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The Teacher in the West


Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts. Asia has Confucius; we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice: Norman Fischer on the teacher-student relationship in Western Buddhist practice.

In most traditional meditation-based forms of Buddhist practice there is a tremendous emphasis on the centrality of the teacher. The idea is that Buddhism cannot be learned from books, nor is it a matter of spontaneous personal insight or mystical intuition. In order to be liberated from self-attachment, the student needs to let go of self-view, and this is nearly impossible to do alone, since self deception is so natural.

It is all too easy to substitute a transcendental spiritualized ego for the garden variety; I have seen it happen. So the teacher is needed. In order to ensure that the practitioner’s understanding is really accurate, and not just some delusionary enthusiasm, he or she needs a contact point, a way to check. In some forms of Buddhism the teacher is this check, and even more: it is through the ineffable relationship to the teacher, with its devotion and merging of identity, that the transformation to be affected by the Buddhist path is said to occur.

But the transmission of this intimate tradition of teacher-student relationship from Asia to the West is not a straightforward thing. Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts, and they aren’t subject to explanation. Relationships are what we do and what we live, not what we figure out.

In Asia, although there may be a variety of ways in which students and teachers relate to each other, the basic style is generations-old and flows naturally from the traditional Asian family system. In the West, by and large, traditional family systems are no longer operative and, even where they are, the Western template is quite different: Asia has Confucius, we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice!

It would be tempting to want to throw the whole thing out as inherently abusive or infantalizing and reaffirm our strong Western sense of individualism and self reliance. But I do not think we can do that. We have to work it out. This will take time and a lot of trial and error. We will have to rely on the goodwill, wit and understanding of dharma students and their teachers over time, but we ought to be able to do it, as long as we are clear that the main point is the transformation of the individual, not the protection of institutions, traditions or personal authority.

For me, the magic of the teacher-student relationship lies in trust. Lately I have been thinking that trusting one’s self and the world completely and absolutely, no matter what comes, is the essence of liberation. This trust is achieved in large measure through our relationships with our teachers. Having confidence in someone whom we look toward as an example, as an inspiration, seems necessary if we are to do the hard lifetime’s work of transformation. And once we develop that confidence in another, even through all our imagined and perhaps not imagined betrayals, we begin to see that the confidence we have is actually in ourselves, our real selves.

I have found in my life of practice that in the end I could always trust my teachers—could trust them to be themselves as they actually were, not as I would have liked them to be. To remain trusting of them was perhaps the greatest thing I learned, not because they turned out to be perfect and all-wise, but because I came to realize that trust was my practice and my responsibility, not theirs. There’s one story of an old Zen master who was asked why he venerated his teacher so much. He said, "I respect him not for his great grasp of dharma but because he never taught me anything. And that was the greatest gift."

The job of a student, then, is to practice trust. The job of the teacher is to be as truly trustworthy as he or she can be, which means to be wise enough and well enough established in the dharma as to not be so easily caught by self-centeredness. And to be willing to show up.

In Zen there are said to be two ways of teaching—the granting way and the grasping way. The granting way follows the heart of the student, gently letting the student find her way. The grasping way emphasizes the absolute in all things, snatching away ego whenever it appears. This way seems more exciting (because dangerous), but frankly I wonder whether it is really effective with Western students. So far I have not seen many good results, and plenty of bad results. And I wonder whether there are any Western teachers who are really mature enough to use this method, or any Asian teachers who understand the Western mind deeply enough to use it.

There is a lot of interesting lore in the Zen tradition about the student-teacher relationship. Many of the Zen tales involve students and teachers probing each other’s understanding, sometimes in a rather rough and tumble way. This is a good idea. Teachers are said to occupy the "absolute position." This means they sit in the dharma seat; they are stand-ins for the Buddha. We give them this role, which they occupy on the strength of our faith, because we know it is of benefit to ourselves. But sitting in that seat doesn’t make a teacher into a god or a superhuman.

Every teacher is a person who is still walking the path. His or her perfection or transcendent wisdom is an assumption we might make for the purposes of our study, but we should never be confused about the provisional nature of that assumption. So it’s always a good idea to argue, complain, yell at, and challenge the teacher sometimes. It keeps everyone honest. Sometimes the teacher seems scary, and that is good as long as it is only sometimes. Other times he or she should be like a pussycat, just some old sweet person hanging around. The flexible ability to assume a variety of roles according to conditions seems to me a true test of a good teacher.

In Zen there’s also a tremendous emphasis on the independence of the student. Similar to the completion of the transference process in psychotherapy, the Zen student is enjoined to, finally, stand up alone, letting go of the teacher’s support. "Teacher" and "student" are ultimately seen as roles, as positions, not as fixed individuals. Sometimes the student is the teacher and sometimes the teacher is the student, and in the Soto Zen dharma transmission, this is enacted as part of the ceremony. In the Zen lineage charts the line of succession goes from Buddha, through the many generations of teachers, to the present disciple, and then back up to Buddha again. So each one of us, when we find our feet in the dharma, are not only the teacher of our own teacher, but the teacher of Buddha and his successors.

There’s also the often repeated notion that, "If the student does not surpass the teacher he is not a true student." I contemplated this saying for years but could never make sense of it: by its logic each generation must be wiser than the last, so a teacher in my generation would have to be almost a hundred times wiser than Buddha! But of course the meaning of the phrase is, "Each student must be completely himself or herself, find his or her own way, express his or her uniqueness in the dharma."

This is finally what the teacher wants, and if she doesn’t want that, then there is something wrong; she has more work to do (and this is a common failing of powerful teachers). Once someone asked a monk, "Do you agree with your teacher or not?" And he responded, "I half agree." "Why only half?" he was asked. "If I agreed completely then I would be ungrateful."

In the end it is not clear who is the teacher and who is the student. Yes, we must be able to see persons and harmonize with the roles that they occupy, according to circumstances. But if we really understand the teacher then we see him or her everywhere.

Here is an old Zen poem on the subject. The poem turns on the image of a chick (the student) pecking her way out of her shell (of ego), with the mother hen (the teacher) helping by pecking at the same spot at the same time. Together, their efforts produce freedom for the student.

The chick breaks out, the mother hen breaks
When the chick awakens, there is no shell.
Chick and hen both forgotten,
Response to circumstances is unerring.
On the same path, chanting in harmony,
Through the marvelous mystery, walking
        —The Blue Cliff Record, vol. II, p. 109,
            translation by Thomas Cleary

Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer is the author of The Narrow Roads of Japan (San Francisco: Ex Nihilo, 1998).
The Teacher in the West, Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.


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