S: Roshi, there are different lineages in Buddhism, such as Theravadin or Tibetan. Could you compare and contrast the teacher-student relationship? Are they pretty much the same or do they have significant differences?

D: Those lineages are quite different from Zen. Theravadin, Tibetan, Tendai, Pure Land, they have very different styles. In some of the Tibetan schools, the role of the teacher is that of a guru, which is very different than a Zen teacher. They function differently. They teach quite differently. So there are those differences, from school to school. Then even within Zen there are many different lineages. In America, some of those lineages, even though they’re authentic, are quite different because of how they evolved.

One thing that’s happened is that the dharma has become New Age. Many teachers, for whatever reason, have gone off to get degrees in psychotherapy, and they join that with their Buddhist training. We don’t do psychotherapy here. We screen people to make sure they’re not coming here looking for psychotherapy. It doesn’t mean that the training doesn’t help them in terms of their mental health, but we’re primarily religious. What we do is deal with the questions of life and death, the nature of the universe. Who am I? What is truth? What is reality? What is the self? Quite different than, how do I get along with my spouse? Or I hate my job. Or I’m feeling miserable every day, how can I feel good? Psychotherapy is quite different than religious training, and yet a lot of lineages have gone in that direction. So each lineage is different, and that’s for the ones that have lineages. Many teachers do not even have lineages. So there are a lot of differences. It’s typical American diversity. There’s a little bit of everything, and very little of the original teaching that’s kept intact, except within a handful of training centers in America.

S: It’s come up in conversation with other residents the differences in teaching styles between Shugen Sensei and Ryushin Osho and how some people click personality-wise with one over the other. That can translate into actually preferring the teachings of one over the other. How much should that feeling of clicking with somebody play a part in our choice or in our interactions with the teacher?

D: Picking and choosing is never a good idea. It’s much better to accept what you get. When there is a choice, it may be that the one to whom you’re not attracted is demanding too much from you, and you don’t want to go there. So look at it that way. Sometimes it might be better to go to the one that you wouldn’t choose.

S: The influx of Asian immigrants into this country has brought a flowering of their historical relationship to Buddhist religion. There are many small groups of monastics now forming all over the country. It could be Laotian or Cambodian or Malaysian. I just wonder what that is going to do, if we integrate more as a society.

D: That’s cultural Buddhism. It’s no different than it is in Cambodia. The lay people that go to these temples are doing what they’ve been doing for centuries. The intent is for the lay people to serve the monastics and to gain merit through this service. It’s not the same as what we do here. Lay students come to practice, without becoming monastics. They want to realize themselves.

S: Roshi, could you talk more about the difference between a guru and a Zen teacher?

D: You make a commitment to a guru, and the guru tells you what to do. You’re willing to do it because there’s complete devotion to the guru, and you recognize the guru’s infallibility. That’s the way they often teach, by telling you what to do. It’s a very powerful way of teaching. In Zen, the teacher doesn’t tell you what to do. The teacher may encourage, may point, but it’s all about skillful means—to open up ways of discovery for the student. This is quite different from following the instructions of a guru. There isn’t that kind of awe and dedication between a student and a Zen teacher as there is between a disciple and a guru.

There are different phases that a student passes through in relation to a Zen teacher. The first stage is very much like a child with a parent. The teacher is very directive. “This is the way you sit. This is the way you hold your hands. This is the way you breathe.” It’s to get the student started. That quickly dissolves into a relationship in which the teacher is more of a spiritual guide, pointing the way. The teacher becomes a spiritual mentor. Then that dissolves into spiritual equals. The teacher disappears. Finally the teacher and student exchange positions—the teacher becomes the student, the student becomes the teacher. That’s when the transmission takes place. Those four phases may take twenty years to pass through.

What we call a teacher in Buddhism has no equivalent in this language, simply because the Zen teacher has nothing to teach. We start from that premise—I have nothing to give you, you have nothing to receive. Yet I’m a teacher and you’re a student. Thank you


John Daido Loori is known for his unique adaptation of traditional Buddhism into an American context, particularly with regard to the arts and the environment, and the use of modern media as a vehicle of spiritual training and social change. He is the author of True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans and The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life, among others.

From a mondo given by John Daido Loori Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery on November 6, 2008.