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are you a real teacher?

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From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.

Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. Only certified teachers may certify other teachers: genetically not the healthiest way to propagate.

Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error. Just about any topic is taught and certified — just check online or ask the nearest school. For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.

Is that what the Buddha had in mind? As best as I can determine, he wasn’t interested in a hierarchical religion, nor did he want the sangha (community of followers) depend on him and other teachers for their salvation. Based on heresay — his words weren’t written down for 200 years after his death — his dying guidance is significant:

“Therefore be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves.”

In short: there’s no absolute need for teachers — authorized, certified, or otherwise. Teach yourself. Trust your innate wisdom. As to me: yes, I’m a teacher but don’t make me your teacher.

source: Mahaaparinibbaana Suttanta. Burtt, E. A. (1955). (ed.). The teachings of the compassionate Buddha. New York: The New American Library, p. 49.


5 responses »

  1. joan doerksen

    Excellent blog .. it reinforces my experience that the best teachers for me have been others that have struggled on this path we call life and that have shared their lessons with me.
    Peter, you have taught me much in your `just being’, in your honesty, your generosity and your compassionate. I consider you my teacher.

  2. Thank you!

  3. Nicely said, lately with all the buzz about one teacher or another falling down(breaking precepts…) it does make one wonder where to turn and where to somewhat place confidence to a degree. That being said my greatest teacher so far has been my young handicapped daughter who lives in the now and teaches me love and compassion daily.

  4. This is an important discussion. I’m glad you’re writing about your experience of it.

    I, too, have nearly a decade of Zen practice under my belt, and over a decade of teaching experience – mostly in adult ESL, but also some years with elementary school kids.

    I have taught basic meditation and yoga, without any official sanction from anyone really. So, I don’t know – and having been in a sangha where the teacher crashed and burned royally, my view of the whole transmission issue has changed. I used to be a bit enthralled by Zen teachers, lapping up every last word and movement. Now, I’m just paying attention and listening – to them, to myself, and other students.

  5. I no longer work hard–
    I come and go
    as my monkey mind takes me.
    Do the mists
    in the mountains work?
    Yet, they are are at peace
    and show their beauty
    against the pines.


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