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The 36th Patriarch, Great Master Yaoshan, visited Shitou and asked him, “I understand the 12-part teachings of the 3 Vehicles for the most part, but I hear that in the south they directly point to the human mind, see their natures and become Buddhas. This is still not clear to me. I humbly ask you in your compassion to explain it.” The Patriarch said, “This way won’t do and not this way won’t do, and both this way and not this way won’t do. How about you?” The master was speechless. The Patriarch said, ” Your conditions for understanding are not here. You should go to Great Master Ma.” Accordingly, the master went and paid his respects to Mazu and asked the same question.  The Patriarch said, “Sometimes I make Him raise his eyebrows and blink, sometimes I do not make Him raise his eyebrows and blink. Sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is all right, sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is not all right. How about you?” With these words, the master was greatly awakened and he bowed. The Patriarch asked, “What truth have you seen that makes you bow?” The master replied, “When I was with Shitou, it was like a mosquito mounting an iron ox.” The Patriarch said, “Since you are so, you must guard it well, but still, your master is Shitou.”  Case 36, The Record of the Transmission of the Light, Francis Cook

These days, there is much discussion on social media and elsewhere about the value of the teacher in Zen. In ancient times, this was not even an issue, as it was understood that finding a master teacher was virtually a prerequisite to deepening one’s understanding and awakening to the truth of Zen. Perhaps people experience this in different ways, but in my own personal practice the teachers I encountered were extremely important, as they modeled the awakening that I deeply felt but also wasn’t clear about. There was something about the presence of these men and women that enabled me to open in a way that didn’t seem possible on my own. In one particular instance, I traveled to Maine to the Zen Center of a former teacher of mine who I hadn’t seen in years.  I arrived early and there didn’t appear to be anyone about, so I entered the zendo, did a bow and sat down preparing to meditate. Upon my rear hitting the cushion, before anything else could happen, body and mind fell away more completely than I had ever experienced. It was as if a thunderbolt had struck, vaporizing everything in its wake. When I realized what had happened I was astounded by how different life was – everything was functioning without ego involvement, flowing and without resistance in a state of perfect harmony.  At the time there was no “teacher” about, and yet I felt strongly then and still do now that this bodhi mandala, or space for awakening, that had been created by the teacher, had been a proximate cause of this shift.

So, was the teacher necessary? Was the teacher present? Would this experience have happened without the many years practice of the teacher and my connection to him?  If we use the tales of the ancient masters as a guide, this rarely occurs without the element of the close teacher/student relationship. In the case of Yaoshan, he had the great karma to live during a time where there were many great masters available. He visits Shitou in a state of doubt, and Shitou immediately teaches him, but does so in a fascinating way.  Somehow he recognizes that  Yaoshan needs someone else, and so he sends him to Mazu – perhaps the greatest of his era. Who knows why he did this, but the proof is in the pudding, and it worked – Yaoshan awakened. And then, Mazu, rather than appropriating a promising student, sends him back where he came! No ego, no clinging on the part of either Shitou or Mazu.

Often these days we hear “life is the teacher” as a justification for not having a teacher in Zen. We also see those who devalue the teacher/student connection by saying it isn’t necessary, citing koans that they’ve never studied with a koan teacher and likely don’t deeply understand. This does a disservice to a 1500-year-old tradition in which finding a teacher is not just recommended, but is an integral part of the process. In my experience, it is rare that a practitioner challenges their attachments on their own in the same way those attachments are challenged by a good teacher.  Perhaps we don’t live near a teacher we connect with, or we are busy with family and work, or we have little money . . . often these are used as excuses. When I met my first teacher, I literally only had $10 to my name, which I donated to him during our first meeting. Evidently he heard from a fellow student that I didn’t have bus money to get home, and as I left his house he came running out waving that $10 bill. He didn’t speak English, but it was clear he wanted me to have the money to get home safely. If we seek, we will find. If we have no resources, they will appear. This is the attitude that the ancients had, and it can still be employed today if we have the faith to experiment with it.