Tossing Out the True Teacher and Bringing in the Barely Good Enough

In the Vine of Obstacles: Support for Online Zen Training, the first focus for study practice is Dogen’s “Guidelines for Practicing the Way.” Dogen makes ten points here, starting with the importance of clear intention, practicing for the sake of buddhadharma, and the importance of studying with a “true” teacher.

Click here for a Wild Fox blog post about following a teacher, practicing yourself, following yourself from a couple years ago.

In the Vine work, several people have gotten “true” teacher caught in their craw while working through this point. Understandably – so I want to address the issue of a “true” teacher here.

Dogen defines “true teacher” like this:

“Regardless of age or experience, a true teacher is simply one who has apprehended the true teaching and attained the authentic teacher’s seal of realization. S/he does not put texts first or understanding first, but her/his capacity is outside any framework and her/his spirit freely penetrates the nodes in bamboo. S/he is not concerned with self-views and does not stagnate in emotional feelings. Thus, practice and understanding are in mutual accord. This is a true master.”

I’m reminded of the surveys that ask people what qualities they expect in a President – brave, clean, reverent, heroic, brilliant, loving, etc.

I think Dogen errs here in suggesting that anybody can be what he describes at all times to all people. Maybe every clause could be qualified with “In a really excellent moment…her/his capacity is outside any framework,” etc.

We’re verbs not nouns. We’re all bozos on the bus.

Because of that, I propose that we toss out the “true” teacher construction from our nontraditional Zen work. After all, the expectation has led to a lot of inflation, projection, and intoxication by both teachers (speaking from experience) and students in our scene today.

In its place, I propose that students aspire to find a “good enough teacher” (following Winnecott, I believe) and that teachers too aspire to be “good enough” or better, barely good enough.

Good enough for what? To collaborate with students in their practice-enlightenment project.

Why “barely?” A Zen teacher buddy (thanks, Dae An) recently sent me this from Norman Fischer:

“…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.”

In my case, I started with Katagiri Roshi when I was 21 and quite naive and angry too. It took several years before I was confident that I was with the right guy. I did put him on a pedestal for a while but fortunately he kept falling off and I finally got that he was a regular person like me. Turns out that it really helped our relationship. He seemed much more at ease with me when I didn’t expect him to be a great man and I found that I could actually learn from him. He may not have been the most enlightened, pure Zen master of the 20th Century.

He was good enough.

And in the Zen tradition we aim at going beyond our teachers. So come hell or high water, I vow to be barely good enough, leaving “just barely good enough” for the next generation.

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  • Gianni Grassi

    The true teacher is none other than one who, having studied the self, forgets the self. Good enough is neither good nor enough.

  • Bob O’Hearn

    Any teacher outside yourself is never the true teacher, but if they happen to be good enough, they can point you in the right direction.

  • Stephen Slottow

    I have heard Bodhin Kjolhede also talk about the “good enough” teacher. It’s a sound, sane term.

    • doshoport

      As a barely good enough teacher sometimes, I’m happy to follow in Bodhin’s foot steps.

  • Gianni Grassi

    This article makes more sense to me in the (non-gradualist) Zen context if I substitute the phrase “good enough instructor” for “good enough teacher”. My own root teacher asked his students to tell him what each of us meant by the term ‘teacher’. My answer was, “He who listens, teaches.”

  • David Ashton

    Wonderful post! Oops … I mean barely OK. I’ll hardly give it a second thought.

    • doshoport

      Thanks. I mean, your comment was just barely acceptable.

  • Jan Seymour-Ford

    Bows of gratitude, Dosho!

    • doshoport

      Jan, Good to hear from you! Bows of gratitude back.

  • Hanrei B


    I like this, and, because I like it so much, I’m a bit wary of it – because it’s exactly the sort of thing that attracted me to the Zen side of the house: I can cite this sort of thing as an excuse or justification for just continuing to be an asshole in the many habitual ways.

    I think the realities you are pointing to (and I certainly think that it isn’t helpful to see our human foibles as a grim reality… although often they just are) need to be tempered with vow; the vow that, although we are broken, we aspire to wholeness. I think vow is a big part of Dogen’s stuff.

    I’m slowly emerging form a period of shoddy, lazy, sleepy practice where I was nestled into so many layers of resignation and assumption. I think an inbuilt facility for (eventually) realizing the unsatisfactoriness of that situation, and the vow to overcome it, is what shifted things a bit. The vow itself may be the greater part of the ‘result’.



    • doshoport

      Thanks for this, Harry. I vow for vow.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    LOL! from good enough, to barely good enough, to just barely good enough as the direction of being “better” than the teacher.

    • doshoport

      Oh, “going beyond” is about being better? Dang…all these years down the drain.

      • Gregory Wonderwheel

        Oh Yeah, :) Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate means better, better, way better, all the way better.

  • Jeanne Desy

    How about a metaphor – a good coach is one who has thoroughly played the game and made all the mistakes you’re making. On the other hand, being a good writer doesn’t make one a good teacher of writing. Never mind.

    • Paul

      You hit something here. Most of the best coaches in baseball were middling to poor players. Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire are prime examples. Both had very short major league careers but have been successful as managers.

      It’s often surmised that since they lacked the natural talent of a great player that they had to spend more time working on the fundamentals. Maybe the same applies to teachers. Teachers that are just good enough know are struggles more intimately than teachers who are great.

      • Jeanne Desy

        If you qualify by being the very worst possible horse, surely that is me. :)

  • Cherry Zimmer

    Just good enough is ok as long as the teacher has the humility to admit it. And is not harming his/her students and sangha in the process. The real problem is that there are a number of barely bad enough teachers out there that can cause real harm.

    • doshoport

      Thanks. Both good points.

  • Alyosha

    I couldn’t disagree more. And since Dogen does too, I am in pretty good company.
    We are in sad shape if we are advocating lukewarm devotion to a teacher who is “barely good enough” — or pursuing dharma based on self-help (collaborating with students in their “practice-enlightenment project” — for god’s sake). Jesus Christ!
    As we develop on the path, our understanding of others becomes gentler. A buddha is not focused on shortcomings of his students. Shunryu Suzuki was asked what he thought of his early hippie students. He said: “I think they are all buddhas — until they open their mouths.” So, let’s emulate that and stop viewing our teachers as stainless steel buddhas who are “all things to all people”.