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.
One 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 welcome 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 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 installation 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 wanting 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, surviving somehow. My wife, Kathie, and I were ordained as Zen priests in 1980 because our teacher required us to either do that and continue 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.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.