Teacher and Tradition

Zen Practice appears to demand a great deal from us when we are distracted, and little when we are clear and rooted. Life ebbs and flows and so does our practice. Sometimes we are happy to jump right in, and other times we hesitantly dangle our toes in the deep spiritual waters. One of the obstacles in Zen Practice, as well as other traditions, is a sense of boredom. We may feel this boredom arises from many things, for our purposes we will focus on the teacher, and tradition. However, no matter what the reason, if we have convince ourselves that our boredom is due to outside causes, we are lost on the dark path of ignorance. In reality, the origins of our discontent are neither teacher nor tradition but, our unreal expectations of our spiritual path.
Trungpa Rimpoche coined the term “Spiritual Materialism” which pointed to the consumption of spirituality as though it was a commodity to buy and sell. In the west, this is very easily seen. For example, you have a smartphone but, that new one promises to be so much better! You discard the old one and purchase the new but, wait, after a few weeks that phone looses it charm and you need a new distraction. The cycle repeats over and over. We find ourselves chronicly unfullfilled and unhappy.
I always tell people there is no need to convert to any religion if they want to practice Zen. I remember clearly wanting to be a Zen Buddhist Monk when I first was exposed to Buddhism. I wanted something new, something to fill that desire and bring peace to my restless heart and mind. All those new chants, robes and rituals are pretty powerful. Adorning myself with Buddhist robes, malas, diction and a Dharma Name would empower me, so I thought. My path didn’t turn out anything like I had expected. Seeking someone or something to save you, will inevitable lead to dissatisfaction (suffering). The inevitable reveals distraction for what it is, and once again we find ourselves confronted with boredom and discontent. The choice to convert or switch teachers is ours to make, and it may take some time to it sort out. No matter what tradition or teacher we align ourselves with, the path to spiritual awakening will always require brutal honesty. Honesty with others, and most important, honesty with ourselves.
Established Zen Students may fall into spiritual materialism by chasing different traditions/lineages and teachers. After a few years their attention wanes and they begin looking outward once again. Their discontent waters the seeds of ignorance once again. For example, I always cringe when I hear someone seeking out a “new teacher” based on outside appearances or provocative ideas. When we begin to define a teacher by outward appearances and the ideas they convey, we are caught by the ego’s gravity. Granted there are great teachers out there, and it is certainly not a negative thing to learn different ideas or impliment different tool but, if we are seeking them for the wrong reasons, we are just moving further and further from that which would truly bring us peace and tranquility. One of my favorite koans “Gutei’s Finger” is a prime example of the importance of maintaining a root teacher. With time, we realize that the true Dharma is not an idea, nor a formulation to be chased. When the chase stops, and we realize that what we seek in not within others, we open ourselves to the inexhaustible Dharma that is us.
Although boredom still visits, I know it has nothing to do with teacher or tradition. I don’t start combing through the internet as though I was shopping on Amazon for a new pair of shoes. “If only I was there or I had that, things would be so much better.” Danger!
When we say “root teacher”, that is exactly what they are and what they do – root. They are our living koan and encouragement which remind us to remain rooted and awake in times of confusion, boredom and doubt. Even though seeking various approaches is healthy, we must also be aware of the games we play.


The word “Dharma” has no single equivalent in the western dialect. Its meanings also differs between traditions. The original meaning was “to hold”, specifically to hold the laws of the gods. Later, the word would include everything from Sila (rules of right living), the eternal, essential nature, law, truth, reality and thusness, to name a few. Moving through various consciousnesses we radiate our understanding of Dharma in many different ways. Once again falling into the caveats of the human experience. How wonderous the Dharma is! It is that which manifests the fundamental nature of the universe itself. In Buddhism we tend to use it interchangeably with “universal law” or “truth” which is close enough, however, the word by nature is much more dynamic and vibrant. Dharmas are also considered teachings which point to various ideas, truths or experiences, such as the teachings of the historical Buddha Gotama ect. Yet the Buddha clarifies in the Diamond Sutra, “There are no teachings to expound”. Meaning, there is “no thing” to teach, nor can the Dharma be given to anyone. Zen’s Dharma Transmission is the recognition of this principle, and in truth empty. The word “Dharma” is merely a marker for that which is eternal, that which is intrinsically empty, and that which is none other than the universe itself. So there are many layers within this word. The “Dharmas are endless…”, and move with us, as us, as we fall into phenomena, revealing ourselves as we drop away further and further. So the more we let go of dharma, the more we radiate IT!

Gutei’s Finger

One of my favorite Teishos to give is on Case Three of the Mumonkan “Gutei’s Finger”. Depending on our karma, every koan will strike us in a different way. Some koans we are content to hear the words “next” while others we could fall into for a lifetime, for me this is Gutei’s finger. By nature this koan demands no less and is truly “inexhaustible”. For me this “inexhaustibility” is that of love, Tenryu’s love, Gutei’s Love and the love of that one finger . Love to me IS the rabbit hole from which I tumble down investigating this “One finger Zen”. Down and down I go, righting momentarily to only start tumbling again. You may perceive the periods of “righting” are the periods of radiance, they are not, it is the tumbling. The “righting” is the grasping at roots on the way down, desperately trying to hold on to control. For new students they think me odd when I get choked up offering this koan. They think “My god, this Gutei is vicious and Joriki seems to be of the same feather”! I assure you the cut was extraordinarily deep but, the finger, in a relative sense, still remained on the attendant. I hope on my death bed too I will still be tumbling, mumbling my last words of the endless beauty of this one finger.

Mumonkan Case 3: Gutei’s Finger
Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When a visitor asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy raised his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief, seized him and cut off his finger with a knife. As the boy screamed and ran out of the room, Gutei called to him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
When Gutei was about to die, he said to the assembled monks,”I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu. I used it all my life and yet could not exhaust it” and then he passed away.

March on

Life by nature is a challenge, and many times we are on a learning curve. Sometimes that curve is exhilarating, and sometimes it is confusing and heavy. We do our best. With patience and strength we work through the waves of karma as they crash upon us. Zen Practice allows us a strong footing, so we are not constantly knocked over by the ebb and flow of the universe. It is said in zen to just “march on”. No matter if the sun is upon our check, or the cold winds bare down on us, we just keep moving forward. We watch not to become caught, or stuck in deep currents of phenomena; even if they are comforting and pleasurable. The Zen Student is always traveling, and her supplies are not that of heavy preference and nostalgia. The Zen Students pack has only the robe of liberation to drape over the universe, and a small bowl to collect the subtle offerings of the falling sakura. So I invite to put down the load, carry only what you need, and “March on” through this journey we call life.