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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
50 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 4 encountering teachers, though at the time there were several storied Asian Buddhist teachers in America. Though I first came to San Francisco Zen Center in the summer of 1970, about a year and a half before the passing of the center’s great founder, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, I made no effort to hear him speak, never saw him, and was not interested in attending his funeral nor the instal- lation of his successor, the first American Zen master, that preceded it. Looking back at this now, I see it as a missed opportunity. But that’s how I was at the time. All this might imply that I was a rebellious Zen student. But I wasn’t. I had no problem respecting my teachers, listening to their talks, going for regularly scheduled interviews. To reflexively rebel, challenge, or deny a teacher is to set up a teacher in your mind who fulfills the ideal requirements the teacher in front of you is failing to fulfill. If you feel compelled to rebel, it is probably because you actually do believe in an idealized almighty Zen master. I had no such belief and no such compulsion. I was at the Zen Center to study Zen. I had my reasons for want- ing to do that. Since the teachers were in charge, I would cooperate with them. But whatever benefit or understanding or enlightenment I got was my own affair. No one else could give it to me or even lead me to it. I recount all this not because I entirely agree with it now, but to give a sense of how I was thinking about teachers and Zen practice in my early years. I certainly did not think that I would become a Zen teacher myself. My thought was simply to get what I needed from the practice and move on with my vague life as a poet, sur- viving somehow. My wife, Kathie, and I were ordained as Zen priests in 1980 because our teacher required us to either do that and conti- nue to practice at the center full-time or move on and get a life (we had two children by then). We weren’t ready to go, so we agreed to ordain, a step Kathie was much more ready for than I was, but I managed. In 1988, when my teacher offered me shiho (dharma transmission), which would give me full ordination as a Soto Zen priest, I was surprised. ZOKETSU NORMAN FISCHER is the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation and former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. He is the author of Training in Compassion, Taking Our Places, and a new book of poetry, The Strugglers. In those days in American Zen, shiho was rare (though it was not rare in Japan). People pre- sumed that only deeply enlightened people could receive it, which is why I was surprised. Nev- ertheless, I went ahead with the process and became a Zen teacher, a role I found at first dis- turbing, being so ill prepared and ill suited for it. But eventually, thinking of Huangbo, I came to accept the social designation “Zen priest” or “Zen teacher,” and since then I have done my best to try to help people practice. There is more to “no teachers of Zen” than meets the eye. I still believe that students are responsible for their own practice and their own awakening. No one can communicate a truth worth knowing; the only worthwhile truth is the one you find uniquely, for your own life. On the other hand, Zen is not Lone Ranger practice. Zen teachers are important to the practice, as the tradition certainly indicates and experience proves. Yes, there are no Zen teachers because Zen isn’t a teachable subject matter or skill. There are things to be learned, such as Zen lit- urgy, how to comport one’s self in a zendo, and how to strike a proper bell at a proper time, but it is clear that Zen itself, while not exactly some- thing other than these things, isn’t the same as them. Zen is much more slippery than that. The Heart Sutra says, “All dharmas are empty.” Zen is empty—empty of content, empty of doctrine, style, or faith that can be codified and defined. So what is there to teach? But yes, there are Zen teachers because Zen practice is not nothing: real transformation occurs. Zen teachers can’t show you how to effect this transformation, they cannot cause it to happen in you, and they are not “masters” of it (no one could be a master of an indefinable, empty feeling for living). But they do play an essential role. In the ordinary educational model, there are teachers who teach, students who learn, subject matter, standards of knowledge, and an educa- tional institution that contains and certifies the educational process. While in some ways Zen might look like this, in fact Zen is not an educa- tional process but rather a transformational one CHRISTINEALICINO