an ocean of teachers

The colour of the mountain is the eye of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva,
The sound of the river is the ear of Manjushri Bodhisattva,
Mr Chang and Mrs Lee are Vairochana Buddha
 – Seon Master Kyong Ho (1849 – 1912)

A few days ago my partner flew back to Japan, and after all the excitement of a week together, after far too long apart, I was left feeling sad and empty. Of course I know what I should have done, I should have sat on my meditation block and watched my breath, something I’ve done countless times before and which always makes me feel better. I could have watched the emotions and feelings rise and fall away, I could have allowed each to settle back from where they’d come. I could have practiced letting go, entrusting them all.

Instead I carried the loneliness around with me and tried to fill the gap I felt inside, and one of the ways I did that was in the spiritual section of the bookshop, looking through the latest books on Buddhism and browsing through the Christian section, trying to find the volume that contained the perfect teaching that would solve all my problems. Later, when I did finally manage to sit, I thought a little more about that search, and how it connects to what Chong Go Sunim was saying the other day about finding a teacher.

There are no shortage of teachers. Just the books I already have, each is a perfect teacher. On my desk right now I have stacks of wisdom from a number of traditions going back thousands of years. A simple click away and I have even more. Finding a teacher isn’t the problem. And not just books, I don’t know how many Dharma talks I’ve attended over the past few years. Plus, my oldest friend is a Catholic priest, my partner is a Pure Land practitioner, my best friend lives the very spirit of Zen, my Dharma brothers are just an email away.

The problem isn’t finding a teacher, I’m spoilt for choice, the problem is finding the willingness to learn. A single word of wisdom from any one of my teachers could be enough to sustain me for a lifetime, but instead I skim over spiritual advice in the same way I’d read a novel on the beach. I’m like the dried sponge that Father Laurence of New Skete talks about, “a sponge that is so old, that has sat around collecting the dust and grime of life, that when you throw it into a bathtub it simply floats! It doesn’t absorb water!”

The fact is, we really do live in a bathtub, an ocean even, of teachers – if we are willing to learn. With that willingness, every single thing, not just monks and spiritual books, can be our teacher. Daehaeng Sunim writes that the mountain teaches us to live resolute and unflinching, the flowing waters teach us to live like water, and weeds sprouting up through harsh soil teach us to live courageously in the midst of adversity. “Bad circumstances are, in fact,” Daehaeng Sunim writes elsewhere, “an opportunity to learn.”

Chong Go Sunim said last week that when learning from all that life gives us, the key “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.” For me, this means slowing down and letting go. It means accepting myself and the circumstances I find myself in. How else could I learn? It’s not in any book, it’s in my daily, moment by moment life. My practice is to open up to those lessons and allow them to flow through me.

What will you rely upon: Raising up teachers

Sources of quotations:
– “Don’t Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen”, Richard Shrobe
– “In the Spirit of Happiness”, the monks of New Skete
– “No River to Cross”, Zen Master Daehaeng Sunim

9 thoughts on “an ocean of teachers”

  1. Thank you, Marcus. This points to the bind that must be familiar to all of us. Our teachers (in the formal sense) tell us that we’re already complete and whole. Yet we experience ourselves as fragmented and lacking.

    So where do we place our trust? And how?

  2. Hi, Marcus!
    If I may say something to you about this, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a feeling that what you need here is direct your attention straight toward your own foundation. Sometimes going to book store and browsing can actually help, because you might just flip a few pages and find a word, or a sentence that is like a perfect Dharma, (sometimes does not even matter what kind of book it comes from! Once I got my daily Dharma words from Ozzy Osbourne’s !)
    The perfect friend, the perfect love is within the depth of your mind, marry your own foundation.
    If you miss someone, the best way (and the only way) is to connect through your foundation, it is an embrace that can never be taken away, it goes beyond even death.
    Sometimes it helps (at least for me) to think about death, I mean I think sometimes, if I die today what does it matter if someone I want to see and be friends with is not here or forgot about me, etc. I often think about more permanent solution, or rather only permanent solution.
    There are alot of words of teachings, but none of them, even if they are wonderful and true words, can actually help, because the real help is only found within your own mind.
    I don’t think letting go of attachment it is cutting off of some sort, but what I know of letting go it is embracing through your foundation, when you are one with someone through your mind, then you can let go, because it is like a leaf on one branch tries to reach the leaf on other branch, but if you go through your foundation you will see that you are on one tree, in fact connected as one, this fills that emptiness, you are together in the most closest way.

    Forgive me for saying this, but I like that in this post you are not so overly positive and I think the feeling of this is really helpful to turn inward. Because in every day life or whenever, the centre point of everything is you, your are experiencing whatever you see, feel and think, it is your mind that is watching all like on a giant virtual reality TV.
    If you’ve read Kun Sunim’s teachings, you might remember about “paper thin” wall that separates you from your foundation, it is turning direction of mind inward, right towards your foundation that breaks that wall.

    By the way, I was passing a book store yesterday and noticed one book, called “The last lecture” and opened it, and the first few lines from the very beginning of book just struck like a whip, bluntly reminding that this life’s purpose is to bring the mind home.

  3. Hello Marcus ~ I often find myself in the same space: a pile of books on the coffee table, plenty of “on-line” teachers to listen to, and abundant life experiences. Sometimes what is needed is to simply turn inward and meet the Buddha within, and let the Buddha within teach me – internally, silently, deeply listening; not seeking the externals, but becoming aware of that within that already “knows” – the ultimate teacher… Heart Smiles ~*~

  4. This post really resonates with me. I am familiar with this wanting to satisfy some “antsyness” or discomfort with something from the outside, a book, a treat. Out of habit perhaps and laziness, I think. It is all about being with what is, rather than trying to push it away, isn’t it? And as you so beautifully point out we can learn from everything.

  5. Thank you everyone for such lovely and supportive comments. (And thank again Chong Go Sunim for your help with photos!).
    With palms together in gratitude and respect, Marcus _/\_

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