Teacher Qualities in Soto Zen

Zen teachers profoundly influence the way we see the world.  My teacher, Rev. Dai-En Bennage, taught me, through her own example, to be.  I landed in the present moment and from that point forward vowed to continue landing in the present moment through devotion to zazen, the teacher and the sangha.


Zen teachers also get sick and die.  We can’t always rely on them.  Buddha taught us to “be a lamp unto yourself” upon his death.  My relationship with my teacher had and continues to have its ups and downs.  While not excusing a teacher’s bad behaviors, this flux in feelings towards our teachers is an opportunity.  Zen Master Nagarjuna said, “The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.”  (In Gakudo Yojin-Shu)  In other words, stepping off the roller coaster of expectations, of good and bad, of high and low, and watching from the ground, this is the beginnings of enlightenment.  We distance ourselves to a certain degree from our thoughts and feelings[*], and just watch without judging mind.

First, how do we recognize a teacher?  A teacher, in the broadest sense, is happy.  This is not a naïve kind of happiness that ignores the suffering of oneself and the world.  A teacher is someone able to transform the mud of their suffering into the flower of Enlightenment and to pass that on to their students in an authentic way. 

This does not mean that what we feel is ignored.  Rather, we distance ourselves from the drama that springs up as a result of not fully embodying what we feel.

When I met my teacher she said, “You can have great wealth and be unhappy.  You can have next to nothing and find contentment.”  She had lived that.  Marrying a well-off businessman, she had loads of material resources at her fingertips, but was not content.  Within six years, in her late 20’s, she left the marriage and moved to Japan.  As a nun, she got rid of all her belongings – fancy dresses, jewelry, shoes, lucrative work, comfortable Tokyo apartment etc. –  and lived very simply in Japanese Zen temples for 12 years, difficulties and challenges of Zen life notwithstanding.  Now, when I talk to her over the phone (she presently resides in assisted living), our brief conversations continue to inspire me.  She doesn’t live for herself.  She still has a sincere desire to share the Dharma.

Following her for 15 years in residence, I developed great confidence in the Buddha way as a means to living a more sane and drama-less life.  My teacher once told me, “The only reason I didn’t quit [monastic life], was because the pain in my heart was greater than the pain in my knees.  If the pain ratio had been the other way, I would have been out the door.” 


Zen teachers function ideally to provide us opportunities through practice to heal our broken hearts because they themselves have experienced this healing.

With a mind to aid them, with compassion, to give them peace and ease, To establish them securely, with sympathy and acceptance, Protecting sentient beings, looking upon them as the same as themselves, As teachers and as guides – Once abiding in these sublime states of mind Next [Bodhisattvas] are directed to study and learn, To always enjoy peace and quiet and right meditation, And draw near to all good associates.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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