Three Buddhist Teachers Walk Into A Bar: Our pictures of what practice is Barry Magid March 24th 2012

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Three Buddhist teachers walk into a bar: A Vipassana teacher, a Zen teacher, and a Shambhala teacher. The Vipassana teacher says, My vows do not permit me to drink alcohol. She orders a tea which she proceeds to sip very, very slowly. The Zen teacher walks up to the bar, bangs it with his fist, says, I’ll have nothing! The Shambhala teacher gets up, walks around the back of the bar, has sex with the bartender.

So what does a joke like that tell us about our stereotypes? About our pictures of what practice is, what teachers are, about the virtues and pitfalls of the particular style? Sometimes we have to take something to an extreme, in the form of a joke, to really illustrate its essence. So the Vipassana teacher demonstrates a virtue of self-control, simplicity, mindfulness, asceticism, perhaps. Are these virtues that you yourself wish to cultivate in your practice? How central are they to your idea of what you’re doing here? What are their downsides? Well, one downside might be a tendency towards preciousness, somewhat otherworldliness, maybe not the kind of person who’s a lot of fun to go to a bar with.

The Zen teacher -- what’s the virtue displayed there? Well, there’s a kind of grounding or certainty of standing firmly in the absolute: of having nothing lacking, nothing from the outside is needed, having complete strength and autonomy. I have nothing! What’s the downside of that? Perhaps arrogance or pretentiousness, a pretense in particular that we have no needs outside of ourselves or anything or anybody, a fantasy of autonomous strength and self-sufficiency. Which of those virtues do you try to cultivate in your practice? Which one of those pitfalls are you most susceptible to?

The Shambhala teacher, master of crazy wisdom, certainly displays freedom, lack of inhibition, an owning of the reality of desire. Those are good things. The pitfalls? Perhaps an obliviousness to certain karmic consequences, a fantasy of being able to move smoothly and freely and perhaps in a superior way through life where other people are inhibited or lack true freedom. There’s a kind of arrogance or narcissism in that. Which one of those virtues do you cultivate in your practice? How much do you feel like practice is supposed to free you up, disinhibit you?

In a way I grew up with both ends of the spectrum, both practice as strict discipline and practice as play, as disinhibiting, with Zen as freedom. Both operate in our pictures of what practice is supposed to be. I heard recently from a friend of an old Japanese teacher who, as he got older, seemed to forget all about teaching. He almost seemed to forget all about Zen. All that was left was a smile. I like to think I’m heading in that direction, but maybe not too fast.

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