By Daniel Scharpenburg
My study of the Diamond Sutra has made me think about the importance of having a spiritual teacher.
We think sometimes about reasons to have a teacher and I think a teacher’s role in inspiring us is sometimes downplayed.
I’ll quote from the beginning of the sutra here (1):
That day, when it was time to make the round for alms, the Buddha put on his sanghati robe and, holding his bowl, went into the city of Sravasti to seek alms food, going from house to house. When the alms round was completed, he returned to the monastery to eat the midday meal. Then he put away his sanghati robe and his bowl, washed his feet, arranged his cushion, and sat down.
At that time, the Venerable Subhuti stood up, bared his right shoulder, put his knee on the ground, and, folding his palms respectfully, said to the Buddha, ‘World-Honored One, it is rare to find someone like
you. You always support and show special confidence in the bodhisattvas. World-Honored One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?’
That may be an unnecessary long quotation, but here’s what I have to say about it. At first it might seem like the Buddha didn’t do anything, but, that’s not the case.
What he did was engage his daily routine with complete mindfulness. As he puts on his robe, goes from house to house, eats, etc. he is being completely present in the moment. This kind of awareness is described in the Zen tradition. It’s said that chopping wood and carrying water can be spiritual practices if they’re engaged with total mindful awareness.
Anyway, the Buddha’s student Subhuti can see how serene and aware the Buddha seems to be, even in the midst of routine activities.
I imagine myself in Subhuti’s role, so I imagine him thinking, “The Buddha is enlightened as hell. I should ask him for a teaching.”
And the whole sutra is about Subhuti asking for teachings.
Now, what does all this mean to me?
I’ve studied with a variety of Buddhist teachers. I have seen that it makes a big difference when I’ve met one that is fully present. It’s so easy to be out of this moment with our minds wandering. But when we see someone who is fully present in this moment, I think we can tell. We can be inspired by teachers like that—just as Subhuti was. And we can ask them for teachings, just like Subhuti did.
Teachers can motivate us if it seems like they are more present than we are.
1) Nhat Hanh, Thich. The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 1992.)
Editor: Dana Gornall
Daniel has taken the vows of a lay zen teacher and Bodhisattva Vows.
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