By Tyson Davis
Every so often I read something about finding a Zen teacher.
James Ford Roshi posted another worthwhile article on that subject. I encourage you to read it. I tend to disagree with James sometimes, and for some reason I also tend to point out that fact. This has more to do with me than him, I assure you. I tell myself the reason is to show people that you can disagree with people and still very much respect them. I hope that’s why.
But anyway, this article I agree with almost completely. Finding a teacher or guide is imperative if you plan to wade into the Zen way. He equivocates as to whether finding a teacher or a group to sit with is more important. I equivocate with him.
For beginners I think finding a group is more important. You need discipline, and meditating with a group will help provide that. It’s easy when you’re at home by yourself to decide you have something more important to do and therefore get up off your cushion; it’s much more difficult to do that when you have witnesses.
Another reason for a group: meditating alone can encourage the tendency to be more self-centered, not discourage it. I have seen this a few times. People meditating by themselves sometimes become more mindful, but at the same time develop larger egos.
In the long run I think a teacher or guide is more important.
At first I used my teachers as inspiration. I wasn’t asking for a lot of instruction from them, I just wanted to see someone that had attained something from all of their practice. I wanted to know it was possible to do what the Buddha did. This is not how all new Zen practitioners interact with their teachers. Many ask for help in all aspects of their lives, not just their Zen lives. Some will say the two are not separate. Maybe. Maybe not. I think there are some aspects of our lives a Zen guide may not be qualified to help with. We have psychiatrists for that.
Eventually I went from needing inspiration to needing more practical guidance and teaching. And this is where choosing a teacher becomes important.
As James points out, sometimes you have to take what you can get. Zen teachers don’t grow on trees. They aren’t like Baptist preachers here in my home state—you can’t throw a Bible out your window and hit one. Ironically in my not large town, we now have four qualified teachers within a small area. Three are from the same lineage and the other is from a completely different lineage. So I’m lucky. I’m currently actively working with two of them, but I occasionally get to talk to the other two.
If you are as lucky as I am and have multiple teachers in your area, then let me give you some advice: pick the teacher that you have the least in common with. If you are quiet, pick the loud one. If you are rational, pick the emotional one. If you are easy going, pick the stubborn one.
In other words, pick the one that will challenge you the most. This, I think, is very important in Zen practice. You need a guide that will pull the chair out from under you when you get too comfortable. In fact, I think you should never be comfortable in your practice and a teacher that is not like you should help with that.
Now, let me add some more advice that James didn’t give: when you find the group and find the teacher, stick with them. As I said above, you should be uncomfortable in your practice. It will not be easy and it will take time to see results. That’s not a good combination in today’s culture.
We want easy and instantaneous. But that’s not Zen.
No matter how good your sangha is or how skilled your teacher is, you will be the one doing the work. You will have disagreements with both your sangha members and your teacher. This is normal (and healthy). Unless your teacher is physically/sexually abusive then stick it out.
Notice, I did not say emotionally abusive. This is a sensitive subject with me. Many times I wish my teacher was more firm and not so nice. Sometimes I need that and I think there were times where my practice might have benefited from a not so nice, frank conversation or two. Probably only one of the four teachers I’ve worked with was really capable of that type of relationship. There probably are mentally abusive teachers out there, too, so be careful. But this practice is difficult and many practitioners are looking for reasons to give up.
Don’t manufacture those reasons. If your teacher says something that offends you, think about it before you get all bent out of shape. Was it true? Was it constructive? Will it help my practice?
When I first began looking into finding a sangha and a teacher, I was consumed with finding “authentic” Zen, not the West Coast, diluted Zen that was prevalent. I didn’t go meditate with a group for a long time because I thought they met in a house and not a true Zen Center (I still am not sure why that was a big deal to me).
Once I decided I wasn’t going to go because they didn’t answer their email fast enough for my taste. I found 100 different ways to talk myself out of practicing. But when I actually stopped fooling myself and realized I was scared, I forced myself to jump in no matter what. I was lucky to find a supportive sangha and a wonderful teacher. Even so, it wasn’t easy or fun at first, and it took a long time to see any “results” from my practice. But I kept at it and now I can’t imagine not practicing.
I’m always afraid I come off too strong in my enthusiasm. I don’t want to sound like that Baptist preacher that is proselytizing. You won’t go to Hell if you don’t jump in with both feet like I did, but I do hope you try it. And maybe try is the wrong word and wrong attitude. So, maybe you do have to jump in with both feet because “trying” gives you an out.
“I tried and I didn’t get enlightened after X amount of times meditating so I’m giving up.”
Don’t give up. Paraphrasing my teacher’s teacher, “Practice hard, keep a clear mind moment to moment, attain your true nature and help all beings.”
Just do it.
Tyson Davis is not a Zen Teacher. In fact, his main practice is “don’t know.” So don’t take anything he writes as the proverbial gospel (or sutra as the case may be). He does think he is something of a Zen unicorn though, because he is not a Liberal/Progressive Democrat Buddhist, and he rolls his eyes when American Buddhist teachers and bloggers constantly inject politics into their religion. Because of that he started a blog, Don’t Know Zen. There he does what some would call tilting at windmills but he calls bringing American Buddhism back to the Middle Way.
Editor: Dana Gornall