Working with a Teacher

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Working with a Teacher

Post by DGA » Fri Feb 22, 2013 3:20 pm

as the obverse to this thread on shopping for a tradition...

...and discussions on the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives and correlate groups elsewhere in the Zen forum, I'd like to consider the ups and downs of sticking with a teacher through thick and thin, and coming to grips with what such experiences offer. As a point of departure:
On the level of Dharma, what I gained from my relationship with Kennett Roshi is beyond any possible measure. The cost of this is also beyond measure. To go there one has to be willing to sacrifice everything, to give up everything, and jump beyond all knowable boundaries. The paradox in this is that while it is true the disciple must risk all, that does not justify mistreatment by the teacher. This edge will appear naturally without that, and in fact is more clearly known and understood when such methods are not used. Nonetheless, in the years since I left the Abbey the validity of what she taught me, the truth of the awakening she helped engender in me and in so many others, has found confirmation with other teachers, and my work with them has brought some clarity to what belongs in the student/teacher relationship and what does not.

Not long ago during sesshin I sat across from one of these teachers, from whom I have learned a great deal in recent years, and said, "Today I learned that you have to appreciate every Buddha for exactly what it does; nothing more, and nothing less. I am filled with gratitude and astonishment at my good karma to have met Jiyu Kennett Roshi, to have received the benefit of her teaching, and now to have met you, and to have had the opportunity for this teaching to take root in me." He smiled broadly and said, "This is how it is when we get reason out of the way. When we do that, how else could it be? But still, we have to make this true every moment." This now is my work. When you take a teacher, you take the whole person as the teacher. A good teacher will challenge you by seeing further than you can, and seeing into your koan in ways you might not want to see. Meeting that and learning from it is the Dharma of the relationship. But just as you face your own limitations and flaws, so too you face the limitations and flaws of the teacher. Accepting and responding to this is also the Dharma of the relationship. For me the time came when responding meant stating clearly just what those flaws were, and that they had gone too far. But that does not change the fact that my primary teacher, my root teacher, my lineage teacher, is and always will be Jiyu Kennett Roshi. I do not love her any less, or respect her any less, for having seen her, all of her, clearly. ... nett-roshi

So: What belongs in the student/teacher relationship? What does not?

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by dearreader » Fri Feb 22, 2013 6:08 pm

Dear Jikan,

I'm a firm believer in clearly defining terms before going into long discussion. Would you please define "Teacher" in this case? Also, in short, (so we can avoid a long discussion) what makes a Buddhist teacher different than any other teacher? How do you delimit the scope a Dharma teacher covers, for example do you ask your grammar school teacher about your uni classes? Your maths teacher about the Renaissance?

Or is your post more about the role of Doubt? I believe you made the Tennyson quote recently, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds"

Excited about where this thread might be headed!
"Inscribed with the brush of Mt. Sumeru and the ink of the seas,
Heaven-and-earth itself is the sutra book.
All phenomena are encompassed in even a single point therein,
And the six sense objects are all included within its covers."
-Kukai, translated in Kukai on the Philosophy of Language by Takagi and Dreitlein

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by DGA » Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:03 pm

You're right in looking for clarity. And I wish I could take credit for that Tennyson quotation, but that one wasn't mine. It is a good one.

Since we're in the Zen forum, I think it makes sense to start with "teacher" in the sense of "master": one who has been made responsible for showing the path to others. I'm not meaning a generic figure of authority; I mean someone with a specific role.

That said, I suppose one thing that does belong in the student-teacher relationship is reasonable expectations on the part of both parties. As you said, you wouldn't ask the history professor for help with differential equations, as that is not her area of expertise. What makes a Buddhist master (a Zen master in particular) different from, say, a mathematics teacher? A different area of expertise, but also a different kind of learning. For instance, the Buddhist teacher is concerned with the student's overall conduct (vis a vis the precepts and beyond); the math prof's responsibility is much more limited, although she may refer the student to Psychological Services if she suspects the student is coming to harm. Where the art professor's job is to teach his students a specific set of skills (how to represent a form in two or three dimensions, with or without color...), the Buddhist teacher's job is to show the student a much more fundamental and less compartment-able set of skills. And she needs to know how to evaluate the student's progress, intervene as appropriate, and so on. Which is to say, the art professor needs to know how to draw, the history professor needs to know the archive, but the Buddhist teacher needs some level of realization and to have integrated that realization in to her conduct. There's much more to be said on this point; I'd like to know what others think of it.

Many of these discussions at DharmaWheel and elsewhere are concerned with the evaluation of teachers and traditions. I think we would benefit just as much, perhaps more, if we consider what it takes to be a good student.

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by Sara H » Fri Mar 22, 2013 9:48 pm

What belongs is what people consent to.

Zen is a harsh discipline.

Historically, it is.

We, in the west, tend to like a softer life, but it's easy to forget, that the people who first brought it over here from Japan, were trained in Japan, and so only had a Japanese training experience to draw upon for their teaching methods.

Jiyu-Kennett was literally beaten black and blue by the kyosaku in the meditation hall in Soji-ji.

She was nearly starved on several occasions, because the monastic diet there at the time was primarily a broth soup and rice. She also got very ill from the harsh treatment there, that was made more severe by the prejudice against her as a woman, and foreigner.

If you want to know what she went through for training, I'd suggest reading her diary of the time, The Wild, White Goose Vols. 1 and 2
It's available for free now from Shasta's website for download in segments, if you don't want to buy the book.
Compared to what she went through, and how she was taught, Shasta's teaching is incredibly mild.
It's not possible to get things perfect, especially so, when you are pioneering things like bringing a whole new religious practice into the west, in a country where it has never had it before.
She got plenty of criticism for of her efforts to "tone Zen down" and make it gentler.

Kyogen, is a bit of a hypocrite. He's made plenty of pretty bad mistakes himself, that he doesn't like to talk about, some of them really bad.

If you have a teacher, what works is what is good for you as a student, and whether or not the Teacher fits you or not.

Some teachers are not for everybody, there is not a one-size-fits-all fit.

Jiyu-Kennett's style was very good for some people, highly beneficial.

For others, it was not so good, it didn't work.

But that doesn't mean there is anything bad with either party, sometimes, people just don't work out. Just like spouses, (though that's not a parallel analogy).

People are different, they have different needs. What may have seemed "cruel" to Kyogen from his perspective may have been exactly what some people needed.

And they have said so.

Different strokes for different folks.

Personally, I need a more intense form of the Dharma to practice. I find it's highly beneficial to me.

I actually find Shasta's practice pretty mild in some ways, it's very gentle in fact.

I once heard a story of the monks laughing, because apparently some Japanese, or some other Asian senior Teachers came to visit, and apparently after the end of their stay there, looking at the training that went on, and evaluating it, after their own experience, they said something to the effect, that it was very good, but "too much food, too much sleep!"


As I said, different strokes, for different folks.

Zen is not a brand image, that has to have a unifying theme and way of doing things across all temples and all Teachers.
Each teacher has a right and the authority to create their own teaching style.
Some people only teach a select few students, or even just one or two, and focus on them.
Others do larger temples, and, everything in-between.

They all do their teaching to the best of their ability, drawing upon their own experience, and how they were trained, and building upon that, and discarding things where things are found to work or not work. Sometimes there's a lot of trial and error involved, a disciple is not like a broken clock where you can clearly see the gear that needs to be fixed.
Sometimes it takes a try or few to understand something about them to know what and how to help them.

It all just depends.

If I felt and had the expertise to know, that all someone needed to have an experience of the Eternal, a Kensho, -that they were right on the edge, and just needed a push to get them to have it; was one swift kick in the ass, I would probably kick them right in the ass.

There's not necessarily a "wrong way" to do Zen training, if something works.

History and stories are full of the occasional student getting hit with a stick or something to quite literally knock them to their senses.

For some people, that's waaay to harsh.

For others, that's exactly what they need.

Each person is different, each person has different needs, and the Teacher does their very best to fit the teaching to the needs of the student.

As I said, different strokes for different folks.

Kyogen obviously didn't find Jiyu-Kennet to be his best fit. Unfortunately for him, the selection of Zen teachers in the West was much more limited at the time, so he had to make due with what he had.
They may both have even known that they weren't an ideal fit for each other, and tried it anyway because what was the alternative? Send him to Japan? There weren't a great deal of alternatives. Sometimes we have to just make do with what we've got.

With the ideal, comes the actual, after all.

Now people have more options, and can look around a bit more for a teacher that's a seems to be a better fit, rather than being forced to try and "make it work".

Kyogen had his kensho while training with Jiyu-Kennet.
Her methods obviously were at least somewhat successful for him. ; )

But in the end, the Buddha's and Ancestors do but point the way, we have to do our own training.

-In Gassho,

-Sara H.
"Life is full of suffering. AND Life is full of the Eternal
We can stand in our shadow, and wallow in the darkness,
We can turn around.
It is OUR choice." -Rev. Basil Singer

" ...out of fear, even the good harm one another. " -Rev. Dazui MacPhillamy

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by randomseb » Sat Mar 23, 2013 1:57 am

I kind of think zen took a beating when it transferred from China to Japan :jawdrop:
Disclaimer: If I have posted about something, then I obviously have no idea what I am talking about!

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by _username_ » Sun Mar 24, 2013 3:54 am

I'm reading The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism ...

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by shel » Sun Mar 24, 2013 6:54 pm

Like Dearreader I think this topic has promise, and am unsure of it's intended direction.

To me, the following two statements suggest distinct directions.
Jikan wrote:What belongs in the student/teacher relationship? What does not?
Jikan wrote:I think we would benefit just as much, perhaps more, if we consider what it takes to be a good student.
It feels to me like Jikan is interested in discussing what it takes to be a good student. If that's the case then I think it would make sense to first determine what a student is supposed to learn or achieve, in order to help determine what it takes to be a good student. Doesn't that make sense?

As I see it there are a number of fundamental problems in determining what it takes to be a "good student" in Zen Buddhism. The first problem which comes to mind is that it's not possible for a Zen student to fail, and if a student can't fail then it wouldn't seem possible to define what it takes to be a good student.

There also seems to be a problem surrounding the issue of "awakening" (or whatever) vs moral conduct in Zen Buddhism. For example, an "awakened masters" moral conduct is no different from societal norms, and may even be subpar. This would seem to suggest that only "awakening" is important. And if that's the case then I have to question the value of "awakening."

But we could avoid any difficult questions with the simple understanding that the only real requirement for a "good student" is that they derive some meaning from the practice. And for the teacher, that they simply don't f**k-up the system of meaning.

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by DGA » Sun Mar 24, 2013 11:09 pm

To put my own cards on the table, here's a blog post I wrote some years ago on the topic of being a competent student. Some or none of it may be relevant to the present discussion. ... udent.html

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Re: Working with a Teacher

Post by shel » Mon Mar 25, 2013 12:03 am

The good student qualities mentioned in your blog post are universal. Isn't religious practice different? For example, a math student learns mathematics which can be applied to solve real world problem and discover new things about the world. An art student can learn to express themselves, communicate effectively via their art form, and contribute to their society and culture. So what does the good Zen student get out their study? Or maybe a better question, what does the good Zen student get out of their study that the bad Zen student does not get?

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