Following a Teacher, Practicing Yourself, Following Yourself

I think most Zen students would agree that following a teacher is a delicate task for us modern people. However, I’ll suggest here that most of our reactions to the practice of following a teacher are based on misconstrued images and projective distortions rather than the real deal.

Americans tend to overtly over-emphasize the horizontal dimension and rigidly refuse to sit in the student seat, clinging to our specialness and rigid but fragile sense of self. 

At the same time, Americans covertly tend to disrespect ourselves and deify the person in the teacher seat, putting them way up on the vertical axis so that a real relationship isn’t happening.

Or we frantically flip-flop between these two, finally throwing out the kitty with the kitty litter, the teacher with the relationship … and the Zen practice. 

Monday night at our study group we provisionally unpacked Dogen’s Self-Realization Samadhi, addressing the practice of following a teacher. There are a number of other work-throughs on this theme in the Shobogenzo but this one is probably the most poetic and deliciously nuanced. 

Despite what you might read in the cyberwhirl, Zen is a relational undertaking. Therefore, to authentically be engaged in Zen practice, it is simply necessary to be engaged in a teacher-student relationship.

Unless we are involved in following a teacher, we can’t be fairly said to be practicing Zen. Saying that you’re a Zen student without a teacher is like telling your friends that you are doing psychotherapy and then sitting alone in your room and talking to yourself about your problems.

So what is the “vital activity,” as Dogen calls it, of following a teacher?

Dogen puts it this way (and you might need to slow down in order for what follows to penetrate): 

“At the very moment of following a teacher, we encounter half a face or half a body. We encounter with the entire face and entire body. We realize a spirit’s hairy head and practice a demon’s horned face. At times we follow others while traveling in the midst of different beings. At other times we travel differently while being born with those who have the same kind of birth.”

The first point that jumps out from this passage is what isn’t present – including most things we associate with following a teacher and have reactions about like doing what we’re told because the teacher knows best, sitting zazen with them according to their instructions, studying Buddha’s teaching, volunteering to support their center, and giving money.

The second point is what is present. Following a teacher is about meeting – whether we show up with half a face or the entire body, whatever feelings we may be having (like the odd reference to the spirit’s hairy head [that I don't get] or the angry face of a demon [that I do get]), whether we think we are the same or different, that others are like us or not.

To reiterate, following a teacher in Dogenwhirl is meeting – and he doesn’t say with whom or by whom – although it is all based on following a teacher, of course, or as a Zen meeting it doesn’t have legs, hairy or otherwise. 

Even though it is based on meeting a teacher, following a teacher is really flexible and variable. Like reality. 

Following the teacher is meeting the teacher, meeting the rain falling lightly on the deck while sipping morning coffee, meeting the person you are at the moment of sipping coffee.

Through following a teacher in this way we “…let go of ourselves for the sake of the dharma … [and] seek the dharma for the sake of ourselves.” 

Following a teacher is practicing oneself and meeting oneself.

Your thoughts welcome, especially about how you see the Dogen passage above. Lifetime free blog membership for the definitive understanding of “a spirits hairy head.”

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