Illustration by Keith AbbottThe job of the dharma teacher, says Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, is to help students see deeply into the nature of things. But what happens when the teacher gets lost along the way? 

Main Case

One day Guishan sat in zazen, and after sitting, he pointed at the straw sandals and said to Yangshan, “All hours of the day, we receive people’s support. Don’t betray them.”

Yangshan said, “Long ago in Sudatta’s garden, the Buddha expounded just this.”

Guishan said, “That’s not enough. Say more.”

Yangshan said, “When it is cold, to wear socks for others is not prohibited.”


Old masters throughout time have always looked to the guiding and aiding of all living beings. They set up their shops according to their capacities and in response to the imperative of time, place, position, and degree. Appearing and disappearing in harmony with the occasion, they create countless kinds of expedient means to alleviate suffering.

Guishan wants everyone to know, so he stirs things up by saying, “All hours of the day, we receive people’s support. Don’t betray them.” Yangshan is an adept and cannot help but respond. Guishan’s intention, however, is unfathomable—he wants more. Without hesitation Yangshan again rises to meet the old man’s challenge. But what is Yangshan’s meaning?

We should understand that “to wear socks for others” is a very personal matter. It is the seamless dharma activity that is the ten thousand hands and eyes of great compassion itself. It is the spiritual light of the four virtues of a bodhisattva manifesting in the ten directions. But tell me, right now, how do you manifest it in your life?

Capping Verse

Pure jeweled eyes, virtuous arms—

      formless and selfless, they enter the fray.

The great function works in all ways—

     these hands and eyes are the whole thing.

(From The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori. Case 47: Guishan’s “Do Not Betray Others” with commentary and capping verse by John Daido Loori.)

In our training, the monastic’s entire life depends on the support of the lay sangha; the lay sangha’s training depends on the support of the monastics. It’s a perfectly interdependent, living system. Everywhere it is like this: there’s parent and child, public servant and the public person, bees and flowers, trees and soil. Each creature on this earth and the earth itself are always giving and receiving. The student depends on the support of the teacher; the teacher depends on the sincerity and trust of the student. Try to find one moment, one situation where this is not completely true.

Dogen says in Genjokoan:

When a fish swims in the ocean, there is no limit to the water no matter how far it swims. When a bird flies in the sky, there is no limit to the air no matter how far it flies. However, no fish or bird has ever left its element since the beginning. If a bird leaves the air it dies. If the fish leaves the water, it will die. Know then that water is life, that air is life, the bird is life, the fish is life. Life is the bird and life is the fish.

If a creature tries to leave its element, to turn away from it, to act apart from or betray it, that creature begins to die. Why? Because it is turning away from the very truth of its life and the way things are. This is what the Buddha realized and that’s why every form of separation leads to suffering. But if that’s true, why do we betray our element? Why do we turn away from ourselves? Why do we betray each other?

To betray someone means to be disloyal. It’s like taking a beautiful interwoven fabric and tearing it in two. What is Guishan saying when he tells Yangshan to not betray those we rely upon? When Master Linji was on his deathbed, he said to his disciple Sansheng, “When I pass on, don’t destroy my treasury of the eye of truth.” Don’t betray the true dharma. Sansheng said, “How could I destroy your dharma?” The Buddha didn’t create the dharma; we don’t sustain it. It will never be destroyed. Yet there is defiling the three treasures of Buddha, dharma and sangha, which is the tenth grave bodhisattva precept.

Once a student, having completed his training, was leaving his teacher and said, “I promise not to disappoint you.” His teacher said, “Don’t be concerned with disappointing me; just don’t disappoint yourself.” Disappointing oneself, betraying others, defiling the dharma: these aren’t different. Yangshan said, “Long ago, the Buddha expounded just this.” How did the Buddha teach about this? “I and all creatures have at once entered the Way,” the Buddha said upon his enlightenment. He realized that fundamentally there is nothing to turn away from. Disappointment and betrayal are not possible. There is no dharma to destroy. So why does Guishan speak of betrayal?

In the early years of Buddhism developing in America, as well as in current times, there have been teachers who have had extramarital affairs with students. In many cases, these have been accomplished masters who have brought many students to the dharma, who’ve created vibrant communities and produced dharma heirs. Yet their actions have also caused a lot of harm and confusion, in addition to being a violation of the precepts, their monastic or priestly vows, the student–teacher relationship, and their authority as a teacher. There is no ambiguity about this. So how do we understand this betrayal? What kind of turning away is it when it is done by one who has realized the dharma? In Buddhist practice we need to take every phenomenon, every situation—in particular the more chaotic or dire circumstances of our lives—and use those very circumstances to illuminate, to become clear, to come closer to the path. How then can we understand a teacher’s transgression of a sacred trust so that our faith in the dharma is strengthened rather than weakened?

Without true compassion there is no true wisdom, without true wisdom there cannot be true compassion. This is a basic Mahayana teaching: wisdom and compassion are one. Yet, at the same time, we can speak of them as two. Dogen said our practice is to harmonize inner and outer—to deeply clarify our own mind and then to embody that clarity in everything we do. We can have insight into the nature of our self and not fully actualize that insight through our actions. In fact, it seems that perfect embodiment of one’s clear understanding is quite rare. But how do people who have seen deeply into the nature of things, and who are clearly guiding other people to do the same, turn against the dharma, against others and themselves? The answer, in one sense, is easy: desire. Betrayal only occurs within samsara, within conditioned existence, within the self-created world of the self. In that world, desire is the inspiration, it’s the fuel, it’s the engine, the vehicle, the apparent reward, and the karma.

The Buddha said, “Those on the Way are like dry grass. It is essential to keep away from an oncoming fire. People on the Way look upon desire as something they must keep at a distance.” Desire is the deepest, most ancient force. It is primal. We can think about it, speak about and explain it, but desire itself often arises before thought. It seeks what is good and shuns what is bad; yet within the self-serving inner workings of the mind, good and bad can be perceived as just about anything.

When healthy desires arise, they are based on right understanding of the dharma. These are desires that lead to practice, to the cultivation of compassion, to nonattachment, to generosity. They lead to selflessness and wisdom, to living in service to others. The impetus for unhealthy desires is in accord with samsara, it is in accord with an understanding that leads to not practicing, to insensitivity to others, to not caring, to selfishness, and to attachment. But why would those who have seen into the nature of samsara, of attachments, of the self, give validity and truth to their own desires? Being dry grass, why would they throw themselves into a burning fire? Because desire still remains. Karmic energies persist. There is still something outside which is wanted. There is still something inside which is seen as insufficient, even if it has been realized as empty. The fire is still burning.

Throughout history, wherever a crowd forms, wealth, power, status, recognition, love, and sex also appear. These are the forces, the desires that are at the root of all suffering. But these forces can also be used for tremendous good. Yet the greater the force, the hotter the flame and the easier it is for it to burn out of control. The greater the force, the harder it is to hold it well, to not get consumed by it. The Buddha said, “As for love and desire, no desire is as deep-rooted as sex. Fortunately, it’s one of a kind. If there was something else like it, no one in the entire world would be able to practice the Way.” Is this the Buddha showing a sense of humor?

In Zen training, the dynamic between student and teacher is spiritually intimate. That’s its nature. To be intimate with oneself, one has to be intimate with the dharma, which in formal training means being intimate with the teacher. Over time, that intimacy increases as the student progresses. So it’s the teacher’s responsibility to maintain that intimacy yet not let it cross over into an inappropriate physical or emotional realm. While the student is asked to deeply trust and be open to the teacher, this should not be regarded as submission. The student is fully in charge but has also given permission to be taught, engaged, and directly encountered. In that intimate working, the student can become confused and develop other kinds of attachments. So it’s the teacher’s role to redirect the student’s feelings if they arise, to clarify them, and not affirm them. If the student is unable to stay clear within the relationship, then the relationship needs to end. That student can no longer study the dharma with that teacher. And ending such a relationship is the teacher’s responsibility. But the teacher can also get seduced. As deeply as the student is asked to enter, the teacher must also enter. And so if the teacher, being a human being, sees sexual desires arising, he or she must redirect those energies, must clarify them, and ultimately drop them off. Otherwise, that teacher cannot teach that student. This ensures that when the student encounters a teacher, the only thing he or she is seeking is the dharma; and when a teacher faces his or her student, the only concern is the practice of that student.

To acknowledge the power of sexuality means there is a need within all of us for diligence, sincerity, perseverance, and thoroughgoing awareness to avoid being seduced by our own desire. This is why we must not pursue self-serving forms of power, giving rise to a mind seeking “fame and gain,” as Dogen puts it. The Way-seeking mind must not become a self-seeking or an other-seeking mind. Thus, the Buddha said, “Those on the Way are like dry grass. It is essential to keep away from an oncoming fire.” Being like dry grass, it’s easy to be ignited when coming into contact with fire. Understanding this—and our own easy-to-ignite inclinations—skillfulness must include avoiding fire when necessary, for the well-being of others. In the Mahayana tradition, our ultimate challenge is to understand the dry grass and the fire as one thing and to live perfectly in accord with this truth. This is the realm of the layman Vimalakirti, who went into the brothels, into the bars, into all the places where the fire is burning and desires are abundant, so he could offer the dharma to beings in all the six realms. But that’s Vimalakirti—a deeply enlightened being—and a nonhistorical figure at that. Most of us are not in that advanced stage of practice. And so there is wisdom in being keenly attentive and careful around that which we may not yet have the strength or confidence to navigate.

People in perceived positions of power will often attract those who also seek power and it’s important not to betray those people. Offer them what they need, which is the real dharma; not what they want, which may be just more delusion. While both parties are responsible—and the student is also accountable—the person with the greater power holds the greater responsibility for establishing and maintaining the correct understanding within that relationship. But we can’t do that if we’re not clear ourselves, which is our responsibility in this practice: to study and realize the self. Ultimately, this clarity has to arise from a deep motivation to live our lives in a way that is true to the dharma, true to ourselves, and true to others.

Master Keizan said, “It is not necessary to ask about others. Just look back on your own very first determination of mind. Look into yourself and see what is right, and see what is not right. This is why it is said that it is hard to be as careful of the end as the beginning. If they would truly be beginners, who would not become people of the Way?”

Students will come to a dharma teacher asking for guidance, wisdom, support. And the teacher, in turn, makes a commitment to offer the dharma to others, helping them cast away their attachments, bringing their attention to their hindrances; helping them empower themselves to put out their own fires. But while helping others to turn the light around and see deeply within themselves, we, as teachers, can stop turning our own light around. We can become confused or arrogant about what is right and what is not right. It’s easy to lose that fresh, keen, alert mind of the beginner. My sense of this is that as teachers become more involved in working with students, it becomes more important than ever that their own inner practice remain strong and alive, just as it was in the beginning of training.

The Buddha said in the Surangama Sutra:

You whom I’ve given this instruction to have now dedicated yourselves to attaining great awakening, the supreme and wondrous enlightenment. You have the right method for practice but you may still not be aware of the subtle demonic events that can occur when you undertake these practices. If you do not purify your mind, you will not be able to recognize these states as they arise. You will not find the right path and you will fall into the error of wrong views. If your mind is not clear when this happens, you may well take a burglar to be your own child, or you may feel satisfied with a small accomplishment.

translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

He goes on to talk in some detail about the different states that arise for practitioners as they become more accomplished in the Way. About these states, the Buddha says, “What the practitioner has gained is temporary. There is nothing unwholesome about his state unless he thinks that he is now a sage. If he does think he is a sage, he will be open to a host of deviant influences.”

So how do teachers remain students? To truly be beginners is to remain aware that within oneself, all is not clear. We should be inspired by the dharma and inquire deeply into it; to be continually motivated to realize that which we have not yet seen and respectful of those habitual energies that may still have power. In other words, to be respectful of Mara—our own delusion—because it is a powerful force. This is an important aspect of the work that Daido Roshi did within the Mountains and Rivers Order these many years—to build into the structure, into the way we’re practicing and living together and training, precautionary measures to deal with these very powerful forces within us; measures that help us navigate and channel those energies into practice. This is the inner and outer upaya helping us to not turn away, to not defile the three treasures, to not betray others.

In this koan, Yangshan responds to Guishan by saying, “Long ago in Sudatta’s garden, the Buddha expounded just this.” Guishan said, “That’s not enough. Say more.” And Yangshan said, “When it’s cold, to wear socks for others is not prohibited.” Daido Roshi says in his commentary, “We should understand that ‘to wear socks for others’ is a very personal matter. It is the seamless dharma activity that is the ten thousand hands and eyes of great compassion itself.” In that intimacy there is no betrayal. There’s no disappointment. There’s no turning away. But in the moment that distance appears, all suffering becomes possible. Practice is to ceaselessly close that gap, to see through its illusion.

There are many reasons and justifications for betraying ourselves and others, for violating our vows. One often hears that a teacher is dwelling in the absolute—as if the absolute were a place. This is nonsense. While one can be attached to the absolute, this attachment—as is always the case—is to an idea of something; not the thing itself. How can one attach to something that has no position, no fixed characteristic? The absolute is not a place and no one has ever dwelt there. It’s not an “it.” And yet it’s real. That is why going deep into the nature of things, this dharma, is to navigate dangerous territory. In the ultimate realm there is no betrayal, no other, no actor nor the one acted upon. And yet, for this very reason we chant in the Identity of Relative and Absolute, “To realize the absolute is not yet enlightenment.” That’s why it is said that wisdom and compassion are inseparable. The moment we separate them, the danger is already present. We must be able to step forward from the top of the hundred-foot pole and manifest “no position” in all directions, in all relationships. That’s why practice must be seamless dharma activity.

When Buddhism first came to America there were many problems in various centers with students and teachers becoming involved in sexual relations with each other. Over the years, and in large part because of those problems, much has changed. A great deal of maturing has taken place within individuals, within teachers, and within communities, about how to practice in a society that is very different from Japan or China or India. A great deal has been learned, and in fact, most teachers and sanghas are healthy and thriving. At the same time, through our own spiritual journey, it’s always up to us as individuals to insist on our own integrity. It really just comes down to that. What else is there? We must demand more of ourselves than others may demand of us. We must be sincere and persevering and fiercely honest and accountable. This means that we always have to be in a place and position where our actions are seen and can be held accountable. Everyone is answerable to everyone; this is the great web of interdependence.

Vimalakirti said that we should be singularly interested in the dharma, rather than in gaining power, wealth and fame, or needless to say, pleasure. Because in the end, when we betray or disappoint one person in this dharma, we’re turning against everyone. And this action of betrayal, ultimately, is of our own choosing. In that moment, our earlier sincere interest in the dharma has been eclipsed by some other interest, a desire arising from and for the self. When we see this in a teacher, particularly someone we’ve respected, it’s easy to become jaded or cynical. But I would say, don’t let anyone or anything dampen your own love for this dharma and your own aspiration for awakening. No one can take that away from you; so why would you yourself turn away from it due to another’s action? Daido Roshi says, “Tell me, right now, how do you manifest it in your life?” As Buddhist practitioners, this is always our challenge. Other people have their own practice to take care of. I am responsible for my practice. And at the same time, we are all responsible for each other. How do we genuinely bring it forth in this life?

We should appreciate that this dharma is an extremely powerful legacy that has been passed down to us. It is a vast, bottomless wisdom. It reaches everywhere and transcends all of time and space. Within this boundlessness, all things are equal and without discrimination. And it appears—due to conditions—in ten thousand forms. We are unique individuals with our own karma, our own practice and realization. Some will be steady in the Way, some will wander. Wandering, some will return to the true path while others will not. Some will manifest the great heart of Avalokiteshvara, casting off their own body and mind for others. Some will hold on to that body and mind and call it “mine.”

The more honestly and eagerly we practice this dharma, the more we see. The more we see, the more we are naturally in awe and wonder. Then it’s easy to be a beginner. Dogen said, “When the dharma does not fill your body and mind, it’s easy to think it’s already sufficient. When the dharma fills your body and mind, you understand something is missing.” When we forget this truth, waves begin to gather on the calm sea. That is why practice has to be ceaseless.

Pure jeweled eyes, virtuous arms—formless and selfless they enter the fray. This great function works in all ways—these hands and eyes are the whole thing. Isn’t this our vow—to realize over and over, deeper and deeper, that these hands and eyes of great compassion are the whole thing, the whole of our lives? Please, do not betray another. Do not betray yourself.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the head of the Mountains and Rivers Order and abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. He entered into full-time residential training at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1986 and received dharma transmission from John Daido Loori Roshi in 1997.