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Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Pedestrian on Tue Feb 12, 2013 5:33 pm

As someone relatively new to formal Zen practice, I have been reflecting on that practice and the organizations that support it given the many scandals that endlessly tumble into the news. (The latest, in the NY Times the other day, is, of course, the Joshu Sasaki situation.)

One of the ways I have been reflecting involves being very aware of my unfolding relationship to my teachers, both the formal one I have with James Ford (with whom I've taken shoken), the less formal ones I have with other senior teachers there, and the informal ones I have with many people in the sangha who provide lots of useful, practical information and advice. This sangha seems very transparent to me so far, and the tenor of all interactions seems consistently in line with the bodhisattva precepts as I understand them.

Of course, we'll also all very human, and my tendency to leap to judgment and to project all sorts of transference keeps me aware that I can too easily sanctify or demonize these all-too-human teachers. On the whole, they seem to be aware of this as well, which I find reassuring. I also see regular evidence of and deeply appreciate the sangha's commitment to stating and following its ethical codes. But that doesn't mean that these Shimano/Sasaki reports don't give me pause.

All of this reflection makes me want to learn more about how other ZFI members who are in a formal relationship with a teacher understand that relationship. How would you characterize it? How has it changed? How have you handled those moments when your teacher(s) made you pause and think, "Uh oh..."? Do you have a sense of what relationship the sangha as a whole has with your teacher?

I ask in the hope that together we can provide some understanding of how robust, supportive, healthy, sustained relationships with Zen teachers unfold. Of course, no relationship can be characterized; of course, characterization is itself an impossible task. However, surely we can do a better job than the NYT: the statement that "Zen exalts the relationship between a student and a teacher, who can come to seem irreplaceable" is utterly wrong in my case given that each BWZ teacher actively encourages you to think of him or her as quite literally replaceable by any other!

Given the inadequacy of concepts such as "marriage," "devotion," "affair," and "predation" (to pick a few others from that article), I thought that we might be able to come up with a few more accurate characterizations from our own practice. Given the climate, it also seemed like a decent thing to do: if we are all working with teachers we've come to respect, it would be useful for newcomers like me to see what those relationships look like, given the paucity of media depictions.
"Buddha, to liberate beings, cultivates practices everywhere." Avatamsaka Sutra.

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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Ko_Shin on Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:29 pm

I like that we keep examining this question.

I think it would be helpful to hear from those who have practiced at different centers with different teachers. I have only practiced with Boundless Way and from what I'm told BWZ is a bit rare in the Zen world by having multiple co-teachers.

My relationship with all the BWZ teachers has always included a lot of prodding to continually examine what they are offering for myself so it seems to me if something seemed inappropriate that I'd likely notice and feel safe in questioning it and dealing with it appropriately.

And at the same time I feel a very deep connection with them and in particular the teachers I have been in shoken with and in fact not so long ago in a discussion about the Greater Boston Zen Center I found myself falling into a pattern of thinking that was perhaps a little lacking in that questioning aspect of the teacher, a little to much of submission of my will for the teachers. And the others in the sangha helped me realize that.

So that pointed out to me how easy it is to relax attention to the examining mind and how important the balance of a sangha can be.
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Carol on Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:33 pm

Thanks for bringing this up, Chris. I've thought about this for several years, ever since I left a sangha and teacher due to what I felt was an unhealthy culture.

The teacher wasn't doing anything spectacularly "bad" -- like Sasaki or Shimano -- but there were some areas where his conduct was questionable and was causing pain and confusion. The problem, for me, wasn't his conduct, so much, but how he and our group of "senior students" which we called our "management team", of which I was a member, and our board of directors, dealt with the issue when it came to a head. It was never brought out to the whole sangha.

Basically, everyone polarized -- you were either "with him or against him" or "with the person who brought the issue to a head or against her." Since I was neither one of those, but genuinely interested in how both "sides" saw it, in their feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal, etc., I tried to get us to get some outside help and guidance in group process to work it through with compassion for all. That went nowhere. Our teacher was not open to it, and our board coalesced around supporting him (with one resignation from the board). Four others, including two teachers, also left the sangha -- where things went on as before.

Since then, I've been pondering deeply the question of how could a teacher (and senior students) be so closed to exploration and inquiry into his/her conduct when it is causing pain and disruption in the sangha? This wasn't an area where a new student with an attitude was having problems with authority, which of course happens sometimes. It was a mature long-time student who was also a "junior" teacher who brought the issue to a head, and her concerns were troubling to me.

I do believe "codes of conduct" and "grievance procedures" are good and necessary things, and should be adopted by all sanghas and their boards. But I also have reached the conclusion that sanghas, including teachers and boards, need training in group dynamics and how to work through such issues, especially when there is a strong leader -- as a teacher always is, inherently. "Spiritual authority", though, isn't the same thing as organizational authority, IMO. Some teachers are great teachers but very poor administrators, and some apparently have very little clue about the kinds of things that frequently occur in groups -- power struggles, competition, jealousies, "in-groups" and "out-groups", teacher's favorites, scapegoating, gossip, etc., etc., etc. There is a body of knowledge and experience out there that I think any sizeable sangha would benefit from learning.

What I'd most like to see is a program developed -- perhaps by the AZTA, with outside experienced professionals -- that would go from sangha to sangha and do training workshops for everyone. I think this would be very helpful in giving people the tools to deal with these things before they burgeon into full-blown ethical crises. Nip it in the bud by give the sangha the tools to communicate clearly, openly, and compassionately about these problems.

I actually think this would be more helpful than an ethical "oversight body" -- which has been proposed and is under discussion among some zen teachers -- which would come in from outside to investigate and/or discipline complaints about teachers' (mis)conduct-after-the fact. Getting the disparate zen schools to participate voluntarily in such a program would probably be very difficult, and resisted where it is most needed.

The kind of program I'm thinking about might also be resisted where it is most needed. But, if it were offered to all sanghas with teachers who are AZTA members, for example, it might catch on and be implemented BEFORE serious problems developed at a sangha, and so the resistance might be less of a hurdle.

I've thought about this for a long time. I really don't think the zen teachers are the solution to the problem, even those who are proposing an oversight body are proposing that zen teacher "police" other zen teachers, but still keeping the "oversight" function in the hands of teachers.

I think the solution to the problem lies in educating sanghas and changing the sangha culture somewhat -- so that students have ways to identify problems that heretofore may have gone unrecognized or unnamed until they got out of hand, and a culture that encourages them to deal with these problems with wisdom and compassion for all concerned.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Carol on Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:38 pm

Ko_Shin wrote:I think it would be helpful to hear from those who have practiced at different centers with different teachers. I have only practiced with Boundless Way and from what I'm told BWZ is a bit rare in the Zen world by having multiple co-teachers.


The sangha that I left and wrote about above had a founding teacher and several co-teachers, including fully transmitted dharma heirs of the founding teacher. It was a co-teacher in the last phase of training before receiving full dharma transmission who brought the issue that I mentioned to a head. It was very difficult for her because it was possible that the founding teacher would have refused to give dharma transmission to her because of the disagreement. To his credit, he did not do that and she did receive full dharma transmission -- in the middle of her break from him. She went elsewhere to teach solo.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Pedestrian on Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:40 pm

Thanks, Ko_Shin and Carol.

I won't ask Ko_Shin any questions since, well, we are talking about the same gang of folks. ;)

Carol, I really appreciate your detailed description of how things can go wrong with the relationship between teachers and his/her students. I know that you practice now with another teacher, and I assume that things are more functional within that relationship. Would you care to characterize it? (I really hesitated in applying the adjective "functional" in that sentence; I'd rather read your own!)
"Buddha, to liberate beings, cultivates practices everywhere." Avatamsaka Sutra.

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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Carol on Tue Feb 12, 2013 9:17 pm

Pedestrian wrote:Thanks, Ko_Shin and Carol.

I won't ask Ko_Shin any questions since, well, we are talking about the same gang of folks. ;)

Carol, I really appreciate your detailed description of how things can go wrong with the relationship between teachers and his/her students. I know that you practice now with another teacher, and I assume that things are more functional within that relationship. Would you care to characterize it? (I really hesitated in applying the adjective "functional" in that sentence; I'd rather read your own!)


Yes, when I left my old sangha I didn't want to study with either teacher, as I was not impressed with how either one of them treated the other during their breakup.

So, I found another teacher. Where I practice now is a much smaller sangha, with just one teacher. Because we are small, very little goes unnoticed and we are very free and egalitarian in our communications about sangha business/culture. Our roshi seems open to just about anything anyone wants to bring up. But there really have not been any gnarly issues that I'm aware of.

The one thing that goes on that bothers me sometimes is sangha gossip. I guess that happens everywhere among "intimates" -- and I consider my sangha companions to be intimates. And it is always well-meant and good hearted. But sometimes I don't like it and I'd like to bring it up. In fact, I think I will. I don't like hearing things about someone that might be seen as critical when they are not present to hear it.

Of course, since my husband and I practice together in the same sangha, we gossip. Maybe we shouldn't. But that's one of the bonds of marriage, I guess. Need to give that some thought.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Nonin on Tue Feb 12, 2013 9:59 pm

Gossiping can be disastrous to a sangha. I don't participate in conversations in which two or more people are discussing another person who's not present. Of course, praising a person or just giving out innocuous information is okay, but discussing another person's faults, calling them names, blaming them for something, or bad-mouthing them is not okay. It sets people against each other, stirs discord, and creates dis-harmony when we should be cultivating harmonious relationships within the sangha.

There was a person in our sangha for quite a while who was frequently gossiping maliciously about others. It got worse and worse over time and was causing a lot of unrest and unnecessary bickering. I spoke to the person about it more than once, but as I said, it got worse over time until he started bad-mouthing and spreading un-founded rumors about me. I was about to file a grievance under our grievance procedure, but he left the sangha on his own accord. Later, he came back and eventually resumed his malicious gossiping. People were frequently complaining about it to me, and I had a meeting with him and another sangha member who served as a third party witness. It did not go well, and we finally had to tell him it would be best for him to leave the temple and not come back.

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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Pedestrian on Tue Feb 12, 2013 11:35 pm

Nonin, can you share with us your perspective on your relationship to Katagiri Roshi? In what ways have your own many years of teaching changed it?
"Buddha, to liberate beings, cultivates practices everywhere." Avatamsaka Sutra.

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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Nonin on Wed Feb 13, 2013 3:58 am

Pedestrian,

I wrote an article sometime ago about practicing with a teacher; most of it was about my relationship with Dainin Katagiri (Katagiri-roshi). Here's a link to that article. It begins on page three: http://www.prairiewindzen.org/prairiewi ... nter08.pdf

Click on the arrow, and it'll open in pdf.

There are also two short articles by Katagiri-roshi in that issue of Prairie Wind, our temple newsmagazine. One begins on page 12, the other on page 14.

Hands palm-to-palm,

Nonin
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Jugglesaurus on Wed Feb 13, 2013 4:45 pm

I actually react quite badly around senior zen teachers. I am not great with authority, and treat them with a completely uncalled-for amount of fear, which is quite awkward for both sides.
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Carol on Wed Feb 13, 2013 5:32 pm

Jugglesaurus wrote:I actually react quite badly around senior zen teachers. I am not great with authority, and treat them with a completely uncalled-for amount of fear, which is quite awkward for both sides.


Curious if you've ever mentioned this to your teacher(s) when it was happening?
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Pedestrian on Wed Feb 13, 2013 5:34 pm

Wow... what a great topic to discuss with one of them if only you could! Thanks for sharing that.
"Buddha, to liberate beings, cultivates practices everywhere." Avatamsaka Sutra.

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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Jugglesaurus on Wed Feb 13, 2013 6:03 pm

Generally I talk to our dojo responsible, who I am not terrified of. It's just one of those thigns and I'll probably figure it out eventually. :)
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Re: Characterizing Your Relationship to Your Teacher

Postby Nonin on Wed Feb 13, 2013 6:19 pm

Jugglesaurus wrote:Generally I talk to our dojo responsible, who I am not terrified of. It's just one of those thigns and I'll probably figure it out eventually. :)

Figuring this out is not important. What is important is to do what you need to do when you need to do it. My favorite story about fear is this:

In the old television series, Emergency, which focused on the exploits of a group of EMT's, there was an episode where a boy who was climbing a cliff during an outing with friends became stuck on a ledge about half-way up, thirty or forty feet above the ground, and was unable to go either up or down. The Emergency guys were called, and one rappelled down to the boy. He strapped the boy into a harness by which he'd be hauled up and the boy looked terrified. His rescuer asked: "Are you scared?" The boy said, "Yes." The rescuer said, "I'm scared too, but we can't let being afraid keep us from doing what we need to do."

Carol and Pedestrian have brought up an important point. If you've never spoken to your teacher about this, please do. Make an appointment, walk with your fear into it, and speak openly and honestly about your issue.

Hands palm-to-palm,

Nonin
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