Many of us I’m sure were inspired by the Pope’s visit this week, his address to Congress and the United Nations. I think he restored many people’s sense of the possibility of a compassionate church, having grown up with one that was often seen as repressive or authoritarian. His citing of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to Congress certainly puts in the foreground a different face of Catholicism, one that we hope is inspirational for a new generation. One wonders, of course, what difference something like this makes next week, or the week after, or the month after. Will it inspire more church-going, more contemplative vocations, more out-reach to the poor?
I think it’s very important, when we think about the role of spiritual leaders and teachers, that they help us make the move from simply having a figure we admire or idealize to finding a way to do something different ourselves in our own life. I think that someone like the Pope or the Dalai Lama, sometimes just by their very presence, can give hope to people who feel oppressed or forgotten and that in itself is an enormously important role. He has said he wants to be a Pope to the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked, that the church belongs to those people.
And yet for most of us, our problem is not that we are really oppressed or overlooked, or at least not in that sense; the oppression we suffer is largely of our own making. We suffer from putting ourselves under the magnifying glass. We don’t know how to overlook our own faults or perfections and we whither under the gaze of our own judgment and shame. Very often people ask me about what it means to be a student or what’s the role of a teacher. I think it’s a difficult question to answer, and one I usually try to leave to the students themselves to try to understand what they imagine, what they are looking for, what they think is supposed to happen, what they are supposed to get.
Joko wanted to be a model of practice for people but she was very uninterested in being idealized or having people dependent on her. She really meant it when she said, “Life is the only teacher.” Rather than foster a bond with herself, she really wanted people to learn how to practice with their own life. Practice was not going to mean simply facing all the pain and rigors of sesshin; it meant how do you face the pain and rigors of daily life. That was the real challenge and the real practice.
Very often we have to find a way to make the transition from an idealized attachment to a teacher, guru-like figure, into one who makes it possible for us to embody the qualities we think we admire in them. I remember back in the ‘70s I read lots of books on Zen, but when I read van de Wetering’s book, The Empty Mirror, about his going to Japan to practice, in the midst of a great deal of depression and confusion in his life, it was the first time I really thought, oh -- this is a person like me who actually did this. It wasn’t a story of ancient Chinamen or exotic figures. This was a guy. He actually did it. It made me feel, well, OK, maybe I could do this too. I think in that particular case I was wrong. I don’t think I could have gone to Japan and endured what he endured of traditional Rinzai practice. But it made a transition, it made me start thinking about actual possibilities, and one of the ways to frame that turn was to turn from fantasy to imagination.
So often when we read books or encounter remarkable figures, they become objects of fantasy. They’re admirable, they galvanize our attention, we want to read all about it, but there’s an enormous gap between us and them, between our world and theirs, and in part, we’re just fine with that gap because it allows us to feel a certain kind of connection, or specialness, without actually doing anything. We can read lots of books and feel like we’re very spiritual. But what does it mean to actually show up to this practice?
It was my experience, mostly through the ‘70s and ‘80s when I first started practicing, the most important figures for me were not the teachers but the senior students in the sangha. They were the ones who’d been doing this for a while, who I could actually sit down and talk to, have a cup of tea with or a glass of beer or a walk around the block. I could have the sense that these were people who were not other-worldly, were not going to be so different from me. They could really help me in a very step by step way to continue along the path. That’s why sangha, I think, is so important, why your relationships with each other very often can mean as much as your relationship with me.
As the years go on and I’ve been able to train other people to be teachers, it can help very much to see different people, very different kinds of people become teachers. It’s very easy to get fixated on your teacher as a model of what a teacher is. It’s a very good thing to see that teachers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and flavors, styles. They could even look like you. You never know.