Not long ago, a Zen student in California wrote to me asking for advice about his teacher. He’s on track to be ordained, he wrote, but as he moves closer to taking that leap, he finds himself worried that his teacher doesn’t really get him. In fact, he’s left teachers in the past for this very reason. He said that he sometimes reads the blogs of priests like me—people he’s never met in person—and starts to think, maybe this teacher would understand me. Having that understanding feels important.
This is normal. I’ve noticed that when people approach me as students, they often try to tell me as much as possible about themselves in our first conversation. It has the feeling of full disclosure, like starting a date by saying, “You should know, I just got out of a bad relationship. And my family’s a little messed up. And some of my friends think I like cats too much, but can you really like cats too much? Anyway, they say I do.” Some of how it comes out is probably just nervousness, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the desire to be seen—and the belief that seeing in that way is the teacher’s job.
But that’s a misunderstanding. What teachers do is practice. What students do is practice with teachers.
I have a favorite Western Zen encounter story; it should be in a koan collection, except that it’s so straightforward. I might be getting the details wrong, but basically, a student at Berkeley Zen Center had a profound and meaningful dream, and when he woke up, he rushed straight to the Zen Center to tell his teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman. When Weitsman-roshi opened the door, the student exclaimed, “You have to hear about the dream I just had!” His teacher replied, “No, I don’t,” shut the door, and went back inside. That’s a Zen story perfectly suited to our culture and our time. We need it.
If you enter into a relationship with a teacher defining success as being understood (or seen), then you’re aiming in the wrong direction from the start. If I approach someone as a student, it is to get over myself and to see what the teacher sees—not in me (because that’s not where the teacher is looking) but in the Dharma. In this moment. In this action. I will study how my teacher sits, how she eats breakfast, how she greets people she doesn’t know, and I will imitate it all, not so that I can be her—I can’t—but so that I can step beyond my own story of who I am.
There’s an ongoing discussion about whether or not Zen is therapy. And I know that for many in the West, the experience of relating to a teacher is very much like a form of counseling. But speaking in terms of the Soto tradition, I would say this: Zen is therapy only if your idea of therapy is spending years in the same room as your therapist silently observing your therapist; if, after all those years, there’s a very real possibility that your therapist might turn to you, prostrate three times, and say, “Now we’re both therapists,” then yes, Zen is therapy. (This is not to say that Zen practitioners cannot benefit from therapy, because probably everyone can. Nor is it to say that Buddhist psychology and Western psychology cannot inform one another, because they do. But the idea that Buddhism has been somehow incomplete, and that Western psychology somehow completes it, does a disservice to both traditions—they are not designed to accomplish the same ends.)
In a conversation between student and teacher, what is said? What needs to be? It’s easy to misread the classic exchanges between teachers and students of the past. It can seem, on first glance, that students are offering up their own understanding, asking the teacher to either verify them or send them in a new direction. But—and I’ve written about this before—what’s really happening is that the student, if he’s sincere, is trying to get the teacher, not the reverse. The student is attempting to touch the teacher’s understanding, not to gain approval. It’s a question of direction.
The trajectory of the teacher-student dynamic is not about the student; at least, it shouldn’t be. But nor is it about the teacher. It’s about the Dharma, about the expression of Dharma, about either expanding so far beyond oneself that you contain all beings or becoming so rooted and unshakeable that you can bear the weight of them. But the burden is on the student. The teacher is already holding that space, accepting that work—the student enters that space not to disturb it but to support it, and eventually to learn to carry it alone.
We can get this wrong in communities, too. Most Zen centers are very small, and teachers are pulled in every direction; as a result, ordained students often double as Zen center staff, teaching newcomers, giving talks, offering classes, and so on (often, of course, committed lay students do the same). It’s a practical arrangement. The financial reality of most Zen centers is that you take whatever help you can get, and a committed, ordained student is too precious a resource to waste. And some centers are led by novices, making them de facto teachers from day one. But based on my own experience, I would like to see us move toward a model in which the community understands that ordination, among other things, brings with it a kind of vow of silence. Not true silence, but silence about the Dharma, at least for a few years. I once met a monk who, for the training period when he was shuso (head novice), actually was silent—his teacher forbade him from speaking at all, placing the burden on him not only to lead by example, but to listen and watch and not be in the spotlight, to not be special. Students need to explore a mode of expression outside of the teacher’s seat. That seat is dangerous.
Along the way, I’ve had teachers tell me that I am unique, that I am important, that I am a vital piece of some puzzle. Dealing with the seductiveness of that, and with the inevitable disappointments that follow, has taught me a lot about myself. But I’ve also had teachers who, through their insistence on practice and their apparent indifference to what I think about it all, sent the exact opposite message. From them, I’ve learned a lot about Buddhism.
I bring this up in part because of the seemingly endless parade of scandals in the Zen world. When we read the various accounts, both by those who were directly abused by their teachers and by those who stood idly by, we find a common theme: students wanted to be special, and teachers used that as a weapon. It’s basic psychology that if you want to be liked by someone at a party, then you should ask that person lots of questions about himself. The harsh and simple reality is that teachers are people, and they want to be liked, and they can achieve this by keeping the conversation focused on you. And if you want to be special (and you do—we all do), you will like it. So it continues.
Not all teachers who tell you what you want to hear are trying to manipulate you. But they’re also not helping.
Buddhism is clear: there is no you, and you are not special. You have a story to tell, of course—you always will. And you have gifts, and failings. I’m personally grateful to have people in my life who see me in that way, who have an investment in the story of me. Caring about that story is one way we show love. But we also need people who see beyond that, who see us as being both larger in scope and, at the same time, less interesting than our image of ourselves. We need people who have learned to teach without speaking—something learned from having been silent themselves. We need to be with people who are focusing their attention on something greater than themselves, greater than us, people who really do get us—not because they understand our story, but because they see beyond it.
It’s just not about you. It never was.