Dharma Talk


August 5, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

Good morning everyone. I was going to talk today about teachers, and this morning is a perfect object lesson as to why. I’m sitting here with very sophisticated computers, cameras,and microphone, supplying me with lots of information I don’t need--my frames per second in kilobytes and audio yet I can’t change the picture and make it larger.

Obviously, a teacher would be a good idea for me or for anyone who wants to learn something practical and concrete. As far as computers go, you may not care too much about their personality or their ethics. You simply need to know something, and if you are studying cooking or studying music, you are we tend to think of subjects like this differently than a spiritual teacher. But should we?

I want to talk about it a little because I’ve seen many relationships go off the rails. I’ve seen a lot of communities go off the rails because of the malfeasance of teachers.

First and foremost is to have an idea of what it is that you want. Some people want to stop suffering. Some people want a life of unending bliss and joy. Some people want to learn how to get out of their own way, not badger themselves with second-guessing-- shoulda-woulda-coulda kind of concerns. Some people have read about various esoteric religions and they have all sorts of ideas about what wisdom should look like., and so they want to learn that. But if they’ve already judged themselves as wanting/needing some wisdom, should we be to quick to decide that we’ll know what it looks like when we see it? Maybe we will and maybe we won’t.

If you were studying cooking, you might think that what you needed to learn from the teacher is recipes. How to make a bechamel sauce or sushi. But it might turn out that what the teacher really teaches you, is how to slow down, to pay attention, to open your senses to the ingredients, extending into how they were raised. So a teacher that insisted that you come shopping with them and did not give you recipes, you might mistake as the wrong teacher, because you had a fixed idea of what you wanted. This is where Suzuki-roshi’s. “Not Knowing” or “Beginner’s Mind” becomes extremely valuable.

The first thing is that in spiritual dimensions, your body already knows what you want to learn. You don’t know, which is to say your idea of who you are doesn’t know. What we all really need to know is a universal human attribute—a perception of unity and wholeness, a lack of duality but that truth is clouded by the way that our minds work. Suzuki-roshi used to say, “You are perfect just the way you are, and you could use a little work.” Both are true. The very innate quality of mind, of awareness, is unsullied, wide open, as generous as the sky. It admits everything. It admits what you like. It admits what you don’t like. It admits everything. This is what we are trying to understand.

It is not the same as saying you “consent”or “agree” to everything but that you “acknowledge” that everything that exists depends on prior circumstances or it would not be here, and that those connection are vast, and subtle, and much deeper than “like” and “dislike.”

But then the mind itself is very tricky, and as soon as an idea or a perception arrives, we begin comparing it to other things that we’ve known or experienced. We decide if we like it, don’t like it or are neutral. And as soon as we start doing that, we lose the actual flavor and taste of a unique, unrepeateable event. Every tree is different. If you have a category in your mind about “tree”, trunk, branches, leaves… You may even break it down into species. Monterey cypress, maple, Japanese maple. At a certain point, an efficiency takes over. We can “process” much more information if we regard it superficially and encyclopedically, but the cost of that efficiency is losing what is actually in front of you. If we are not careful, life becomes something like moving through a very complicated museum. Lots and lots of displays, lots of things to see, but at a certain point, it will become known, the novelties will no longer be fresh and new. We’ll struggle with boredom or depression, or being lying about what we see to make ourselves more interested in it.

That’s the double-edge--the gift and penalty of language. A word offers us efficiency. It offers us a simple way to communicate based on basic level of truths, but it has a cost. And the cost is first of all, our impulse to reify it, make it a tangible, known thing, an object. We do this with our idea of our “self.” We have a word for it. It must be referring to something. Hmmnh. Where is it? What does it look like? What color? What shape? Where’s it located? It actually doesn’t exist. It’s an awareness.

Of course have an ego, a sense of an individuated self. Which is convenient. We never want to lose that. Liberation does not mean destroying the ego. That’s a misunderstanding. The ego helps us brush our teeth and not walk in front of busses and things like that. But it should be something we can slip when we need to. It’s supposed to be a loyal assistant. It’s not supposed to be a guard or a warden.

When you really get down to it, Most spiritual practice involves training the mind and learning to drop below your personality, or step outside and alongside your personality, so that you are not filtering reality through your personality. What you like and what you don’t like. Because that is always going to be less than “all of it”. And “all of it” is indescribable. An early Zen monk, challenged by his teacher to express his wisdom, said, “If I open my mouth, I lie. If I do not speak, I’m a coward.” That’s why, at a certain point, we want to try and use language that “points” or indicates wisdom as best we can, humble before the fact that the actual truth is ineffable and inexpressible. We want direct experience.

This is where practice is required because the mind is tricky, and it seizes language, like nets, which bind us to the diminished perspectivers of words It generates delusions generates ideas, concepts, preferences. And we learned to perceive through language before we were old enough to discriminate. That every single person who spoke to us as an infant was describing reality by telling us what we were seeing. “Cute, puffy little cheeks.” “Oh, what a lovely baby”. “Oh, come to daddy, come to mommy. Here’s your toy.” We can’t see it any other way because we have nothing have nothing to compare to. Consequently, little by little by little we accept this description of reality, and then reach a point where we forget that it is a description.

The cost of that is that it takes us out of the fluid moment and the moment-by-moment expression of things and places us on a path where everything has been seen before in some way or another.

What most spiritual practice is about is learning to drop below or step aside from that temporarilyl. Learning how to step outside the ego. Learning to focus and train it (particularly in sesshins---extended periods of meditation) and sometimes it gives up for a little while. But even if it doesn’t, you are training yourself to stay in the present moment.

When you go to a psychiatrist, you go because you understand you can’t see the ground you’re standing on, right under your feet. You need somebody who is trained not to hurt you, who can help you see the ground under your feet. To see your invisible patterns, to point out to you, “Oh, you know, this has come up before. We’ve talked about this before. Does this seem familiar to you?” In this way we begin to learn our projections and mental habits because they’re being reviewed from outside. If we trust and appreciate the therapist we may, at some point ask ourselves, “What would Dr. Jones say about this?” This is the beginning of seeing this pattern objectively and if the therapy is successful, you’ll be able to introject (absorb) his wisdom as your own.

It turns out that all mammal brains, have a predictive function. If you’ve ever lived with dogs or cats or horses, you’ll know this. Like a friend of mine used to farm with mules, and he told me that if you ever cross a mule, he’ll never forget. He’ll just wait until he can bite you or kick you. If your dogs have had a bad experience – my dogs must have had a bad experience in cars. They do not like cars, And, it takes thousands of repetitions … it took me two years to relax one of my dogs who came from the pound. He had big rope burns. He had obviously not been treated well. It took two years of helping him build up new predictive functions. And the predictions are there to make things efficient. If you are moving quickly, you can’t afford to surrender totally to the beauty of a butterfly, and forget you are chopping sushi with a very sharp knife.

Very often people don’t have a clear idea of what they’re looking for. If they knew, they would be wise. In this not-knowing, it’s easy to get distracted by the gift wrapping of other cultures and traditions. There in lies the rub. Every spiritual practice is the result of a kind of friction transcendental understanding and the culture in which the teaching is being transmitted.

There’s a term in Buddhist practice called “upaya”, which means “skillful means”. Which means I can’t just come out and tell you that this doesn’t exist, or this is this way. I have to be able to tell you even something true in a way that you can hear it. I’ve seen and met lots and lots of teachers in my 47 years of Zen practice. Some were drunks. Some were serial sexual abusers. Some were sociopaths. Some were really admirable people. And if you think that you are really deficient in something, you may put up with qualities in a teacher that normally you wouldn’t put up with from someone else. But—and this should always be considered---your ideas of what you want could be deluded, or not your heart’s deepest desire. Let’s say, unending bliss is such a state. That would be like wishing that you could arrive at a plateau and that then change in your life would stop.

And here is one of the problems: to the degree that you think you are deficient, and not an individuated, unrepeatable experience generated by that which produced hummingbirds and leopards, you will give away your common sense. You will give away your intuitions, and, as we say, you will put “another head above your own”.

So, I’m not very attracted to the guru tradition. Perhaps it’s my American cultural residues. I’ll just come out and say this. It’s a prejudice of mine. But it’s not an unexamined prejudice. There’s a reason why certain teaching traditions demand absolute fealty to the teacher. You do what he or she says, without question. They are regarded as infallible because they are regarded as perfected and you know you’re not that way. But are they really? According to what criteria? Criteria that are important to you. But what about criteria that are not important to you? If you can step aside from the self at times, you’ll enter a vastness where every answer is available. You can check your personality against them. You can test yourself (or your teacher) for accuracy.

There’s a friction between the radical acceptance of Emptiness and the demands and vagaries of your personality that will actually help you see your personality more clearly, to catch the edges of the self more clearly.

But there can be a high price for that insight. There were a number of Asian teachers who arrived in America, and they responded to the forwardness of American women by thinking, “Oh, there’s this pretty woman who wants to sleep with me. I don’t see anything wrong with that.” And, in an absolute sense there’s nothing wrong with it and in their culture there may be nothing wrong with that. Consenting adults. But they didn’t understand the projections of girls imagining them as perfected beings and wanting to be intimate with it. They didn’t understand status-competition, whereby a girl who could claim her teacher as lover becomes first-among-equals. They didn’t understand the romantic way that many of their students perceived them.

And the students may have misunderstood the deep intimacy of zen with sexuality. The difficulty for the student is that, unless you are going to marry your teacher, that romance will eventually be over, and may generate such hurt feelings that the teaching may be over. A teacher worth his [or her] salt should understand sleeping with a student may imperil their learning. Or impair their ability to study the dharma. The teacher may be lonely, or overwhelmed by the new culture or the position he or she finds themselves in and the sexual intimacy is a temporary comfort. But if the teacher’s dedication is to the dharma and “saving all beings” they should not be thinking about themselves in the zendo.

I appreciate the zen tradition of “put no head above your own.” In our tradition, teachers are more like uncles and aunts, who have been out along the road before we were. They’ve been through many of the rigors of our training, and wrestled with many of the problems we may face. They are there to be available to you talk to you about it. They are there to help you. You are not their to help them. Be seized by their own delusions.

If it doesn’t make sense, consider the teacher-student relationship life a form. Forms are not supposed to have the authority to force us to follow their demands. I’ve said many times that forms – forms of sitting, forms of being, bowing, maybe even uniforms –are there to help us.

The relationship between a student and a teacher is extremely intimate. One of the difficulties that I have become sensitized to in American Zen, is that along with our reverence and respect for Japanese culture and the extraordinarily high sense-level at which they operate, along with that invisibly arrives some very determinative hierarchy and autocratic values. The teachers is granted absolute authority and allowed to be the standard for everything, but that overlooks the fact that most people are “unevenly developed.” They have some very evolved characteristic and some which have never been polished. There may be many things the student can offer the teacher, so both have to be open, and as delicate as seismographs with one another.

I think you have a right to expect a couple of things from a teacher. I think you have a right to expect kindness. That he or she is going to see you as an absolute expression of the universe. As worthy of respect as a zen master. As worthy of respect as a hummingbird or a dolphin or a leopard. That’s the least.
That he or she may be strict with you-- may insist on certain forms because they are trying to help you. resist laziness, bad habits. But deep down, your intuitions should be telling you, and your observations should be telling you, if the teacher’s demands are selfless or tainted with ego or authority. If they are for your good. If you get a sniff that they aren’t, you should, first of all, talk discuss it. If your teacher is not willing to take feedback, and is not willing to accept how you feel, and is unable to give you information that is useful to you – that’s a violation of the compact between student and teacher, and you should reexamine your commitment.

It doesn’t help you or the teacher to say, “Oh, I must be such an idiot. He or she is obviously enlightened, and I don’t know anything!” That’s just not true. Your awareness is no different than your teacher’s awareness. You may not have trained your mind to the degree that he or she has. You may not have vanquished bad habits to the degree that he or she has. But your base level awareness, is a given. It’s universal.l Plants and trees can transmit the dharma. So can you. But, you must be careful that you are not just being stubborn or sticking to your “own way.”

The best teachers, in a funny way, are your friends. If your friends are also practicing, if there’s a commitment that we’re working on ourselves together-- this is what we call a “sangha”, a group of in this case, following the Buddha’s teachings. Does it have to be the Buddha? No, but if you want to get beyond your small mind, it has to be something bigger than you are.

Again, there’s a danger. People serve the United States in the military, and very often are called upon to do things that they can’t live with after that service is over. They had to put their instincts and their humanity aside to follow orders. So, you have to be careful. You have to really stay checked in. Because it is easy to get off the mark. Especially when you identify with something that is bigger than you are, and everybody is saying, “This is way it is.” It’s what makes politics so difficult.

It occurred to me once … I used to live in England, and the English actually really appreciate eccentrics. It’s a culture which is full of eccentric people. They’ll spend 25 minutes buying a penny candy in a store. “Oh, it’s lovely. Would you like a violet?” “No, I think I’d like the lavender please. Let’s try it.” “Take one darling.” And they go on and on. It’s an island. They have learned to get along. They’ve learned that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Under that pressure, they have very, very refined perceptions. It’s difficult in many cases for Americans.

My son’s godmother came to America to visit once and she said, “My lord. I was in an elevator this morning and someone said, ‘How are you doing?’ I had no idea what to answer.” A very shrewd woman friend, an American, who married that woman’s widowed husband and went to liv e in England, pointed out to. Me that ‘pretending not to understand Americanisms’ is actually a high-status British play. I didn’t see it that way, but I understood exactly what she was describing when she said that. Different cultures.

As Americans, we have our own culture, our own gregariousness. We have our own way of doing things. It’s good to examine them. It’s good to look them from many angles and to decide what of it was want to keep, and what we want to let fall away.

And to do that, we need a teacher Someone we respect and trust.. It could be a spiritual teacher. It could be a sewing teacher. It could be a cooking teacher It could be an aunt or uncle, but it should be someone that you believe is doing their best to help you grow. If you doubt that,changing will be difficult.

What that relationship between you and the teacher is-- at the end of the day-- is intimacy. What you are really learning is the teacher’s mind. No matter the subject. You don’t have to sleep with them. The mind is. Ungraspable. They don’t necessarily have to be sober. They don’t necessarily have to be exemplars. Trungpa was a notorious drunk.

Many, zen teachers have been drunks. Leonard Cohen’s teacher was a thief expelled from Japan, but that doesn’t mean he cant teach the dharma. Personally, I would have difficulty following someone who violated the Buddhist precepts, so it means that we have to be alert. And it does mean that you have to decide where you draw the line, because if you don’t, the teacher will draw the line. And they may draw the line to their own benefit.

My deepest problem was clarifying “What is it was I thought I didn’t know or possess?”

I can’t think of a better technology for determining that than zazen. I spent a sesshin once, before a kind of real deepening of my practice working on this question, “What is it?” I made a little mnemonic. “What is it?” and “What is it?” stood for “What is it that I want to change?” “What is it that I’m unhappy with?” “What is it that I’m looking for?”

And I just reduced my time and examination it to that fine pencil point until it took me over and obliterated the distinction between myself and my problem..I worked on it until I became so intimate with it that it ate me and I. disappeared. It was disturbing. My first thought was, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” I seen through even Buddhism and understood that it was empty and ungraspable. Back to square one..

There are practices in every religion which help us do that. Which helps us either exhaust the ego or it relaxes. Or perhaps we get focused enough and fine enough that we can see through and drop below it. When you sit for a long period of time and the mind slows down on its own. Your breathing slows down. You’ll know when you are below your personality. When you are, then you are in Big Mind.

There’s nothing, really, that you don’t know. There’s nothing you can’t find. All the answers to everything are there. Most of the time when we are asking a teacher, we are asking before we’ve done much work at getting truly intimate with the problem itself..

I don’t think meditation solves everything. I think there are problems where we need therapy. You shouldn’t hesitate to do that. But, really, you help yourself. And the teacher is supposed to help you help yourself. If they are not, and if you get the sniff that they are serving themselves in some way, and … I have to be careful about the stories I tell, but I’ve seen disastrous things disguised as practice. I mean, things that resulted in suicides. Things that resulted in shattered communities. Things that involve ruined lives.

A teacher can know a great deal about what you want to learn and still be a sociopath. Unless you can see through that, unless you can say, “I’m not going to apologize or rationalize their behavior,” you are in trouble. You should be with another teacher.

What I started to say earlier was that perhaps the most important teacher is the sangha, a community of people who have made a common dedication to study, so that when they tell you something, or they say something to you, it’s based on deep intimacy. You with them. Them with you. You know them well enough to know, “Well, he may have an axe to grind.” “She may not have forgiven me for this.”

But sustained practice together allows you to go through all those little curlicues of the mind and get intimate with them. The more you are intimate with them, and the more you recognize them, the easier it is to let them go. It’s like stories of your childhood. You know, at a certain point, they just get boring. “Oh, god, what dad did.” Yep, he did. Okay. You are 70 now, get over it. Time to change.

That’s all I’m going to say about teachers.

Someone asked me a question about time this morning. I got a FB comment here about someone’s obsession with time, and how to deal with time.

It’s helpful, first of all, to recognize that time is a kind of human invention. Time outside of planetary motions, you know, equinoxes and solstices, the cycles of the seasons—early man watched and catalogues these grand-scale patterns.. But the idea of breaking a day up into minutes and seconds and now milliseconds, that’s pretty new.

One way to deal with time, is to be quite formal with it, to accept it’s power and organize it to your owen devices. In other words, in this culture we all have demands of time. So, the more disciplined we can get about it, the more we can use time to refine the way we behave, and make ourselves more efficient, that’s one way of getting really free of it.

I know I have made a committment to be here on Facebook at 9:45 am. When I arrive and when  my picture is frozen, anxiety arises, embarrassment, because I know there are people starting to tune in, and there’s just a frozen picture of Peter Coyote, who can’t even make this website that kids are using fluidly, behave.. They’re not going to know if I’m not going to make it. Are they going to stick around, and am I blowing it because ….

That’s all mental popcorn. It doesn’t help me or them. The thoughts are one thing. My reaction is another. I don’t have to get uptight. I don’t have to imagine that everyone will think I’m an idiot. I can just be a fool in front of everyone until I get it solved. Then I don’t have to pretend to be special.

I get up early, at a certain time. I sit at a certain time, and I try to keep a schedule. As a matter of fact, I’m so bad at it that my assistant only deals with my schedule. She handles my calendar for me because I forget to write down commitments, I double book…..and I know I do this. So I protect others from this weakness by having an assistant cover me. After I’ve created World Peace, I’ll work on that.

Bob Dylan said, “Time is a jet plane. It moves too fast.” Well, it moves too fast when you are doing something that you like. Moves too slowly when you are in prison, or when you are doing something you don’t like.

The first thing we can notice is how subjective time is. When does time feel like it is racing by? When does time feel like it is slow? That will tell you something about the self that is observing and keeping track of it.
In a zen monastery, the schedule is very strict. You don’t need a watch. Everything is done with bells and chimes. But it forces you to get organized. If you don’t get to the zendo in time, you are going to stand out in the hall during zazen, so as not to disturb people by coming in late. It means you get up a little earlier. You wash. You get ready. You get prepared. You leave yourself time for a cup of tea or coffee and you learn to leave enough time to do it at a leisurely pace. You can nap later in the morning if you need to. And the day moves like that. That’s just the way human endeavor is. So, one practice is to begin to ask yourself, “Why am I anxious about time?” The other is to experiment with what happens when you soften your attention.

I spent a number of months in Brazil and I had this friend there who was so relaxed about time. He would show up for dinner when he showed up completely relaxed and unhurried. His reality caused him to be fearful of being kidnapped. He would never tell you in advance when he would arrive or how he was arriving. But he always came in this leisurely, extremely relaxed fashion. And that was the way he handled time..

I thought that that is so different than our American fealty to time (often enforced on us by being employess). If you have a job from 9 to 5, You have to get up early to wash and eat, you have to allow for travel and with travel at the other end, most people are dedicating nearly twelve hours of their day. So, if it’s something we don’t enjoy, we are watching the clock, we are thinking about time all the time in a fretful way, conscious always of what we are not being able to do..

Q1: Don’t we live in our past experience, so we have to learn to let go of the past and live in the moment?

A: Zazen is the practice of living in the moment. Following your breath as it comes out through your nostrils, there’s no more “in the moment” that you can be.

We only live in the past when we allow our mind to get hooked by it. What’s the past? It’s a memory. It’s a mental event. If we haven’t developed a practice of putting our attention on posture, breathing, a mudra, we are just blown around, like leaves in the wind. Because when things come up that engage us, they just jerk our mind away.

So, zazen is training the mind. Meditation is training the mind to stay in the present. It’s like housebreaking a puppy. It takes work.

But the work is not so much diligence as constancy. Just doing it over and over and over. Your mind wanders bring it back. Your mind wanders bring it back. Getting angry with yourself is extra.

So, no, we don’t live in the past. We think about the past. Everything arises. As Suzuki-roshi said to let your thoughts come and go. You don’t have to invite them to tea.

Q2: This is so true, especially male teachers from another culture who use confusion of power and sex.

A: Yes, but men are not the only ones who use power charisma and sex. It may feel that way because our culture is patriarchal, but many brilliant women have learned how to work the puppet strings of that consciousness to their own advantage. It may not be actual sex, but people can be seductive, trying to control what of them we see, and what we don’t.. People can use their charisma. People can use their attractiveness. It’s something we have to be on guard for.

I think that’s enough for today. Thank you very. Much.