By John Lee Pendall
We have this image of the prototypical Zen Master.
The first requirement might be that they be Asian. There’s no point in lying about it, Zen feels more Zen-like when it’s taught by Asians.
Second, we probably picture them wearing robes, right? Or simple, nondescript, utilitarian clothing. They’re stern but also witty, and that severity comes from a place of great wisdom and compassion. Tough love. They’re also kind of aloof, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a Facebook profile. They might have an Facebook page created by a student, but that’s all.
They don’t even write their own books—students transcribe their lectures and then run the pages by them for approval.
They don’t work, have families or smoke crack. In my experience, only that last stereotype holds up. I’ve met teachers who drink, smoke, and maybe take pain pills, but not one crack addict. I’d imagine that Tyrone Biggums would have a hard time fitting meditation into his life. Any Dave Chappelle fans out there? No? Eh, that’s fine.
See, many of us have this idea that practice purifies us somehow, that it turns us into saints. But have you ever read Hakuin the Rinzai reformer? That dude was a total asshole. He handed out insults like some kinda sadistic German folklore version of Santa Claus beating people with sticks on Christmas morning. And Ikkyu drank all day long and frequently contemplated suicide. Within the orthodoxy, there have always been shallow power struggles over who holds the keys to the lineage.
Most Zen teachers I’ve met are disappointingly normal.
They complain, talk politics and belittle bookworms and philosophers. They suffer, and they fuck up and irritate people. If that’s what Awakening looks like, then why care about it? Why try? Why practice?
Here’s the thing, we don’t know how these people were before they started practicing. We can’t use a current snapshot of a person to judge their entire life, because it’s just a moment. And just because mind-to-mind transmission means two people sharing the same view, the same experience, that doesn’t mean they’re going to become clones of each other.
Peter Gabriel sang, “Dreaming of Mercy Street. Wear your inside out.”
When the mind is immersed in the practice, the contrived personality starts to crumble and what’s left is the person we always knew we were. This might be a Yoda or Mr. Miyagi, or it might be a smarmy sailor propped up by a shaky bar stool. It might be a weebo decked out in gaudy kimonos or a Mother Theresa in simple robes feeding hungry mouths in Africa.
The common denominator is that unassailable wisdom and compassion, but even they don’t look the same in everyone. They’re like a glimmering candle placed in different colored lamps. But no matter what the hue is, they all shine. Ikkyu and Hakuin both shined. Or shone if it’s past-tense? I don’t care. Shoined.
If you’re trying to find a decent teacher, it’s that shine that’s the mark of their practice and it’s that shine that they pass on. And whether it’s bright or dim has nothing to do with the flame, but the wick, wax, and the wind.
All of that said, not all fruit that falls is ripe enough to eat. That shine shows up in the effects a person’s words and actions have, the valence of the ripples they make. We make the world into an image of ourselves, of our state of mind. A greedy, angry, ignorant mind does and says things that multiply that in the world at large.
If you envy, hate, or misunderstand someone—that isn’t just on you; they’re crafting conditions that make those feelings possible.
A Zen teacher might not act like a textbook Zen Master, but they also don’t give you any fuel for your delusions and destructive habits.
I’m quitting my job and holding up for the winter because 1) my job sucks and 2) I can’t put my mom through another season of driving me through nighttime blizzards down unsalted country back roads. When I told one co-worker, she said “Well, that must be nice. I wish I could just quit and stay home for the winter. “
“Well, I don’t really have anything,” I replied. “I’m a single millennial with a mountain of student loan debt. That means I’m still stuck at home with my parents. I can’t drive because I can’t see, but I’m not blind enough to get disability. I don’t have kids, and I’d love to be a Dad and husband. I can only quit because I’m 32 and I don’t have anything to lose or anyone to take care of. I don’t have any of the things we’re taught to value in life except for my friends and parents. I only started working here to so that I could afford to move out, but I only saved up enough to stay home.”
Her envy collapsed while I was talking and was replaced with pity. “I’m happy though,” I said. “Because I have friends and family. That’s all I really care about.” Then her pity disappeared as well.
I’m not a Zen teacher, but I still try to not serve as a condition for someone else’s suffering. Envy and pity are both symptoms of suffering. A Zen teacher has even more of a responsibility to not serve as a condition for affliction since they’ve agreed to serve others in such a formal way.
Regardless of whether they fit the stoic stereotype or not, or whether their flame flickers or burns bright, or whether their lampshade is clear or 2am dark, the real gauge of a teacher is how they make you feel.
A skilled teacher will not allow you to hate them, envy them, be impatient with them, or misunderstand them unless they want you to investigate the root of those conditions.
This is the light that moves from one wick to another, because over time, you’ll stop hating, pitying, and misunderstanding yourself as well since practice removes you as a condition for your own suffering the same way that that teacher removed themselves as conditions.
So it’s that subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) shine that’s important when choosing your guide. The longer you practice, the easier it’ll be to see. If, even after a few years of working with someone, you don’t see that light in them, then it’s best to move on and find someone who shines. Or rely on yourself and the old books to help strike that match and set the night ablaze.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Feel free to check out his Facebook page, his blog "Salty Dharma", and/or his non-Buddhist poetry at "The Writer's Block."
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