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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
52 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 4 for instance, everyone starts and ends together. In Zen walking meditation, everyone walks together in single file, evenly spaced. Meditation is done side by side, in a hall, with each period of medita- tion starting and ending with everyone together. The form of the characteristic literature is also dialogic, with short verbal or nonverbal encoun- ters between teachers and disciples, or disciples and disciples, presenting rough-and-tumble back- and-forth conversations in which the teachings are explored not so much discursively but dynam- ically, using as few words as possible. And one of the characteristic and essential Zen practices is the one-on-one meeting with the teacher, which is viewed not as reporting in or asking for advice but as “dharma encounter”—a chance to meet oneself by meeting another. Given this radical “together” style, it’s clear that a Zen teacher has to be ready, all the time, to let go of his life and enter the life of the other. This deep mutuality is the essence of the Zen pro- cess. It’s been wonderful training for a stubborn person like myself, softening me considerably over the years and expanding my horizons. But it took me a while to be ready for this or even to know that it was required. Soon after my shiho ceremony in 1988, I read a line in one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books to the effect that “if you can’t find a true teacher, it is best not to study.” This tangled me up for a while in the net of my unac- knowledged preconceptions about Zen teachers. I found it very upsetting because it seemed to imply some exalted state of being a “true teacher,” a state unknown to me. Yet here I was, one of the few American Zen people in those days with full dharma transmis- sion, and what did I think I was doing? It took me a few uncomfortable years to finally catch up with Thich Nhat Hanh to ask him about this, and he told me something like, “Don’t worry, we all help each other. The one-day person helps the one who just came in the door. The five-year person helps the one-year person. Each one helps according to his experience.” That made me feel much better. Still, it took me years to feel comfortable in the teacher’s seat. (And being a so-called Zen teacher is, in many ways, literally that, feeling comfortable in the seat you are sitting in, facing the altar, at the front of the zendo.) For a while I was unconsciously caught by the idea that I was supposed to be someone that others expected me to be, and I couldn’t help but strain a bit to be that person. But the truth is, there was no one in particular I needed to be. A formal Zen talk isn’t conceived of as a lec- ture on Zen; it’s called “presenting the shout”— that is, expressing the teaching just by speaking in your own voice. I have always appreciated the fact that when you give a Zen talk, you make three prostrations to the Buddha before and after the talk. These bows are meant to indicate that it isn’t exactly you giving the talk. The Buddha is giving the talk using your body and voice. Bow- ing is praying to Buddha to help you do as good a job at channeling him as you possibly can, with the faith that whatever you say, right or wrong, will be of some use if you are sincere and try your best. After some years I came to see that this applied to anything I did as a Zen teacher: if I was honest, tried my best, followed precepts, and didn’t pretend to be anyone, everything would be okay. This sounds simple-minded enough, and it is, but it is actually not so easy to do. And what does “everything would be okay” actually mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that things won’t ever go wrong. In fact, things will certainly go wrong. Maybe another capacity a Zen teacher should develop is the resilience and breadth of view that will enable her to live with the fact that she is going to fail. At least, this has been my experience. Occupying the teacher gear in the whirling Zen machine requires that you receive everything with an open heart and have the willingness and stamina to take full respon- sibility for each and every relationship you enter, which means to care and try your best to help. People come to Zen practice, as they do to any spiritual practice, with plenty of human needs. They come with trust, mistrust, and hid- den expectations. Of course, the Zen teacher, an imperfect human being, is going to disappoint a fair number of them. Some will be disappointed on the first day, others only after many decades. You, the teacher, will misunderstand them and they will misunderstand you. You will say and do things that are hurtful, even if you never intended to. Meaning to straighten someone out (always a dubious proposition), you will com- pletely botch the job, reinforcing the behavior or view you were trying to soften. Students who have practiced faithfully with you for years will realize it has all been wrong and leave, creating confusion and dissension. Your public words and