I like this pondering on teaching by Edward Espe Brown in a recent email newsletter...
I greet you after a long absence of more than a year. So I certainly have news about the activities of my life, (which can wait).
Beyond that, perhaps a hiatus indicates some ambivalence about being a teacher, and if so, what does this teacher have to offer, if anything, aside from ambivalence? This is quite an interesting point, as there is both instruction and initiation—and they are not the same. Mostly the world offers instruction: follow your breath, mind your manners, don’t talk back. Instructions, that is, or admonitions.
When you involve yourself in the world of instruction, you can easily measure or assess how well you are doing at following the protocols that you have explicitly decided to follow, (and if you don’t, someone nearby will likely be on your case, doing it for you, whether or not you want them to do this). Often there will be an overlap, as you explicitly adopt strategies that back-up your unconscious habits. In other words your practice today can be unintentionally intended to entrench you more deeply in the habits of a lifetime. Are you becoming free of your unexamined attitudes and strategies or are you becoming more attached to them? What could you do to free yourself? Will a teacher help?
Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe both. What are you asking of the teacher? I’m sorry, but this is already mysterious, and perhaps unknowable. You will only find out much later what you really wanted. Loosely speaking we are asking for help, but what kind of help are we looking for? —support to follow our in-place inner proscriptions and prohibitions, or encouragement to aim for freedom—to see for yourself and know the way?
Another way to see this is that we tend to look for teachers who inspire us to buy. Unfortunately freedom or liberation is a hard sell. It’s easier for the teacher to say, “follow my plans for you, and your approval ratings will skyrocket.” Too bad that better approval ratings do not translate into greater wisdom and compassion: instead, you’re only as good as your last performance. “Do what I say, and you will acquire great capacities as well as all those elusive merit badges you’ve so desperately longed for: enlightenment, wisdom, Great Bodhisattva.” It may be so, but mostly you learn to do what you’re told—as when you were a child—eventually, you are assured, you will arrive in a better place. Where you will realize that you were there all along, only everything is different. Still, how will you get to be a grown-up by endlessly functioning as a child following the rules that someone else spells out for you?
Plus really popular teachers seem able to convince you that you too could win that life-
changing peak experience that would remove obstacles and hindrances without your having to be there to win, without your on-going participation in the process of life. You too will be able to, “sit back in the easy chair of Enlightenment, and enjoy the flow!”
I’m so sorry I’m not that kind of teacher. As my master Suzuki Roshi lamented, “I cannot help you very much.” I can be your friend and companion. I can encourage you to keep finding your way. Still you will find that life is unpredictable, and situations will arise that challenge your wherewithal. So?
The big problem here is a tendency to believe that your miserable failures indicate that you must be inherently flawed. After all if you were a person of inherent goodness, you could have prevented these dark and difficult events from happening—especially you could have kept them from happening to you. If only you could prove you were not fundamentally stained; if only you realized you were blessed, holy, and good, these troubling events would not happen. Really?
More likely you would have the same problems, but you would not sense they were mocking you with their repetitious blatherings that you are not good enough.
Your difficulties would more and more resemble “the everyday food and drink of patch-robed monks”—not the most healthy of diets perhaps, but one that nourishes your good-hearted effort and neglects to feed your pretensions and aspirations to rise above as a way
to avoid what is deep, dark, and foreboding.
(Or as Hafiz says, (and I paraphrase): “it is a grave error on the part of the spiritual aspirant to think and believe that the 10,000 idiots, who lived and ruled for so long inside,
have skipped town or died.”) Though it is tempting to strive for that, most of us do not make that mistake!
Thank you for your good heart. Thank you for your effort. Thank you for continuing, for persevering. Even warm-hearted people may encounter stressful situations of woe—you would be no exception! Please study how to embody yourself more and more fully in this often wayward life, allowing love and blessedness to circulate freely everywhere, inside and out.
As Zen Master Dogen mentions, “Even if you miss ninety-nine times, keep aiming to hit the mark.” Please arouse or simply acknowledge your desire to do this as, “Hitting the mark is to realize on the spot that you are Buddha without changing anything about your body or mind.” You being you is the Way. Your great freedom is choosing how you wish to manifest yourself, what you wish to do. Blessed be.