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 a computer teacher’s personality or their ethics. You simply need to know something, and if you are studying cooking or studying music, we tend to think of these subjects differently than what a spiritual teacher offers. 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 as a practitioner. Here are some examples: 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. Some people have already judged themselves as wanting/needing some wisdom. How will we’ll know what it looks like when we see it? Maybe we will or 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 the vegetables and herbs were raised. 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. The sky 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 connections 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 about it. And as soon as we start doing that, we lose the actual flavor and taste of a unique, unrepeatable event. Every tree is different. If you have a category in your mind about “tree”, trunk, branches, leaves, you may always be observing a tree you’ve “seen” before. You may even break “tree” 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 to lose what is actually in front of you. If we are not careful, our 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 lying to ourselves about what we see, in order to make ourselves be more interested.

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, we 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 off 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 their teacher to express their 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, with humility before the fact that the actual truth is ineffable and inexpressible. We want direct experience instead.

This is where practice is required. Because the mind is tricky and it seizes language, just as nets bind us, it binds us to the diminished perspectives of words, and it generates delusions generates ideas, concepts, preferences. 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 ego-attachment, even temporarily. Learning how to step outside the ego. Learning to focus and train it (particularly in sesshins---extended periods of meditation) and sometimes the ego 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) their wisdom as your own.

It turns out that all mammalian 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 who 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 when they begin spiritual practice. If they knew, they would already be wise. In this not-knowing, it’s easy to get distracted by the gift wrapping of other cultures and traditions. Therein lies the rub. Every spiritual practice is the result of a kind of friction rubbing between 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 you are confused or that your problem doesn’t exist in the way you believe it does., I have to be able to tell you something that’s true and also 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 believe that you are truly deficient in something, “less-than” someone else, you may put up with qualities in a teacher that you wouldn’t accept from someone else.

 But—and this should always be considered---your ideas of what you want also might be deluded and not reflect your heart’s deepest desire. Most people come to Buddhism because of some intractable problem. It requires some incentive to subject yourself to discipline and restraint. Fine. However, people may also arrive at practice with idea about what they want or need that may be unsupportable, or contrary to the way the Universe works.

Let’s say you believe that Enlightenment will deliver you a daily experience of bliss and satisfaction. Well, as long as you hold on to an idea of a “you” that is somehow detached and separate from the rest of the Universe, this is an unrealistic expectation. If you’re too fixed on it, you may overlook any number of awakenings that don’t arrived suited in the clothing you expect. So it might be wiser, before initiating a shopping list, to do a thorough inventory, an intimate inventory of what your likfe feels like in this moment. There may be much you wish to keep, especially if you are not critiquing it against an imagined ideal.

And here is one of the problems: to the degree that you believe you are deficient  in some critical ingredient, and not the universe itself, 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 drawn 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 is a reason why certain teaching traditions demand absolute fealty to the teacher. You do what he or she says, without question, because you regard them as perfected and infallible and because 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 a disconnect between your perceptions of yourself and your perceptions of your teacher. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of mostly male Asian teachers arrived in America to take some advantage of the inchoate spirituality that American youth were always adressing. In many cases, teachers responded to what they perceived as the sexual forwardness of American women from the premises of their own culture, thinking, “Oh, this woman who wants to sleep with me. I don’t see anything wrong with that.” And, in an absolute sense there’ is nothing wrong with it. In their culture, there may be nothing wrong with consenting adults having a relationship. Under any terms.. But if they didn’t understand the unrealistic projections of female practitioners imagining these male teachers as perfected beings and wanting to be intimate with that, then they could not conceive of the damage they were doing to those students.  The Asian teachers may not have completely understood how status-competition among women can affect their decisions. They might not be completely honest with their own desire to be respected (or adored) by attractive young woman. It cuts both ways. A young woman could claim her teacher as her lover she becomes elevated to first-among-equals with others in that community. At the very least these teachers didn’t understand the romantic implications of the ways in which many of their students perceived them.

And the student may have confused the deep intimacy of zen with sexual intimacy. The difficulty for the student is, the romance will eventually be over, and that loss may generate such hurt feelings that the teaching and  the circumstances to foster practice for that student may be ended.

A teacher worth their salt should understand sleeping with a student might imperil and certainly will confuse the student’s learning and impair their ability to study the Dharma. The teacher may be lonely or overwhelmed by the new culture or the position they find themselves in, and sexual intimacy may be a temporary comfort for them, or a way to deepen their understanding of the American culture,but if the teacher’s dedication is to the sangha and vows of “saving all beings” they should not be thinking about their own comfort, but those of the sangha.

I prefer 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 when we need counsel. They are there to help us. We are not here to help them, or worse, we are not here to be seized by the teacher’s own delusions.

Consider the teacher-student relationship as a form. I’ve said many times that forms – forms of sitting, forms of being, bowing, maybe even uniforms – are here to help us. Mere forms are not imbued with the authority to force us to follow their demands. Forms are not “rules but are formulated to help us.

The relationship between a student and a teacher is extremely intimate. One of the difficulties that I have become aware of in  American Zen practice is the way in which, along with our reverence and respect for Japanese culture and its high sensitivity level, which is often very impressive to those unfamiliar with it, but  along with that, also arrives some very determinative hierarchies and autocratic values. Within a system where the teacher is granted nearly absolute authority and is allowed to be the standard for everything, overlooks the fact that most people are “unevenly developed.” They have some very evolved characteristics 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 the respect you offer them. As worthy of respect as a hummingbird or a dolphin or a leopard. That’s below bottom line.

That he or she may be strict with you—they 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, whether the teacher’s demands are selfless or tainted by personal predilections or need for authority. If they are for your good. If you get a sniff that they aren’t, you should, first of all, talk and discuss it. If your teacher is not willing to take feedback, and is not willing to accept how you feel, or 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 either 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 completely equal to your teacher’s. It’s universal. Plants and trees can transmit the dharma. As can you. However, check in with yourself. You must be careful to admit that you are not just being stubborn or sticking to your “own way.”

The best teachers, in a funny way, are in your circle of friends. If your friends are also practicing, if there’s a commitment that we’re working on ourselves and living that way together-- this is what we call a “sangha” -- as a group of fellow practitioners, who in our case are 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. For an example, there are those people who serve in the military of the United States who may have been called upon to do things that they discover they can’t live with, once 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

We have our own American culture, our own gregariousness. We have our own way of doing things. It’s good to examine what that is. It’s good to look at our cultural assumptions from many angles and decide what we want to keep and what we want to let fall away and what we want to borrow from other cultures. Suzuki-roshi taught us Zen the way he was taught. For many, myself included, many of those Japanese forms seem precisely appropriate. It is also true that they may well appear foreign to others who did not study in the Suzuki-roshi tradition. This is why I think out practice can bear careful scrutiny to determine precisely what is the gift and what is the gift-wrapping.. What is universal to Buddhism and what is not.

And to do that, we need a teacher, and a sangha, a community  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, our deep transformation will be difficult.

What that relationship between you and your teacher is-- at the end of the day-- is intimacy. What you are really learning, absorbing, and assimilating is the teacher’s mind. No matter the subject. You don’t have to sleep with them. You might not even like 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 alcoholics or had other personal problems. Leonard Cohen’s teacher was  expelled from Japan as a thief, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t teach the dharma. It means that he is unevenly developed and that we need to be on guard against the effects of his unpolished dimensions. Personally, I would have difficulty following someone who violated the Buddhist precepts, so it means that we have to be always alert, checking what the teacher suggests against our own intuitions and feelings.. And it  means 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.The deepest implications of Emptiness are that there is nothing for you to rely on. Please remember that.

In a sesshin once, I reduced my deepest problem to clarifying this meme: “What is it?” It stood for What was it I thought I didn’t know or needed to  possess?” I can’t think of a better technology for esamining such a question than zazen. During that sesshin I just my time and concentration toa fine one- pointed search, 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 had 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 help us either exhaust the ego or relax its grip. Or perhaps we get focused enough and fine enough that we can see through it as an expression of mind itself, like thoughts, 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, residing in the formlessness of big mind. Most of the time when we are asking a question of a teacher, we are asking before we’ve done enough 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’ve seen disastrous things disguised as “practice.” Things that resulted in suicides. Things that resulted in shattered communities. Things that involved 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, your community of fellows who have made a common committment to Buddhist thought and practice. So, 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, she may have an axe to grind.” “He may not have forgiven me for this,”you should feel safe in expressing that and working it out.

Sustained practice together allows you to untangle all those little curlicues and snares of mind. The more you become intimate with them,(which begins with owning them) and the more you recognize them, the easier it is to let them go. It’s like stories of your childhood. 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.

I received a Facebook comment this morning about someone’s obsession with time, and asking how to deal with time.

It’s helpful, first of all, to recognize that our colloquial understanding of time is a human invention. Time outside of planetary motions, you know, equinoxes and solstices, the cycles of the seasons—doesn’t exist. 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 its power and organize it to your own devices. We all face demands of time just to interact with others. So, the more disciplined we can get about it, the more we can use time to discipline our own behavior, and make ourselves more efficient. That’s one way of getting free of time. When we sit za-zen time disappears. We have sequestered our attention into our posture, breathing and mudra, and it is, in part, this formality which frees us of our attachment to time.

I make a commitment to be here on Facebook at 9:45 am. When I arrive and when and 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 control his website that little kids can use fluidly. If I’m not careful, the anxiety will generate all sorts of mental chatter—"They’re not going to know if I’m not going to make it. Are they going to stick around? Will they worry about mer?”

Such thoughts are all mental popcorn. It doesn’t help me or others. The thoughts are one thing. My reaction to them, my attachment and treating them as if they are tangible, is the problem. 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 I have an assistant who only deals with my schedule. She handles my calendar for me because I forget to write down commitments, I double book. Since I know I do this, I protect others from this insufficiency by having an assistant cover me.  I’ll work harder on this after I’ve created World Peace.

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 once working in Brazil. I had a good friend there who was so relaxed about time. He would show up for dinner when he showed up, untroubled,  completely relaxed and unhurried. His reality caused him to be always alert to the threat 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.

He was an extremely wealthy man and so could take great liberties with time. Our American fealty to time  is often enforced on us by being employees. 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. For most people, and eight-hour work day involves nearly twelve hours of their time. 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 is hidden. 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.