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The student teacher relationship in zen Barry Magid April 11th 2009

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The student-teacher relationship is at the core of our tradition and practice. People will sometimes ask me, How do I go about having a student-teacher relationship with you? One cannot begin to answer that question without a very long exploration of what we think it means to be a student and to be a teacher. I usually leave that question open and unanswered as a kind of koan for everyone to chew on for themselves, about what they think it means to be a student, what it means to be a teacher.

We need to look at it from a number of different perspectives. Every day we chant “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.” What does it mean to be a student of that teacher? A student of life. What is that teacher teaching? If you say that core realizations of practice involve selflessness or non-separation, life as a teacher is offering you the opportunity to practice those things moment after moment. Or more realistically, we could say that life as a teacher is showing you how you are not practicing those things moment after moment. Joko would say that our anxiety, our anger, our resistance, each moment are teachings about where we are holding ourselves separate from life, where we’re resisting the teacher and the teaching.

To truly be a student of life is to practice non-separation from the moment all the time. Being just this moment, compassion’s way. Being just this moment, meaning being completely non-separate from the moment and responding from a position of non-separation, which is compassion. So that’s one sense in which there is a teacher who is there all the time, and whose teaching we inevitably resist moment after moment.

Another sense of the student-teacher relationship is conveyed by a koan that says, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya are both students of another. Who is that other?” Are you ready to step up to that plate? Are you ready to be the teacher of this place, this moment, in your own life? What would that mean, to be willing to take your own experience as the final statement of what life is? Of not in any way putting anyone else’s head on top of your own -- not even Buddha’s? So in that sense there has to be an elimination of any difference between student and teacher. No one can do it for you, you have to breathe your own breath, have your own realization, die your own death. Nobody can do anything for you. This is another picture of non-separation, the same way having life as a teacher, moment after moment, is a lesson in non-separation. The one who is the teacher of Maitreya and Shakyamuni has to be also the one who is non-separate from life, moment after moment.

But there’s a third sense about the student-teacher relationship, more what people are usually asking about, in terms of what is your relationship to me? What is the relationship you have to a particular teacher, a particular individual? I remember a conversation that was had in a board meeting at Greyston, a Zen community a couple of decades back, when we were arguing over some community plan, whether they were going to keep the building or sell it, things like this. I remember one person saying that whatever the teacher said, in that case Bernie Glassman, we simply had to follow because we were the students and he was the teacher. This person said, If your car breaks down and the teacher shows up and offers to repair it and all they have on hand is a chainsaw, well, you have to let them go at your car with that chainsaw. They’re the teacher. It means complete surrender to whatever the teacher can offer at the moment. This is one of those things that walks a fine line between wisdom and madness.

You see, there is a genuine element of surrender that’s involved in a student-teacher relationship. Surrender is a word that we use to describe that experience of letting go of your own will and your own opinion. In Christian terms they can say, “Thy will be done,” or “God’s will be done.” But to work with a teacher in some sense is to make it very up close and personal, and Thy will be done means the teacher’s will be done. A big part of traditional training in monastic settings is surrender to whatever the practice is, whatever the teaching is of that person at that place. A big part of training is practicing letting go of likes and dislikes and preferences. An old teacher, the patriarch Seng-Ts’an, says, The Great Way is not difficult, simply let go of likes and dislikes.

I think part of what it means to sit zazen, particularly in sesshin, is to let go of all our usual preferences or cues about what’s comfortable and what’s uncomfortable, what’s possible and what’s impossible, what we like and what we don’t like about a particular place or a particular setting. Does it conform to our aesthetics? Does it conform to our particular notion of what a Zen Center should look like or not? The Zen Center in San Diego looked like a track house in the suburbs, not exactly most people’s idea of what a Zen Center was supposed to look like.

Sometimes when I talk to other teachers about the difference between lay practice and monastic practice, one of the things they come back to over and over again is: Where is the element of surrender in lay practice? What did you have to give up to practice as a lay person? And many of them will really speak about what was most formative in their training was acts of submission, surrender, renunciation.

Submission and surrender are closely aligned. Submission can mean something more negative in terms of simply putting another person’s head on top of yours, or letting another person’s will dominate you. Being dominated is not the same as surrendering. This is a subtle point that people have to work out. It’s how a lot of training goes very badly awry, when there’s confusion between submission and surrender, between letting go and letting yourself be dominated. But the point that they make about surrender is very important. What do you give up to do this practice? It’s not really sufficient to say, well, we sit in the evenings, I have to push cocktails back an hour.

I think there are a couple of very important things that do happen in lay practice in terms of surrender. One has to do with the particular nature and personality of the teacher, the particular nature and personality of me, Barry, because one of the things that you are asked to surrender to is an acceptance of this person, with all his idiosyncracies and flaws and quirks, as the teacher, as the embodiment of practice. It means being willing to accept the limitation of one particular individual as it, as sufficient. It means letting go of fantasies and idealizations of the perfect teacher, of the perfect enlightened one whose very look or word or touch is going to somehow magically give it to you.

A big part of surrender is surrendering to the particular as opposed to the ideal and the general. It’s surrendering to this is it. This is not a compromise or a good enough substitute for the real thing or something that we’re just sort of doing now until the Dalai Lama arrives or whoever else we’re waiting for who is really it. This is it. I’m it. That’s not so easy to swallow. The point is not to always maintain some idealization which I think some people do, where their teacher is the one enlightened being on the planet. It’s a nice fiction to maintain and I know people who have done that: I’m seeing the real one! No, the point is to be able to have the buck stop here. I will live this life, in this body, in this place, in this time, under these conditions. A big part of being able to accept your own mortality, to accept your own limitations, and ultimately, I think, to accept your own enlightenment, is to be able to really surrender to the idea that it can look like this. It can look like you. It can look like this place.

There’s a way in traditional practice where you can hold onto certain kinds of fantasies and idealizations much longer. You can really think that you’ve joined the special place, and leading the special elite life, that only a select certain people manage to do way up in the mountains, or in some place of great tradition or great holiness or great specialness, and you’ve been let in. You’re in the club. You made it. That’s a great opportunity but also a great trap that you can stay in for a very long time.

If nothing else, sitting in an apartment on 74th Street makes it much harder to have that kind of fantasy, and that’s a great gift. It cuts through a lot of bullshit, but it’s not a teaching that people easily accept or understand. The real core of a student-teacher relationship is allowing the here and now, this person, this place, this opportunity, to be completely it.

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