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.