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Buddhadharma : Summer 2011
winter 2005| 46 |buddhadharma Many years ago I set off hitchhiking across six states in pursuit of a religious experience. I hoped to break free from conventional life and embark on a momentous and romantic spiritual path, the stuff that would make a great autobiography someday. I was going to see the great guru. As I sat in my flouncy, brightly colored pants from Madras, the feeling of expectation was enormous. When Chögyam Trungpa arrived for his talk, it was a bit of an anticlimax. His reputation preceded him, but nothing prepared me for his unholiness. So strong was my urge to learn, however, that I set aside my hopes of hearing choirs of angels rejoicing in his presence. At some point during that talk, he said that the spiritual path only really begins when you experience nausea with yourself, nausea with samsara. “Real nausea,” he said, making clear that it was not a metaphor. As far as I’m concerned, he was the first person to tell me the whole truth, and he seemed not the least bit concerned if it didn’t conform to what the paying customers expected. Ever after that day, I would still try to construct various sandcastle spiri- tual paths, and always – after a short time or quite a long time – his haunting words “real nausea” would revisit me, whether I was in his presence or not. I’m still building the sandcastles and he’s still knocking them down. That’s how it seems to work with a Buddhist master, even though he’s long gone. The need for a teacher seems to be the sine qua non of all Buddhist tradi- tions, and while the roles and methods of the teacher seem to differ from one to another, as do the descriptions of the teacher and the rituals associated with them, in my observation, there is more commonality than difference. In the various traditions of Theravada, in the Zen and Chan schools, in all the branches of Vajrayana, the teacher is much more than someone who imparts key information in lectures and tests how well you have absorbed it. The teacher is someone who minds your business. The teacher minds the business of individuals and of whole communities. The teacher inspires a minding of each other’s business. Teachers do impart knowledge through lectures and discussions, but because Buddhism involves personal experience – first of mindfulness, awareness, loving-kindness and compassion, and ultimately of liberation – the teacher must see firsthand evidence of such experience and of all the creative mistakes students make in their pursuit of it. Viewed from the outside, the student-teacher relationship can seem heavy- handed or even manipulative, and if the teacher is a charlatan, it truly is that. But the genuine teacher’s role is not manipulative. The teacher is not a puppet-master, but rather the one who cuts the strings and shows you how to do it yourself. So, if in the end you must do it yourself, why do you need a teacher? Isn’t relying on someone else antithetical to self-discovery? We need a teacher because the real puppet-master is our own ego, and it’s very hard for ego to participate in its own extinction. Through formally teaching us the dharma and by a variety of other methods, teachers interpose themselves between our ego and our true nature in a way that is impossible for us to do ourselves. In ego’s hands, even the dharma itself can become self-confirming. The ultimate quality-control expert, the teacher, ensures that it will not. Like all teachers, the three teachers on our panel are also students, and they share their understanding here about what it means to be a student, and how dependence and independence intermingle in the process. While they discuss the student-teacher relationship in one-on-one terms, in my experience such intimacy does not rely on intensive daily contact. Its power is not measured in conventional terms, like how many hours one spends at the feet of the master. Its power is measured in how well we are learning to do it ourselves. — Barry Boyce The Dzogchen PonloP RinPoche is a lama in The Kagyü anD nyingma TRaDiTions of TibeTan buDDhism. he is The founDeR anD PResiDenT of nalanDaboDhi anD niTaRTha inTeRnaTional, which he DiRecTs fRom his main ResiDence in seaTTle. shaRon salzbeRg is co-founDeR of The insighT meDiTaTion cenTeR anD The baRRe cenTeR foR buDDhisT sTuDies. she is The auThoR of faiTh: TRusTing youR own DeePesT exPeRience. noRman fischeR is The founDeR of The eveRyDay zen founDaTion anD foRmeR abboT of The san fRancisco zen cenTeR. he is auThoR of TaKing ouR Places: The buDDhisT PaTh To TRuly gRowing uP. Forum: How to Be a Student paintings by Michael newhall ponloprinpoche/ryszardfrackiewicz;sharonsalzberg/lizamatthews;normanfischer/roberthofmann