What makes a good teacher? With the delicate web of different America Dharma Centers it seems to be hinged upon placement in a temple and the practice of others. A temple provides a building and a sangha but it does not necessarily provide a practice? If you wish to meet a teacher you have every opportunity to find one within or without a temple. The temple places some measure of authenticity and situational expectation but that is all it can provide. You will find students at a temple or practitioners but will you find support? You will find administrators and salesmen at a Dharma Center but will you find a teacher? You will find meditators and a curriculum at at zendo but will you find a practice?
I am not sure of the answer to any of those questions and even having the expectation of finding guidance will flavor your experience. Practice works in a very organic manner; it is nurtured and then grows according to our daily experiences. While guidance can be found in any center, the practical application is something that occurs through the constant and sometimes devastating interaction with life. Those that surround us throughout the day at work or at home are the true bodhisattvas – our true teachers. They are the ones that challenge and affirm our practice. This isn’t a title that they earned but one that we place upon them. We open ourselves up to the lessons that they can impart on us. The challenge is for us to have the wisdom to see it and the compassion and courage to engage it.
Buddha didn’t place his teachers on a pedastal. They were respected and he was an attentive student but it was his interactions with the world that roused his great doubt and brought him to practice. His practice was a personal venture and a manifestation of great striving and courage. Taking the gamble and striking the moment without hesitation was a product of his great faith. The result was a piercing wisdom and an encompassing compassion but all hinged upon interaction and not escape. He realized that his family and home was not challenging so he sought life out. For many of us, the opposite is true: We have challenges at home and seek escape through our practice. Instead of looking within we gaze towards illusions and children’s stories.
I can’t imagine that realization is possible while hanging on coat-tails of charismatic teachers, thumping sutras with zeal or blithering like a love-struck adolescent when the powerful impetus to practice is all around us. Pain, stress, frustration, clinging to illusions and yearning for release are all a part of the same basket of dead flowers…the scent is alluring but they are still, in the end, lifeless stems. We place the glamour upon them to give them life. We manufacture the memory that trots behind, simple and trusting, like a lost puppy.
Clutching malas like frightened children or singing praises to reveal some glorious light is as baseless as banging a drum to chase away a bear when we already fell off the fucking cliff.
If you think your practice is a chant or a cushion; a syllable of power or a piece of jewelry; a statue or a divine deliverance then you are mistaken. Those aren’t your practice, those are toys played with by your practice. Practice is experienced through a stern look from a supervisor, a cry of a child, a moment of silence in the arms of a loved one. Your reactions to these teachings is simple compassion grounded by an earthy wisdom. With each of these things an opportunity arises to manifest your great quest.
We don’t walk in the foot steps of the buddha, we blaze the trail. The moment you spit out that pacifer of religion and walk towards a direct engagement with your life is the moment you feel and experience the first electric tinged sparkle of enlightenment. The only realization that exists for us is that which we experience when we embrace samsara for what it is, empty of any real substance or significance but completely surrounding and permeating us. We blow little spit bubbles of inspiration and then ruin it with labels. Enamoured like Narcissus staring into a pond, we create more layers of illusion to buffer us from this experience. Mala bead click and prayer wheels spin to confort us with the mesmorizing mantra “Forget Samsara. Leave it behind” but by leaving samsara behind we fall off the path of active practice and begin to lilt away into the clouds in a saccharin-laden bliss. Sucking on a slurpee of Nirvana that leaves nothing to nourish. The empty calories of practice.
Holding implements like children too frightened to leave their bed, hoping to eventually be delivered from this moment, this life, this opportunity. Ready to hang up their boots before even walking.
all images from the amazing Micheal Forsberg, a Bodhisattva of the Plains.