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Practicing Alone Without a Teacher (from another forum dissusion)

wonderingwondering Veteran
edited September 2011 in Buddhism for Beginners
This is a very important exchange between a Zen priest and a knowledgeable practitioner of Buddhism....

Priest says....

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."

Peace,

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

Comments

  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    I think we can all admit that there is a certain rebellious deliciousness to the idea of studying without at teacher (however "teacher" may be defined). Add to that deliciousness the fact that certain "teachers" have a vested interest in maintaining their status and income and the argument gains force in the mind.

    But I think we have to admit as well that all of us have teachers all the time and that the role of a 'Zen teacher,' for example, is simply to sharpen our focus and point out other, more useful ways. They can lighten the load, so to speak. Whether the DO lighten the load is an open question of course.

    Idealizing or discounting teachers is like idealizing or discounting road maps ... the onus is on us. But maps don't care whether we idealize or discount them. They just point out the various possibilities, possibilities we may have missed in our sometimes-idealized searches. It's like someone handing you a hammer when you want to pound a nail: Sure, you can find other means, but a hammer is a pretty good tool.

    Just noodling.
  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran
    Why would you go on a trip, to a place you have never been to before, and refuse to bring someone along that has already traveled that way? If there truly was no need for teachers, Hui-neng would not have become one himself.
  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited September 2011
    I dunno, gang. Who needs a teacher to practice the precepts, compassion, the 4 Nobles and Eightfold path, mindfulness, selflessness? A child can manage that, that's the beauty and simplicity of Buddhism. One can check in with a teacher now and then for meditation technique, or these days one can rent a video. Is it really that complicated?
  • I Would go on a trip without taking someone who has been there before I like the excitement of discovering something on my own. Just my opinion...
  • I think one can learn quite a lot on their own by listening to dharma talks and other articles / books that are available online.

    However, I do think it's beneficial to be involved in a sangha and have a teacher for more personal guidance.
  • wonderingwondering Veteran
    edited September 2011


    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.

    That is what Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in China said. And he was teaching. :)

  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran


    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.



    That is what Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in China said. And he was teaching. :)

    You are only looking at one side of his teaching and completely ignoring the other.

  • No, I hear the other side of his teaching. It CAN be useful and beneficial to have a guide/teacher in our learning and practice of Buddhism/Zen, BUT it is not essential as some would have us believe. They are wrong to tell others it is absolutely necessary to have a teacher to obtain liberation but they go on insisting that it IS necessary. It seems that is what happens to many people who are too attached to Buddhism, or any other spiritual path. They seem to start preaching, instead of leading others to their own liberation. They begin to care about doctrine and dogma rather than compassion for the other person.
  • edited September 2011
    Hmmm....isn't it the case that on the level of form, no matter how enlightened one is, one is still communicating with others in terms of relative truths (i am your teacher and whatnot)? Aren't words by definition relative truths?

    EDIT: I forgot to at that like Wondering hinted at dogma is the key here. There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. You can talk with all sorts of enlightened people and that would still not lead you to enlightenment since, like Krishnamurti said, the truth is a pathless land. That's why spiritual seeking is an oxymoron and there is no "way" to get enlightened.
  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    As one aspect of the discussion, let's not forget old Huang Po/Obaku who once stood in front of his assembled monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." One of the monks stood up and challenged him more or less: "But master, how can you say such a thing when all of us can see you standing in front of us, teaching." And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."
  • I've been discussing this a little with a Zen practitioner, and I get the impression Zen is different, in that meditation seems to be the bulk of the practice. Stephen Batchelor demonstrated this by his experience of trying to ask his roshi questions about the dharma, and his roshi refused to answer, and kept telling him to just sit. All understanding will come by sitting, i.e. by insight. I think with such a strong emphasis on meditation, regular guidance would be needed. Zen may be an exceptional case in that regard, just guessing.
  • edited September 2011
    I can comment based on my own personal experience. My own (living, breathing, face to face) Zen teacher is a master, and his 'teachings' were/are beyond anything I could ever imagine to receive. His 'pointers' helped me invaluably, more than I can ever say.

    That said, that is my own encounterance, and to me, my own great good fortune for which I am grateful.

    Everyone has their own way perhaps? but what came to mind tonight was -

    Take yoga, I can do my stretches at home, I can read books and see pictures. I can and have even thought I know how to do it. And do it. But when I do it with my instructor present, he guides me in ways I was not aware of, aligns my stretches, my feet, my legs. He looks from afar and instructs me to straighten my legs, and corrects me in techniques I had self learnt etc. This is not to say I cannot do this for myself and over time perhaps? I would have learnt this myself. Perhaps not. I don't know, but what I do know is that -- well I have no more words.

    But just sharing another perspective (as we do around here :))

    Namaste,
    Abu
  • And to add, my teacher is a master. So I choice whom I would practice under, and that came through results, not just hearsay etc. But that is my path, and before that I would not submit to just anyone :)

    Best wishes,
    Abu
  • "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." One of the monks stood up and challenged him more or less: "But master, how can you say such a thing when all of us can see you standing in front of us, teaching." And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."
    :)

  • Coming from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, for me, the lama is a guide who can help you going up long, tortuous dead ends and other unhelpful roads, and point you in the right direct. But ultimately, you have to take responsibility for your own Path.

    It is important to find a lama you can trust, whose teachings you respect and whose way of communicating makes sense to you, because in Tibetans schools, taking a vow to devote to a lama is considered a serious thing. I am unofficially a follower of Lama Chime Rinpoche's teachings, but I am yet to take refuge with him. I intended to, but then something came up and I was unable to go. Since then, I've hesitated. Lama Chime says this is fine - there is no hurry. Traditionally, Tibetans believed it best to wait 7 years before committing to a lama. Maybe I'm just not ready or maybe someone else will be my teacher.

    Either way, I continue to learn what I can from the various lamas I meet, from books and from my lay teacher, who is teaching me the basics (with lama Chime's knowledge and blessing). But I think without any kind of teacher, a lot of the teachings I'm interested in could have been very confusing and discouraging for me.

    There are dangers in misinterpreting teachings. For instance, you could mistake the dharma for nihilism, or fail to realise that compassion must be directed to yourself as well as others. And I'm told many of the advanced tantra teachings of Tibetan Buddhism have serious mental health risks if incorrectly approached.
  • edited September 2011
    Q: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of finding and having a teacher:

    Robert Aitken, Roshi (Diamond Sangha lineage):

    Yes, two important questions - finding and having . There's a book called 'Zen without Zen Masters.' I haven't read it. Maybe enough said there. [Laughter] By our nature, we fool ourselves so easily that it is important to have someone we trust to the very bottom to hold up the mirror and say, "This is how you're coming across".
    Without a true teacher you plateau too soon: the Sangha plateaus too soon. You are left thinking zazen is itself enlightenment, not realising that you aren't doing zazen. There are depths beyond depths. With a true teacher, you can follow the exacting path that leads on and on.

    From the Partice of Perfection
    Robert Aitken
    _________________________________________________________________

    That said, I would say it depends if one can find a true genuine teacher. I have seen a lot of teachers now and the unfortunate thing is, if you follow a non-genuine one, one is already limited, and can be even more misled. Not finding one, one can be limited. Finding a great one, one can still miss the mark. Or one can find great help. Karma, practice, faith, enlightenment. Kindness. We plough on and on, trusting in this Truth.

    Namaste,
    Abu
  • Only you can know your heart
    Only you can know your mind
    Only you can be your teacher
  • Q: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of finding and having a teacher:

    Robert Aitken, Roshi (Diamond Sangha lineage):

    Yes, two important questions - finding and having . There's a book called 'Zen without Zen Masters.' I haven't read it. Maybe enough said there. [Laughter] By our nature, we fool ourselves so easily that it is important to have someone we trust to the very bottom to hold up the mirror and say, "This is how you're coming across".
    Without a true teacher you plateau too soon: the Sangha plateaus too soon. You are left thinking zazen is itself enlightenment, not realising that you aren't doing zazen. There are depths beyond depths. With a true teacher, you can follow the exacting path that leads on and on.

    From the Partice of Perfection
    Robert Aitken

    Aitken Roshi is bang-on with this. But no teacher can do it for you. You have to do it yourself.

  • Only you can know your heart
    Only you can know your mind
    Only you can be your teacher
    Spoken like a true individual practitioner.
  • i've been studying buddhism by myself for a long time.
    i emailed a zen center near my house and decided to set up an appointment.

    it's time to get serious with my practice.
  • ElizEliz Explorer
    I did the same thing, Taiyaki. After reading the recent discussions here about the positive impacts of a teacher, I have decided to seek outside help for my meditation practice (which I have been doing by myself so far). I found some resources online (thanks to Jeffrey's helpful suggestions) and I also emailed a zen center near my home last week. I will go to the zen center later this week for the next zazen they have. Lately I've been feeling that I have a reached a plateau in my meditation practice at home and need some guidance on how to get through to whatever might be next....or at least talk with a teacher about the plateau experience.
  • "if "a teacher" means a person seperate from oneself"

    This person is unaware of the 'two truths' presentation of relative and ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is that there are no beings and no suffering. Relative truth is that there is a teacher and a student.

    Ultimate truth is there are no dirty diapers and nobody cleaning them. There are no paychecks and no work done. No karma created.

    Please do not mix up kitchen sink instructions about how to clean a toilet and say that you are not going to clean the toilet because there is no separation between you and the toilet. Just as to clean a toilet you need to go to the toilet so to to open to the mandala of awakening do you form bonds to those who are awakening or are awakened.


  • Maybe someone has pointed this out and I've missed it, but if you're studying at home, you've probably read a book. The reason that you know about zen at all is that a teacher wrote a book for you.
  • A teacher can offer fortuitous conditions for awakening, but the conditions are always there if we are mindful and dedicated to our practice. All that arises and passes in the mind is our true teacher, and if our minds are directed to seeing that all of these things share this same nature, we may find our way with no external teacher required.
  • I'd just like to add to the already insightful posts that I think the "skill" of the practitioner is a large factor.

    Like any subject, there are some that can "just do it" with minimal teaching and like it that way, and others that prefer a strong teacher-student relationship. Some people like a bit of both. I think that all types will get to the correct place with the right effort :-)
  • Only you can know your heart
    Only you can know your mind
    Only you can be your teacher


    Spoken like a true individual practitioner.
    It's alright to ask for help if you really need it.

    Namaste

  • Although at some point in my practice I do intend to seek out a traditional teacher, I find teachers in the most unlikely places everyday. Read and absorb as much as you can, and watch how it is applies and manifests into every moment of life and every person you meet.

    Again, at some point in my practice I plan to seek out a traditional teacher, but not until I have some real questions. Not until I find that practice or interpretation reach a plateau. Im soaking up all the basics first, and reading lots of books and buddhist text.

    So far there have been no show stoppers. A couple stumbling blocks but nothing I can't handle. :)
  • Only you can know your heart
    Only you can know your mind
    Only you can be your teacher


    Spoken like a true individual practitioner.


    It's alright to ask for help if you really need it.

    Namaste

    You think it has something to do with help ? Oh ..

  • dhammachickdhammachick Veteran
    edited September 2011
    Namaste,

    I recently started attending a Sangha and have found that I get so much more out of the Dharma teachings even just discussing it with other members as well as my teacher.

    A lot of westerners get a real bee in their arses about this and I think it comes down to the whole "No one can tell me what to do" sense of indignation permeating society in general these days and to a lesser degree, some people just don't want to put themselves out or pay for anything they think they're entitled to.

    I truly don't know where all the anti dogma attitude rears its head from. I mean, I work in IT and I had to do my ITIL certification for my work. I had to learn from a teacher and that teacher was paid (albeit not by me). The benefit was that I can go on to earn more money later on. The benefit of learning Dharma from a teacher is that you can grow spiritually. I realise there's no money or other tangible benefit immediately. It would be a sad indictment of humanity indeed if this is the overshadowing attitude towards teachers in spiritual paths. Oh wait..... just look at TV Evangelists :(

    In metta,
    Raven
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