When you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him

This post is in response to the series of posts on Natan’s blog concerning the continual corruption of various Zen communities.

I am always surprised at how people are resistant to learning lessons from history. To wit:

Institutions and organizations are often subverted by corrupt people. Young women are often prey to the machinations of self-interested father figures. People join cults to find an ideal family and then end up drinking poisoned kool-aid (figuratively or literally). A young man promises to love a young woman for ever but he has told the same thing to five other women concurrently. Zen teachers seduce a string of students. Etc., etc. An endless history of avoidable disasters. It isn’t like these kinds of disaster haven’t been written about extensively. Why aren’t they common knowledge? And corruption! It isn’t like we haven’t tried to set up institutions that prevent corruption. And then the institution becomes corrupted. Why are we surprised when these everyday things happen? What makes people ignore all the good advice from the past? Ah, but of course – the old ‘it can’t happen to me’ syndrome. And why do people always trust people who say, “Trust me.” It isn’t a matter of trust. It is a matter of keeping ones eyes open to spot one of the deepest characteristics of human nature: the tendency toward self-interest in spite of the unfortunate effects ones actions might have on other people.

What to do? What to do? In terms of Buddhism the path isn’t about finding a perfectly enlightened teacher who does no wrong. Buddha didn’t find one and he did well enough on his own. The purpose of the path is to become enlightened oneself; it is not to blindly follow the enlightened one. Teachers can only suggest things that might help you; they can’t give you anything except their attention and their compassion. The only legitimate thing a teacher can want for or from you is your enlightenment. The moment they start telling you how to run your life is a really good time to turn on your Sceptical Nature. Why would any teacher want you to do anything except to get enlightened? You can get enlightened any old place. Why exactly are they telling you to do this or that? What is in it for them? What is in it for you? How tricky. No easy answers. Stay on your toes.

Maybe in the case of Zen communities there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the necessary lesson that the teacher is merely another human being with the same problems of life that everyone has. I read somewhere that a Zen teacher, when asked what the difference was between himself and his students, answered that he corrected his mistakes faster than the students did theirs. If the basis of enlightenment is seeing what is, and if a teacher is constantly having to correct their own mistakes, then why would we set any teacher up as exemplars of anything other than people who can admit to their mistakes and who try to correct them? Yes, a teacher can be someone who knows lots about the minutia of tradition and ritual, but minutia and ritual are not enlightenment. Yes, any particular teacher might have great wisdom and experience beyond mere mistake correcting, but maybe not. But how can any of us inexperienced fools (who might be thinking about paying attention to the lessons of history as exemplified by a Zen community) pick a teacher or community that isn’t going to prove a screw up?

Maybe what we should look for is a teacher whose first lesson insists that the student remain sceptical of any teacher’s authority. My Iaido teacher constantly stressed the old saw, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” What I took this to mean is that any person who by their action or words insists that they know what you should do with your life is probably a fraud. When will we learn that the true teacher is one who primarily teaches by the example of their life. Given that we do not know much about other people’s lives, if we only know them only in the short-term, would we not be wise in being circumspect in following them? Where are they going? Where do they want you to go? Listen, reserve judgement, try everything on for size. But always be sceptical of the teacher. More, always be sceptical of what we think we know. Better yet be sceptical of what we think is a good thing for us to do. And if the teacher proves a screw up, don’t follow him/her. Are you sleeping with your teacher. Is your teacher sleeping with others? How are you going to feel if you find out they are? I’m not interested in how hurt you might feel, your situation is after all a common story, although I do feel compassion for the fact that you are a suffering being. But I wonder, what you were thinking to get into the situation? What don’t you know about your own emotional motivations? That is what is interesting.

If I was going to start an institution to regulate Zen communities, I would only institute the following few rules: 1) teachers are required to send their students to other teachers (who are unknown to the first teacher) to avoid the psychological problem of transference (on the part of the student) and the problem of cronyism (on the part of the teachers). 2) students should always be taught to figure it out for themselves using all available information from all sources while remaining sceptical of any authority.

Shop around. Get a little experience. Read history. Pay attention to what is really going on, not to what do you want to go on.