Tesshin opened his talk with a conversation he had this week with a leader of a spiritual organization going through many transformations and challenges. Their teacher had passed away and the organization needed to chart a new direction. While this organization is not Buddhist, it got Tesshin thinking about the concept of a Sangha and how it can help with our practice.
In this case of this particular spiritual community, the teacher had left behind quite a large history, community, and set of teachings. The critical question now is what happens to these things when the leader departs. What does the next “generation” do with these teachings? We have seen many times that members become “attached” to the forms and the tradition quickly becomes stale. Yes, it is said that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” but implicit in that is the challenge to keep things fresh and relevant.
Tesshin also noticed that when a teacher passes, the relationship between the other members of the group necessarily changes and could become strained. This challenge is not new and has really existed since there have been great teachers and spiritual communities. One can say that one of the last lessons a great teacher provides their students with is how to deal with their passing. Tesshin noted that ego is very much wrapped up in the relationship with the teacher. Who did the teacher think was the most accomplished? Who should become the next teacher? This is also a very common problem in Zen traditions with its strong tradition of student/teacher relationships. Here we begin to see the value of this “last lesson.” Tesshin commonly states that he is the “least important” person in the Zendo. The message, like everything else in Zen, is meant to get your ego out of your way. The teacher passing away does not mean practice ends – it is just another event on the long path!
Tesshin next noted that traditionally Zen teachers were happy to pull in wisdom from many other traditions. Tesshin asked how other traditions can help us with the ego attachment we have to practice, our teachers, and to Zen itself. He cited the example of Martin Buber who was a famous existential philosopher of the 20th century. He worked in an area called the ‘Philosophy of Dialog’ and wrote a famous essay called “I and Thou.” At its core this essay is about relationships. Buber talks about two main classes of relationships…
•Between the “I” and the “It”
•Between the “I” and the “Thou”
The relationships between the I and the It tend to be very bounded and well understood. Tesshin gave the example of the relationship between you and your car. It is an important relationship, but it is bounded to things like maintenance, filling it with gas, and trips to work and the grocery store. You can explain it to anyone, and if they have a car, they will completely understand.
The relationship between you and some other being – the “Thou” Buber talks about is something totally different! This relationship is unbounded and constantly changing. You can explain your relationship with your child or spouse to a co-worker, but they will never completely understand it. Buber is stating that there is something very precious and special with this type of relationship.
Tesshin asked how the relationship between the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ can help us remove ego from our practice. To help us, Tesshin pointed at the Zen Koans. He mentioned that Siddhartha gained enlightenment (understanding of true reality) while meditating. However, in the Koans, most insights came from the relationship and interplay of the student with teachers, other students, and common people. Tesshin paused here and noted that this was a very interesting insight. Why is this? It is exactly because of what Martin Buber was talking about. The interrelation between you and another sentient being automatically weakens the ego.
The clear message is that Kensho does not happen in isolation for most people – it happens in relationships. This is why relationships and Sanghas are so important to practice. It is the Sangha which provides the strength to practice. Tesshin noted that relationships are complex and messy. However, it is this work and suffering which can open us up to the dissolution of the ego and open us to enlightenment.
Tesshin wrapped up by noting that the lesson of “I and Thou” is a teacher’s last great gift. It reminds us to subdue our individual ego and work with others along the path to enlightenment.