Berkeley Zen Center [an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Practice of Student and Teacher, by Sojun Roshi

January 30, 1995

This lecture is reprinted from the December 2000 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

The practice of teacher and student must be built on trust. But the main thing is that the student should be able to trust himself or herself. The purpose of having a teacher is to help the student become self reliant. I remember Suzuki Roshi saying, "when the student comes, the teacher should turn the student out." In other words, you don't bring the student in and make some kind of home for her. The student must find her own way. But a good teacher also nurtures the student. It depends on the circumstances. It's like dealing with a child. You nurture the child but you also let the child be a little stretched. The child is out there on the edge, reaching for how to stand up, reaching for how to walk, how to climb, how to take care of himself. The teacher's aim is to help the student stand up on their own. Sometimes, the student has to lean on the teacher. Which is okay. But only for a while. Like with children: a mother goes to the playground with her child and the child goes off to play with the other kids. At some point the child remembers, "Hey, where's my mom?" The child goes back to check in with mom. Mom says, "Oh, everything's fine." And then the child goes out and plays again. The child is always checking in ("Oh, yeah. Where's my mom?"). It's sometimes like that with a student and teacher. My relationship with Suzuki Roshi was like that.

I would check in with him. I would bring him a problem. We would sit down and look at the problem. Then he would turn it into a koan for me. Not by saying, "this is your koan," but making me think about it in a different way. And then he would say to me, "I'm sorry, you came to me with a problem and I've given you another problem," and we would laugh. I'd go away and practice with my koan and then I'd come back. Back and forth. I had to work hard on my own. This coming and going was the way of developing my practice and my relationship with him. Sometimes I did practice very close with him. Sometimes we were together for a period of time. But the whole point was to enable me to know how to have my own practice and gain my own self reliance. Even if something happened to my teacher, I would be able to stand on my own.

Some students rely heavily on the teacher. They don't rely so much on the Dharma and they don't rely so much on the Sangha. Some people rely a lot on the Dharma. But they don't rely so much on the teacher and they don't rely so much on the Sangha. Some people are very social, and they rely a lot on the Sangha. But they don't care much for the Dharma, and as for the teacher - it's okay that he's there. So you have these three types. A well-rounded student includes all three legs.

So a teacher is one leg. If suddenly your teacher turns out to be a false teacher in some way, even though you may be crushed, you still have your own practice. Which is practice of the Dharma and practice with the Sangha. You can find another teacher. Or you can practice on your own until you find another teacher. So you're not completely thrown. But if you rely only on a teacher, when the teacher is no longer there, you have nothing.

You can always take refuge in the Sangha when there is no teacher. You can always study and take refuge in the Dharma when there is no teacher. According to legend, when Shakyamuni Buddha was dying, Ananda asked him, "Who is going to take your place?" Shakyamuni said, "The Dharma and Sangha will take my place. Just follow the path with diligence."

Teachers appear and they're important. They are a focal point and more. But no matter who the teacher is, he is still a student. There's a place called "the place beyond learning." But nobody has arrived there yet. So don't worry about it. If your teacher says, "I have come to the place beyond learning," you should probably find another teacher. It's important to be able to see the teacher's faults as well as the teacher's ability. And if you feel that the teacher has ability, then you can weigh whether or not you can practice with that teacher and not ignore his faults. But your eyes should always be open and you should know the difference between the teacher's abilities and the teacher's faults or problems. Because the teacher, whoever that person is, has both. Like in choosing a mate, we say love is blind. You see these wonderful qualities that you like about this person. At the same time, you know that there are other qualities that you are not sure about. But because the qualities you like bring you together, you tend to ignore the others. Later these other problems that make you uncomfortable begin to emerge. So you have to have your eyes open to both sides. And when you get together with someone, it's important to reflect, "Well, what are the faults of this person that I'm going to have to deal with?" When we accept something good, the underside is already there. Happiness and suffering: they go together. So what kind of discomfort am I willing to accept? With your teacher, it's the same. So you should know -- these are the teacher's faults, they're not his attributes.

We tend to trust someone when they easily acknowledge their faults. If you know your teacher thoroughly, you should know what to accept, and how to help him or her. It's not just one way -- that the teacher is helping the student. The student is also helping the teacher. When the relationship is there, it goes both ways. Sometimes the student is the teacher and the teacher is the student. If the teacher never allows the student to be the teacher, that's a kind of a dominating role. Some people like taking a dominating role and some people like to be dominated. And some people like to be treated like children. But if the teacher keeps the student always in an adolescent role, then she is not really doing the student a favor. If you feel that your teacher is keeping you in an adolescent role, you should question that. Because the teacher should keep moving toward maturing the student, helping the student to be an adult.

Uchiyama Roshi says, "the meaning of Bodhisattva... is 'adult.'" The teacher would like the students to be Bodhisattvas, or adults, acting in responsible ways, truly grown up.

Sometimes the teacher is not completely grown up himself and the students have to help the teacher to grow. It goes both ways. However, even when the roles are reversed, the teacher is the teacher and the student is the student. The teacher and the student are not peers.

If you are the Abbot, you have to be able to listen to the newest student. Sometimes when you have a monastic situation and a staff of experienced people, the staff tends to be a closed circle. They just listen to each other while there is this whole group of people who are not being heard or acknowledged. So it's important to hear everyone, to listen to everyone. Sometimes the newest student can see some thing which everyone else misses.

When Joshu went out at eighty years old on pilgrimage, he said, "Even if I meet a little girl of seven who knows the Dharma better than I do, I'll listen to her."

Last revised December 30, 2000. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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