The Worth and Worthlessness of Roshis

Wild Fox Zen produces some great posts but I loved this one. It spoke to me as a practitioner with a sangha (both online and “brick and mortar”), as a home-practitioner and as one seeking guidance. Of course by saying I loved it, I mean that I disagreed with it as much as I agreed with it.

It opens with a definition of “self-styled” Zen:

we ought to pick and choose practices that seem right to us and we ought to do practice in a way that we like and we don’t need to make a commitment to go deeply into any one tradition because teachers are bums and make mistakes and so it’s best to dig many shallow wells.

That is all well and good and true except for that last statement – “we don’t need to make a commitment”. Yes, we should mold and create our own practice. We should not be limited by what the ancients told us about their practice. We should not follow in their footsteps. It is a waste of time to mimic the masters. We need to forge our own practice and commit ourselves to it. We are the stick hits us to keep our attention. We, in the long run, are our own best teachers. All teachers make mistakes and are flawed. That does not mean that we don’t learn from them. Even in one zendo with one teacher their will be as many “ways” as students sitting.

In contradiction, and imHo, all the old ways teach that a precondition to really beginning to practice Buddhadharma is to recognize that “our way” is the way of suffering and the necessary (but insufficient) first step on the path for both home leavers and home dwellers is some form of renunciation, a dropping our self-styled ideas and taking up the way of freedom.

In other words, you gotta be sick of your self to begin practice.

I believe that one’s practice of Buddhism does not really start until the bottom of the pail falls out or you have some sort of epiphany. One can practice Buddhism before that event and it is a legitimate practice. However, from my own personal experience, one’s practice does not deepen until they hit the bottom and get to look up. I hate to think that this sounds very “born-again” but the reason for our practice is suffering and suffering will deepen it. When our suffering (whatever that suffering may be) reaches a point where we see the stark reality of it and we truly realize the 4 noble truths then our practice is deepened. Meditation or teachings or guidance may be an aid to deepening our practice but in the end it comes from us. You can’t fake this shit. It just happens.

Of course, in entering the kind of practice I’m talking about, a wise person investigates a teacher and tradition carefully for several years and if they jump in the ocean.

I think the choice of following a specific teacher or lineage is an important step in deepening one’s practice but it is not a step to be taken lightly. Too many rush to teachers with the thought that practice would be meaningless without one. With or without a teacher, the person that will be deepening your practice with be YOU and you alone.

I also don’t think that one teacher is all that you need. As your practice develops, evolves and matures I think that you will navigate yourself towards a teaching that is appropriate to your goals. A teacher is not a lifelong commitment – it is a pit stop in your life-long practice. I started with secular Buddhism and moved to Zen as I got older and my practice began to ripen. I expect that as it matures more it may lead me to a specific teacher and guide or to a completely different expression of the Dharma altogether.

One qualifier: especially for home-based practitioners, it isn’t so simple as doing exactly what you’re told, although that might be a good thing at the beginning. As a person develops practice legs, it is important that they walk on their own and to declare the truth with their own voice.

Yes! Finally someone who doesn’t equate home-practice with ease. Usually if you mention that you are a home-practitioner you are recieved as a neophyte – a person with only the barest understanding of the Dharma because you are not affilliated with a teacher. For whatever reason that a home-practitioner chooses that practice – it is unfair to assume that it is less than practice with a sangha or in a monastic setting.

A home practitioner usually has difficulty in determining how and when to practice so there is an unusually long period of “trail and error”. As you sculpt your practice with little or no guidance from a teacher, you discover what works and what doesn’t. A teacher may be able to blaze the same trail in a shorter period of time but the home-practitioner proudly wields a machete in clumbsy swings as they begin to hew themselves a path.

Sometimes that path leads to a zendo or meditation hall or temple and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way our shoes should be worn through and our machete sharp.



9 thoughts on “The Worth and Worthlessness of Roshis

  1. Good points. It feels like we're all students, and need to continue to be aware of our options & listen, and learn.

  2. Awesome post, my sentiments exactly!

    I get so tired of the degrading remarks by teachers against those whose only option sometimes is home practice. At the same time, I also understand those who are very cautious about settling into a place of practice, especially those places who have a charismatic leader. I've been reading several of Stuart Lachs' articles and it reminds me of my Christian days in the churches I use to attend. I think a more skillful approach is to continue to share good dharma, and to remain completely open and honest as teachers and leaders. Then when the issue of home practice comes up, it can be approached compassionately, instead of sweeping generalizations about those who practice at home.

  3. Hi,

    "However, from my own personal experience, one's practice does not deepen until they hit the bottom and get to look up. I hate to think that this sounds very "born-again" but the reason for our practice is suffering and suffering will deepen it."

    Nothing at all wrong with sounding born-again. Nothing at all wrong with being born-again. sn't that what we are in the business of doing? Again and again?

    Namu Amitabul,


  4. Thanks for this post. Love the metaphor of the botom of the pail. And you're right: home practice ain't easy, especially with a young daughter who wakes up early in the morning

  5. Thank you for this post, as it has inspired me to work on a post examining something that my teacher said to me, and that is lay practitioners really have a more difficult job in their practice than monks do, that in many respects, monks have it easy.

    But I am compelled to question something you wrote: "Meditation or teachings or guidance may be an aid to deepening our practice but in the end it comes from us."

    I agree wholeheartedly that in the end, the fruition of our practice is going to emerge from within us, but it is my understanding that meditation is much more important to this arising of wisdom than merely being an aid. In fact, is not meditation absolutely essential to the arising of insight and wisdom? It's not an aid, but an integral part to the practice. You can meditate and not be Buddhist, but you cannot be Buddhist without meditation.


  6. @ Just Dave – Thanks! I like imagery that infers hard work and a tempering of mind. The machete part was stolen from those who compare the mind with a sword. However, a sword is not the most utilitarian of bladed implements. A machete can be used for a great many things.

    @ moritheil – I don't know. I have not even had the opportunity to meet the Buddha on the road. Just an introduction shows progress. We are still very much disconnected from each other. Maybe one day me and my Buddha-Nature will sit down to a High Tea Happy Hour.

    @ Constance Casey – Yup! All walking the path and learning as we go. When we believe there is no more we can learn – that is when we left the path.

    @ Jamie G. – I love Lach's papers. We tend to almost deify Roshis in Western culture. They become almost more than teachers and that is dangerous. Especially with the concept of "Direct Transmission" of the Buddha Dharma. Roshis are teachers and human. They need to learn just as much as the rest of us. They deserve our respect but not our idolatry.

    I have great respect for Dosho (the writer of the post) since he does make an active attempt to connect with home-practitioners and help guide their practice. A thankless task, especially when I am that student!

    @ Marcus – Thanks for the comment. I agree that there is nothing wrong with "being" born-again but to sound like one (read: sounding like a born again Christian. Read: sounding like their way is the ONLY way) is a negative in my book.

    I look forward to a few more rounds of samsaric suffering (I don't kid myself).

    @ Lorem Ispum – Thanks! I love the idea of a pail – not being emptied slowly but in one swoop. Children, even screaming ones, are an aid to practice. Sometimes a challenging one though.

    @ Harrold – Love your blog posts lately! My Buddha may not be pink but definately is a salmon'y color.

    I think meditation is integral to my practice (and to most Zen practitioners) but I was trying to not be too Zen-centic by saying that meditation is THE WAY. I have met practitioners that do not "meditate" in the traditional sense and yet are Buddhists. They just focus that meditative practice into other arenas (nembutsu, mindfulness, recitation). And while I do consider all of those to be meditative practices – others do disagree.

    Cheers to everyone and thanks for the Comments. You deepen my practice daily and I cannot thank you enough for it!

  7. After reading his post closely, I believe he is merely discussing others who have met the Buddha in the road and failed to strike him down.

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