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.