By Rev. Mark ShenYun Gilenson
Hui-Ming asked the Sixth Patriarch, “Master, what secret did the fifth Patriarch transmit to you?” The Sixth Patriarch said, “How could there be any secret? The secret is not in me, it’s in you.”
I recently listened to an episode of the DTFH podcast where Duncan Trussell and Alan Sacks were discussing the experience of meeting an advanced spiritual teacher.
They were talking about the concept of “transmission”—the idea of receiving the essence of a teaching rather than just the words of it—through interacting with a qualified teacher. They were both speaking of it as if it’s magic, constantly repeating, “what is that? I don’t know man!”
Personally, I have a deep appreciation for the delicate and incredible interaction between teacher and student, but this conversation, broadcasted to many thousands of people, set off all the alarms in my head. This mystification of the process of transmission (which is actually a pedagogical device) is in very large part to blame for the horrendous abuse scandals that are happening in spiritual communities all around.
The experience of finding oneself ready to go to the end of the world for a charismatic teacher is far from foreign to me. For anyone who spent enough years studying any craft that is taught through apprenticeship, such as music in my case, this experience is almost mundane after it happens enough times.
A great conductor will have that incredible combination of experience, charisma and knowledge that could make even the most worn-out orchestra musician give up their ego for the duration of the project and follow each instruction as if it were one’s very own dying wish.
This only becomes far more aggravated when dealing with one’s personal teacher. A young aspiring musician arrives at the door of some great teacher’s room, expecting to be provided with everything needed to become a first class virtuoso. The teacher’s every word feels as important as if you’re Moses in front of that burning bush. When a charismatic, virtuosic teacher tells you to “forget everything you’ve learnt till now,” you’re as excited as you are devastated.
Most crafts today, however, are not taught through apprenticeship, so for many people who arrive at the door of the Master/Guru, this is their first encounter with such feats of charisma. One can easily get swept off one’s feet.
You see, the problem is that after we’ve heard “forget everything you know” from yet another new maestro for the 7th time, it really isn’t as charming as it was the first couple of times. We must one day face the inevitable and horrible reality—the only one who’s going to give you any new skills, is yourself.
Yes, studying and practicing persistently is the only thing that works. No amount of guidance can change that. I know, knowing one has to make a true effort, it’s all certainly most upsetting.
So what in fact is the role of a teacher, and what indeed is transmission?
Any Buddhist teacher must function as a Good Spiritual Friend (Kalyana Mitra in Sanskrit). This person, experienced and mastered the craft that you are now honing, and may now give directions. It’s one who knows the map and the terrain, and can tell us to “turn right after the blue garbage can, and continue straight till the building with the green door.”
They can’t however walk the path for us. The best we can do is to walk the path alone, together.
If this point is unclear, then the exploitation of confused, inexperienced students will most certainly continue. This is a most crucial point for anyone looking for a teacher, or evaluating their relationship with a current teacher.
As for Transmission, this is a pedagogical device.
With a true spiritual teacher, the element of charisma comes from a rather different place than in the case of a music teacher. They are as unselfconscious and as uncaring about any external reinforcement as a psychopath, yet as compassionate and concerned for the well-being of everyone as a mother is for her only child. Being in the presence of someone as captivating as this allows us to trust a teacher so much that our ego can be momentarily suspended and the teacher’s advice can actually penetrate the mind. This is the so called “transmission.”
In some traditions, devotion for a teacher, seeing everything the teacher does as the enlightened action of a realized Buddha, is also used as a pedagogical device. This, as I’m sure you intuit, can go extremely wrong.
But if after careful consideration, having watched the behavior of this person for a long time and you feel that this is a trustworthy Spiritual Friend, then this practice can be undertaken, as it is probably the best and fastest tool to annihilate self-grasping habits (aka “ego”).
It works like this: if we see the teacher as perfect, then every action of theirs becomes a cause to arouse doubt in us and for us to check ourselves.
For example, you might send your teacher a very long email containing embarrassing and intimate information about recent spiritual experiences—truly things that make you feel like washing out your mouth with soap once you’re done typing. The teacher might take a very long time to answer, and since you believe each of their actions is the action of a perfect Buddha, you take this to have meaning. You begin to mull over the horrible mistake of exposing such lowly sides of yourself to this being who surely has better things to do than to read your boring, third rate philosophical musings.
The email doesn’t come for so long you finally resolve to give up this pointless doubting, and dedicate yourself fully to practice until you are able to rectify your situation and speak at least one worthy word to your teacher.
When, after what seems like forever, the reply comes, and it starts with “I’m so sorry it took so long, I just had so many affairs to settle” and proceeds to tell you all you were saying actually made perfect sense. Well…you’ve already given up the need for praise before ever reading this reply. Perhaps for the teacher, who is just a regular person with regular affairs, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Yet to you, their “enlightened action” was a cause for training in forbearance and virtue.
May you find a Good Spiritual Friend to give you directions to the other shore, and may we walk this path alone, together.
Rev. Mark ShenYun Gilenson is an ordained novice Chan (Zen) priest in the Order of HsuYun. Born in Israel, and now living in Switzerland, he divides his time between both places. Mark started out practicing in a Theravada community, learning from teachers such as Luang Por Sumedho and Bhante Vimalaramsi, who still serve as an inspiration for him today. After this he practiced for a few years in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, and today Mark practices Vajrayana as a lay person, and as an ordained novice priest in the Chinese Mahayana tradition under Shi YaoXin Shakya. That’s all to say that he’s thoroughly non-sectarian, yet deeply steeped in a lineage.
Mark is part of the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha (in the lineage of Master Hsu Yun) and a European affiliate of the Cosmos Chan Community (in the tradition of Master Sheng Yen). He runs the Bodhi&Bass Hermitage, which runs meditation meetings and retreats in Basel, Switzerland, and also shares the Dharma online in the form of articles, resources and a podcast (Ordinary Mind Meditation Podcast) for interested practitioners far and wide. Mark also teaches on the Meditation & Mindfulness Discord server, where he makes meditation and the Buddhist teachings available for a mostly younger population, many of whom come from the world of gaming.
Editor: Dana Gornall