By John Lee Pendall
Bunny rabbits, unicorns, sprinkles and rainbows—no thanks.
Maybe it’s just me, but I generally find, “Don’t be an idiot,” more inspiring than, “Keep learning and growing!” For one thing, it increases my trust in the person. If someone’s willing to call me an idiot, then that means they’re pretty straightforward. It’s the ones who constantly rain down positive reinforcement that you’ve got to watch out for.
If a mentor or Dharma friend thinks I’m being stupid, I’d appreciate it if they told me. We can’t pick the broccoli from our teeth if no one tells us that it’s there. Thankfully, I have a lifelong Dharma brother in my corner. Sure, he practices Advaita and I practice Chan, but it all evens out in the long run. We don’t go easy on each other. The same way that brothers rough house, we’re engaged in constant Dharma combat. We keep each other unattached to our own views and methods. We’re always poking, prodding, and challenging each other.
Compassion doesn’t always look like harmony; sometimes it looks like a solid whack from a stick.
But that only works if it’s a pre-established part of the relationship. It’s usually unhelpful to go around challenging and insulting people on social media. It’s something that only works when there’s a degree of trust. That’s why wishy-washy, positive spirituality has a wider reach.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t require trust. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stranger or a friend, if someone says, “You look nice today,” then it’s probably going to feel good (or weird). Now, if a stranger says, “You look like you just spent a week sleeping in an old oil drum,” it’s probably going to be infuriating. If a friend says it, it might get a laugh—preferably followed by a hot shower. Trust is a huge part of the student-teacher relationship, so when I read article after article of soft-handed, polished words from a teacher, it makes me doubt their sincerity. It makes me think they’re either lying to themselves, or censoring their humanity so that they can poach students.
When someone is writing about Dharma for large groups of people, they’re saying, “All of you can trust me.” If that’s the case, then show me your scars. Show me some blood. Show me the pain that brought you to practice to begin with, even if you have to use a pen-name to do it. Until then, I’m not going to be able to trust that teacher or anything they teach. I’m gonna chalk it up to secondhand, thrift shop insight and rote memorization.
A teacher’s job isn’t to pass on teachings; that’s secondary. A teacher’s job is to live the teachings and be totally transparent, keeping nothing for themselves. Take some of the teachers who’ve gotten into trouble with sexual abuse. Now, if a teacher was upfront and said, “I might try to seduce you if you practice with me,” I’d be grateful for that. For one thing, their honesty and self-awareness would prove to me that they were actually practicing Buddhism, and it would allow me to make an informed decision whether to work with them or not.
Unfortunately, most of these sexual deviants are motivated by power and dominance rather than thoughts of shared pleasure and intimacy. But, even then, if you’re a sadistic psychopath, I’d appreciate it if you were upfront about it. It’s not illegal to be a power-hungry sadist, after all. Of course one of the biggest hurdles in all of this are the institutions themselves.
If I said, “I value passion and intimacy, they’re part of my practice. So, mindful sex isn’t off the table,” I’d be drummed out of the Sangha in a heartbeat. They’d probably burn my robes right in front of me while spraying my cat with a garden hose. The same goes for if I said, “Marijuana can be a useful meditation tool at times.”
When you climb on board with an organization, you’re forced to live according to its rules. That’s why—after getting a BS in psychology—I said, “Fuck this shit.” Insurance companies dictate which therapies psychologists can use to treat clients. It doesn’t matter if some methods might be better than others, if they’re not approved by insurance, then they’re not approved by the organization. So, if you use one, you could lose your license and/or get sued, even if your client benefited from it. These policies are there to protect people and the legacy of the traditions themselves, but they can be like shackles at times. Instead of everything being regulated by institutions, I think that authority figures should just be honest, and then the student or client can make up their own minds.
This is all about you, after all. This is your practice, you should know all the options available to you, and you should know what to expect from a teacher.
The only way to make that come about is to hold teachers to a higher standard than they currently are. Not an institutional standard, but a human one. One that says, “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, show me who you are.”
Me? I’m a flirt, a low life, a hopeless romantic and a trickster; a borderline sociopath with a perpetually broken heart. I always try to be warm and helpful, but I can be dismissive or even apathetic, and I like making people feel uncomfortable. I cry in the mornings when I listen to music. I value communication, travel, holding hands and housework more than seated meditation. I can be arrogant, though mirrors usually help me keep that in check.
I have unbreakable patience, but fragile diligence, picking things up and setting them down long before they could ever bear fruit. I’m aware of myself, or rather the phenomena I claim to be myself. There isn’t one guest in this house who goes unacknowledged. That’s what practice does. From a place of stillness, everything that moves is clearly visible. But I’m not on the, “You’re fine as you are,” bandwagon.
Yes, we—this bright, quiet space that naturally illuminates all things—is fine as it is, but there are certain thoughts and feelings that we do need to deal with if they hang around too long. If we don’t, we end up harming others even if we’re beyond harm ourselves. Since self and other aren’t two, we eventually forget that shining silence and fall back into our own little hells again. I think we’ve got to be reasonably tough with ourselves at times. Not self-critical, but self-regulating.
Positivist teachers try to avoid that part of the journey, but there is a lot shit we have in our minds that we don’t need; that no one needs. And it’s our shit, so we have got to deal with it.
Practice makes it impossible to ignore it, and compassion makes it impossible to pawn it off on someone else as a hurtful word or action.
Waking up and being free of suffering is our responsibility, since we are the ones who keep us asleep, we’re the ones who perpetuate our own suffering by the power of our own beliefs in it. The world can’t hurt you if you realize that your mind is the world, and the world is your mind. The only thing a teacher can really do that’s worth anything is provide a living example that it’s possible to do it. Writing books and commentaries, giving lectures and performing rituals are all supplementary practices. A teacher is supposed to teach by embodying the practice.
We kind of lack that in the West, since a lot of us get our student-teacher experiences online, in books, or on weekend retreats. A genuine student-teacher relationship involves the student seeing how the teacher lives, works, laughs and how they interact with people. It’s an apprenticeship, and ordinary life is the trade. That aspect of practice is almost entirely missing in the West because the West generally doesn’t grok Zen. Most Asians don’t even grok Zen these days.
Pick up Zen’s Chinese Heritage if you want to a clearer picture of what Zen is about. Yes, I realize I’m contradicting myself by bashing books before immediately recommending one. Thankfully, internal consistency isn’t required to live a good life. Anyway, Zen is unhindered communication. Zen is trust, honesty and authenticity. Zen is when we laugh at a joke because it’s funny, not because we’re expected to laugh. It’s when we hear birdsong and spontaneously smile and turn to look. We can’t learn that shit from books or workshops.
We either have to realize that we’ve already got it, or spend time with someone who does. We don’t really learn from the things teachers say. We learn from how they say it, how they carry themselves, and how they engage their own lives.
So mindless positivism, and informative academia, are both shitty ways to help people practice. They don’t even really help the people who feel helped by them. If you really want to teach Zen, then put that shining silence to good use by being yourself in all situations.
If you really want to study Zen, pay attention to who you are when you’re not trying to be anyone in particular. Right now, who’s reading these words? It’s not a mother, father, son, daughter, worker or Buddha. It’s not a Jack or Jill. It’s just you, stupid.
Now go kick some shit on the Buddha so that some flowers can grow.
Editor: Dana Gornall