There are days when I imagine it might be interesting to dig out that long black sitting robe in the back of my closest that we all used to wear at Eido Roshi’s place, shave my head and get you all to call me Roshi. It might make for an interesting bit of theater. I suspect a lot of people would actually come to like it. We want someone, after all, to look and play the part, and to the extent that idealization and aspiration are necessary and healthy aspects of relationship to mentors and teachers, we inevitably have an image of what kind of person we want to emulate, who we want to identify with. How are we going to recognize such a person?
I said identify with, but often we’re very unsure about whether we prefer someone who is very much like us, and that we can identify with and feel like, oh, I like that person and I want to do what he’s doing, or whether we prefer to attach ourselves to someone wholly other and special, someone who has none of the flaws and all the qualities I wish I had. That can be very satisfying and we can feel very safe because we presume that that person is almost another order of being and won’t have the failings of ordinary people.
It’s a natural psychological tendency to long for that kind of specialness. Now the dilemma, of course, is when we discover the disjunction between the image and the reality. What’s supposed to give? What happens? There’s an old saying -- if you want to lose your religion, get to know a priest.
In the Catholic religion as I understand it, the power and efficacy of the mass and the sacraments do not depend on the character of the priest performing the ceremony. The power comes directly through Christ or from God, so a flawed priest nonetheless can be the vessel of a genuine spiritual experience. Graham Greene got a lot of mileage out of this idea.
But In Zen we have more or less the opposite idea. I was reading a commentary by Kodo Sawaki where he says, we really have no idea what the Buddha said or taught. Everything that we have ascribed to him was written hundreds of years later in a language he didn’t speak. But what we do have is the direct impression that he made as a person on the people around him and that impression has been passed down directly, generation after generation. It’s how he speaks of mind to mind transmission outside of the sutras or scriptures.
So there’s something in Zen, where the idea is that we are not participating in an abstract study of the dharma. We’re not following a technique. It’s like learning mathematics, where it’s true regardless of whether the teacher is a drunk or a pedophile or anything else. The mathematics is true. You can learn it from anybody. The dharma is not supposed to be like that. The dharma is supposed to be the manifestation in the person, in the teacher. Of what? What we manifest as teachers is not necessarily the perfection of character or the embodiment of perfect compassion or love. This is not news to any of you who know me.
But somehow there has to be in the teacher, an embodiment of a certain kind of acceptance, first of who they themselves are as a human being, as an individual, their personal characteristics or karma. The capacity to say this is me, and an acceptance of the nature of what it means to be a human being embedded in the world of interdependency, which we usually think of simply as vulnerability and of impermanence. I like to think that most of where we put our emphasis is in that presentation, a willingness to look in the mirror and say this is me. It’s a very hard thing to do. It’s seems very, very simple but we avoid it all our lives.
Sometimes we have to start with just being able to tolerate the fact that the teacher looks just like this. Sometimes I meet someone and they’ll tell me I don’t look at all like a Zen teacher. And I will say: That’s your first lesson. Because if I don’t look like a Zen teacher, they certainly don’t look like a Zen teacher to themselves. Whatever a Zen teacher is supposed to mean, it often is something so idealized and transcendental that it’s way off on some metaphysical horizon. It’s unreachable. When we find fault in the particularities of the teacher, how much more so we find fault with the particularities of ourselves, when we feel like we can never attain anutara samyak sambodhi, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Sometimes people ask me why I ask them to do full bows coming into the dokusan room. It’s not something that some people are comfortable with. Is it submitting to an authority, to a teacher? I think of it as accepting that the teaching is embodied in me, in this person that you’re here to study with. It’s not an easy idea to swallow. But that’s what we have to work with. This is the dharma. We have to be able to see this is where you find it, on this street, in this room, in this very nondescript setting. You can believe it’s here. You can believe it’s in me. You can believe it’s in you.