Twenty-First-Century Buddhists in Conversation - Selections
Leading voices of Buddhism discuss issues and ideas important to Buddhists in the twenty-first century.
A Brief Note on the Buddhadharma Forum Panels
When you start a magazine, you need to dream up unique features and departments that will keep readers coming back. Some of them don’t make it off the drawing board, a few last for a while and then peter out, and some become well-loved institutions that readers look forward to in every issue.
Over a decade ago, when a few of us got together to envision Buddhadharma magazine, we thought it might be interesting to hold a regular conversation with Buddhists of many different stripes, mainly teachers, to kick around ideas and concerns. So much wonderful Dharma takes the form of conversation, from the sutras to kōan stories to the free-ranging discussions in a carload of people returning home from a retreat. We hoped it would convey that kind of lively spirit. It would demonstrate that Dharma is anything but dry—that, on the contrary, it’s intensely personal.
It’s been my pleasure to have been the main convener of these conversations for the Buddhadharma forum’s first ten years. Every three months, Buddhadharma’s editor, Tynette Deveaux, and the editor-in-chief, Melvin McLeod, and I would gather to bat around what the topic could be for the next issue and whom we would invite to talk about it.
In some cases, we delved into something that came out of our own experience of practice (such as working with emotional upheavals), a philosophical topic of contemplation (what is karma and rebirth anyway?), or issues about how the Dharma is being assimilated in the West (diversity, gender, politics, and so forth). In these cases, we always tried to find people from various traditions to keep the discussion broad.
In other cases, we acted as a fly-on-the-wall, listening in on the kind of discussion people of one particular tradition might have—such as Zen teachers sharing their passion for Dōgen, Theravāda teachers talking about applying formal practice to everyday life, or Vajrayanists considering whether Dzogchen has been watered down in its current presentation in the West.
When we called to ask people to take part in these ninety-minute conference calls, with participants calling in from far-flung time zones, they were unfailingly generous in agreeing to take part. When the appointed day and time arrived, we always started with a script of questions that had been shared with the panelists, but once things got rolling, the script usually came apart in my hands.
One thing I can tell you: the Buddhists I had in conversation were very kind about not interrupting others and allowing them to finish their thoughts. Conventional journalistic wisdom would say that such politesse inhibits the free flow of ideas. Not so. The flow was very free, and fun. In many cases, people who had heard about each other for many years had an opportunity to meet and get to know each other in the virtual forum we created.
A painstaking, weeklong process of editing the transcript of these free-for-alls ensued. It was hard work, but it held many rewards, not the least of which was that when you read something over fifteen times, the point would start to sink in. It was also an interesting challenge to try to carry over not just the meaning but some of the tenor of the conversation. I’m happy to see that this book stays true to the liveliness and enthusiasm of these lengthy chats.
There were many times when every one of us on the call laughed out loud as a joke ripped away the skimpy veil that ego uses to obscure reality, or when we fell silent at an especially poignant image or insight. I felt so delighted to be capturing this for our readers—and now for you—because the Buddhadharma forum is unique. It’s a wide-ranging, decade-long conversation among Buddhists in the West about what dharma means in our lives—and in particular how it could help others. May this conversation continue for many decades to come.
Face-to-Face with the Buddha: The Teacher-Student Relationship
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Why is the teacher-student relationship so important in Buddhism?
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: There is an alchemy that takes place when we put together the teachings, the student, and the teacher. The teachings are not external material that one masters. In the Dharma, the external material is just a tool to effect an inner transformation. That transformation requires a deep spiritual relationship with another person, who in the Zen tradition is understood to be an ordinary human being and is at the same time envisioned as an empowered buddha. It’s a human relationship conducted on the basis of Dharma. In Zen, it’s not something that’s optional or that makes the Dharma better if it’s there. It’s required to bring about the transformation that is the heart of the Dharma.
Sharon Salzberg: In the Theravāda tradition, the word for teacher is kalyāna-mitta, which means “spiritual friend.” The teacher is not a friend in the sense of being a pal, yet the teacher embodies all the qualities, such as trust and comfort, ease and guidance, and a sense of inspiration, that we associate with a very good friend.
There is also a lot of importance placed on one’s own effort in working with the teacher. This principle of applying our own effort starts with our relationship with the Buddha, who as the primary spiritual friend points the way and inspires us to follow his example. He asks us to make the same effort he made.
We have enormous regard and respect for the teacher as the one person who, as one text puts it, “is always on our side,” the one who is motivated not by self-aggrandizement or a wish to be venerated, but by the wish for the liberation and freedom of the student. The teacher guides us by relying on their expertise both in methodology and the teachings. It is said that the teacher bring us back to a balance of mind, out of which insight, love, compassion, and other such good qualities can arise. We work with the teacher to open to all of those qualities, and the teacher responds directly to our effort, our seeking, and our understanding.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: In Vajrayāna Buddhism the teacher-student relationship goes through several levels of development. It is a personal relationship that is directly connected to the Dharma. Because it is based on Dharma, as it becomes more intimate, it becomes more profound and results in spiritual accomplishment. As the student’s commitment matures, the teacher invokes the enlightened nature of the student and shares experiences on the path of realization. When this relationship reaches the level of what we call the guru-disciple relationship, the teacher guides the student through all the different experiences they encounter on the path.
Is a teacher necessary or can a beginner learn to meditate from a book?
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: If you don’t have a chance to encounter a spiritual teacher, by all means, learn meditation from a book and begin practicing. But meditation is essentially an oral tradition. It’s learned in an apprenticeship model. The written instructions are always generic, and there are no generic people. This is another reason you need a person who can look you in the eye, have some sense of who you are, and provide instructions that are suitable for you.
Sharon Salzberg: I am forever grateful that I have been able to practice under the direct guidance of people. Words on a page can seem very simple. The instruction and the methodology can seem very straightforward, but it’s not so easy when you get right down to it. It took the kindness, presence, and further instruction of the teacher to guide me through what happened when I actually started to try to follow those simple instructions. Nurturing was very important at that point.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: In the Tibetan tradition we have something called “visual transmission.” It provides something different than books or online instructions can. The visual transmission takes place even when no words are spoken. Simply being in the presence of properly trained practitioners and properly trained teachers, you learn something you cannot find anywhere else.
As Norman said, meditation is not generic. A person does it, and a person needs the nurturing of a teacher and a sangha. You can share your experiences with the teacher, and when there are uncomfortable experiences or experiences that are too comfortable, the teacher can show you how to overcome that obstacle.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: When it’s face-to-face with teacher and student, it’s not about the information. There may not be any words or any instruction, but a mutual recognition in a face-to-face presence is the bottom line of total transformation in Zen.
What is the particular nature of the relationship that one makes with a spiritual teacher?
Sharon Salzberg: It’s many different relationships, and it evolves over time. Overall, faith in the teacher is critical, and the first kind of faith we have is called, in the Theravāda tradition, “bright faith.” You’re sitting alone in a dark, constrained room and then the door swings open and you have a sense of possibility you didn’t have before. Most often that moment of brightness first occurs when we meet a teacher. It’s no longer an abstract sense of possibility—it’s a real possibility for us. We have a conviction that our lives can be different. Often it is another human being who wakes us up to the immense potential inside of us. The glimpse they give us has all the elements of falling in love. It can be quite dazzling.
While that’s considered a very powerful and potent state, it’s just the beginning of a journey of faith, because ultimately that sense of possibility needs to rely on our own experience and practice. When we explore for ourselves, and probe and question, we enter a much more mature stage of the relationship.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: The teacher-student relationship is based entirely on the Dharma. Although the personal quality is there, it is only in the service of a mutual commitment to the Dharma. Wouldn’t it be nice if, in all our relationships, each person was only concerned for the spiritual well-being and development of the other person? That would be a beautiful world. But it’s usually not like that. Usually there’s a kind of mutual need, a quid pro quo, that is the basis of even the relationships that are most intimate in our lives.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: All of the relationships in our lives are based on what we call the interdependent nature. The whole world functions on the basis of interdependence. In the relationship with the teacher, though, we transcend all the usual levels of interdependence in our lives—parents, friends, enemies, what have you. The very fact of having a relationship that is based on Dharma and nothing else is very transcendent, without even adding any specific teachings to it. It is the relationship of all relationships.
Yet working with the teacher is not so easy sometimes. Even though you’d like it to be very Dharmic, spiritual, and enlightening, it also involves a lot of confusion and misunderstanding—and a lot of emotions. It is human. But when you have emotions like jealousy, attachment, or even anger in relating to the teacher, they take place in a sacred context. Having such a relationship becomes the best way of transforming our basic relationship issues in life, which means the whole of samsara.
If you have an attack of emotion (kleśa) in regard to the teacher, is that a proper state of mind in which to be working with a teacher?
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: That’s a very common experience. The whole point here is to apply the instructions we have learned up until that point. Then the teachings we have been studying become Dharma in action—not theoretical understanding but applied understanding.
When the emotion is directed toward a teacher or fellow Dharma practitioners, it becomes a sacred object. As a result, we have more opportunity and support to work with our emotions. In ordinary life situations, we don’t enjoy that kind of support, but the whole point of being in the presence of a teacher is to work with our emotions. In fact, when the emotion is very powerful, sometimes the guru gives further pointing-out instructions to look at and see the enlightened nature of emotion.
When the relationship has evolved to that kind of intimacy, is the teacher there to pull the rug out from under your ego?
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: Yes and no. From my own experience, I would say that the rug does get pulled out from under you, but the teacher doesn’t need to do that intentionally. If the teacher is working with you on the basis of Dharma, and you’re coming from attachment, desire, and the thirst for accomplishment, you will experience the rug being pulled out from under you just by virtue of the teacher’s ordinary, unintentional responses. The teacher is not scheming, “How can I pull the rug out from under her?” The teacher is just going about his or her own business, in accord with Dharma. The student will feel the rug disappearing because of the gap between the student’s ordinary perspective and the perspective of the teacher.
One will have that experience over and over again, and if the relationship is strong and the student is motivated, that feeling of the rug disappearing will be instructive time and time again. It will be a path of training and understanding. All this is possible because the teacher is not an outside object of desire. The teacher is one’s own nature, which is identical with the Buddha. That is the final stage—if we are ever lucky enough to get there—that the relationship is moving toward: seeing the teacher as one’s own basic nature.
On the way to that point, we have all sorts of emotions and problems that become a beneficial path of training. This transformation of our normal experiences can occur because it all happens in the context of our Dharma practice. In Zen we would say everything and everyone is your teacher. Your relationship with your Dharma teacher shows you the truth of that.
Sharon Salzberg: When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the supreme teacher. By doing so, we’re not admiring an externalized being. We are acknowledging something that is obscured within us. We’re also seeing something about the nature of all sentient beings. So the relationship with the teacher is never simply about the teacher or ourselves. It is also universal. The teacher doesn’t exist to be admired by us, but to point us back to our innate nature.
In order to draw out our true nature, the teacher uses many methods, or skillful means. Can you give us some example of the various ways in which the teacher transmits the Dharma?
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: One way we begin to bring the Dharma into everyday life is by serving the teacher, which is a unique experience, especially when you have an authentic teacher. Whatever they do accords with the Dharma, so they are teaching all the time, whether they have any spoken Dharma to impart or not.
Serving a meal, for example, involves a lot of mindfulness, and in that situation you experience a lot of compassion and love from the teacher. You can see their mindfulness and how they relate with each and every minute of their life. It’s not just serving the teacher, then. It is actually serving oneself, because in the profound moments you spend with your teacher, you learn more about the Dharma of everyday life than you can learn in formal teaching. You see how a great master manifests Dharma in simple situations, like eating or speaking to their friends or working with their emotions.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: If we have interactions with the teacher on a more mundane basis, then the teaching becomes concrete. If we simply hear the teacher presenting Dharma from the high seat it can be idealized. I would add that having this kind of relationship transforms all our relationships. So in serving the teacher, we can learn how to serve all sentient beings. We want to be capable of helping people, but it can be hard to do that. If we can start to do that with the teacher, someone whom we respect and admire, maybe we can learn how to relate that way to ourselves and then to others.
Sharon Salzberg: It’s striking to me how many times, in speaking about their teacher, people will say, “She was very kind to me.” Usually people are speaking about the less formal, unstructured moments. It’s not that we’re excluding their brilliant scholarship or eloquent explanations, but there’s something about the quality of the human kindness that comes out so strongly in situations that are not set up as formal teachings.
What about when the teacher asks you to do something that you resist, that goes beyond what you would like to do?
Sharon Salzberg: Every teacher I’ve had has done that, not only by saying you should do this or that, but by simply taking me beyond my sense of limitation, either explicitly or implicitly sending the message: You can do this!
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: It’s important to note that those commands or directions can only be given when you have given deep permission for the teacher to give them to you, and you are ready to receive them. It’s not as if the teacher is going around giving people directions right and left. They are sensing where there’s permission for that, and even though the permission might be unknown to the student or might require a stretch, the teacher can see whether the permission is there or not. And if it’s not there, there are no directives. The giving and receiving of specific directions can only really occur after the relationship has ripened.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: In the Vajrayāna, that permission is called devotion, or confidence. Following the teacher’s instructions comes from one’s own confidence. It demonstrates how deeply we have attained confidence in Dharma, in the wisdom of the teachings, and in the wisdom of the teacher. The student’s confidence arises based on the qualities of the teacher.
Does that sometimes lead to disappointment?
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Sometimes our disappointment shows that we have a misunderstanding of the teacher-student relationship. We have tremendous expectations and a sense of never having enough knowledge or enough materials. We mistake the role of the teacher and what we should expect from them. Certainly in the Vajrayāna, teachers will provoke our disappointment in order to shake up our usual dualistic concepts about having and not having.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: There is an essential paradox, which presents itself as a problem from the dualistic perspective: How can the teacher be worthy of the faith and confidence we would apply toward a buddha and at the same time be a human being who might be conditioned in various ways? From the dualistic perspective, this dichotomy is really hard to take. We might ask, if the teacher is worthy of our confidence and the teacher is a buddha, how come he or she says this or does that?
But the problem there is a misunderstanding, as Rinpoche has just said. Our expectations for perfection and superhumanness on the part of the teacher are always idealizations. They are a neurotic expectation that a teacher is supposed to be otherworldly. When we can learn to accept and appreciate the teacher for his or her humanness, we see that humanness as an expression of his or her highest understanding. At that point, we are beginning to achieve some genuine understanding. But we have to go through those horrible periods of disappointment, and if we can stay with the Dharma and not leave the teacher or start over again looking for another perfect being, then we can reach that kind of very basic understanding.
There’s something magical, as I said, alchemical, about what happens when student and teacher meet face-to-face. Why should this be so? Why would we need another person to transform ourselves or understand the Dharma? You would think we would be able to do it on our own if we’re smart and if we work hard enough. Perhaps we need instruction because somebody has information that we don’t have. All right, so we need the person for information, but why would a human relationship be necessary for this transformation? In terms of how we usually understand learning and transformation, it doesn’t make sense.
Yet there seems to be a magical element involved in this human relationship that carries with it a Dharmic dimension that is a necessity for full transformation to take place. Without a teacher, you can certainly master teachings and learn a lot about meditation and have deep concentration states. A great deal is possible without having a teacher, but for true realization, the magical element of a human relationship with a teacher is what is needed. It may be confusing, irrational, and emotional, but that is very much the point. It is a face-to-face encounter of two people seeing each other’s humanness and each other’s buddhaness.
Sharon Salzberg: What seems to be happening is a kind of mirroring. In different encounters with the same teacher, we seem to see many different facets. Even in the same encounter with one teacher, different students will have completely different perceptions of what happened. They will recount the actual words differently, not to mention the teacher’s mood. Someone will recall how stern they were, while another will remember them as being very funny.
What we see and hear is based partly on what we’re able to see and hear and partly based on our projection. Beyond that there is a kind of magic that is greater than what we’re bringing into the situation. There are many layers in any single encounter with the teacher.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: We are taught that we have to rely on the guru up to a certain point, and then we have to rely on our inner guru. That wisdom of being able to be your own guru comes from the blessings, the kindness, of your own teacher. Therefore, you are never parted from your teacher. On the other hand, we must go through the pain of growing up, which is like leaving home. There is a sense of loneliness, but it’s a valuable kind of loneliness, because we are growing up spiritually. The loneliness is a quite profound experience. You cannot have a babysitter for your entire life.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: When you’re in the stage of development where you’re more independent and you don’t see the teacher so much, it’s not as if you’re by yourself. You’re with the whole world. You’re with all your other relationships in the Dharma and out of the Dharma. What in the past you were looking to the teacher for, you’re finding everywhere around you. It’s not as if you’re wandering around all by yourself. Your life is full of instructions. Everything and everybody has become the teacher, which is what the teacher truly was in the first place.
Sharon Salzberg: Perhaps the movement is not from dependence to independence, but rather to interdependence. It’s the interdependence that Rinpoche was talking about in the beginning, but now it is in a fuller, more wholesome, and complete manifestation.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: I would like to add that this relationship between student and teacher that we have been talking about does not come out of any particular culture. I believe it will develop as a Western type of relationship. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the same relationship in every respect as how it was taught and practiced in other cultures. That is already beginning to happen, and it will continue to develop, so that there will be many more profound relationships between students and teachers in the Western context.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer: The student-teacher relationship is something very valuable that Buddhism brings to our culture. If our culture ever had the idea or the practice of working with a spiritual teacher, we’ve largely lost it. We know we need to go to the doctor, and we know we need to have teachers in school, but we don’t know that in the deepest part of our lives we require helpers and guides. Most people do not know they are lacking that. They don’t know that there is a greater dimension to their experience that needs to be taken care of.
As time goes on, this will become something that people recognize they need. As the number of qualified teachers and spiritual guides increases, ordinary people will begin to realize that we all need this in our lives. It’s important because we live and we die. Life is fleeting. We need this kind of connection and guidance to make sense of our lives.
Sharon Salzberg: People need the sense that an ordinary person can actualize spiritual teachings if they practice and work at it. If that kind of confidence becomes more widespread, people will seek the appropriate kind of teacher, and the teachers will be there in whatever form is appropriate.