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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  • Al


  • Shofu

    Dosho,If the hairy head belongs to a hungry ghost (check out the hair on some of the gaki images), then — with the demon — Dogen sets up another nice paring: following the teacher either in a state of greed or in a state of anger/aversion.Very nice entry, btw!Dennis

  • Empty Seat Zendo

    To me "hairy headed spirit" conjures up images of pink clouds and unicorns – pleasant fantasies as opposed to the unpleasant fantasies represented by the demon. Either way, we confront them in the reality of the teacher/student relationship.Thanks for the discussion.Gassho _/|_Gregg

  • Eric

    "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."I read this as a direct statement of fact: the teacher is seen as half a body or half a face– i.e. as a teacher only– while the student approaches the teacher as a whole being with all the contradictory and unplummable depth we expect out of ourselves. The teacher has a role (assigned by us of course) while we are intimate with the failure of any role to define ourselves. "We realize a spirit's hairy head and practice a demon's horned face."In Dogen, of course, practice and realization are two facets of the same thing. They are in fact the exact same thing with different words arbitrarily applied to different contexts. In light of that, maybe the hairy sprit's head and demon's horned face are also the same thing. A spirit is elusive and strange while a demon is merciless. Realizing the "great matter" (so-called) is both a goal and an unforgiving practice. The teacher embodies both "faces" for the student, but of course they are only half-true since the teacher (like everything else) is a full body. These half faces are employed for the benefit of the student and perhaps true "realization" occurs when a student has a deep understanding of just what the teacher is up to."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."Practice-realization does not reduce to mere submission of ourselves to a teacher or being completely individualistic. Rather the isolation AND interconnectedness of all things and beings is to be understood as an expression of the same truth in different ways. The teacher is no more "enlightened" than the student is "deluded." They meet as equals but the student doesn't realize it yet. The teacher therefore takes on his half-faces in order to deconstruct or dissolve the teacher-student relationship in a deep thoroughgoing way.Those are my thoughts, but I dont' know much so I'd bet money I was wrong.eric

  • susan

    we commonly use the term "hairy" to describe something difficult or anxiety inducing ("the taxi ride got a little hairy" — merriam-webster online).seems about right.maybe an answer can also be found in the reason why priests shave their heads…

  • Dosho Port

    Wow, you people are smart. Other riffs welcome.

    • Jeanne Desy

      Pretty much everyone in Zen is way too smart for me.

  • Harry

    "At the very moment of following a teacher, we encounter half a face or half a body."To me, this suggests 'following a teacher' self/other-consciously, or gushing over some classy enlightened guru in a way that makes our actual selves remote. "We encounter with the entire face and entire body."This points to the fact that the actual encounter, the real act of encountering, is really more inclusive and harmonising though, it's not 'equal' (as in some value), it's equalising. I see these lines as a balancing, polemic device to clarify the substantial nature of the encounter-function. It's not necessarily devaluing 'following' but seeking to qualify the correct 'following' conduct. Both parties mutually realise an entire face and body in the correctly practiced encounter, in correct 'following'."We realize a spirit's hairy head and practice a demon's horned face."When we're actualising the relationship accordingly we're using ourselves honestly and directly, warts and all (both parties!!!), not despite the warts (I agree with the 'hungry ghost' theory above regarding the hairy spirit), we're not engaged in denying our condition."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."I wonder could 'different beings' translate here as 'aliens' as in 'those alien to us'? I've seen the term used in other translations. How do we make others 'different' or 'alien' (e.g. teachers whom we gush about or rail against)?… does the nature of our 'following' make us and our teacher each a remote half of a person in this way? How can we practice the encounter so that we are both 'born together'?Not for the first time I'm thinking Master Dogen was centuries ahead of his time.I'd like to dig out another translation of this passage.Regards,Harry.

  • Harry

    Just in the moment of “following a good counselor,” sometimes we see half of each other’s face, sometimes we see half of each other’s body, sometimes we see the whole of each other’s face, and sometimes we see the whole of each other’s body. There are instances of meeting in each other half of the self, and there are instances of meeting in each other half of the externalworld. We experience in each other the state in which the head of a god is covered with hair, and we experience in each other the state in which the face of a demon is topped by horns. We have the experience of following circumstances while going among alien types, and we go on changing while living among like beings."Here's the same section of Jishō Zanmai Samādhi from the Nishijima/ Cross trans. Good example of how a gnarly section of the text can be interpreted in various ways in translation.Instead of our ghost we have a 'hairy god' now? It seems to make for a more effective contrast with the horned demon at least.Regards,Harry.

  • Nick

    I'm sure somewhere there's a saying like "Those who try to understand Zen using the intellect are like the fur/hair (many),whilst those who approach it through action are like the horns (few)." I don't know where I've seen this though…Any help to you?

  • Roger

    how about it's about intimacy with all states -

  • alan

    I am of the mind that whatever we are intimate with is our teacher, like Roger says. I would like for Dosho to talk some about "intimacy"…Intimate bows,alan

  • MyoChi

    Here is a perspective from some one who came from east and ended up setteling in west. I grew up in India and now I live in US. In India, there is a lot of advertisement about teacher's position and how he is above one's parents also, because parents can only give birth and teacher can provide nirvana. I am not sure if it has been like this always or it has gotten distorted over time just like most other things – not only teacher is above every one, but one cannot question him either. There is authority and obedience associated with him. When I came to west and start pursuing spiritual path, it was such an amazement to see that it was OK to ask questions and not show blind obedience. I did also witness the separation from teacher that is described in the blog. I did start my spiritual quest without a proper teacher and I got into trouble. I realized that I needed someone who can guide me and stop me before I diverged too far. Now I practice with a teacher and she is a strong pillar by which my practice is supported. I think that there is a middle way between how teachers are looked upon in east and west, which is healthy for students. Students need teachers, period. The skill lies in how much.

  • Desiree

    Students need teachers, and teachers need teachers. But, how do students need students?"Hairy headed spirit" Is spirit in this context a noun or a verb? Would this change the meaning of the phrase or not?"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."'At times' and 'other times' seems to suggest contrasting scenarios. Though following others in the midst of divergencies and diverging seperately in conjuction with others who are born similarly seem convergent. Can or are they both done at once? Always or only sometimes? I love the word 'others' and the phrase 'born with' here. In the context of teachers, are the others we follow always teachers (whether good or bad)? Are we born with our teachers, or are our teachers always born before us, or are our greatest teachers those who come after us and teach us how to teach (students/groups of students).I find that sitting helps me see who and what I am following. I hesitate to ask myself "if" I am following, because it seems hard to imagine not following anyone or anything – even if the only thing I can pinpoint is myself.What part does affinity and location play in following a teacher and the success of comprehending a particular style/practice of teaching? Just thinking,Desiree

  • Ran

    I came across this post about the time it was posted, though it happened that I didn’t comment then.

    - First, – Dogen borrows both heads off the story quoted in the Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 1, no. 70.

    (I only know the Nishijima translation. I assume you’d know the Loori one.)

    The hair on a deity’s head is to make it real. Gods and angels do not have hair. Most people would imagine them as remote and unreal though. – Kind of hazy or foggy, – not something you can touch, and – consequently – perhaps – not fully real. The hair is to make them as real and as immediate as any physical object in our immediate surroundings.

    There is also a second point, – we imagine gods to be supreme and lofty. It is not that they are not, – according to this limited view. But no one would view himself in this way. One who has truly attained those two virtues would view them as natural. And his view is the correct one. – That is to say, – it is not that the inhabitants of Heaven – or those of them relevant here, – are not inherently high as might be imagined, – but this inherent virtue too, – is just as natural as the common features in everyday life.

    So this would bring those supernatural beings into reality in this way too. There is no need to be overly emotional.

  • Ran

    (- P.S. -

    - The second point is also related to the way the expression is used in the original story Master Dogen is borrowing the metaphors from, as his everlasting habit apparently is.)

  • Jeanne Desy

    Okay. It “a spirit’s hairy head” is this hairy human self/embodiment. I gather that’s before the fire in the hair burns it all off, all the way. I understand it takes quite a long time to decompose in the grave. Thus, cremation.