On being a student


The student-teacher thing may be one of the strangest features of Zen for many non-practitioners and new practitioners.


Every religion has its leaders, and Zen is no different.  But one-on-one interaction between student and teacher is a more prominent and fundamental feature of Zen than it is in many religions (or the Abrahamic traditions, at least).


During Zen practice sessions and on sesshin, one has the option of meeting with the teacher to discuss one’s practice (or life or whatever) and/or to work on koans.  These meetings are called dokusan.


Meeting with a teacher is not obligatory, but few committed practitioners pass up the opportunity.  I suppose one could be committed to practice long-term without participating in dokusan.  To my thinking, however, one would be missing out on one of the richest things Zen has to offer.


Many committed, long-term practitioners also establish a shoken relationship with a teacher.  Shoken translates as “seeing one another.”  This is a primary relationship with a particular teacher, though, in BoWZ, where we’re fortunate to have multiple teachers, it is by no means an exclusive relationship.


[Aside #1:  Though the vast majority of practitioners with a shoken relationship will not become Zen teachers themselves, new Zen teachers almost always become teachers by receiving dharma transmission from their shoken teacher – typically after decades of working together one-on-one.  Unlike most other religions, one can’t become a teacher by attending a seminary, a rabbinical school, or whatever.  But producing a Zen teacher is not what a shoken relationship is about.  When that happens – and it happens exceedingly rarely – it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of the shoken relationship (and no doubt a lot of other things, like the student’s willingness to make the huge commitment that teaching requires and, certainly these days, the community’s receptivity to this potential teacher).]


Other religions have their traditions of spiritual direction, and that’s essentially what the student-teacher relationship in Zen is about.  I began my sitting practice in the Christian contemplative tradition, which has a long history of one-on-one spiritual direction, particularly in monastic environments.  I am profoundly and eternally grateful to the wise, insightful and compassionate teachers who gave me their sustained time and attention during those years, including Thomas Keating and Martin Smith.  Martin generously met with me weekly while I was a student at Harvard Divinity School (and, later, he was the celebrant at our wedding ceremony).


[Aside #2:  I once heard Thomas Keating talk about one of the risks inherent in religious communities in which teachers have something of an exalted status.  He was offering his own reflections on what he observed happening in some eastern religions, as I recall, but he no doubt also was shining a light on the risk generally.  That risk exists in any religious community, as I know he appreciates.  It’s the risk that the role will go to the teacher’s head, and so be deleterious for both the teacher and the rest of the community.  This is something of an occupational hazard, he was suggesting.


I observed Father Keating conducting himself in ways that discouraged others from projecting “guru” status onto him.  I observe the same conduct in our Guiding Teachers in Boundless Way Zen.


To my thinking, a key indicator that one has found a solid, grounded, trustable religious community and teacher is that there is little, if any, idealizing about anything, including the community’s leaders.  Community members hold appropriate ideals as aspirations, but they recognize the need for constant, individual and collective effort and attention in order to put the aspirations into practice, and they don’t delude themselves about the extent to which they are actually doing so.


The leaders set the tone.  In BoWZ, our teachers intentionally make it difficult to project wild ass things onto them, onto “Zen,” or onto anyone or anything else.  That’s a healthy thing.]


So what happens in a shoken or other spiritual direction relationship?


Well, in my experience, you just get to know one another.  Really well.


You talk.  About anything and everything.


About the deepest stuff in your heart and head.


About the deepest stuff in the universe.


And, as or more importantly, about the seeming minutea.  The stuff of everyday life.


And how all this intersects.


The conversation unfolds over many years, through a lot of ups and downs.


(Though the focus tends to be on the student, it’s not just the student’s ups and downs that the relationship travels through.  And, as we’re often reminded by BoWZ’s teachers, the learning in these relationships flows in both directions.)


This is not therapy, though awareness of psychological dynamics is useful in this context, as it is everywhere else in life.  It’s a kind of mentoring relationship, I suppose, and one that may have many of the qualities of a good friendship.  It won’t necessarily feel chummy all the time, and it probably shouldn’t.  Like any close relationship, it’s going to feel uneven, perhaps even cool, at times.


Good friends care enough about us to challenge us.  Good friends are people who are hard to bullshit – and we should know we’re only bullshitting ourselves if we try to bullshit them.


In my experience, a teacher will sometimes say something that surprises and provokes, even jostles, me a bit.  This has left me agitated once or twice.


(In BoWZ, however, I have detected none of the roughhousing I’ve read about some teachers in other Zen streams visiting upon their students, sometimes with seeming amusement, in the name of prodding them toward “realization.”)


At times comments that jostled me a bit seemed well considered; the product of some perspective that developed over months or years.  Others seemed to come from nowhere; an intuition arising in the moment.  Perhaps others were the product of indigestion.


Some of these comments seemed brilliantly on-the-mark.  Others seemed just plain wrong – at the moment, and for hours or days afterwards, until I could understand or accept the point.  Some still seem wrong after much time has passed.


And even comments that persist in seeming wrong are right.  They’re right because they were offered in a spirit of goodwill.  And they’re right because their wrongness is grist for my mill.


In an important sense, it really doesn’t matter whether a teacher gets it “right” or gets it “wrong,” from my perspective, in a given exchange.  What matters is how I receive what he or she offers, and how I receive him or her.


Whether I see the rightness-in-the-wrongness, and the neither-right-nor-wrongness.


For most of us, teachers are people who both instruct us and evaluate us.  But there ultimately is nothing to learn in Zen (or in life); there is no test we must pass.


It’s all right here.


And, it’s also true that a good teacher will have useful, insightful things to say that arise out of his or her own experience, and his or her observations and intuitions about a student’s experience.  Pound-for-pound, what I hear BoWZ teachers say (and what I see them do) has more nutritional value – for me, at least – than what I hear from most other people I know.


One of the useful things a teacher may do in time, if we invest in developing a relationship with him or her, is to shine a light on places where we tend to get stuck, encouraging us to notice and examine these sticking points.  From a Zen perspective, getting stuck often means clinging to some certainty about ourselves, about others, about “how the world works,” about “the way things are,” about what I should be doing with my life, or whatever.  It can also mean grasping, aversion or anger, as those impulses tend to seize us.  These sticking points may be more or less conscious, and a teacher may help us bring them into view, or into sharper view – not in quite the way, or with the same tools, that a therapist would, but in the course of discussing our experience of the practices and perspectives of the Zen path.


Whatever else typifies a “good” teacher to your thinking or mine, a good teacher is one who is present to us here and now in the dokusan room, and who encourages us to be present, as well – and, of course, who is integrated and responsible enough to conduct him- or herself appropriately in the context of an intimate relationship of this particular type.


My shokun teacher, Josh Bartok, is, so far as I can tell, really good at being Josh, at meeting his own life, and at meeting me.  That’s a useful example and form of support to me.  It’s encouragement to try to be good at being Jeff, at meeting my life, and at meeting him and others.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “I’d might as well be myself.  It seems everyone else is taken.”


The practices, perspectives and stories that the Zen tradition has bequeathed us are touchstones for the conversations between Zen teacher and Zen student.  They help orient us.  Unlike the way practices, perspectives and stories are held within some other religious traditions, however, Zen’s practices, perspectives and stories are taken as reliable pointers, rather than dogmatic Truth.  They point us to our own experience, which is the wellspring of the only truths we can know.


And so this tradition of teacher-student relationship practice, viewed from 40,000 feet, is something of a mutual support society, I suppose.  A context in which people help one another strive to show up to their lives fully – with all ten toes submerged, and the hair on their heads, too.


(And with their hair on fire, to mix this metaphor.)


And this relationship, these conversations, are themselves touchstones that – along with other important relationships, conversations and experiences that both are and are not part of formal Zen practice – help one orient and navigate through the varied moments of one’s life.


Meeting with BoWZ’s teachers, with Thomas Keating and Martin Smith, and with other teachers, formal and informal, over many years, and in combination with other practices and experiences (sitting meditation, intensive retreats, koans, various forms of service, marriage and family life, etc.), has helped me in so many profound ways.  For example, all this has helped me:


  • Grow to feel more at home in the universe, and in my own skin.


  • Become less intense (in ways I didn’t always know I was intense), and so perhaps a bit more gentle and, I also hope, perhaps just a bit more generous and kind.


  • Accept the fact of death, so I can accept the fact of life.


  • Discover that the life I’m actually living is the life I truly want to be living.


Deep bows.