S: My question is, I have a teacher in the Netherlands, and yet I come here, I live here, I hope to stay longer. How does that interact? Sometimes I feel I’ve given my commitment in the Netherlands, and I commit here as well. Is that possible? How does it work? The sutra talks about the importance of staying with one teacher, and not hopping around.
D: Well it’s possible to have two teachers, even when they’re from two different traditions. Ultimately most of the great religions are pointing in the same direction. Their reason for existence is the alleviation of suffering. The sutra is referring to people that keep going from place to place, like grocery shopping or something. Particularly in this day and age, people tend to shop around and never settle down. What happens when they do that is that they don’t give the particular discipline the opportunity to take them as deep as it’s designed to do. So they end up getting the superficialities of each of these different teachings, rather than the depth of any one of them.
Knowing when you’ve found your teacher is an intuitive thing. That’s the only way you can know it. It’s like asking the question, “How will I know when I’m in love?” How do you explain that to somebody? You can’t. It’s a feeling. It’s a state of being, of consciousness. It’s the same thing with a teacher. Is this the right teacher? You know it. You know it intuitively. You know it with your whole body and mind. And then once you know that, you commit to it and you trust it. Give it a chance to do what it’s designed to do.
S: What’s your vision of the lay practitioner’s relationship to a teacher, specifically as a New York City practitioner who goes to Fire Lotus Temple? I’ve heard you say that for zazen, you recommend a minimum of two hours a day. Then I also know how much you value the casual encounters with the teacher as a way of learning. When you set up this system of training, did you envision what the sufficient amount of contact is? For example, I can make it to the Temple twice a week, along with one or two sesshins a year here at the Monastery.
D: I think what you’ve described is good. Comparing a practitioner who is a monastic who lives here all the time and does this every day, and a lay practitioner who has a life, a family, a job and other commitments, and who does this as much as they can, reminds me of the difference between being in the Navy and being in the Reserve. I found that the reservists who had been doing it for four or five years were pretty much as valuable as the regular Navy guys who had been there for one or two years.
So to me Zen training is kind of the same thing. It’s not as fast outside the Monastery. In a year of residential training, changes are going to happen really fast. But if you do five years of the training like you’re doing, they’re also going to happen, just not as dramatically. Don’t forget, there are a lot of things you didn’t mention that go on, with the access to so much of what we do on the web—ango, talks, Mountain Record, all the auxiliary things that we make available specifically for home practice.
S: How does the teacher-student relationship change when you become a monastic?
D: It’s a pretty big change when you become a monastic. The first thing that happens is that, technically, when you become a home-leaver you give up your last name, your family name. The thrust of your life becomes a life of service. You are no longer the manager of your life, you now respond to the needs of others. So you have to abandon self-serving activities. It becomes a religious life. As a lay practitioner, the main thrust of your life may be your occupation, you may be a parent but for a monastic, it’s the religious life. The religious life has many dimensions to it. The most essential aspect of it is service to others—service to the teacher, service to the Buddha, the dharma, to others.
S: Is it a question of degree, that you have to trust the teacher more deeply as a monastic, because your whole life is contained within that relationship?
D: Zen teachers don’t generally push that. It may be so, but they don’t push it. One difference between my work with a monastic and with a lay practitioner is that with a monastic I have a more intimate relationship. I’ve known the monastics here so many years. How many years have I known Ryushin or Shugen? Ryushin knows more about me than I know about myself! Little idiosyncrasies and things like that. I’ve never had that kind of relationship with another human being for that length of time. The same with Shugen and Hojin and Jimon, these people who have been with me all these years. So in general it’s much easier to teach them because of the unsaid things that we intuitively know. Like it is with any group of people who have lived together for a long period of time. They get to know each other without having to say anything.
S: Is it an oversimplification to say that a human teacher is someone who is aware of how all things are teaching?
D: I couldn’t even say that. I have people who thank me for teachings that I had no idea I gave them.