What is a Teacher?

children are zen teachers


Tesshin Roshi announced to the group that a representative from Soto Zen will be visiting the Sangha on Sunday July 23rd.  Roshi then noted that in the West, there are three broad group of Zen teachers.  The first group of teachers either came directly from Japan or trained extensively in that country.   The second group of teachers exist in the Japanese lineage, but may not have done any training in Japan.  Lastly, there is a third group in the West who are not strictly in the Japanese lineage, but are setting up practice centers and attracting students.  Roshi noted that the Soto Zen organization in the US has begun to increase its outreach to all of these groups.  The idea is to ensure that Zen teachers in the US become more connected to each other and to the larger stream of the Soto Zen tradition. 


With the representative honoring Yorktown Zen this week, Roshi started to wonder what actually makes a proper Zen teacher.  Next week our Sangha will be doing its second Jukai ceremony and Roshi will appear in his finest robes complete with large ornamental hats and other regalia.  Does all of this make him a Zen teacher?  Does the uniform really make someone a qualified Zen teacher?  Last year Roshi spent a lot of time talking about the official stamps used in Zen.  His teaching credentials are stamped by Soto Zen.  Is it this “stamp of approval” what makes him a Zen teacher?  Roshi asked us – what is the secret which makes someone a Zen teacher?


Here Roshi was very clear – there is no secret because there is no such thing as a Zen teacher!  Everyone is always talking about their teacher and how great or terrible they are.  This is just another type of delusion we fool ourselves with.  We must remember that Zen is everything!  How can someone teach reality?  Did someone teach you to breathe?  The center of our practice is that very thing nobody taught you to do!  It is no wonder that our first practice in Zen is the breath!


Roshi noted that he could teach you skills but never Zen.  He could teach you how to cook an omelet or fix a car.  These are discrete skills.  However, he cannot teach you Zen because to teach it he would have to break it down and separate it from everything else.  Where would he begin?  How do you separate reality from reality?  Roshi reminded us that our understanding of Zen can only come from within.  It can never be given to you.


So, who is that person sitting on the “Mountain Seat” in the front of the Zendo anyway?  Roshi noted that this person may have trained themselves over long years to the point they could now give useful advice in practice.  He invited us to think about our own lives outside the zendo.  There are people we turn to for advice on career issues, relationship issues, or a myriad of other things.  We turn to these specific people because we know they have actual experience in the area we are struggling in.  We have seen them navigate difficult situations in a skillful way and we trust them.  In certain domains, you may be the trusted one because you have gathered experience and wisdom in that domain.


This is the model of a Zen teacher Roshi would like us to hold.  The teacher is simply a person who has traveled a bit further down the path of Zen than you have.  They may have knowledge of the history, forms, and liturgy of Zen.  This may be helpful to you as it will ground your practice in the rich lineage of Zen.  In addition to that practical experience with the forms of Zen, Roshi noted that a good Zen teacher must have actually lived life.  They must have had their share of grief, heartbreak, trauma, and love, success, and happiness.  Roshi reminded us that Zen is experience and a guide must have tasted reality for their words to have any real meaning.  It is said that the “Human Realm” is the greatest realm to be born into because Samsara allows us to really understand the Dharma.  A teacher is anyone who has dealt with the ups and downs of life and kept faith with their practice.


Roshi wrapped up by emphasizing the point that Zen is always present because Zen is everything.  Anyone can be a teacher.  Don’t close your mind when leaving the zendo.  The turning word can come from anyone at any point.  The Zen teacher is simply someone who already knows this and patiently reminds us to look inward to find the meaning of Zen for ourselves.