What will you rely upon: Raising up teachers

One of the things I’ve noticed about spiritual practice is the urge to see someone else as a perfect or enlightened practitioner.  But this has terrible consequences.

 I’m not sure where this desire comes from. Is it simply that they show our goal is possible? Or is it more insidious: that he or she is perfect, and so will take care of us.  Perhaps it’s wanting to see something divine, something other than this ordinary, human realm.  Or perhaps it’s a form of laziness, of subtly wanting someone else to do the work for me.

An odd thing I’ve noticed is that every time I try to say “He (or she) is a great practitioner,” they invariably disappoint me.  Why is this? Well, my judgement might not be very good….^^ However, I think it’s not that they failed me or betrayed me, but rather they and their qualities are not where I’m going to find my liberation. I’m looking in the wrong place, and what I need just can’t be found there. I have to do the work myself, and learn to discover and rely upon the divinity that has always been a fundamental part of myself.

“You will not fail to go unpunished”

I don’t remember where I heard this phrase, but I often think of it when I see a situation where it looks like people are abandoning their own, upright center.  I’m reminded of this when I think of the series of scandals American Zen centers experienced some years ago.  Looking back now, I think there were several contributing factors.

One was that people were given major teaching roles after only a few years of practice. Ordinarily this might not have been a huge problem, but it was also coupled with the idea that the teacher was infallible. This to me is where the real disaster started. It’s bad enough when the students are looking to put someone on a pedestal, but when the teacher is also encouraging it, look out. A more experienced teacher would, hopefully, have avoided this ego trap.

Another huge risk factor is when sustaining the center or lineage becomes too important. Corners get cut and people are kept around who normally wouldn’t have been. Chillingly, an Irish friend told me this is exactly what happened with the Catholic Church.

What is a teacher? 
Daehaeng Kun Sunim once said that taking refuge in the Sangha doesn’t mean blindly following teachers, monks, or nuns. She said you could take someone as a teacher when their words and actions all agreed, and were also consistent with your own good judgement.

A teacher is someone who got there first, or who is ahead of you on the path. And a realized teacher is someone who understands the pain of where you are, and wants to see you free and able to live for yourself. In my opinion, an awakened teacher never tries to foster dependencies. Things gather and separate according to their karmic affinity, according to where they are in their growth, so to try to force them beyond that is to invite disaster. This is something that all the great teachers I’ve met seem to understand.

That said, we can learn from everyone around us, those who are doing well, and those who aren’t behaving so well. The key to me is this upright center we are all part of. This is the thing that we must never abandon. While trying to be humble and uphold the precepts, we must always keep returning to this.

A tree lives by relying upon its root

To be frank, I really don’t like talking about others’ shortcomings. I’ve got enough of my own that I’m ashamed of, and which should be plenty to keep me busy. However, people interested in spiritual growth must absolutely be cautious about these points, so I’ve said a few words here. Please forgive me if I’ve misspoken.

with palms together,
Chong Go

13 thoughts on “What will you rely upon: Raising up teachers”

  1. I once heard a monk say, at a Dharma talk, that the Dalai Lama said, of all the thousands of teachers he’s met, he’s only come across one who possessed all the qualities of a perfect teacher.

    I’m not sure, but I think he was referring to the Buddha….

  2. Dear Sunim,

    re: “I’m not sure where this desire comes from”

    For a time with me it was because I wanted that “Karate Kid” experience, where the student is taken under the wing of the teacher, develops a deep friendship with the teacher, and is showered with the teacher’s attention..

    To sum up – desperation to be validated as special…


    Thank you for this post.


    Roy __/\__

  3. it is wonderful what you said! Just what I think! One of the things KunSunim taught me is to rely ONLY on my own foundation, she “took me by the neck”, like animals do with their puppies, and “stuck” my nose to my own foundation. (This is the best imagery I can come up with)
    Other people shortcomings can help actually to see that relying on them for something fundamental like your own salvation in the ultimate sense is futile. When my daughter was very little, she thought sunims are so perfect that they even don’t have to go to toilet (children say the funniest things). It is understandable that sunims are in the process of their path too, but I still think there should be certain parameters, so to speak, sunim should not be cruel to animals, for example, or kick you out of temple for no reason, things like that. (we all needs certain parameters of normal human behavior).
    However it is important to have the right teacher for the Dharma, because you can be mislead terribly, that is why Tibetan teachers warn so much about false teachers (especially nowadays) and not pure lineages, because the teachings can get distorted, like a gossip.
    And as of Irish Catholic church – there is a nice movie
    “Magdalene Sisters” it is a true story and I think it is like anthem to all distortions of any spiritual path that human mind comes up with.
    In his book “After the ecstasy, the Laundry” Jack Kornfield talks about not abandoning your upright centre when it comes to relying on teachers.
    However, having enlightened teacher and having a person who read about stuff and just speaks more like a parrot than from own experience makes a whole lot of difference.
    There are certain qualities that the real teacher has that helps you, I think it is important to remember. It is like asking driving directions, would you listen to someone who just points somewhere according to speculations or to someone who has been there, or it’s like going to knowledgable experienced doctor and going for medical advice to a nurse or even ordely
    I also think it is a major quality of mind that looks outward, that is why it is so difficult to turn direction inward, it is like a force flowing out, going against this outward flow and looking inward might be difficult, at least at first, something like for a spaceship it is difficult to break off from the pull of the Earth’s gravity, you need great deal of effort.

  4. “distortions of any spiritual path that human mind comes up with” I ment “distortions that human mind comes up with (in any spiritual tradition).

  5. I want to add some more (I hope I am not spamming here), it is from a book (that I like a lot):

    “… although our true nature is buddha, it has been obscured from beginningless time by a dark cloud of ignorence and confusion. This true nature, however, our buddha nature, has never completely surrended to the tyranny of ignorance; somewhere it is rebelling against its domination.
    Out buddha nature, then, has an active aspect, which is our “inner teacher”. From the very moment we became obscured, this inner teacher has been working tirelessly for us, tirelessly trying to bring us back to the radiance and spaciousness of our true being. Not for one second, Jamyang Khyentse said, has the inner teacher diven up on us. In its infinite compassion, one with the infinite compassion of all the buddhas and all the enlightened beings, it has been ceaselessly working for our evolution – not only in this life but in all our past lives also- using all kinds of skillful means and all types of situations to teach and awaken us, and to guide us back to the truth.
    When we have prayed and aspired and hungered for the truth for a long time, for many, many lives, and when our karma has become sufficiently purified, a kind of miracle takes place. And this miracle, if we can understand and use it, can lead to the ending of ignorance forever: The inner teacher, who hs been with us always, manifests in the form of the “outer teacher”, whom, almost as if by magic, we actually encounter. This encounter is the most important of any lifetime. Who is this outer teacher? None other than the embodiment and voice and representative of our inner teacher. The master whose human shape and human voice and wisdom we come to love with a love deeper than any other in our lives is none other than the external manifistation of the mystery of our own inner truth.
    At the deepest and highest level, the master and the disciple are not and cannot ever be in any way see separate; for the master’s task is to teach us to receive, without any obscuration of any kind, the clear messagge of our own inner teacher, and to bring us to realize the continual presence of this ultimate teacher within us. “

  6. Thank you Sunim for opening this topic. I’ve noticed here in the West certain teachers placing themselves — however well-intended — on pedestals of their own making. Insisting on being addressed by Asian titles, wearing their (Zen) robes on the street, calling themselves abbots without a monastery to go with it … all are subtle indicators of distinctions between “me” and “you.” Inadvertendly they’re teaching me to watch my own step as I sit with our little sangha. With a bow, peter.

    1. “calling themselves abbots”
      If they knew the level of crap real abbots have to go through…^^
      It’s totally being a sandwich; someone dumps a load in their lap, and then they have to take care of it. I probably only know a tenth of the stuff our abbot here goes through, and that’s more than enough to make me feel grateful that she’s there taking care of all that stuff for us.

  7. In a recent post on Ox Herding, I wrote that we human beings are shitting creatures. I guess that includes all of us, teachers and students alike.

    The real question might be, what do we do with the shit?

    Someone once asked Zen Master Seung Sahn about what distinguished him from his students. He simply replied, “I correct my mistakes faster than they correct theirs.”

    Perhaps his nose was simply more sensitive to the smell of his own shit. Perhaps that’s the point of practice – to develop a sensitive nose.

  8. I like it, Barry; thank you. I’m learning to wear the role as “leader” of a young group and your comment will serve to alert my nose to funny odours. peter daishin in victoria, british columbia.

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