January 19, 2010

Buddhist Teachers are Worthless (‘cept when they bring beer)

Wild Fox Zen produces some great posts but I loved this one. It spoke to me as a practitioner with a sangha (both online and “brick and mortar”), as a home-practitioner and as one seeking guidance. Of course by saying I loved it, I mean that I disagreed with it as much as I agreed with it.

It opens with a definition of “self-styled” Zen:

we ought to pick and choose practices that seem right to us and we ought to do practice in a way that we like and we don’t need to make a commitment to go deeply into any one tradition because teachers are bums and make mistakes and so it’s best to dig many shallow wells.

That is all well and good and true except for that last statement – “we don’t need to make a commitment”. Yes, we should mold and create our own practice. We should not be limited by what the ancients told us about their practice. We should not follow in their footsteps. It is a waste of time to mimic the masters. We need to forge our own practice and commit ourselves to it. We are the ones that keep our attention sharp. We, in the long run, are our own best teachers. All teachers make mistakes and are flawed. That does not mean that we don’t learn from them. Even in one zendo with one teacher their will be as many “ways” as students sitting (or chanting).


In contradiction, and imHo, all the old ways teach that a precondition to really beginning to practice Buddhadharma is to recognize that “our way” is the way of suffering and the necessary (but insufficient) first step on the path for both home leavers and home dwellers is some form of renunciation, a dropping our self-styled ideas and taking up the way of freedom.


In other words, you gotta be sick of your self to begin practice.

I believe that one’s practice of Buddhism does not really start until the bottom of the pail falls out. One can practice Buddhism before that event and it is a legitimate practice. However, from my own personal experience, one’s practice does not deepen until they hit the bottom and get to look up. I hate to think that this sounds very “born-again” but the reason for our practice is suffering and suffering will deepen it. When our suffering (whatever that suffering may be) reaches a point where we see the stark reality of it and we truly realize the 4 noble truths then our practice is deepened. Meditation or teachings or guidance may be an aid to deepening our practice but in the end it comes from us. You can’t fake this shit. It just happens.

Of course, in entering the kind of practice I’m talking about, a wise person investigates a teacher and tradition carefully for several years and if they jump in the ocean.

I think the choice of following a specific teacher or lineage is an important step in deepening one’s practice but it is not a step to be taken lightly. Too many rush to teachers with the thought that practice would be meaningless without one. With or without a teacher, the person that will be deepening your practice with be YOU and you alone.  A teacher may offer guidance but largely is worthless.

A practitioner shouldn’t be limited to one teacher. As your practice develops, evolves and matures you will navigate yourself towards a teaching that is appropriate to your goals (or lack of them * wink*) and experince. A teacher is not a lifelong commitment – it is a pit stop in your life-long practice. I started with secular Buddhism and moved to Zen as I got older and my practice began to ripen. I expect that as it matures more it may lead me to a specific teacher and guide or to a completely different expression of the Dharma altogether.


One qualifier: especially for home-based practitioners, it isn’t so simple as doing exactly what you’re told, although that might be a good thing at the beginning. As a person develops practice legs, it is important that they walk on their own and to declare the truth with their own voice..


Don’t equate home-practice with ease. When you mention that you are a home-practitioner you are recieved as a neophyte – a person with only the barest understanding of the Dharma because you are unaffilliated. For whatever reason that a home-practitioner chooses that practice – it is unfair to assume that it is less than practice with a sangha or in a monastic setting.
A home practitioner usually has difficulty in determining how and when to practice so there is an unusually long period of “trail and error”. As you sculpt your practice with little or no guidance from a teacher, you discover what works and what doesn’t. A teacher may be able to blaze the same trail in a shorter period of time but the home-practitioner proudly wields a machete in clumbsy swings as they begin to hew themselves a path.

Sometimes that path leads to a zendo or meditation hall or temple and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way our shoes should be worn through and our machete sharp.




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