This is a very important exchange between a Zen priest and a knowledgeable practitioner of Buddhism....
The Atta Dipa is good advice. Each person has to do their own work, and no one can do it for another person. However, the need for a teacher to point out what is dharma and what is not and to guide one along the path of dharma practice is essential to all Buddhist practice and especially to Zen Buddhist practice. Please remember that this is a Zen Buddhist forum. Practicing alone without a teacher is not recommended.
The practitioner responds....
Thank you for your comments.
I do not wish to disagree with this, but simply suggest that there are alternative views that have just as much authority to be accepted as authentic Zen Buddhist teaching. To clarify what I mean, let me first clarify how I understand the basic question of this post.
I think it is obvious to all thinking persons that "teachers" are essential for people to understand "teachings." After all, the term "teaching" would be meaningless if it referred to something that had not been "taught" by some "teacher" or another.
Being a Buddhist forum, the kind of "practice" meant in "practicing alone" is clearly Buddhism - and the "alone" of "practicing alone" seems to be a redundant term meaning the same thing as "without a teacher." Therefore, I regard the actual intention of this question to be about "practicing Buddhism without a teacher" - not about "learning" Buddhism without a teacher. Now, everyone that actually "practices Buddhism" does so "without a teacher" - if "a teacher" means a person seperate from oneself. For, to authentically practice Buddhism is, by definition, to be enlightened to the fact that nothing exists independently of ones true self.
Thus, everyone that has ever "practiced Buddhism" has done so "alone" (all - one).
As the Zen masters point out, the teachings and teachers are inherent in our own mind, and will never be found elsewhere. Thus, they tell us we need to enlighten ourselves to this truth if we want to "practice Buddhism."
However, while some contemporary teachers insist that contemporary teachers are needed to awaken contemporary students - and they may be right - this is not the same teaching of all the classic Zen masters, including Bodhidharma and Huineng, through whom all Zen Buddhists trace their lineage. In fact, not only did he deny the need for Buddhists to seek out "individual guides," Huineng asserted that it was "wrong to insist" that people needed to do so to realize liberation.
Perhaps Huineng was misleading us, perhaps not. In my own experience, Huineng has proven to be a reliable guide - I may just not be con-temporary enough, but it is so.
Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in China said:
Should they fail to enlighten themselves, they should ask the pious and learned Buddhists who understand the teaching of the Highest School to show them the right way. It is an exalted position, the office of a pious and learned Buddhist who guides others to realize the Essence of Mind. Through his assistance one may be initiated into all meritorious Dharmas. The wisdom of the past, the present and the future Buddhas as well as the teachings of the twelve sections of the Canon are immanent in our mind; but in case we fail to enlighten ourselves, we have to seek the guidance of the pious and learned ones.
On the other hand, those who enlighten themselves need no extraneous help.
It is wrong to insist upon the idea that without the advice of the pious and learned we cannot obtain liberation.
Why? Because it is by our innate wisdom that we enlighten ourselves, and even the extraneous help and instructions of a pious and learned friend would be of no use if we were deluded by false doctrines and erroneous views. Should we introspect our mind with real Prajna, all erroneous views would be vanquished in a moment, and as soon as we know the Essence of Mind we arrive immediately at the Buddha stage.
~Huineng, A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam
I hope this is helpful - again, Huineng's view may not be the only "right-view," but it clearly merits being acknowledged as a legitimate Zen Buddhist view - as does his suggestion that "insisting on the need" for a teacher is "wrong."
The seeming paradox of the teacherhood issue... according to... Pai-chang, Lin-chi, Yun-men, and Fo-yen, someone who claims to be a Zen teacher is not. Classics of Buddhism and Zen, 3:3, T. Cleary, p.236