Newcomers or people who come here from other centers sometimes ask me what they have to do to become my student. In general I tell them that we don’t have specific criteria that they have to fulfill but I want them to reflect on what they think being a student means, what having a teacher means. I think I’ll try to go into those questions a little bit this morning and we can explore it further in our discussion group.
In a certain sense the primary criteria for a student is simply showing up. There has to be a way in which you make a commitment of time and effort just to be here on a regular basis, to be part of something. Yet just showing up can be done in a lot of different ways without someone really being clear what a student is and making a commitment to being a student. Sometimes people will come basically wanting to find a nice place to sit. They have their own practice and they’ve been sitting on their own for a while or with other groups. They’re looking for a place to sit, a pleasant group, and they want to just have this as a place to come and sit. At some level that’s fine and they may even feel like they’re part of the group in the sangha, but that’s a very different thing from being my student when they’re trying to do something more or less on their own.
Then there are other people who come because they basically are drawn for a sense of community. They want to be part of a sangha, and they put up with a certain amount of sitting, put up with a certain amount of dharma talks and so forth, but basically they’re looking for a community, a social group which, again, is fine. I have no problem with people doing that up to a point. Joko was not particularly happy with that, though. She really had no interest in those two categories of people coming to her zendo. When you came to dokusan with her, she really wanted to know what your practice was and what you were doing and whether you were practicing in the way she talked about. She had no interest in you coming to the zendo to do a mantra someone had given you once and you just wanted to sit there and have your own private experience. Don’t waste my time. Do that somewhere else.
I think she basically felt that same way about people who just wanted a community. Although having a community can be important, she thought the primary thing was to be serious about your practice. And that meant really being open to her instruction about what practice is and what it isn’t, and she wrote about that as you know in Everyday Zen.
I’ve had people come over the years -- I think I wrote about one student many years ago, not somebody who’s here anymore, but he used to be very grateful and talk about all the ways that practice had changed his life. Clearly he was very committed and very connected to his sitting, but he never spoke about his relationship to me and he didn’t talk about what it meant that he was connected personally to me or anything. At a certain point we were able to explore that. He was serious about being a student and could talk about what that meant, why he thought the way he did. And it became clear that in the course of his life he had been deeply traumatized and disappointed by significant others and that he came to rely on this abstract practice rather than ever rely on a particular individual. I don’t want to have to trust you. I want to have to trust the sitting. Right? It’s much harder to trust a person and I think many people come to practice like this as a way to trust an abstraction or ideal, trust a sitting the way you would trust God rather than having to trust the priest. Up to a certain point that could be very useful as a way to allow you to start practicing again, to believe in something, to trust something. But it’s important at the same time to recognize what is being resisted in that kind of abstraction.
When you come down to dokusan I ask that you do a full bow upon entering. That bow is to me. It’s not a bow to the Buddha in the back, it’s not a bow to practice. It’s bowing to me, and I want people to be able to think about what that means. As far as I’m concerned it has nothing to do with submission or obedience. It’s not that you’re bowing to the boss. It’s acknowledging that this particular person is here and now before me as the embodiment of this practice, and a commitment to me as a teacher is a kind of acceptance of the particularity to me as a particular person who’s done this for forty-some years in a particular lineage and have come here to do a certain kind of particular practice in a particular kind of way. And when you come in, and you bow, when you decide you want to be my student, you’re saying “yes” to those particulars. Well, all right. That’s what it looks like here. That’s what I’m going to get. That’s what I’m going to commit myself to. Right?
To see me as the embodiment of the dharma, well that’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is that someone who is not that different from you ends up in this position as teacher, having dedicated their life to practice in a certain kind of way with a certain kind of commitment, and it can happen. You can make that happen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you still end up with somebody like me. You don’t end up with your fantasy ideal of an enlightened master. I think that is, in a way, the biggest thing you have to do to become a student -- to be willing to renounce a certain kind of fantasy, a kind of fantasy of transcendence or perfection or other-worldliness. I think it’s very hard sometimes for students who have exotic Asian teachers to do that. They’re too much like the fantasy. It may take a long time to really see the person and come to terms with their actual personality and humanity. Sometimes when you see that it’s a rather traumatic de-idealization. The good news for you is that it doesn’t take so long for you to see that here. Right? You can skip a few steps.
Now, I think everybody here has a different personal take on this and what it means to them. Some of you have different degrees of commitment or relationship to me or to practice. Some of you would call yourselves Buddhists and some would call yourselves my students. I think it’s important to try to make explicit all the unconscious criteria we carry around in our heads, and I hope we’ll do some of that in our discussion group later.