The following article originally appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Nebraska Monkey, the Newsletter of the Nebraska Zen Center. It is reprinted here with permission. -ed
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. -Shakyamuni Buddha
In the above, often quoted from the Kalama Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha stresses the importance of ultimately relying on our own experience when seeking the truth, of being, "lights unto ourselves" and not accepting teachings blindly because they come from recognized spiritual authorities.
There are other points of view, however, within Buddhist tradition; one is illustrated by the following story, often told during sesshin by Harada Tangen-roshi, abbot of Bukkokuji monastery in Japan:
Kanadaiba-daiosho, a disciple of Nagarjuna and one of the ancestors in our lineage, was in dokusan with a student who was devotedly seeking the truth. The student swore that he would do anything that Kanadaiba instructed if it would lead to directly seeing the truth. Kanadaiba then took him to the top of a huge cliff and told him to climb out on a branch that stuck out over the precipice. When the student hesitated, Kanadaiba reminded him of his promise. The student then climbed out on the branch. Kanadaiba then instructed him to let go with one leg, then the other, then one hand, and finally the other. The student hesitated at each step, but when reminded of his vow, he continued. Upon letting go with his second hand, believing that he would certainly fall to his death, he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he wasn't dead, but simply sitting across from Kanadaiba in dokusan- -with a boundlessly open mind. The meaning here seems to be opposite of the Buddha's suggestions. What do you make of this?
Teachers within the Buddhist tradition, then, seem to say different things about the role of authority in the student-teacher relationship. To complicate matters, the same teacher may also say different things! Katagiri-roshi, for example, would skillfully avoid my dependence - my wish for him to exert authority in my life - by retorting, "You are you, anyway!" However, other students of Katagiri-roshi report a different experience - that he would seemingly encourage their dependence by giving them specific directions for their practice and daily life.
Let me put this issue in context with a discussion of three common metaphors for the student-teacher relationship in Zen lore. One of Katagiri-roshi's favorite metaphors was that of one cup of tea pouring into an empty cup. He would emphasize the need for an empty cup with a story about a Zen master who was visited by a learned scholar. The conversation centered on the scholar speaking at length about his vast knowledge of Buddhism. After listening to the scholar for some time, the Zen master began to serve tea. He continued pouring into the scholar's cup until it overflowed onto the table. The scholar shouted, "Stop! The cup is full!" The Zen master then said, "So are you. How is it possible for you to learn anything from me?" This metaphor suggests that the student be empty, receptive, and lower than the teacher - one cup must be higher to pour into the other.
Another well-known metaphor for the student-teacher relationship refers to its culmination in "face-to-face transmission." Here we have a more horizontal relationship, with the student and teacher on the same level. The culmination of their practice results in their face-to-faceness. This metaphor suggests that the development of the student, becoming the vessel for the teaching, results in meeting the teacher on the same level. But what of the relationship during the process?
Katagiri-roshi would liken this relationship to the effort of the mother hen to hatch an egg and the chick's effort to be hatched. The mother hen pecks from the outside while the baby chicken pecks from the inside. If both do their work, the shell can be shattered. Is it important, then, that the teacher be outside the shell? What if a mother-hen teacher, a person that has exactly realized the mind of Buddha, is not available?
It seems to me that it is not necessary to have attained "unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment" to teach the basics of the spiritual path of ethics, meditation, and insight. What is essential is basic honesty. The teacher must acknowledge when she is speaking from experience, from studying the teachings, or from speculation in order to teach anything true.
This honesty is especially important for those of us with Dharma Transmission in the Soto Zen lineage. One of our tasks when working with a student is to dispel the misconceptions that commonly arise given the Zen lore about Dharma Transmission.
Dharma Transmission once meant the certification of enlightenment. Thus, students could trust that a teacher with this credential had a deep experience and was trustworthy - that this person spoke with reliable spiritual authority. Clearly, this was the case with Dogen and his immediate successors. During the reformation of the order during the Meiji Era in Japan (1866- 1912), Dharma Transmission came to mean full priest ordination. This gave the monk permission to head a temple, offer the teachings, and to no longer be directly guided by the teacher.
However, Dharma Transmission no longer indicated the openness of the recipient's mind. I'm told that today in Japan there are over twenty thousand monks with Dharma Transmission. How many of these would receive Dogen's seal of "dropping away body and mind?" My point is that it is important for us as teachers to say exactly what our experience is and not encourage or allow projections based on the hazy mist of Dharma Transmission lore - these projections and the dynamics of deferred authority damage all parties involved.
Returning now to where we started, I want to ask, "what is the optimal role for authority in the student-teacher relationship?" Is it best to carefully follow the teacher's suggestions without question, or to carefully question her as we choose which suggestions to follow? As I see it, the statement of the Buddha quoted at the beginning of this article provides clear guidance: "after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." It is my intention to use this as a model for my own practice of studying and teaching.
Once, after I heard Harada Tangen-roshi tell his favorite Kanadaiba story in sesshin, I went to dokusan, quoted the Buddha ("Be a light unto yourself"), cited several examples of "teachers" in America exploiting students, and shared what I tell people when they are looking for a teacher: "Consumer beware!" After a long discussion of the context of the Buddha's statement (the Buddha was encouraging Ananda to really practice) and the American situation, Tangen-roshi opened his usually half-shut eyes and said slowly, "You are right to tell people, 'Consumer beware!'"
SOME MORE THOUGHTS ON AUTHORITY
The question of authority, particularly in something that sounds as intimidating as the "Master-Disciple relationship," bears very close examination. The way I was taught, the "master" does not hold mastery over the disciple, but in the practice; like a master craftsman. That is one reason it is often simpler to refer to a "student-teacher" relationship; yet in many ways that description misses the deep significance in it. One thing that was made very clear to me was that in matters of a disciple's personal life, the master has no authority at all. Choices about career, marriage, education, etc. are not the business of the master; unless, of course, there is a moral or ethical question involved. The authority that the master has is just this: he or she can affirm matters of lineage transmission. That is it. While the master must define what the program is, and must make it clear whether or not a disciple is "with the program," so to speak, when that authority is used to interfere in other areas of the disciple's life, it is an abuse of power.
When I was studying with my teacher, it used to feel like I was piloting an airplane, while she tried to direct me from the ground by gesturing. I could get a clear "yes" or "no," but not a lot of detail beyond that. Learning from a teacher how to direct our inner world of practice is a lot like that. The authority she had was to confirm when I was going the right way, and to indicate when I was going awry. But in this type of teaching it is very easy for the boundary to become blurred between personal choices that are clearly the right of the disciple, and matters of attitude that indicate going awry in practice. It is the responsibility of the teacher to keep it straight; a responsibility I consider sacred. I should make it clear that my own teacher did a 180 degree turn on these principles, and that was when this center became independent.
A few years back we had a resident student here that was showing clear signs that it was time for her to move on to focus on other aspects of her life. When we talked about it, she became apprehensive and didn't want to move out. When I continued to press in this direction, she showed signs of genuine panic. It became clear to me that moving out would push her directly into a source of deep fear, and that she was ready to do it, despite all her protestations. Moving out was the painful beginning to a year and a half of intense growth for her, growth that included processing a lot of anger directed at me. With my wholehearted approval, she sought therapy at this time, from a therapist with no connection here whatsoever, and this proved enormously helpful. While this time was painful, it also lead to profound awakening. In many ways this story is almost exactly the same as the story of Kanadaiba- daiosho, told by Mike Port in the preceding article. This student felt I was asking her to jump off a cliff. Over and over she asked how I could be sure she could handle what I was asking her to do. Her particular cliff may not seem like a cliff to you as you read this, but I can assure you that to her it was the edge of a bottomless pit. One day, not too long after moving out, she sat across from me in the dokusan room with a boundlessly open mind.
In Tozan's "The Most Excellent Mirror - Samadhi" (Hokyozammai), there are wonderful passages that describe the interplay of master and disciple. At one place he says, "Although not made by artifice, this Truth can find expression in the words of those who teach true Zen." I've always been struck by the phrase "although not made by artifice." It seems to me that the Dharma unfolds as a miracle, pretty much by itself. A good teacher helps a student get out of his or her own way. When we see it unfold, it can be very dramatic, like Kanadaiba's student going out over a cliff. But when we consciously try to emulate that, it is made by artifice. To me the simple, everyday interactions of everyday people are all we need to teach the Dharma. In my relationship with the student who found herself on the edge of her own personal cliff, it was my authority about residency in this temple that I exercised in requiring her to move out, not authority over a disciple. It was my authority as her teacher, however, that permitted me, even required me, to point out that this was an opportunity to go directly into her koan. There was no need to manufacture a cliff for her to face. It appeared naturally, without artifice. I believe that Dharma doors like that one are all around us; we need only recognize them, and face them squarely. When we do this, they will open when we are ready for them to open. As a teacher, it is my job to encourage this process, not to force it. Anything more interferes with it.
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