In the Teacher-Student Relationship, Who Gets Who?

Over at Nyoho Zen, Koun has written another engaging blog post, “My Teacher Doesn’t Get Me.”

I found myself in agreement throughout, even thought I’d made some of the same points before.

But then I got to reflecting on what I actually do. More on that in a moment.

First, what does Koun have to say? Here’s a little snippet (selected specifically because it sets up my somewhat different perspective):

In a conversation between student and teacher, what is said? What needs to be? It’s easy to misread the classic exchanges between teachers and students of the past. It can seem, on first glance, that students are offering up their own understanding, asking the teacher to either verify them or send them in a new direction. But—and I’ve written about this before—what’s really happening is that the student, if he’s sincere, is trying to get the teacher, not the reverse. The student is attempting to touch the teacher’s understanding, not to gain approval. It’s a question of direction.

Got it?

As is often said, the purpose of our practice is to realize the same heart as Buddha. And we just ain’t going to realize Buddha’s heart when we demand, “Meet me on my terms, Buddha, ’cause I’m the center of the universe.”

Indeed, that’s the very affliction that wholehearted Zen aims to cure.

Koun also tells this wonderful story:

…A student at Berkeley Zen Center had a profound and meaningful dream, and when he woke up, he rushed straight to the Zen Center to tell his teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman. When Weitsman-roshi opened the door, the student exclaimed, “You have to hear about the dream I just had!” His teacher replied, “No, I don’t,” shut the door, and went back inside.

I got a kick out of that. And then, as I mentioned, I started reflecting on how I actually do this work with people. Weitsman-roshi didn’t “have to hear” about it, of course, and his response may have helped dislodge his student’s “it’s all about me” fixation. If so, it may be due to his getting the student.

And that’s what seems different about my teaching practice and how Koun describes his training and teaching – I do try to get the student. I find that if/when I don’t get the student, I don’t have much to offer. No one student, no two teacher-student relationships, are the same. Two people come together and work it out – together.

That does require that the student direct themselves toward getting me. If the student doesn’t do that, then we’re not even having a conversation, let alone doing dharma inquiry together, what Dogen called “identity action.”

When we do get each other, then we can really get to work. Not knowing what will come next, the reality of dynamic and creative inquiry arises. Together.

For example, in my experience with Katagiri-roshi, I sensed that he really got me, not that he liked me or that he approved of how I did stuff. Because he got me, I was often  uncomfortable and awkward. I knew that he knew the subtle (and not so subtle) games I was playing to avoid fully stepping into this one life. So he named me Dosho or Identity with Life.

That really bugged me because what I thought I wanted to do was transcend this mess. It took years, but I finally found that I was wrong.

Earlier this afternoon, I was talking about this “who gets who” issue with a student and she said that after a practice meeting she felt “…very engaged and all mixed up.”

In that moment, there seemed to be a mutual giving and getting.

Thank you.

  • alan faulkner

    Gotcha! :)

  • doshoport

    Yes! and the teacher getting the teacher is nice too.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    I agree that there is something important in the relationship that is a mutual “getting it.” Linji said he didn’t have a Dharma to teach, but he did pull out nails and pegs. The teacher can’t help the student with their nails and pegs if the teacher doesn’t get the student.
    This is the focus of the exchange between the Eleventh Ancestor the Honored One Punyayashas and the 12th Ancestor the Honored One Ashvaghosha. As a student Ashavagosha says his relation with his teacher “is the meaning of a saw” and Yashas says “it is the meaning of wood.” Ashvaghosha say it is a “saw” because the teacher and student are working the two ends of the saw and equally coming forth, which is true in a general manner of speaking but not on point of the actual exchange going on between himself and his teacher in that moment. Yashas explains that the meaning of “wood” is that he as the teacher cuts Ashvaghosha the student free.


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