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.
Thank you for this insightful post.
Americans leave home and then immediately start looking for a replacement daddy and/or mommy. Why is that?
thank you for this information. i have been very confused about this for a long time.
Koun — I’m not sure if you hit the nail on the head or missed by a mile, but I liked your willingness to try.
Nailed it. A grownup speaks.
Missed it. The whole point is to study the self, know the self, then lose the self. It is not to obtain some kind of karma transplant by imitating a hero/role model, sometimes erroneously referred to as “My Teacher”. A Dharma teacher presents authenticity that he or she has cultivated, then helps students to find authenticity for themselves by guiding them towards taking their own backwards step. The relationship is wordless or becomes so, not because the student has become the image of the teacher in the teacher’s mind, but because the teacher can recognize the student has realized authenticity. I am uneasy with such pronouncements as “It’s not about you, it never was” while leaving out there to hang the notion that it’s about imitating a teacher.
Would you say that imitation could be seen as a liturgical reenactment, the warm hand to warm hand tradition of Dogen’s practice enlightenment?
Yes. But I would call it “alignment” or “attunement” rather than “imitation”.
LOL! I would put the order in this way, to study the self, to lose the self, then.to know the no-self.
Instead of authenticity I would say autonomy or even sovereignty (as in being a Dharma King or Queen)..
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” Dogen Zenji – The Genjokoan.
Authenticity is what is happening a body and mind are dropping away.
To be actualized by myriad things is to avoid picking and choosing, especially, picking and choosing something to imitate.
I thouroughly enjoyed this piece. To me it speaks from experience as a student. I think that it can be kind of like apprenticeship where you aren’t really friends or family but become maybe fonder than a working relationship.
Nice post. But I have a quibble about the premise of trying to emulate the teacher, especially the eating, walking, talking or anything else specifically like them. I think people do indeed do this, and a lot of Zennists talk like this, including teachers, and its there in the tradition itself, in some dysfunctional ways even. I have had teachers who did this with their teachers, idolized them, and consciously or unconsciously expected their students to treat them the way they had treated their own teachers. I think this can lead to some emotional stunting, and I think that impulse can be in itself somewhat immature. However, the process is built to show us our immaturities, our maladjustments. That seems to largely be what interacting with a teacher is about. I was happy to get a bit older and after having had what I’d call serious relationships to teachers before (with whom I learned a lot), establish contact with a teacher whom I didn’t want to be, who has said he didn’t want to be his teacher, and who clearly doesn’t want me or his other students to be him. I count it as a sign of my own (very slow) maturing that I had the good sense to choose this kind of teacher, when Buddha presented the chance.
I continue to be amazed at the subtlety of what it means to have and be around your teacher, and what it is that actually gets learned. Of course we can have many different kinds of teachers. One might indeed show you how to hold a mudra, do tea ceremony with the right gesture and even spirit. But the ‘real’ teacher? I don’t think being like them is even really a question. Its really more of a vibe, for lack of a better term, and often this subtle alchemy of transformation deep in the heart-mind. Meanwhile, I do learn forms and pick up on approaches. I learn stories and approaches to the teachings. I want to embody my teacher’s approach. But I don’t want to walk, talk, eat breakfast, believe or behave as he does. At all!
Very nicely put, Titus.
Titus (and feralmonk)–
Thank you. I think the issue of imitation in this practice is widely misunderstood; your comments make it clear that I did not present it skillfully at all.
To start: I do not want to be my teachers, nor do I particularly want to even be like my teachers, though they of course have qualities I appreciate and respect. As I tried to state in the blog, imitation does not (and cannot) lead us to being another person. That’s not the point. But it does let us try on a different mode of being, and that in turn expands our sense of who we might (or might not) be. Idolization, for me, is completely unrelated to this kind of practice of imitation.
My karate teacher was a 5-foot tall Japanese man with short legs and incredibly long arms; I’m over six feet tall. But he teaches kata (the prearranged forms) to everyone in exactly the same way. That is to say, everyone is trying to do it just like him, even though almost no one in the room is even remotely similar to him physically. The obvious result is that “my” kata does not look like “his” kata, despite my best efforts. But the more important issue is that the kata is bigger than how one of us expresses it. And he’s teaching from deep inside his own experience. If he tried to tailor it to fit me, there would be two losses: (1) he would no longer be teaching from the depths of his own experience, because he’d be speculating about a version of the kata that is completely outside of his own experience, one that he thinks better fits his idea of who I am; (2) kata, for me, would become something much smaller than it really is, something I can master, since really, this one he’s teaching me is mine.
We can only ever arrive at our own expression. And in my experience, trying very hard to express something bigger than oneself is one of the most honest and vulnerable forms of expression there is. That is what I mean by imitation. It’s a basic stance of humility and openness. But no one can be reproduced. Nor should they be.
By the way, you sneak in “believe” at the end, but I don’t think I even implied that. This practice is about engagement, not about belief.
I was responding to this specific line really: “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.”
As my first Zen teacher Seung Sahn would say, just pay attention to the direction of someone’s speech – in that sense, I really think I’m with you, and generally, I agree and feel sympathy with more of what you have to say about Zen than most people online who are talking about Zen. But that’s why I said I “quibbled” with a line or two. And how can we not? Words are just words. And in my words I was going a bit beyond your words to let rip some other expression, so it was not wholly meant to be taken as a rebuttal to you. But I will reiterate that single line, while likely a good approach and good medicine for some people at some times, is I think generally problematic especially for the way Zen is being transmitted right now to the Modern, Western paradigm. It sure ended up being such for me, and I could unfold a tale telling why.
Thank you for this. I find this conversation fascinatin. To you, the approach I’m describing is the problem with how Zen is being transmitted in the West, whereas I would say the opposite, that many of the stories I hear are of teacher-student relationships that follow, in important ways, a therapist-client model. I was trying to offer an alternative; otherwise, obviously, I wouldn’t have written this at all. Maybe I have it all wrong.
I suspect I would very much enjoy sitting down and discussing all of this with you. I’d like to think that one day that could happen.
My best to you.
Well in this small cult of gen x soto priests, I can’t imagine we can’t make that happen! I will say here that I think the boundary between dharma encounters from therapy is even more fuzzy in Soto practice than some other styles. But there is a difference. I won’t venture an opinion on what the difference is, mostly because I’d prefer to just keep experiencing it without knowing! Many bows.
Excellent discussion. How would this look if the teacher and student were intended to be a conduit; with no expectation of using, interpreting or experiencing their teachings. but having as a sole purpose the transmission of specific knowledge for the observance of others at a later date.
Well put, Kuon.
yes. Thank you Titus.
This is a great contribution to an important on-going discussion about teachers, students, and our tradition. Much to ponder. Thanks.
This is terrific. I so appreciate you. You say what others will not.
Thank you! Do you mind if I translate it into Russian and post on my vk.com social network page — with the link to this posting? (Bow)
You’re very welcome to translate it–thank you for asking (and no need). Would you please send me the link when you’re done? I’d love to see it.
Let me know if you can view that.
Kwan Um School of Zen group at vk.com may repost that soon 🙂
That was fast! 🙂
i’ve only discovered your blog this morning and read this article with surprised recognition. after spending several days at a cistercian monastery last week, i realised that when i am there (which is fairly frequently), i don’t come away having learned much of anything from what i am reading on retreat or listening to homilies at mass or even necessarily from one-on-one spiritual direction. what i really learn from is watching the sisters in community – how they treat one another with great tenderness, how the altar is prepared by the sacristan, how the food is prepared in the kitchen, how the readers speak the psalms. there is a wealth of teaching transmitted by their actions, a teaching that i am more than happy to silently observe and imitate. thank you so much for giving me a framework in which to place this realisation!
Thanks, Koun. Good, provocative stuff. I have a bit different view – my thoughts at
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.
Great Story. i’m more wordy and would have said something like, “That dream is already gone, what about this dream?” Then if the student didn’t say anything I’d say “gone again.” and shut the door.
Great piece. Thanks.
A true Zen teacher is not your friend. He or she may know you better than you know yourself, but it’s nothing personal because it’s not about you, and that’s the point. As for your therapist, well, he or she let’s you know from the get-go (and for a flat fee) that it’s all about you and that it always will be. See the difference? Anyway, great post Mr. Franz.
It is refreshing to read these thoughts and it seems they strike the heart of the matter which is authenticity. Authenticity is very different than authority, and it is here where it seems so many people are so greatly misled on the spiritual path.
Koun is someone, perhaps uniquely in the Zen world, who can be realized as someone who speaks from authenticity. But never an authority. Perhaps he would disagree. But what teacher, what guru, what master can there be to define the fundamental truths? There is only one: each seeker is her own authority; each seeker decides for himself what is true or false, what is wrong or right, what makes sense or what is distracting for their lives.
There is a quintessencial phrase from Hinduism: tat avat asi. It is that. You are that. Truth is that. You are truth. And so on. The truth of religion is when we embody that which is the teaching; not that we accept it or seek it or root it out like a pig after truffles. As a condition. But when we realize that we, alone, uniquely, are the truth and authority of our lives, without conditions, in a land without paths or pitfalls, it is truth. It is this which I realized is the quintessence of Buddhism: the tathagatagarbha, the womb of suchness. It is our unborn, undying nature to be truth buried under the mountain of defilement and delusion of samsara.
And so, conditioned to seek a way out in order to find truth, we trade the prison of ignorance for the prison of another condition: that of a teacher, that of dependency, that of conditions. That of religion. There are many things which frustrate me about the institution of contemporary Buddhism, but perhaps there is one which reigns supreme above them all, and that is the basic inauthenticity of it all. People regurgitating what the teacher says and expecting this to lead them to enlightenment. Asian platitudes and attempting to circle the cakewalk and find a seat when the music stops. Are we enlightened now? If I sit sesshin will I become enlightened? If I work the koans will I become enlightened? All these conditions. People going against their own truth because Buddha said it or someone said that Buddha said it. Or Dogen said it. Or Bodhidharma said it. Enlightenment has no path of being spoken. There is no one to lead you. Maybe they can stamp out your human nature or lead you astray but they can never lead you to enlightenment because to lead you anywhere other than exactly what and where you are is a fraud, a fiction, a false hope. Truth is inside you, unborn, undying, it is Nirvana. Every master who has acheived the ultimate realizations has done so on their own effort. It is the way.
Religion is extremely distracting along the spiritual path to this realization. Religion becomes an idea, a ritual, something to do, some condition, some bit of flotsam in the endless sea of samsara. Will it hold you up? Or is it you doing the floating? The teacher becomes a figurehead. An object, an idea, a feeling, and none of which is liberation. It is one condition replacing another, and another, and another. In seeking liberation we trap ourselves because we look to a teacher to light our way. In the conditioned pursuit of wisdom, the ownership of wisdom which cannot be owned, we see the true friend of Buddha as someone who becomes an authority in our lives. Buddha refused to be an authority, at least the Buddha who manifests to me, the Buddha who is our own mind, our own teacher. Never an authority. Always authentic.
This truth is not found anywhere. It is simply always there.
You have split the arrow head with your arrow, Red Shift. Deep bows!
You are always too generous. I appreciate your insistence on cutting to the center; your redacted poems on Sweeping Zen sometimes seem to say it more clearly than I did.
I will only say, for clarification–and I’m not sure if we’re agreeing here or not–that not all religious expression is inherently inauthentic, though inauthentic does describe much of it. Likewise, a committed relationship to a teacher does not, by any means, have to be a relationship of dependency, though that is certainly one of the pitfalls. Making authentic what seems on the surface to be inauthentic, for me, is an awfully compelling enterprise.
My best to you.
The relationship is the mirror through which we perceive the self.
I feel there is much more to be said on this matter but I won’t take up your blog to do it. I do feel that to approach Buddhism through any kind of organization is essentially a pitfall, and I don’t say this to detract from your vocation or life work. In fact I realize quite plainly that you as a teacher are skilled beyond any parallel in my own life, and to suggest that what you do is meaningless, wrong, or somehow pernicious would be a completely inappropriate and errant act on my part. I do not think avoiding religion is any less of a trap than seeking religion. My point, if I may speak plainly among dharma sisters and brothers, is that I adhere absolutely and unconditionally to the view that there can be no path to realization except though knowing the mind. It is from the mind that all reality springs. This is the bedrock of my understanding of Buddhism and I seek to impose it on no one. Ultimately faith is a personal matter, and, at the heart of it, if an organization is formed to lead people along a particular path of knowing mind, I realize it becomes something else altogether than the womb of suchness. The content of mind, with its notions of self, the notions of religion, the very desire for liberation is precisely the problem. And to develop a creed or practice or organized belief to know the content of mind, does not, in my view liberate anyone. I am not here to play word games or endlessly spin abstractions about what does or does not constitute good practice, whether there is a self or is not a self in practice — these are things which each person must discover for themselves. I have made the realization of suchness through knowing my own mind, its failures and limitations, and discovering the animating principle of truth that transcends my own form, consciousness and being. Once it becomes organized into a creed is where Buddhism fails to follow the Blessed One; we are that. There is nothing to follow.
Again. Many deep bows, Sensai Red Shift.
Good lord, Feralmonk. But thanks all the same for your kind support along the way. May we all find liberation by being free.
Thanks Red shift for the lively views. Mr. Koun Franz from the very start has given me the impression of somebody who is more than he actually says. And he still does. Perhaps he means that, of the many ways to approach this subject, teacher-student relationship is an equally good one. We know the Buddha did. Thanks.
Thank you for the kind reply, MNR. Koun is simply unique among humanity. His writings are beautiful, authentic, and clear, and resonate with so many people at so many levels. He is realizing Nirvana in living form. I just want to clarify that I would never attempt to take away from the inspiration of practice, religion, or creed, and that I have only the utmost respect and gratitude to Koun for his life’s work, the ordained monkhood, and the laity who are living expressions of faith. I have no desire to try to convince anyone there is a better way than what they are doing. What I am getting at is the real heart of freedom depends on no conditions, no teaching, no teacher, no creed. They are not mutually exclusive.
When the sangha is formless and expresses a pathless devotion to practice, without trying to reify it into a condition or characteristic of truth or spiritual realization, this relationship is the purest reflection of Buddha mind and the divinity of every being. When it takes form in duality (of practice-non practice, creed-non-creed, group-non-group, teacher-non-teacher, student-non-student), or however it breaks itself away from the transcendent realization of Dharmakaya as one in same with Mind, it is a reflection of delusion, as described by the Blessed One in the Lankavatara sutra’s chapter on discrimination:
“It is like the city of the Gandharvas which the unwitting take to be a real city when in fact it is not so. The city appears as in a vision owing to their attachment to the memory of a city preserved in the mind as a seed; the city can thus be said to be both existent and non-existent. In the same way, clinging to the memory of erroneous speculations and doctrines accumulated since beginning-less time, they hold fast to such ideas as oneness and otherness, being and non-being, and their thoughts are not at all clear as to what after all is only seen of the mind. It is like a man dreaming in his sleep of a country that seems to be filled with various men, women, elephants, horses, cars, pedestrians, villages, towns, hamlets, cows, buffalos, mansions, woods, mountains, rivers and lakes, and who moves about in that city until he is awakened. As he lies half awake, he recalls the city of his dreams and reviews his experiences there; what do you think, Mahamati, is this dreamer who is letting his mind dwell upon the various unrealities he has seen in his dream, is he to be considered wise or foolish? In the same way, the ignorant and simple-minded who are favorably influenced by the erroneous views of the philosophers do not recognize that the views that are influencing them are only dream-like ideas originating in the mind itself, and consequently they are held fast by their notions of oneness and otherness, of being and non-being. It is like a painter’s canvas on which the ignorant imagine they see the elevations and depressions of mountains and valleys.”
I’ll break one of my own precepts by quoting someone — which is a subtle form of grasping — but I think it expresses succinctly a different perspective on spiritual freedom, which I have tried and probably failed to express in the preceding commentary on Koun’s teachings:
“There is only one problem: to rediscover that there is spiritual life, which ranks higher than intelligence and which alone satisfies man. This goes beyond the problem of religion, which is only one form of spiritual life.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupery
From the Tibetan perspective; I cannot fix you, I will share with you the Dharmic tools that you need to fix yourself. Do not make me responsible for your happiness, to do so also makes me responsible for your unhappiness, your happiness and unhappiness are your responsibility. The greatest teaching is practice.
The Yogi Konchog Jimpa Lama
Thank you Koun. This helps me understand how I got snared in a bad relationship with a previous teacher and perhaps how to avoid another one. Had I trusted my observations and realized that I couldn’t emulate him earlier things would hot have been as bad.
This article is very well articulated and insightful. Thank you. Gassho.
“Koun! After I was at our last dharma study session, I was walking home, and suddenly, out of the blue I experienced a moment of perfect clarity and boundless connection! What… what do you call that, is there a term?”
“I call that a good moment.”
(sometime in 2007)
the teacher mislead the student, the student mislead the teacher.
Oy ! So much talking !