By John Pendall
Like most red-blooded Americans, I am quite stubborn when it comes to what I perceive as subjugation.
This stubbornness has led me from Zen teacher to Zen teacher, usually dispersed with periods of lackluster practice and cognitive dissonance in between.
But it is entirely possible to practice Buddhism without a formal teacher.
Now before anyone reading this starts throwing stones at my ridiculously large head, I respect Dharma teachers. Dharma transmission and monasteries have kept Buddhism alive throughout the millennia. In some cases, formal teachers were heavily persecuted by the governments of the countries they lived in. That persecution still happens to this day in some parts of the world.
However, this is the internet age, if read with a clear mind, it is possible to be a student of Dogen Zenji who died hundreds of years ago. One can learn from Huang-po, Shunryu Suzuki, Bhikkhu Bodhi or even the Buddha if Dharma study is approached mindfully. One can cultivate a strong practice if they do so diligently and keep on guard for ego-traps.
Disciplining oneself and not getting attached to experiences and views can be quite difficult without a teacher. But once again, it isn’t impossible. I tend to use some expedients to keep my head from getting too big:
- “Push on,” is a phrase a friend and I came up with. No matter what I experience or what insights occur, I remember to keep pushing on.
- “Is that so?” is a great one for not getting attached to insights. The answer has to always be no. Even if the insights are “right” they become “wrong” if we get attached to them. Sometimes my inner dialogue looks like, “Everything is connected!” “Is that so?” “No.”
- “It’s all makyo,” is perhaps my most used expedient. Makyo are usually considered spatial or mental illusions and sometimes insights that one encounters while meditating. We’re encouraged to just let them pass and keep on moving forward. One of the main functions of a Zen teacher is to recognize whether a student has experienced Kensho or Satori in their practice. It’s enticing to call the experiences we have, Kensho. Since I don’t have anyone to verify my Kenshos, I find it best to just call everything experienced through practice “makyo.”
- “Not me, not mine,” is a new one inspired by Theravadin teachings on the five aggregates. Body, feelings, thoughts, views, experiences; “Not me, not mine.”
Why is it important to not get attached to experiences and views related to practice? Because attachment stagnates the mind. If we get attached to a Kensho, odds are we’ll never experience another one. If we get attached to a certain dhyana, odds are we’ll never move past it to the next one. If we get attached to a view and call it the Dharma, we’ll no longer know what the Dharma really is.
If I ever think, even for an instant, “Great Scott! I’ve got it!” then I know that I am light years from actually getting it.
The priesthood is largely irrelevant in a secular, technologically advanced society precisely because there are websites like The Tattooed Buddha. We don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to study with a specific teacher anymore. We don’t have to renounce the householder life to learn about the deeper Buddhist teachings which used to be reserved for monks and nuns.
A few thousand years ago, a copy of the Diamond Sutra was considered precious not only because of its content but because it may have been the only written copy of it for thousands of miles. If I lived back then, I might not have even been able to read so I would have had to practice with that teacher to practice at all. Buddhism is a lay person’s practice now, and it’s going to be up to lay practitioners to nurture it in the Western world.
What’s essential, I believe, is the Sangha—surrounding ourselves with wise Dharma friends.
From the first day I began practicing Zen, I have been helped by encouraging, knowledgeable people. They pointed me to websites, books, and movies. They corrected misinterpretations I had on “emptiness” and the “Bodhi Mind” and backed up their corrections with personal anecdotes and resources. But the Sangha wouldn’t have been able to help me at all if I continued to cling to my same old views and ideas. I’ll end this column with one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which was supposedly Buddha’s deathbed sermon:
“Therefore, be ye lamps unto yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to the Dharma as a lamp; hold fast to the Dharma as a refuge. Look not for refuge in anyone besides yourselves. And those, who shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Dharma as their lamp, and holding fast to the Dharma as their refuge, they shall reach the topmost height.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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