A footnote on “On Being a Student”


In my recent post “On Being a Student,” I said that the teacher-student relationship, when viewed from a very big picture perspective, is perhaps something of a mutual support society.


I want to clarify this point, because it might seem to some to imply that the student is focusing on the teacher’s questions, concerns, dilemmas, needs, etc. as much as the teacher is focusing on the student’s questions, concerns, dilemmas, needs, etc.


While, in my experience, a teacher certainly will meet me honestly, exposing something of his or her vulnerabilities, insecurities, questions, and the like from time to time, it’s my experience that these moments of self-revelation are most often, and primarily, part of the teaching. They’re not typically, in my experience, invitations to flip roles — to pass the baton back and forth.


I consistently observe teachers keeping the focus squarely on the student. Being wholly present to the student, here, now — truly attending to another human being — is a big part of the practice-gift of teaching, I do think.


And, I’m certain it’s also true that students support teachers in their practice in myriad ways. Sure, there is some explicit attending to one’s teacher in the dokusan room on occasion, despite the primary focus on the student during that recurrent feature of the relationship. And there may (or may not) be a broader friendship that sprouts from walking this path together, which, like any friendship, involves supportive listening, speech and action. And, regardless of whether that happens, most teachers I have known do report learning a great deal from their students, as I noted in my prior post.


Then there’s the creating and enacting of community, with student-teacher practice being a big component of that in Zen. This is what I meant when I said that, viewed from 40,000 feet, the teacher-student relationship is something of a mutual support society. Teachers support students being students; students support teachers being teachers; teachers support teachers; students support students; and sangha emerges, is sustained, and, we hope, becomes richer and richer through all this.


What else is a sangha, or any other religious community, if not a mutual support society? In Zen, it seems to me that the centrality of the student-teacher relationship, and the quality of the teaching, and therefore of those relationships, is the key to the quality of the community and the extent to which people truly experience it as supportive.