January 1, 2013

Why We Need Human Teachers.

Photo: Tim Ellis

Successful teachers are alive, evolving and even fallible.

The Miksang contemplative photography school, where I am a teacher, has a rift between the founders. This isn’t unusual in Buddhism. Hell, it isn’t unusual in any tradition. However, when I first heard about it, it triggered me.

It felt to me like having split-up parents. My parents, both dead, stayed together until “death did they part.” I wanted to fix it. It took years of patience (also on my teacher’s part) and finally, some wisdom from a peer, who also is the sort to try to fix things, to stop trying:  “This isn’t ours to fix. There’s nothing to fix in the first place.”

I let it go.

Soon thereafter, the split went more public, and some of my students obsessed about it. The other founder’s style (more commercial and image-oriented) varies enough from ours (more contemplative and non-profit) to make hardliners nervous. They came to me, en masse, confused. They were ready to pitch him out, one of the two living masters we have. They said if he did things that differently, he must have lost it.

I pointed out to them the differences weren’t that big, that it was their minds that had tightened around their practice, scared somehow that something wasn’t (or they weren’t) right. I know this from my own experience. When ego has a hold, any variation is a threat. If something seems different, something is wrong. However, whenever we experience a sense of threat to teachings, it’s a red flag to pay attention—to ourselves. There is tradition, and then there is fanaticism. My students almost crossed the line.

Natalie Goldberg came to teach a weekend in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011. I am a student of hers and a teacher in her writing practice lineage. I worked my ass off to get her here: two years of planning, fundraising and volunteer effort. Students cooked food, baked bread, cleaned dishes and did paperwork. The weekend was powerful—an April mid-western pre-spring, on the brim of bursting. I chose a semi-rural location just on the edge of town, and 70 of us sank in for a weekend.

Most of the participants were “my students.” Natalie commented that they were soft and sweet. I often say that contemplative writing (my form of writing practice) is a compassion practice. During a talk, a student said what Natalie was describing was compassion. Natalie said there is no “compassion” in writing practice. My students balked. What on earth could she be talking about? The student confronted her privately after the talk.

“There’s compassion in your books,” my student demanded, “I can feel it.”

“Ask me about this in the larger group.”

The student came up to me to tell me Natalie seemed to be pretty stuck about this whole “compassion doesn’t exist in writing practice” schlock.

“I wanted to let you know that she wants to bring it up with the larger group.”

I nodded. Made sense to me. I had never heard her use “compassion.” Natalie is a Soto Zen teacher, not a Shambhala or Tibetan (as I am) teacher. My student eyed me closely.

“Are you hurt by this?”

I squinted for a second, smiled. “No. Why would I be?”

I sensed at that moment that something odd was happening. Why were my students being so adamant about Natalie using the same words? Did they doubt me? No. I couldn’t believe it. My students were doubting Natalie Goldberg – not me, not themselves. This stunned me. My god. What had I (inadvertently, again) done?

Natalie straightened them out. She spoke of how Zen addresses things sideways, not using terms like compassion. Of how Tibetan Buddhism is more touchy-feely.

Then, she made space for a contemplation of the phrases “writing practice” and “contemplative writing.” This exercise was for Natalie and me, too. She has never attended a class or workshop with me; I’ve told her what I do and she has confidence in me as a teacher, but she hadn’t really explored the differences before then. Neither had I, not semantically—the name of my classes came out of the fact that I also teach Miksang contemplative photography.

“In writing practice,” said Natalie, “Note that writing comes first. What does practice bring to mind as a word?”

People talked about piano practice, sports, discipline, patience, long progression, non-perfection, being in the moment.

“In contemplative writing,” said Natalie, “Note that writing comes second. What does contemplative bring to mind?”

People mentioned meditation, calm, inquiry, exploration, mindfulness, peacefulness, compassion.

Skillfully, she led the group between the two practices’ descriptions, and pointed out their differences—solely by how we had named them. The students relaxed and began to see that Natalie and I weren’t extensions of each other.

Lineage is like this—we think teachers are somehow the same, are the teachings themselves, but they aren’t. How do students know they aren’t being duped? How do they know the situation we are in is legit? For a long time I thought the Miksang teachers’ split meant there was something wrong with the teachings, or them, or me.

Natalie concluded that Zen had to be disciplined to make it in America, to plant the seeds of meditation. I pointed out that when Chogyam Trungpa, who is the founder of Shambhala and was a peer of founding Zen teachers in America, came here, he, too, realized he would have to get the hippies in line.

But now is another time, Natalie noted.

“Miriam started at 26,the same age I was when I started teaching,” she concluded, “and now she is 33, and I am 62. Not everything I teach is relevant anymore,” she continued. “Contemplative writing may be the new way. People still need discipline, but in this harsh world, they also need some heart and comfort. Practicing Zen almost killed me,” and she coughed as if to make her point. She had been sick all week, would be sick another whole week, because she taught despite the fact that she probably shouldn’t have. She said Zen taught her to do that. Maybe it wasn’t always wise. “Lineages change, evolve. It’s a good thing.”

Some folks wind up preferring me, some wind up preferring her. Teachers are alive, and that is a good thing—we do not learn to live from robots—we learn to live from human teachers. People who make mistakes, are inconsistent, struggle with ego and also, like everyone, have moments of awakening.

We all need to connect with teachers, not just the teachings.

If there is disconnect there, that’s a moment to wonder if we are approaching this right. It doesn’t mean we have to like a teacher, but if we cannot see them as human, there’s something we are looking for in that person that is impossible.

We need to be flexible. When the teachings or teacher harden, or when a student hardens, something has broken. Of course, we have to watch out for bunk teachers. But we must also always keep in check, vigilant about how our ego, is using the teachings to create comfort for us, often through familiar and neurotic duality.

I have a Brian Andreas print in my office.

It says: “There are angels whose sole purpose is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.” Let your teachers be this kind of angel—human, irritating and challenging, as well as wise. That is compassion, whether we call it that or not.



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Assistant Ed: Wendy Keslick

Ed: Kate B.

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