The Role of the Teacher in Zen

“I am embarrassed to say this, but I read pretty Zen books for twenty years before I met a teacher.”  – Dai-En Bennage Roshi

Most of us in the West begin a meditation practice by reading books, through the internet, through apps, or maybe through a teacher-less meditation group.  These are all fine ways to begin.  When I began practicing Zen in 1994 it was preceded by taking a Philosophy of Religion class, being totally turned upside down by the Philosophy professor, and then seeing a video of John Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery giving instructions in Zazen.

Shortly after, I met my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, and learned directly from her how to sit and walk.  For the next three years I occasionally sat with teachers, but I mostly sat on my own until I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I don’t mean that “I wasn’t getting anywhere” in the Ultimate sense.  From the relative dimension my practice had grown stale.  There was no sense of vitality to it.  As I look back, I seriously lacked compassion for people because I was so caught up inside my head that I had little understanding of how others may be suffering and what my role in their suffering was.  Zen Master Dogen said that it is better to give up Zen practice than to practice without a teacher.

The role of the teacher is to wake us up to our own ego – the ways in which we selfishly seek fame and personal contentment.  The teacher is there to help us see that our vision is too narrow and that we have the potential to see a wider swatch of the population.  We literally don’t notice what and who are in plain sight.  Mentally, we are not able to see beyond the confines of our own concepts.  Spiritually, we don’t feel at home with who we are and where we are.

Our vision may get a little better when studying with a teacher.  We may be a little more aware of others.  We may get out of the prison of ego sooner.  However, that is not the point of being in a teacher-student relationship.  It’s not self-improvement.  The point is to see that we don’t see, to humbly realize our limitations, and to redouble our efforts to transform ourselves from ego-centered to reality-centered.

After losing my job, having no commitment in a relationship, and no children to take care of, I decided to live with Dai-En Roshi – a residential training that lasted 15 years.  During this time, I gave Dai-En Roshi permission to teach me.  I allowed her to see me in my actions – everything from washing the dishes, eating, gardening, working on the computer, talking on the phone, interacting face-to–face with sangha members, and, of course, meditation.  She could see how I did things and then offer me feedback.  As a student, my role was to chew on what she said and try to implement changes.  Zen Master Dogen wrote, “To learn the practice and maintain the Way is to abandon ego-attachment and to follow the instructions of the teacher.  The essence of this is being free from greed.”

Meditation retreats and even shorter sittings are an opportunity to develop this student-teacher relationship, but only if the student wants this.  It is the student’s responsibility to ask for this either formally (in some cases this means by receiving the precepts), or informally by expressing the desire to study with a particular teacher.  The depth in which one can go depends on the depth of the commitment and the aptitude of the student.  There is no “one size fits all” kind of relationship.  There is no clear-cut path that gets you to an end.  It’s a relationship that is built together through trial and error, making mistakes – by both the student and the teacher, building trust, seeing the humanity of the teacher, and being willing to let go again and again of ideas of who you are and what your life is about.

This is not an easy path because it involves honest looking at yourself – thoughts, words, and actions, and being willing to change, or at least recognize your misconceptions.  As Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh would say in certain contexts, “You are a victim of a wrong perception.”  Nonin Chowaney Roshi, another teacher I studied with, said it to me more bluntly, “You know nothing.”

Zen is a transmission beyond words and letters.  Words and letters, like this article, are simply a finger pointing to the moon.  They are not the moon itself.  Reading can be helpful.  Apps can be helpful.  Meditation done by oneself or in a group can be helpful for getting started.  The short side of them is that they are impersonal and can become ego-enhancing rather than ego-dissolving.  A book can’t know you and give you personalized instruction the way that a human being in the same room can.

If there are any ends to practice, it is a transmission that occurs from warm hand to warm hand, warm heart to warm heart.  The title of one of Dogen’s writings is “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha.”  Zen is not about meditating and then getting up to leave and do something else.  Zen is about how we are in relationship with everything, off and on the cushion.  Dai-En Roshi said our practice is “omoiyari”.  This is a Japanese expression which means “consideration”.  It’s about noticing others and demonstrating consideration for their needs.

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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