WHEN LOOKING FOR A ZEN TEACHER: A Reflection on Spiritual Teachers in General, and Zen Teachers in Particular

WHEN LOOKING FOR A ZEN TEACHER: A Reflection on Spiritual Teachers in General, and Zen Teachers in Particular July 7, 2021



There’s a popular self-help guru who said he’s lived with a number of Zen masters over the course of his life. And they were all cats. The quote has become a popular meme on social media.

I smiled when I first read it.

And it has some truth to it. If we’re truly on the way, we will find the rocks and the sky become our teachers. There’s a great story in the Zen literature of a student of the way contemplating a tree for numerous kalpas, eons, ages beyond ages. Trees are teachers. Absolutely. And no doubt cats can present the whole universe. If we are ready to notice.

And the meme has some problems. The narcissism of cats, the I only do what I want to do of cats, is a pale counterfeit of what a real Zen teacher presents. I say this as a cat person, and I have the scratches to prove it. And. As I said, amusing. I should also add, I have seen more than a little narcissism among Zen teachers, as well. And, I have scratches to prove that, as well. It’s all a bit complicated.

All spiritual traditions offer guidance on the way. And that guidance takes a lot of shapes. In my experience and my observation suggests some of these ways of receiving guidance are more useful than others. The actual mix and what’s best in that mix is no doubt going to be different for each of us. That said some of these ingredients are helpful for nearly all of us.

Let’s talk first, a bit about books as teachers. I am a great believer in reading. I can say some of my most important Zen masters, ones I’ve lived with deeply over the years, are held together by the covers of books. Digging deep into a tradition, knowing the great teachers and thinkers is invaluable. It broadens, and it invites depth. And, as a bonus, dead Zen masters offer little that is problematic in any serious way. Of course, dead spiritual teachers don’t help you through hard spots, either. At least not usually. There are moments. But not usually. Not in the most important ways. We need someone on the ground, who sees us, knows us, and can respond just to us. You. Me.

Similarly, community can be a teacher. I spent just under three years living under rule in monastic community in San Francisco, Oakland, and finally at Mt Shasta. I have those scratches to prove it, as well.

There is something about the intimacy of engaging the project with others. Like, as some teachers say, being a potato thrown into a burlap bag with a bunch of other potatoes. Monastic life is like the bag being shaken vigorously. We carry everything about us into a constrained situation. They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It turns out you don’t even have to be ready; the monastery is ready for you.

I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. But I found teachers. A lot of them. Some were even human. All offered moments of intense instruction. And, as I said, I have the scratches. I would commend a stay in a monastery to anyone whose life circumstances allow for it. But that pointing to you specifically, to your strengths and weaknesses; monasteries turn out to be one size fits all. And they are not a good fit for everyone.

Cats. Trees. Books. Monasteries. All of these can be and are teachers.

But, what about the messier thing: humans?

Here’s where we come to the harsher reality about religions. The religion that is separated out from spiritual. They all oversell. And when it comes to spiritual leaders and spiritual leadership this is where it can really go wrong.

There are no hard rules for looking for a guide on the intimate way. Awakening happens. So, you absolutely can find a genuinely wise butcher, master sergeant, or geology professor. Awakening happens. But when awakening happens outside of the context of a tradition, usually that person has a lot of trouble helping others. It just happened. Helping others becomes problematic. For all the problems with them, teachers within traditions have the best chance of being competent guides.

There are some pretty good rules of thumb for finding the right guide.

First be wary of authorities. And it is wise to start with yourself. In the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell famously wrote to the general assembly, the religious leaders of the Church of Scotland, who were endorsing the son of the executed king. “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.” Interestingly in statistics this line has been enshrined as “Cromwell’s Rule.” If you cannot entertain the possibility of something, however passing that possibility is, you will be unable to see it when it is true, even as the evidence begins piling up.

And the biggest big head is the one between your ears. This is just the way things are. So, among the rules of thumb, when embarking on the spiritual quest, you need to assume your ideas are part of the problem. And that you might not be the best judge of who is going to be a right teacher for you. It’s messy This is an axiom of the intimate way: starting out, and well into the path, without guides you will probably not find the treasure.

The traps and snares of the ego are powerful. And we need help.

And the helpers are wounded. Every blessed one of them.

There are no perfect masters. The very idea of it is an invention of religion. The bad part of religion. But there are teachers, and friends, and companions. And that is enough. But if we want to successfully walk the intimate way, it’s important to find that person.

There are many true paths. And many real teachers of the intimate way. This way is found within religions and it is found outside their boundaries. In my experience the better teachers belong to a tradition. The best of them are not trapped by the limitations of their tradition.

Similarly, I find the most successful teachers are rooted in a tradition of introspection. For the most part Buddhists have been the most successful in plumbing the depths of introspection and tend to offer the most competent guides. Among these, the ones I’ve lived with most, and which I’ve found helped best, are Zen teachers.

Zen arises in China within the encounter between Indian Buddhism and the indigenous religions and culture of that ancient place. It has evolved. It takes on different shapes in Japan and Korea and Vietnam. And it has come here to the West. There are monastic teachers, there are noncelibate priestly teachers, and there are lay teachers.

The Zen tradition is based in a wonderful insight, a profound leaping beyond our divided and dividing minds, to seeing how all things lack any abiding substance, and then beyond that to a place of peace and depth. It isn’t steady state, as it is often over sold. But it is real. It can infuse our lives, bringing something wonderful. But this insight, this awakening, in itself doesn’t make us better people. Just people who see a bit truer. Some are wonderful. Many are not. Buyer beware.

Teachers should be people who’ve found and not been bound by either the boundless truth nor the various manifestations of truth. They should have found a certain ease within as Kurt Vonnegut put it, the nothing with a twist that is everything. And this is true of good Zen teachers.

But to be better people, that’s a project related to, but not precisely the same. And we need to be aware of that. Did I say buyer beware? Find teachers who have seen true, who’ve learned some of the practices that are associated with seeing true, but who also show some humility in their lives. Everyone will screw up. It’s sort a cardinal mark of being human. But they probably will make fewer mistakes, and are more likely to try to correct them, when they do.

In general it’s good to look for a teacher who is part of a community. I recommend a broad search. Google is good. Asking around is good. Then try on the community. The teacher and the community will reflect each other.

You may not be the best judge of a good teacher, but you need to find some connection. And the first place to find that is within the community of practice. Can people joke? Can they poke fun at the teacher? Not absolutely critical. But it’s definitely a good sign. Does the community pay attention to relationships and power dynamics? Do they seem like they really want it all to work for everyone? Another thing to look for is that no one is on a pedestal so high they can only fall from it.

Look for the humanity of the group.

Take your time.

Feel your way in.

The vow you’ve made to enter the way is sufficient for now. Try on the practices the teacher works with. Live with the community of practice.

See what seems right.

Then. When it seems right. When it feels right. When it makes sense. Then make a serious commitment. Allow this person access to your heart.

And with this friend, continue on your way.

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