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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
SPRING 2 0 1 4 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 49 O ne of my favorite Zen stories is about teachers. The great Zen teacher Huangbo strides into the hall and says to the assembled monastics, “You people are all dreg-slurpers! If you go on like this, when will you ever see today? Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” A monastic comes forward and says to him, “Then what about all those people like you who set up Zen places that students flock to like birds?” Huangbo replies, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.” As an independent-minded (some would say stubborn) person, I find this story appealing. I have never been attracted to Zen masters or gurus, powerful and charismatic spiritual guides. There may or may not actually be such special people, but in any case I have never been interested in them. I assume that I know what I need to know for living my life, and that when I need to know more I will find it out for myself. No wisdom or experience that isn’t my own is worthwhile. So I have asked myself, what’s the point of spiritual teachers? What benefit could possibly be gained from hanging around some supposed sage if somebody else’s enlightenment is never going to rub off on me? When I began my Zen study, I wanted to learn how to do zazen so I could find out firsthand what Zen was all about. I was happy to listen to talks and instructions that might help orient me to the practice. But the idea that following a Zen teacher and hanging on his every word and deed (in those days, Zen teachers were men) would somehow help me become enlightened seemed not only unappealing but also wrong. My thoughts resonated with Huangbo’s: there is Zen, but there are no teachers of Zen. Of course people with credentials set up shop and wel- come students. We all need some structure and a place to practice. But the teacher can’t teach you. Your practice is up to you. Good old American individualism. I believed it so much that I had no interest whatsoever in No Teacher of Zen From the beginning, Norman Fischer never had much use for Zen teachers—and he still doesn’t. But after years of being one himself, he has a fuller appreciation of the role a teacher plays. ILLUSTRATIONS BY SYDNEY SMITH