Discernment in Finding Teachers

One of the problems we Westerners often have is an attachment to or distress with the “exoticism” of Zen Buddhism. We get swept up into the Chinese or Japanese culture, and often there is something of a language barrier as well. I’m very cautious about recommending teachers to others, because, in fact, others often benefit highly from teachers I have no interest in. The teachers I relate to, in no particular order, are Nisargadatta Maharaj, Jed McKenna, The Zennist, Bassui, Rinzai and Adyashanti. I just want to write a few words about the last name on that list. Adya (aka Steven Gray) and I studied with the same Zen teacher years ago. He was about 20 at the time, and I have, in my old album, a photo of him taken at a retreat, but no clear memory of him.  I “dropped out” of practice for several years after marrying. He, as it turned out, became a well known Zen teacher. He makes a great deal of his teaching available through the site Cafe Dharma (in my links) and many, many Youtube videos have been posted with full talks or excerpts from his talks. As you listen, certain things he says will strike you…For example, on the first day, he says to some retreat participants: “The important thing is to just relax. Just drop ‘the meditator’ who has all these ideas about what meditation should and should not be, who has read all the books by experts…” In another talk Adya recommends “Instead of trying to figure out what to do to become enlightened, try looking at what is preventing you from becoming enlightened.” Both those simple bits of advice are something we should be taking to heart. They are down-to-earth advice from one who has been there and wrestled through the struggle.

Becoming a teacher of Zen is not a small thing, and I think there are three necessary factors: First, there must be attainment. There is simply no substitute for it: he must be seeing what you cannot see, otherwise, you’re getting into a “blind leading the blind” situation, or worse, into some new religious attachment. Second, there must be the motivation to teach. He looks out and sees the Buddha nature not recognizing itself in others, and the suffering that has resulted, and he extends his hand to help those sentient beings. And third, he must be articulate; he must be able to put ideas together in a way that others can understand and respond to. There are other factors I could mention, for example a “teaching personality,” and high moral standards are certainly desirable, but the three characteristics above seem to me to be the absolute minimum. Adyashanti is fresh, surprising, and an American teacher, who can talk to Westerners in their own language and advises people at exactly the point they are in spiritual development (not a mean feat!) and for us a “student directed” practice is sometimes the best way to go.

My modest suggestion to you, reader, is to look at some of his Youtube videos, read a few interviews or get some of his books. He also writes good poetry. Or, if he comes to your area, attend a satsang. This is a living bodhisattva right here. You don’t have to go to Taiwan or Japan to find one.

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