Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Makes A Good Teacher?

Despite all my complaining, I'm very fortunate to be living here in Atlanta and to have a local Zen Center. I'm fortunate that my friendly, neighborhood Zen Center emphasizes a lay practice that fits in well with my lifestyle, and does not require monastic training. I am fortunate to have met a sensei, a good teacher.

Zen Master Dogen once said, "If you gradually abandon your ego-attachment and follow the sayings of your teacher, you will progress. If you argue back [pretending] to know the truth, but remain unable to give up certain things and continue to cling to your own preferences, you will sink lower and lower (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1-4)."

Dogen also said, "After the initial meeting with a good teacher, we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite the names of the Buddha, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit, and get the state which is free of body and mind (Shobogenzo Bendo-wa)."

So what makes a good teacher?

Based on the passage from Bendo-wa, a good teacher is merely one who encourages you to just sit (shikantaza), and get the state which is free of body and mind. Anything else, a compassionate nature, learned knowledge, a meditative style, is technically superfluous. These may be what are required to get you to just sit, but they themselves are not the virtues of a good teacher. I will argue that anyone who can get you to just sit is a good teacher. Your task is to find someone with the right skill set for you to do that.

In Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shishōbō, Dogen identifies the four methods of a bodhisattva, the social actions that a bodhisattva employs. These are dana (or free giving), kind speech, helpful conduct, and cooperation. As a bodhisattva, a good teacher can utilize these methods, but they in themselves are not the teaching.

The teacher does not have your answers; they are within yourself. The answers manifest themselves through the practice of shikantaza. All that a good teacher can do is employ various skillful means to keep encouraging you to continue to look within by sitting shikantaza.

At a wonderful lecture at Oglethorpe University several years ago, Fukushima Roshi, a Rinzai Master, said that incomplete teachers make incomplete students. If a teacher is content with describing the buddha nature to you rather than requiring you to find it yourself, you will only have second hand understanding of your own self.

So yesterday, I had a meeting scheduled with my teacher for lunch. It was not convenient for me, as I suggested that for his convenience, we meet at a restaurant near his home, about 25 miles from my office. Given traffic and all, I had to leave work about 45 minutes before our appointment so as to get there on time. The meeting required a 50-mile roundtrip and two to three hours out of a busy day.

As it was, I got there about 10 minutes early. I ordered a pot of tea (it was a Thai restaurant), and read some notes on my practice path that sensei had sent me. And I waited.

And waited.

After 20 minutes past our appointment time, I gave him a call and left a message on his voice mail. I ordered lunch for myself - a delicious chicken panang curry - and began to get angry over having apparently been forgotten.

But then I thought that sensei was getting older, and maybe something had happened to him. Maybe he had been in an accident, or had a stroke or a heart attack. How foolish I would have felt, how self centered, to have been sitting there feeling angry and feeling sorry for myself should I later learn that any of these possible tragedies had occurred. So I finished my meal quietly, paid my bill, and went on my way.

Sensei called me about an hour later, responding to my voice mail. As it turns out, he had simply forgotten about our lunch, but rather than be angry, I was grateful that none of the possible calamities that I had imagined had occurred. He was very apologetic about his forgetfulness, and offered to make it up to me in any way possible. We got past that and wound up having a very pleasant telephone conversation, covering much of the ground that we had intended on covering over lunch.

This month marks the start of my ninth year of practice under sensei. After first walking in through the zendo doors as a rank new-comer in January 2001, I have been sitting zazen there for eight full years now. Sometimes I get impatient with sensei, sometimes I disagree with his viewpoint, sometimes I argue back, [pretending] to know the truth. Sometimes he is late for lunch. But for whatever reason, he has kept me sitting, using whatever skillful means he needs to employ - from the four methods of a bodhisattva to means of which I am not even aware.

And for this, he qualifies as a good teacher.