It is amazing to have in this forum a generation of Westerners who have practiced so fully over the past decades that they can speak with genuine authority in representing their Buddhist traditions. In reading the reflections of the American teachers here you will first see the profound commonality underlying the stream of awakening of the Buddha-dharma. You will also see some of the differences in understanding and approach. We can look at the differences in Buddhist practice as a kind of koan, a deep question that leads us to investigate the very root of practice itself, challenging us to examine the nature of religious form and that which is beyond it.
From the beginning of Buddhist history, there has been disagreement as to the true path of practice, and out of this has grown powerful sectarianism. At the time that the Buddha died, there were already two groups of followers hotly divided about how to practice. One group chose to preserve all of the rules and teachings of the Buddha exactly as they were. This first group made up the first Council of Five Hundred Elders and developed into the Theravada lineage. The second group took inspiration from the Buddha’s instructions on his deathbed to the elder Ananda, suggesting that many of the minor rules could be dropped or changed. This second group sought to adapt Buddhism to changing situations. Out of this initial split, eighteen different early Buddhist sects arose, and following these, over the centuries, the different schools we know today developed.
As often happens in religious history, the other members of your own religion—who are only a bit different from you—can become more threatening than those that follow a different tradition altogether. Thus, although there were periods of dialogue, as at the great Buddhist university of Nalanda in India, lack of mutual understanding led to centuries of serious spiritual and territorial conflicts among the Buddhists of various traditions and countries in Asia.
Different Buddhist traditions, and sects within these traditions, developed prejudicial images of one another. Even today many uninformed Burmese and Thai teachers don’t believe that Zen leads to true enlightenment, while they characterize Tibetan Buddhism as a deviant form of Hinduism. Some Zen masters see Theravada Buddhism as the small or selfish vehicle which can only lead to a limited degree of enlightenment; they characterize the Tibetan tradition as too ritualistic and complicated to bring one to full and clear awakening beyond all forms. Often Tibetan lamas have taught that Burmese and Thai Theravadans do low-class practice. In some Tibetan schools, practitioners take vows to avoid spending time with such polluting influences as Theravadans. While the Tibetans characterize Zen as a step up from the Theravada, they still insist that the realizations attained through Zen are limited compared to the great realizations through the Vajrayana tantras.
Even within each tradition in Thailand, Tibet or Japan, powerful differences exist. Rinzai Zen masters often are critical of Soto Zen practice and vice versa. Within the Theravada, followers of the Forest Monastic tradition denigrate the monks who lead retreat centers, and see the intensive retreat style of practice as very limited. Many of the Tibetan sects have fought amongst themselves for centuries, and have only recently made an uneasy peace.
Fortunately, in the last thirty years, much more understanding is developing among the different traditons as they take root in the West. Zen Masters, Tibetan Lamas, and Theravadan Achaans and Sayadaws have met one another and begun to learn about, and appreciate, the strengths of each others’ traditions. They have begun to respect the commonalities of their goals as Buddhists and to borrow from one another.
The changes that American Buddhism has wrought on these varied traditions has already blurred some of their differences. Most Western Buddhist teachers—Zen, Theravada and Tibetan—have actually studied in the other Buddhist traditions. Most of them have also been in therapy and have been influenced by Western psychology.
Yet we can not ignore the differences in these traditions nor the profound questions that their years of separate development and mutual criticism raise for us. In the voices of the Western teachers represented here, you will hear echoes of some of the differences that have developed in the great sects and schools of Buddhism over thousands of years—the systematic elders, the gentle Taoists, the fierce samurais and the philosophical “mind only” schools. You will recognize some of these basic differences, although you may also find more commonality now, where there were once dramatic contrasts.
Let’s review some of the historical differences among these traditions. The earliest sects were divided between those who favored preserving strict discipline, forms and rules as a container for spiritual transformation and those who believed that purity of motivation was more important than rules, and who wished to adapt the forms to changing circumstances.
Until recently Theravada monasteries have taught that strict renunciation and monastic vows are central to Buddhist spiritual life, while the Mahayana teachers have traditionally taught practitioners to find awakening in the midst of the lay life of householders.
While certain Theravada and Zen lineages regard teachers as mentors or spiritual friends, the Tibetans insist upon a full and committed relationship with an authentic master as one’s guru.
The teachings about the nature of enlightenment contrast deeply. Traditional Theravada teachers speak of attaining nirvana as entering the realm of the unconditioned, beyond the senses and beyond this world of changing samsara. By contrast, Mahayana and Vajrayana schools have taught that nirvana and samsara are one and the same, to be found here and now whenever our illusion is dispelled.
The traditions differ on how enlightenment is attained and the degree of difficulty in attaining it. Some Zen and Theravada teachings speak of enlightenment as an ordinary expression of our true nature. Other Theravadans teach that we need to do long and arduous awareness practice to uproot the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. For Tibetans, enlightenment is an almost super-human attainment. Tibetans speak of the need for powerful tantric practices of mantra, visualization and non-duality to transform greed, hatred and delusion in more direct ways.
Even in the goal of practice, the traditions differ significantly. The fully enlightened arhat of the Theravada has eliminated all greed, hatred and delusion so as to be released from the realms of birth and death. In contrast, the bodhisattva of the Mahayana (Zen and Tibetan) purifies the heart, yet vows to be reborn in every circumstance of the world, seeking enlightenment not for himself alone, but for all sentient beings.
As you read this forum, consider the commonalities and the differences in the responses, and listen for your own true understanding. You may discover your own questions. Should a teacher be an ultimate “father figure” or are teachers no different from ourselves? Is there an esoteric transmission that happens between teacher and student? Is meditation the main practice of Buddhism, or are gardening and cooking and looking at the sky equal to sitting practice? Are different Buddhist practices—koans and retreats, inquiry and devotion, ritual and prayer, concentration and choiceless awareness—simply one thousand skillful means? Should we try to answer these questions? Or should we do our practice, whatever we have chosen, and hope for the best?
What attracted me to Zen initially was the writing of D.T. Suzuki and very specifically this point: that yes, one could admit, as existentialists, beatniks and various other confused people did, that life was mixed up and absurd and fraught with all kinds of trouble, but that this did not mean one had to be unhappy or in despair. In fact, it was just fine as it was, even jolly. So it was this simple, and, as it seemed to me, quite accurate sidestepping of the issue—which turned out to be a nonissue—of despair that attracted me. Zen provided no answers whatsoever. It just pointed out that the questions themselves were sufficient. It was this very realistic confidence in nothing in particular that attracted me right away.
Later I came to appreciate the Japanese style in all things: how the Japanese Zen people moved and handled things, how it occurred to them, as it never would have occurred to us, to create art forms like archery, flower arranging, tea ceremony, stonework, calligraphy. I found in all this a simplicity and straightforwardness I admired. I perceived my own mind as very complicated in a way that was not beautiful; so I was attracted to this simple way of cutting through all the made up complications that were physical and emotional as well as philosophical. Now I tend to be less interested in Japanese Zen than in Zen in general or Buddhism in general or life in general, and there are a lot of things about the Japanese way that I find annoying or narrow-minded or quaint in a negative sense. But at the same time I still have a lot of love for Japanese Zen, a family feeling.
Something that I liked about Soto Zen when I began practicing it was how modest and ordinary it all was. (I had actually been interested in Rinzai Zen and had never heard of Soto. I didn’t realize until a long time later that I wasn’t actually practicing the kind of Zen I thought I was interested in!) In those days, and still now, I think, I was not in the mood for holiness and piety. My first temple was in a funky Berkeley house and my first (and root) teacher was Sojun Weitsman, who is himself a little funky. We were not trying to do anything or get anywhere: that was the essence of the practice. We were just doing what we were doing, and we were lined up completely with that, nothing extra. I took to that right away.
I fell into Tibetan practice in 1970. While traveling overland to India and experiencing lots of problems, I decided to “learn how to meditate.” A series of fortuitous contacts and events led me to Kalu Rinpoche at his monastery in the Darjeeling area of India. Despite the extraordinary difficulties that I had with sitting practice, a number of factors led me to pursue Buddhist practice in the Tibetan tradition: Rinpoche’s personality, his patience and tremendous yet gentle presence; the powerful appeal of a sophisticated spiritual and meditative system; the challenge of learning Tibetan; a genuine spiritual interest which is still a source of considerable puzzlement to me; and the psychological need for a “home” after so long on the road.
Many people who find the Tibetan tradition appealing (particularly the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions) are looking for a father or a family. This fits very well with the father-guru/child-student relationship upon which much of the cultural structure of Tibetan Buddhism depends.
Another related yet significant factor in the attraction is the promise that one will never be separated from one’s teacher, i.e., that after he/she dies, one simply awaits the reincarnation and the continuity of one’s relationship is ensured. Who among us would not, at some level, be attracted to a system which offered an eternal yet constantly renewed benevolent and caring father figure?
Further, I think that the prospect of esoteric learning, whether it be spiritual or magical (as in sorcery) attracts people. The Tibetan tradition, coming as it does from a medieval culture, has both esoteric doctrines (Vajrayana) and methods for the cultivation of magical powers. In fact, while high lamas clearly differentiate between these two kinds of attainments, the spiritual ideal in the mind of the ordinary Tibetan spiritual devotee combines both spiritual and magical attainment. This has been an almost irresistible draw for many Westerners.
I became interested in vipassana practice when I was in great need of deeper self-understanding. There was a lot of turmoil in my mind, along with a mysterious intuition that meditation practice would cut through it. I was drawn to this tradition because it was simple, direct and pragmatic. An approach demanding years of prerequisite study, or devotion to a teacher, which included meditation only after some time, was not very appealing.
Many people seem drawn to vipassana meditation, or Theravada Buddhism, because they want liberation from the fundamental causes of the suffering they face, or they are interested in deep inquiry into the nature of their lives. They tend to be attracted by the directness of the process, the “no-frills” approach, and are inspired by the teaching that their own efforts, rather than dependence on another, are the roots of transformation. I often say in teaching that freedom isn’t something anyone can give us—but that also means that no one and nothing in the world can take it away from us.
I always say that the two main practices that are emphasized in Soto Zen are zazen and ordinary life. And that finally there isn’t much difference between these two. Both of them are very simple and plain and both require that same kind of effort: that you keep on going, and drop all complications as they arise. In zazen I emphasize posture and breathing, sitting up straight and being very meticulous about all the details of posture, and breathing in and out with awareness in the belly. Whatever else happens you just notice it, put it down with some love, and return to posture and breathing. Actually posture and breathing are also just expedient devices. The main thing is to sit in the present moment of your life with whatever happens to occur. But it takes a big effort to realize that that is how it is with you all the time. You do exactly the same things in ordinary life: You try to do whatever you are doing well, carefully but also quickly if quickness is required. You pay attention, give yourself fully to whatever it is, and consider the results just enough to be practical. People always work and clean and sit and fix things and look at the sky or ground in Zen places. We also do some chanting and bowing, and we spend some serious effort in doing ceremonies. Wedding ceremonies, funerals, memorials, the various ceremonies to commemorate Buddha’s life or the lives of important teachers, precept ceremonies, ordinations . . . these are things I was not at all interested in at first but now I can see how valuable they are. I see them now as identical to zazen and work. Not more important. Just another thing I have to do when it is time. On this Path each one of us is alone, but also we are all in it together, radically so, and ceremonies are something we do very deeply together. I have found over the years that they do make a real difference. They are real instances of transformation. Every community, every individual life, which is part of the natural community, needs them. I do a lot of them.
Here at Zen Center we also do some studying. For me especially, study has been important. I realized a long time ago that whether I try to or not, I will have ideas. So it’s a good idea to examine those ideas. The trick is not to be a slave to ideas—any ideas. I have found that study helps me with this, because Buddhism is such a good antidote to ideas. Zen has the reputation, the feeling, of being anti-intellectual, but that is foolish. It’s a good thing to know about Buddhism, especially when you didn’t get it as a child.
Typically, training in the Kagyu tradition would proceed through several phases: fundamentals of meditation such as the stability of attention, training in motivation at three different levels culminating in the careful and thorough development of bodhicitta (awakening mind) and its expression in the six perfections, entry into Vajrayana practice through deity practice (the creation of the experience of oneself as the deity), advanced methods for refining this experience and completing it with the experience of emptiness, and finally, direct cultivation of total presence with no interpretative framework.
Ritual practices provide compressions of months of meditation experience and development. Devotional practices are seen as methods to clear away negativity and impurity, to generate wholesomeness and strength, and particularly to open to the ultimate nature of being. In fact, the devotional methods of Tibetan Buddhism are extraordinarily powerful and have, in my opinion, overwhelmed and confused many of the Westerners who have tried to approach them.
The practices we teach are those which create the framework for the meditation (e.g., the cultivation of generosity and morality), those which develop the power of concentration (e.g., observing the breath, intensively cultivating the qualities of love and compassion), and those which open up the nature of the world for us, and bring insight (e.g., being mindful of the constant change and insubstantiality of all that arises in the body and the mind). Freedom is born with this insight—seeing things as they truly are, rather than out of an exciting altered state of consciousness that feels wonderful but is transitory. Just as with freedom itself, a practice isn’t something we “have” like a commodity and can therefore lose, but it is what we become. It is who we are and how we manifest.
This is a good question and hard to answer. In the end “enlightenment” is exactly a word. It’s not that there’s no such thing as enlightenment, or no such experience, but that when we start discussing it we are discussing concepts. And I don’t mean that enlightenment is an experience and not a concept; after all, concepts are a kind of experience too. So it’s good to talk about it. Anyway, we’ll never stop so we might as well have a good time with it.
Buddhist philosophical language has many words that we translate in English as “enlightenment.” And of course even a single Buddhist word that conveys such a concept changes over the years and from school to school and teacher to teacher. It’s pretty hard to have a straightforward discussion about it. (This is true about most words, though.)
The old time practitioners (and many modern ones too) had the idea that you did a lot of practice and then you reached a state of enlightenment. Zen was born when someone decided to put this in an entirely different way: that you suddenly see the enlightenment that was there all along. There’s nothing to accumulate, no state to get to. Over the years the Soto Zen people said this in yet another way; gradual, unrealizable, enlightenment is suddenly and completely here right now. Dogen talks about practice and enlightenment being the same thing. That’s why we Zen Center Soto Zen folks cook so well and have such nice buildings.
The depth and range of the Tibetan tradition preclude a short answer, unless one wants to say simply that enlightenment is the end of confusion. Tibetan Buddhism inherited and largely follows the Indian scholastic tradition which enumerates many stages and degrees of enlightenment. As expressed in the epic grandeur of the sutras, full enlightenment or buddhahood is an almost inconceivable attainment for an ordinary human being. Nevertheless, Vajrayana texts consistently present this as an achievable goal in a single lifetime. The tension between these two views has been a source of debate over the centuries and a source of great consternation and frustration on the part of practicing Americans.
Three stages of understanding are generally described, with a fourth sometimes added. The first level is intellectual understanding, a result of study and reflection. This is regarded as a necessary step towards any deeper understanding but extremely limited in its ability to resolve confusion. The second level comes in meditation practice when the student spontaneously experiences something like the subject of the practice. These experiences are transient and do not indicate a stable understanding but simply the effectiveness of the student’s practice. The third level is reached when direct experiential understanding arises (commonly referred to as realization). This is stable and remains with the student. The fourth level is the complete assimilation of that understanding to the point that the student becomes that understanding. To say it another way, the student’s course of experience is released from habitual patterning.
Enlightenment is traditionally viewed as an opening to that which is beyond the mind-body process, to the unconditioned, the unborn, that which is beyond change and suffering. In our tradition we talk about four different times people experience this opening—each time radically transforming the mind in a different way. Stream entry is the first time this happens, and is said to uproot the belief in a permanent self, an unchanging entity within, that we can call “I” or “me.” For me the key concept here is expressed through the word—uproot. Many people have deep and profound insight into selflessness or insubstantiality or interdependence but in the face of certain conditions or circumstances, their insight may waver. On the other hand, for the stream enterer, no condition whatsoever could bring a renewed belief as to the presence of a self. So we might think of stream entry as an unconditional establishment of an understanding, without need for further struggle; thus it is the unconditional establishment of a certain level of peace.
The next opening to the unconditional weakens desire and anger, while the next transforms the mind so that desire and anger no longer arise. In the last stage of enlightenmnent, known as arahantship, neither ignorance, nor restlessness, nor any subtle defilement ever arise again in the mind. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha says, “The mind is naturally radiant and pure. It is due to the visiting of defilements that we suffer.” At the stage of arahantship, no defilements visit us, hence there is no more suffering.
In the end (and just because of what I said about enlightenment in Question 3) practice is all about faith, but not faith in the usual sense of faith in something. Just faith itself. The faith it takes to get up every day and try your best in this mixed up world—without expecting too much and without needing too much. You have faith in life itself—faith in faith itself. It is impossible for you to be disappointed that way. This kind of faith is gradually developed through sitting practice, though it must have been there in the beginning or you wouldn’t have wasted so much time sitting.
Faith, in the Tibetan tradition, plays a central and, to many teachers, an indispensable role. Both complete trust in one’s teacher and the ability to pray to him or her from the depths of one’s heart are regarded as virtually essential requisites for Vajrayana practice. Needless to say, in Tibet the need for trust and confidence was extended from the spiritual arena into social, economic and cultural areas. The importation into our culture of that kind of relationship has been and continues to be extremely problematic for many Westerners and Buddhist groups operating in this country.
The projections of American students on their teachers work differently from the projections of Tibetans on theirs. The latter were well-defined culturally and caused relatively little confusion. The projections of Americans, however, run rampant. Monastically trained teachers with extremely limited social and sexual experience are sometimes regarded as total authorities on all aspects of American life. When combined with the lack of checks and balances normally present in monastic society, these projections have caused a great deal of confusion and considerable emotional damage to both students and teachers.
In the Theravada tradition, there is a critical distinction made between types of faith. The first type of faith is bright faith—the kind of inspiration we feel with special people or in unusual places—where we are filled with energy and our hearts sing. This type of faith is considered unstable because it can change in changing circumstances (e.g., meeting a still more powerful teacher). The other type of faith is called verified faith, where we can feel all those feelings of inspiration and confidence and joy, but the source is grounded in our own experiences of the truth, not an external circumstance. Verified faith is balanced by wisdom. With the combination of these two qualities, the whole practice unfolds.
I would like to talk about these first four questions as one question: what drew me to Korean Zen, the essential meditation practices of Korean Zen, the role of enlightenment and the role of faith.
In 1968 I was a graduate student in anthropology and the psychology of religion. I was also hungry for the Truth. And it soon became clear that my hunger could not be satisfied by reading menus. I needed to eat. So, in 1970 I went to the San Francisco Zen Center and began studying with Suzuki Roshi. As a long-haired hippie, I sat and I listened to Roshi’s talks. When he died in 1971 I returned to the East Coast, to Providence Rhode Island where, earlier, I had gone to Brown University.
It was in Providence that I met Zen master Seung Sahn, known to most as Soen Sa Nim. In 1972 he had arrived from Korea as a penniless monk. He lived in a tiny apartment and was fixing washing machines to support himself. He spoke no English. Nevertheless a talk was arranged. Soen Sa Nim spoke in Japanese and a Buddhist scholar from Brown translated. I was deeply touched by the authentic presence of this man. A small group of us began to practice with Soen Sa Nim. At first, we all lived in an apartment and then we bought a former funeral home so that we could continue to live and practice together. We took three months in the winter and a week out of every other month to do intensive practice, Yong Maeng Jong Jin (literally it means to leap like a tiger while sitting). During other times we maintained a morning and evening practice and I worked to support the community by running a small construction company.
I remember almost twenty years ago, sitting in the bedroom of that small apartment where Soen Sa Nim conducted interviews. There he confronted me with the question, “What are you?” Spontaneously, I said, “I don’t know. I really have no idea what I am.” He laughed heartily and said, “Wonderful, this is the foundation of our practice, this mind which doesn’t know, this mind which really has no idea.” Nevertheless I felt a profound discomfort as though I should know the answer. Now, after years of sitting, I feel more comfort in not knowing, a relief that I don’t have to know and a willingness to trust and settle into that which is before knowing. I’ve come home.
This is the foundation of our practice in the Korean Zen tradition. When you sit Zen you look deeply into your own mind, and question: Who is it that breathes? Who is it that thinks? Where does this thought come from? Who is it that hears the sound of this passing car? Looking deeply and steadfastly, you realize that this “who” is completely ungraspable, completely unknowable. You gradually realize that it’s not “me” that is hearing. It is that-which-doesn’t-know that is hearing. So, when the mind is soft and open and empties out, the question and the answer become clear.
In the sutras it’s said that in hearing there is only what is heard, in smelling there is only what is smelled, in tasting there is only what is tasted and in thinking there is only what is thought. Or we could say that hearing hears itself, smelling smells itself and thinking thinks itself.
We want so badly to attain some kind of understanding. Yet our practice is not to attain or refine something. The whole point of our practice is to realize and have confidence in that which we already are. In the ears we call this realization hearing. In the eyes, we call it seeing. In the nose, we call it smelling.
We have a kong-an (koan) that we use in Zen practice. “How do you realize your Buddha-nature while listening to the sound of a bird?” As long as I think about it, try to understand it, or name it “this is the sound of the bird” —the kong-an is quite difficult. But when I don’t know this sound, when I forget myself in just listening, then this birdsound, “chirp-chirp” comes forward by itself and finds itself in me.
Dogen says it this way: “When the self goes forward and experiences the myriad things, we call this delusion. But when the myriad things come forward and experience themselves in us, we call this awakening.” Our practice is simply this, over and over again: to sit and attend openly, willingly, not knowing each moment.
Ken-sho is a word for enlightenment. Ken means to perceive, and sho means nature. The word means to perceive one’s nature. And we sometimes think as Zen students that our nature is something that we can perceive. We imagine that if we practice diligently or if we sit wholeheartedly, we’ll perceive this something called our “Buddha-nature.” But the real meaning of ken-sho, of “perceiving nature,” is that perceiving itself is our nature. Just hearing is our nature. Our nature is hearing. There’s nothing behind it, nothing hidden, nothing to find outside of ourselves.
In Korean Zen there are three essentials in practice: Great Doubt, Great Faith and Great Courage. Great Doubt or hwa-du in Korean is not doubt in the ordinary sense of the word—a restlessness or skepticism—but rather this willingness to allow the moment to come forward and find itself in us, to let the moment tell its story through us.
Great Faith is deep faith that the moment is unfolding just as it should, and that it will come forward and do whatever it does with complete perfection. With faith, we give up our opinion about the way things should be. We don’t have to manipulate anything or change it. We can stop and let the sounds and the smells and sensations of the moment happen. We trust that whatever it is that’s appearing, however beautiful, painful or outrageous, really is the way itself. In Zen practice this is called Believing in Mind or Great Faith.
Great Courage is the willingness to sit and be with whatever arises. Clear eyed and wakeful, we do have what it takes to be present. Arousing the mind, resting nowhere is Great Courage.
The Great Doubt (“What am I?”) is the foundation of practice and contains within itself Great Faith and Great Courage. This vastness of not knowing contains all the faith and courage that we have, allowing us to realize and appreciate our life.
In Zen, the student-teacher relationship is very important and very mysterious. Usually I like to debunk it because it is so dangerous and so easily misunderstood and in a way it should be debunked, but the last time I wrote something about it I debunked so maybe this time I’ll “bunk,” if that is the opposite of debunk.
It is certainly not the case that the teacher understands something the student doesn’t, or has something to give to the student. The student has to do all the work himself or herself. The teacher is working also. But insofar as he or she is working, it is because every teacher is also a student. This is part of why it is mysterious: The teacher is not exactly a person, but is something that can happen.
The teacher communicates (and usually not through words) the spirit of practice, the attitude of going on and on in a lively way with the practice. But, as with any communication, it isn’t communication until someone is actively listening.
Teachers and students are very, very intimate in Zen practice. They are like close relatives—only much closer than that. Sometimes you understand your teacher and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the teacher understands you and sometimes he or she doesn’t. To meet for a moment in this uncertainty in which really nothing is known and to be together there peacefully is the best thing. Then there is real confidence even though there can be all sorts of fighting and misunderstandings. In a way it’s all right if it happens to work out like that.
I have studied and still do study with several teachers. I find my relationship with them changes all the time, even with the ones who have died.
I think it is absolutely essential that serious students have teachers and that they open themselves completely to their teachers. The fearlessness it takes to do this—without expecting a single thing from the teacher—is itself the Path.
In essential nature, everything is the teacher. The dog barking is our teacher, or the pain in our knees is our teacher. Soen Sa Nim used to tell me that if I had a question about Zen, I should go ask a tree or I should listen to a barking dog, because the tree and the barking dog were better teachers than he was. I took him seriously; I would go out and ask a tree my questions or listen to barking dogs. At first I was so filled with my answers that I couldn’t hear their answers. And then there came a time when I was willing to listen to what the tree and the barking dog had to say.
However, on a practical level, it is inconceivable that we could practice Zen without a teacher. Zen practice includes an ongoing relationship with a teacher who knows the way. This teacher is your best friend and worst enemy. She or he inspires your most authentic presence and confronts your phoniness. The teacher challenges you to be yourself by completely being himself or herself, with all of his or her depth and idiosyncrasy.
For this relationship to flower, you need to spend time together. A face-to-face encounter is necessary. In this encounter there is the opportunity to let go of yourself and to realize your essential nature. Your teacher then guides you to actualize this realization in more and more circumstances of your life. Out of this process of continually dying and being reborn as something new, a great love is born.
Without this encounter you have only a fantasy relationship with your teacher. It would be like being married to someone you see every two years and saying, “I like to think about this person.”
So I think that the “messiness” of actual close relationship is essential to Zen practice. It is important to spend enough time with this person to run into yourself and let go. Of course, as a great teacher said, “to be open to the train does not mean to be run over by it.” In other words, it is never necessary to abandon our own deepest values and common sense. Nevertheless, the courage to let go of our small mind and grow in clarity, love and generosity is our way. The Buddha said, “If one mind is clear the whole universe is clear.” Then our true teacher can appear, not only the particular Soen Sa Nim but sky, clouds, quiet streams and noisy cities.
While Tibetan texts describe three kinds of relationships between student and teacher (monastic elder, spiritual friend and guru), in practice, in America, these distinctions are not well observed and students tend to relate to their teacher, regardless of who he is and what his training may be, as a guru. The full force of the Vajrayana commitment to a teacher is thus felt to operate. Often a dysfunctional relationship of projection and expectation develops.
Ideally, the guru/student relationship evolves slowly as student and teacher come to know each other. The student sees the particular teacher as an expression of true awakening and trust in the practice and instruction develops accordingly. It is crucial, once you give rise to that trust, that you never repudiate the relationship since then you are essentially repudiating your own spiritual development. This, however, does not mean that you may not study with another teacher if you feel that you have gone as far as you can with one.
On the teacher’s side, in accepting the student, he is irrevocably committed to the student’s spiritual welfare and may undertake no action or treatment of the student which will endanger that. The teacher must employ full awareness and compassion at all times. If the teacher acts in such a way as to destroy the student’s trust, the teacher has violated the relationship, an act equivalent in seriousness to the student repudiating the teacher. Sadly, we find, today, many instances of these violations on both sides. The spiritual damage is incalculable. [See also answer to Question 4.]
The teacher in Theravada Buddhism is known as a kalyana mitta, or spiritual friend. A teacher offers guidance and help, but the essential work is accomplished through the efforts of the student. Students are encouraged to critically examine teachers, to look at their behavior and what they can discern of their compassionate motivation, before evolving a teacher-student relationship with them.
We need to know how to honor and respect elders and teachers, without mindless, slavish devotion. If we can find that ability, we can continue to feel and express gratitude towards a teacher who has helped us in some way, even if we see faults in them or have in fact separated from them as we continue to grow and develop.
It’s interesting that Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle fit our present-day American preconceptions (at least the present-day preconceptions of a segment of America) fairly well. So we easily take up the practice and we like it. But inevitably there comes a point when it doesn’t fit. That’s when we either give it up or change it. But we should do neither one. We should—just there—keep on going until we pass through that narrow place. So I like to be very flexible, innovative and accommodating, but I see there is a limitation to this.
Beyond this general idea, everyone knows Buddhism has to take into account psychology, egalitarianism, feminism and lay practice. These must be included and they will of course profoundly change the practice, which has more or less emphasized the opposite values.
Sometimes I think about how middle class and how white the American Buddhist movement is and this worries me.
The spread of small local sitting groups throughout this country is probably one of the most significant and constructive aspects of Buddhism. Not limited to the ethnically derived institutions, these small groups are simply Americans doing what has always been the heart of Buddhist practice: sitting on a mat and cultivating attention. Buddhism, I feel, will develop well here and will exert a considerable and positive influence on our society slowly, over many years.
Buddhism has, up to this point, never been in a culture like ours in America where people are raised as individuals first and members of society second. This is a dramatic contrast to Asian cultures. Historically, Buddhism has displayed a genius for successfully co-opting significant cultural elements of a society into which it moves. Thus, we find the co-optation of sorcery cults and yogic methods in Indian Buddhism, the co-optation of the cults of local spirits and gods in Tibet and other countries, the co-optation of the warrior class in Japan, etc. It is clear that psychology will be one of the targets of co-optation in our culture. Psychologists and therapists beware: Your profession will change if history is any indication. Among the many adaptations likely to be made is a redefinition of the spiritual role model. In our culture, we will likely require, in addition to profound insight, a high degree of psychological integration in our spiritual leaders.
One of the most serious areas of weakness in my tradition is the difficulty students find in receiving clear and precise feedback on their practice. Communication tends to be one way, from teacher to student. In my own teaching, I have deliberately developed formats in which students regularly inform me in depth of what is going on in their practice and their lives so that I know what areas to focus on in my instruction and guidance.
Pragmatically, there are two other extremely problematic areas: the tendency to import feudal structures and the use of inaccessible or confusing vocabulary to describe practice. The former creates numerous problems but will, happily, probably die out since feudal structures are essentially incompatible with our democratic, pluralistic society. The vocabulary/description of practice will evolve slowly as experience continues to grow among Americans and different wordings and grammar develop to convey Buddhist experience.
By far the most important aspect to preserve is individual practice. The student must spend time alone developing that path within and yet be regularly supervised by a knowledgeable and caring teacher.
If intellectual understanding comes to be equated with spiritual understanding, or if dramatic meditation experience comes to be taken as the determining criterion, we will have lost something very valuable. In practice, the sole determinant is the elimination of confusion, the growth of awareness. In the Tibetan tradition, compassion and emptiness are regarded as the heart of understanding. It will be useful to preserve this perspective.
The Theravada tradition has not so much adapted to American culture as distilled certain elements to conform to American culture. This process of distillation has positive and negative components. It often seems that Westerners veer towards trying to attain meditative states, and have overlooked foundation practices of morality and lovingkindness. This clearly weakens the stability of the transmission.
Further, it is a challenge to look at the whole range of what the Buddha taught and present it in a language that is meaningful today. It seems impossible, for example, to overlook the law of karma, yet still call what we teach Buddhadharma. But karma touches on rebirth, and various planes of existence—subjects confusing or distasteful to many Westerners.
It is essential to preserve the understanding that liberation is a real possibility for us, that it can be directly known in this lifetime, that our actions, the cultivation of our minds and the development of our understanding must be dedicated to this.
In the beginning it’s good to look around and get a feel for the different traditions. One of them will strike you as right, or most right: everything will fit, the teachers will seem good, the students will be people with whom you can identify, the teaching will be pleasing to the ear and mind. Choose the one wholeheartedly, even if it’s not really the best one (it will definitely have several problems and serious disadvantages) and stay with it for many years, more or less ignoring the others. Then after you forget what your life was like before you started practice, go ahead and explore lots of traditions. You can learn from all of them and little by little find your own path which will include aspects of many traditions. But if you try to do this in the beginning, it will be weak because you will take what you like from each tradition and you will never have to deal with the part you don’t like—and that is the part you can learn the most from. It is also very important to have deep and lasting dharma relations with teachers and sangha friends. If you associate with too many sanghas your relationships won’t go deep enough.
Many teachers in the Theravada tradition discourage people from pursuing more than one technique, or studying with different teachers for at least five years. The actual length of time seems less important than the understanding of one’s own mind. It is very tempting to get impatient with difficulties in practice and look for a “better” way, rather than trying to work through them. This can go on endlessly as difficulties repeatedly arise.
On the other hand, it is also true that knowing different approaches from an in-depth experience of each one can lead to less sectarianism. Rather than a feeling of righteous indignation separating one’s own from other traditions, we can have an immense gratitude that in this world where there is so much suffering people can find a variety of teaching for the attainment of peace.