the most to gain from the friction of a teacher-student relationship. Someone who just looooves the idea of having a teacher, in the romantic abstract, might be well served by doing what you’re doing, working in a teacher-less community in one of the more remote places on earth for awhile. Just a thought.

      Congratulations on the rebirth of Redoubt Mtn. Sangha! Nothing would please me more than to visit you there with the whole family. I will keep looking for opportunities.


  6. Bruce says:

    Thank you for your insights and experiences, they were very helpful.

    I live in a small town with no zen group so I practice alone, far from my teacher, an old Japanese man who also has not given me anything to cling or attach on to which pisses me off too.
    Yearly I travel down and attend sesshin.
    By the time it comes to dokusan, I have forgotten all of the questions and issues that have bugged me through out the year and after bows and stillness, he asked me how I have been, what I have been doing.
    I keep it simple, we bow again.

    Thank you again.

    • Koun says:


      Thank you. I laughed when I read your comment the first time — it feels very true to my experience. I used to complain constantly in my head about how my teacher wasn’t telling me things, but I came to notice that I also wasn’t exactly asking. I was just saying “Give me something.” In so many relationships, we’re really just talking about the two of us. Take that off the table, though, and you find something you didn’t expect.


  7. Raj says:

    To enter the cloud of a particular teacher, the student had already walked in that orbit for a long while. It is never an accident, though it may at times appear to be. It is the ordained marriage of the soul. Such things are far above the concerns of jittery natures that have nothing to offer others other than misdirections. Much suffering, much sacrifice had preceded it. Who wants to remember those tales once you are in that cloud that has rain. The. chalice is full and there is one more to watch. And you see . It rains. Thank you.

  8. Kogen says:


    So wonderful to read about your experience. I find myself in a similar situation; My teacher is in Texas, leading his temple, and I’m out at Zen Center tracing his footsteps. I have a practice leader here and our relationship is very formal. We bow every time we pass eachother, she has taught me the fine, fine details of Oriyoki and other forms, and we meet in Dokusan every other week.

    My teacher and I rarely meet in Dokusan and usually go for walks. We talk on the phone, we write each other, and meet once every two months or so. And he’s my heart. We’ll spend Christmas Eve at mass this year. It’s like that.

    I could very easily ordain with my practice leader, but I’m very happy with this arrangement. And I’m accountable to both, maybe more my practice leader because she happens to be the Abbess at the time. Not to mention there is Tenshin Reb Anderson who is not shy, Meiya my tea teacher, countless senior priests who are available and ready to offer feedback as I walk around all day.

    Quick question: There’s onshi, so what is my root teacher called? or the one who will ordain me?

    • Koun says:


      Thank you for adding your experience to this.

      The teacher who ordains you is your jugōshi (受業師); the one who presides over your hossen-shiki (“Dharma Combat Ceremony”) is your hōdōshi (法幢師); the one from whom you receive transmission is your honshi (本師), or root teacher; the one who presides over your monastic training (i.e. the head teacher at the monastery) is your sangakushi (参学師). And your true teacher, whether you have a formal tie to that person or not, is the shōshi (正師) (ideally the same person as your honshi, but in truth, I think that might be the exception rather than the rule). One refers to one’s teacher (when speaking to others) as one’s shishō (師匠).

      Traditionally, it was not uncommon for a student to have at least three formal teachers (different jugōshi, hōdōshi, and honshi), but these days, it’s usually one. That seems unfortunate to me, something we should rethink. If teachers were better connected and perhaps less possessive, students could ordain with someone they trust, train under someone the teacher trusts, and in that process (and with the discernment that comes from that training), they could come to recognize who is really their true teacher.

      Best of luck to you.


  9. adam fisher says:

    I’m not sure exactly why, but your words put me in mind of a time when I, as a relatively new and bushy-tailed student — one dearly hoping to get something from Zen — saw Soen Nakagawa Roshi descending some stairs. It was at his farewell party in 1984 New York. And as I watched, my mind sought in vain to ‘get’ something from watching this fellow in robes descending the stairs. My mind scurried around, looking for some descriptive, some definition, something tangible I could file in some convenient nutshell. And I couldn’t do it. Finally, in exasperation, my mind said, “He is like a man who stands in his doorway and invites you to a party: He will be happy if you come and he will be happy if you don’t come.” At the time, I felt flummoxed and disappointed at my own assessment. Today, I like it quite a lot. 🙂

    Thanks as always,


  10. Taigu says:

    Thank you again, Koun.
    We should get together one day and really be silly, wild, wise and useless.
    Meanwhile, thank you again for this very sensitive and subtle writing-being.



  11. Reblogged this on continuousdiscoveries and commented:
    A beautiful conversation about “do I need a teacher/what teacher/student looks like/could be/is/is not

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