S: How important is it to actually see your teacher as a buddha? This came up in the sutra as well, to not look at the teacher’s conduct but to look at the purity of his or her realization and to simply trust that.
D: Well that’s where I disagree with Sheng-yen. You can look at the teacher as a buddha, just as the teacher should be looking at the student as a buddha. Buddha means enlightened one, awakened one. That includes all beings. Every student and every teacher is a buddha and should be regarded and treated as such. So there’s nothing unusual about that statement.
Turning your back on a teacher’s misdeeds, I don’t buy it. I think that’s religious horseshit, to be quite frank about it. My own teacher did things that weren’t right. He violated the precepts. The sangha confronted him, and he responded. He atoned for it. He took care of it. And then he came back to teaching, even though half of his students walked out on him as a result of it. All I can ask from a teacher is that he does what he says. Then I follow him. If there’s a misdeed, what do we do for a misdeed? We atone for it. We take responsibility for it. We transform it. My teacher did that. That’s why I forgave him. That’s why I continued with him. Otherwise I would have walked away.
S: I wonder if students actually have a responsibility to confront their teacher on any misconduct, that on some level the students create the teacher.
D: Exactly, the student creates the teacher! Maybe sometimes people don’t want to rock the boat, and so they don’t do anything.
S: I wanted to ask you about what happens in the casual interactions between a teacher and student. One thing that’s come up for me is that when Ryushin or Shugen or you ask me to do something, I’m less reluctant to do it. I’m not going to say no. It’s not a battle, it’s “Of course.” But if someone else asks me to do the same thing, I’m exponentially more likely to not feel like doing it, and I’ll come up with reasons why I don’t have to do it. You said that at a certain stage in your practice, you begin to treat everyone that way, and to treat all situations that way. But with the teacher, you’re more likely to say “yes.”
D: And with the sangha you’re more likely to sit and not miss a period of zazen. You’re more likely to be diligent. And if four people get up and start washing the tables, you’re not going to just sit there and watch them. You’ll get up and do it too. That’s all part of what happens in a training environment.
S: Daidoshi, I recently read an excerpt from In the Words of the Buddha where the Buddha talked about how to recognize a teacher, specifically himself, the Tathagata—someone who is completely enlightened. There was no disparity between the teacher’s adherence to the precepts and his clarity of teaching, as described in the sutra. According to the Buddha, a true teacher should display no misconduct. Is there anyone today who is fully enlightened? Or do teachers, like everyone else, continue to struggle with their karma?
D: The problem is that people don’t understand what enlightenment is. People see it as something other than who they are. They’re looking for some kind of perfection that’s almost dehumanized. The Buddha was very much a real person, a living person. Sometimes he did things that were not very enlightened, like not initially ordaining women. The perfection is to be found in the ability to keep working at it, and keep correcting yourself when you go astray. It’s just like the precepts. Keep returning to what it means to be human.
We have human qualities that are amazing. We have such things as integrity, and persistence, and dedication, and honor and love. These are all human qualities that can be cultivated through practice. There are also things like anger and delusion, separation and so on. These are also human qualities. Practice is about learning how to discern them. It doesn’t mean that an enlightened person never gets angry. What happens is that over a period of time anger becomes less self-centered. It’s more like the anger of a mother who has just yanked her child off a busy road. That kind of anger is for the benefit of the child. That’s why they say the other side of anger is wisdom.
S: In speaking about karma, the Buddha said, “I have seen all there is to see. I have done all there is to do.” That sounds different than what you’re describing. Not that he wasn’t human but that he seems to have surpassed something that most people have not.
D: One of the things we need to understand is that Buddhism, like every other religion, is steeped in folklore. For four hundred years, these teachings were transmitted orally and elaborated upon over the years. The teachings didn’t stabilize until they were written down.
The only thing that I trust is my own experience. Is there a buddha? Yes. I know it. I know it because I experience it. I go by my experience. I trust my experience. I trust my practice. It’s not necessarily what I read in books. If I do read it in books, I can appreciate why they say it the way they say it. I didn’t begin to appreciate Catholicism until I became a Buddhist monk and I began to read the Catholic literature in a very different way. I began to appreciate it and see its value.
S: What do you think are the most important qualities of a student?
D: It’s most important to trust yourself. Teachers are not going to give you anything, because they don’t have anything to give you. It’s all a process of discovery. What the teacher is going to do is use skillful means to help you to discover what you already have. The teacher could tell you, but it wouldn’t be yours and it wouldn’t transform your consciousness. It’s for you to discover.
It’s like the story of the ugly duckling. That’s a perfect example of how the dharma works. There was this bird that was born into a flocks of ducks, and he was extremely ugly—so ugly he was barely tolerated by the mother duck. He was misshapen, he made funny noises that didn’t sound like a quack and he couldn’t waddle like the others. He looked big and clumsy, so he was constantly being teased and laughed at by the other ducklings. The more he tried to be like them, the funnier he looked, the more they laughed at him, and the more despondent and disillusioned he became. One day, while he was drinking from a pond, he saw another reflection that looked just like him. He looked up and saw another ugly ducking, and another and another. At that moment in time he realized that he wasn’t a duck at all. He was a swan. At that moment of realization he became perfect and complete, lacking nothing. There was nothing he needed to learn to do. There was nothing he needed to imitate. He was already perfect. He already knew how to be a swan. He was born with a swan nature. That’s what realization is—the discovery of what’s already there. It’s the discovery that you are a buddha, perfect and complete, lacking nothing. When you realize it, you are transformed.