Why I Practice with no Teacher…

Its so lonely at the top of Olympus!

Running across two posts today, the topic of the Sangha and Practice came up. One post gave a very traditional view of the Sangha and the other (Zen w/o Jargon Pt. 3) gave a more modern but still traditional view of the Sangha and lay-practice. The Sangha was defined by the Buddha as a means …

To provide for those who wish to practise the Dhamma full time, in a direct and highly disciplined way, free from the restrictions and responsibilities of the household life. The Sangha also fulfils the function of preserving the Buddha’s original teachings and of providing spiritual support for the Buddhist lay-community.

I can get behind this. The Sangha operates as an extreme, rigid form of practice. Some prefer it and some don’t. But it should never be the definition of practice by any form. It does serve a purpose and an important one but one that was never relevant in the West because the Sangha is still taking root here and slowly growing. It is strong on the coasts and in some larger cities but the majority of the country is without it. For better or for worse.
For others those “restrictions and responsibilities of household life” are exactly the things we spend most of the day doing so why should we incorporate our practice into them so that our life and work is our Sangha. Our restrictions and responsibilities no longer hamper us but provide a venue for understanding.
Sanghas also occasionally monopolize the Dharma. They are taught in a tradition and attempt to provide instruction but tend to at the expense of other teachings. Individuals also do this but not in such a defined manner.
It is not my intention to say that the Sangha is obsolete in the West, it is just not ingrained into the West. Most traditional Buddhist practice with a Sangha culturally tied to them. We do not have that opportunity…

My personal experience is that, there “Are” teachers of Zen and I’m thankful for that. In fact while some avoid sitting with a Sangha and authentic teacher, I love the fact that I have both available to me. Zen Buddhism is a “Team,” practice and by working together it accelerates the likelihood that we can stop deluding and tricking ourselves. Having a teacher does not indicate that I am somehow an incompetent human being.

I think the prime words are “available to me”. We have different levels of availability. Were I to move to LA or San Fransisco, I would have a much deeper well of knowledge to pull from since there is a strong (by western standards) Buddhist tradition there.
But I live in the Great Plains. In my town we are lucky enough to have three small Buddhists groups, each loosely affiliating themselves to one of the Three Vehicles. For a Midwestern town this is practically a smorgasbord. We are a sangha of learning, struggling and eager Buddhists. Some have taken precepts and an organization role to help us gather as a group and learn from each other.
I prefer this situation to that of a large Zendo or temple. It affords me the freedom to practice from each of the vehicles as I see fit and study Buddhism without the constraints of a hierarchy or institutional dogma (notice I do not state religious dogma).

“Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, alms food, lodgings, and medicine. And you, monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making an end to suffering.”

While sometimes I do wish to be involved with a larger group or a more experienced teacher, I do enjoy the realization that my teachers have been eclectic and diverse even when they don’t wear saffron or black. I read the Buddhist scriptures and struggle over the meanings; I sit and struggle over the pain and the concentration, I drink with other lay-practitioners that struggle over the same things. I think my sangha is just fine the way it is.
and when all else fails, I check wikipedia…;p

6 thoughts on “Why I Practice with no Teacher…

  1. Jack… Very nice post. My experience says that each person find their way, when we put our Mind to it. In the end the most important this is Just practicing, as You have said.

    In Gassho,

    // Seiho

  2. Indeed. Thanks for reading. I should probably retitle this one as "Why I Practice W/O a Teacher…for now". I expect that a teacher will cross my path again that I will follow…for a bit.



  3. Yes, it is your life!
    Without a teacher, everything is your teacher.
    And you're part of my sangha now; thanks!

    ~~ Ellen (lucky to be in Northern California with Zen groups plentiful like wine grapes)

  4. @Ellen Etc:

    Both Zen teachers and wineries should go hand in hand. I think this experience of "No Teacher" has led me to look towards unconventional sources for dharma. But whenever I am back in an area with a larger buddhist population, I will seek out someone. I am somewhat leaning towards a Jodo Shinshu temple.

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