Dharma Q/A: What’s a Zen Teacher?

What is the difference between you as a teacher and the rest of us in the sangha?

On one hand, nothing. Teachers and students are both subject to delusion and enlightenment, and both practice the way. On the other hand, while there is no essential difference between teacher and student in the Zen sangha, in our lineage, we say that a teacher is someone who has thoroughly clarified what it means to be a student. They’ve struggled, studied, yearned, resisted, and experienced insight only to have it elude them. They’ve been humbled a hundred times over, and discovered a source of unlimited faith while continuing to be chagrined at the depth of their own delusion and the pull of old karma. Teachers have tried all the shortcuts and made all the mistakes.

This is transmission of the dharma. Thoroughly absorbed in practice, one day your teacher says to you when you have become least concerned about such distractions, that he or she would like you to teach. To be fair, teachers in our lineage have done many hours of training, year after year of sesshin, serving in all the zendo roles, been tested as shuso, taken and taught classes, and studied with sangha. But this in itself is not a guarantee. Stepping into the role of teacher comes from having let go rather than yearning for the job.

Becoming a teacher is not a reward for some spiritual accomplishment or a course of study, but marks a capacity to function in a particular way for a student. Like the farmers showing up day after day rain or shine to protect the new green shoots of corn, they guard and cultivate the process of awakening, a natural unfolding. Natural however doesn’t mean easy — there is much at stake as a lot can go wrong. Like a good farmer, this is more about service and getting out of the way than anything. Still, it’s good to have some idea of how a tomato plant grows and fruits if you want to be a farmer.

What magic then does a  Zen teacher have to enlighten students? I bow to Norman Fisher who has quoted the following classic Zen exchange in his own description of what a teacher is:

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.”

How wonderful that the teacher has no magic to enlighten you. Whenever I was stuck, my teacher, Kyogen, who unfailingly held the space waiting for me through thick and thin, used to say, “It’s like I am on one mountain and you are on an adjacent mountain. I can look over and see on your path the large boulder there in front of you.” He could tell me what he saw, maybe even offer a few tips, but there is no way he could help me around a single obstacle. That had to come from my own two feet. And this is the way the teaching staff is passed on generation after generation where we are all teachers and students clarifying the great matter of life and death.

Palm to palm,


1 thought on “Dharma Q/A: What’s a Zen Teacher?”

  1. Patricia Josu Dahlgren

    Dear Teacher,
    I see you over there on that mountain.
    Over here I sob and sob
    And then say,
    “I do not even know why I am crying,”
    And my tears become laughter.
    Someone on a third mountain cannot tell,
    from the sound, when the tears turn to laughter
    or turn to tears again.
    Dukka, expectations, needs, fears
    Interwoven into the fabric of dharma.
    I once was a weaver and the looms still sit in my studio.
    Some yarn is left, shuttles, bobbin winder.
    I see you over there on that mountain.
    Bowing deeply, Josu

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