Zen and teachers


Does Chris need a teacher?

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
February 2, 1991

A reader named Chris asked these questions about Zen:

Do you need a teacher? Do you need to practise sitting meditation or can you practise other ways (such as running or working)?

Dear Chris,

On the basis of twenty-three years of practising various forms of Buddhist meditation, including seven years of formal Zen under a teacher, I have formed a couple of working hypotheses about meditation. Here they are, for what they are worth:

First, there is no single answer to the question “does one need a teacher?” just as there is no single answer to the question ”does a man need a wife?” Some people flourish under teachers, and some people work much better alone. It depends a lot on what kind of mentality you have right now. Do you like having guidance in other things that you do, or do you like working by yourself? How you answer that general question is probably how you would answer the specific question of whether or not you would be better off with a teacher. Even if you are the sort who prefers teachers, it goes without saying that not everyone who teaches meditation is good at it, just as not every auto mechanic is good at repairing cars. There are many mediocre meditation teachers around, and in general my feeling is that a person is much better off with no teacher at all than with a poor one. Don't rush into a relationship with a teacher. I myself would prefer to entrust my body to a quack than to entrust my mind to a poor meditation teacher.

Second, you asked about sitting. Sitting is something you do with your butt. Meditation is something you do with your mind, your mentality and your whole character. There is no correlation between what position your body is in and what you are doing with your character. Some people thrive on sitting meditation, and others find it an obstacle. Try several approaches and see what suits you best.

How do you know what suits you best? If you find that you are becoming more patient and less prone to anger, more fogiving and less inclined to hold grudges, more accepting and less judgemental, more caring and less negligent, less possessive and more spontaneously generous, less self-centred and more considerate of others, less obsessive and more peaceful, less impetuous and more reflective, then you are doing something right, whether you are running or sitting or watering your garden.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Hayes

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Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
February 6, 1991

A reader writes:

The reason one needs a teacher is because of the power of self-deception. if you really practice you come up against the slippery nature of subtle clinging--books and your “inner light” frequently can be interpreted to mean what you want. Someone who has traversed the terrain and encountered the problems who will not be conned by you can be a real blessing.

If books and one's “inner light” can be interpreted to mean what you want, so can the guidance of a teacher. It is true that everyone is to some extent blind to his or her own weaknesses and needs someone else to point them out. What is really needed, however, is a willingness to see these shortcomings when they are pointed out. If one has that willingness, then everyone with whom one interacts is a source of important feedback--everyone, in other words, serves the purposes of a teacher. But if one lacks that willingness to see, there is no one who can be an effective teacher.

It has been my experience that people who have very strong self-deception, and therefore would arguably be most in need of formal guidance, tend to remain immune to good counsel. They tend to seek out teachers and to venerate them with enormous piety and servitude, but when the teacher really gets down to serious work and begins to suggest truly effective remedies, the disciple's piety eventually gives way to a mistrust and resentment towards the teacher that is proportional to the previously held piety. Every dharma centre that I have been around has a steady flow of guru-seekers coming and going. My conclusion from these observations, therefore, is that people who really do need teachers usually cannot benefit much from them. And people who do not need teachers have hundreds of them.

Someone asked “If you don't have a guru, to whom do you go for guidance?” As one person who have a robust sense of guru-phobia but also have many thousands of dharma teachers, I personally find that my greatest source of inspiration is the Buddha statue on the small altar in my meditation room. I love to look at it and reflect on this amazing quality: his lips don't move.

Richard P. Hayes

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Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
February 8, 1991

I cannot resist sharing this nice little passage from Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimaggo. It is part of his explanation of the meaning of the term “dhamma/dharma” and it may have some tangential connection to the recent explosion of comments about teachers and practices.

Virtue is to be attained by the wise, by each person individually. For the disciple's vices are not eliminated by the methods practiced by his teacher. Nor does the disciple live in contentment because the teacher has gotten the results of those methods. Nor does the disciple experience the nirvana that the teacher has won.realized. Therefore, virtue is not to be admired as one admires an ornament on another person's head. It should be experienced and enjoyed by the wise in their own minds. It is not a matter for fools. (From page 217 of the Pali Text Society edition. Translation mine. Incidentally, I have translated “dhamma” as “virtue” here because that is Buddhaghosa's own gloss of the word.)

One other delightful passage in Buddhaghosa occurs after a long a detailed description of how a meditation teacher can figure out what practices are most suitable to the disciple. He ends it by saying “Of course the quickest method of finding out what suits the student is simply to ask the student.”

Richard P. Hayes

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Does Chris need a Zen master?

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
August 21, 1991

Zen stick

Dear Chris,

You keep asking whether you need a Zen master, and we keep telling you yes, no, and it all depends. My answer lies in the “it all depends” category.

You'll probably never know for sure which question you are asking until you go to a couple of Zen centers and see for yourself whether or not you can live without that kind of nonsense.

Yours with best wishes,

P.S. That's the kind of name they give you at Zen places. If you think you'd get a big kick out of walking up to your mother someday and saying “Hi mom, the name you gave me sucks. Call me Mubul,” then you probably need a Zen master.

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