Question: “For the last five years, I have been committed to meditating daily, either at home or at the zendo I currently go to. I also participate in our monthly daylong sesshins, zazenkais, and weeklong retreats. Actually, practice has gotten to be almost addictive!
“I respect and admire my current teacher, but recently I participated in a zazenkai with a teacher at another zendo and really liked her dharma talk and the sangha members. I originally chose my current zendo mostly because it is near my home, making morning sittings convenient. But after hearing this other teacher’s dharma talk, I got a sense that a teacher-student relationship with her would be more supportive and nurturing.
“I feel I’m being disloyal toward my current teacher for considering moving to another one. Yes, “it’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” Am I just imagining that my practice would grow and strengthen with another teacher? What if it really would? I find myself going from one teacher to the next-a few years with one, a few with another. Living in New York, I am fortunate to have a variety of Zen teachers from various schools and backgrounds available to me.
“How do you know if you should be with one teacher or another?”
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: To follow the path, it is necessary to find a teacher and to follow that teacher consistently. In order to find the right teacher, you must take your time and use your intellect to analyze and judge the qualities of a teacher. Also, before you decide to follow a particular teacher, it is necessary to feel the connection from your heart. Once you have made a commitment to follow a particular teacher, the relationship should be maintained.
In choosing a life partner, you feel the connection from your heart as well as intellectually make a decision to marry or otherwise commit to the relationship. While the student-teacher relationship is not exactly the same, as far as working to maintain a long-lasting relationship, there are similar challenges in both. When you make a long-term commitment, you don’t just follow your fleeting attractions and desires. You maintain some sense of what initially led to your decision. A heart connection with a person cannot develop if you change every year or two due to convenience.
If you have a disagreement or your teacher does not fulfill your desires, it is important not to distance yourself from your teacher or to criticize him or her. A dharma relationship with a teacher is not based on fulfilling ego’s desires; it is the place where one’s own ego should be weaker. We can find many places in our life to strengthen our ego, but ego needs to be tamed in the student-teacher relationship.
Situations may arise where one can decide to follow another teacher, such as a teacher passing away or even living far away. This does not diminish the previous relationship, which can still be strong. You don’t replace a teacher; rather, you build on the foundation of that relationship while you are also being supported by another teacher.
If you haven’t connected with a teacher in this deep and essential way, continue to search until you find this connection. Once you find it, commit to it and maintain the relationship. Even if your teacher is living on Mt. Kailash and you live in New York City, you should still be able to follow this teacher because that connection is deeper than the conditions of time or place.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: Your question is very difficult to answer and at the same time very important. As I read it, I was right with you until I came to the part where you said that you find yourself going from one teacher to another. That sounds painful to me. It impedes the development of an intimate, trusting, teacher-student relationship that can facilitate the total surrender of “forgetting the self,” “dropping off body and mind,” or whatever words we may use to describe the full and complete relinquishment of self. It also suggests to me that you may be hoping to “get” something from a teacher (or from practice) to add to “your” self rather than to let go of any idea of self that separates you from the inherent completeness of the true self.
Suzuki Roshi many times admonished us to sit “with no gaining idea,” to “make our best effort on each moment with no gaining idea.” This has been a major koan for me. What does it mean to make total effort with no gaining idea? Notice that any gaining idea implies that just this is not complete as-it-is.
So the first quality I recommend in a teacher is that he or she sees Buddha in you and in everyone. Also ask yourself, do you aspire to be like your prospective teacher? Does he or she only talk about wholehearted practice or do it in everyday activity? My first teacher died, and I have had to choose other teachers over the years. Some have been more eloquent than others, but in each case, I believe, how a teacher actually lives is at least as important as what he or she says.
It’s also important to find a teacher who can be kind and encouraging when you need encouragement and tough and strict when you are being self-indulgent or self-satisfied. Both the kindness and the strictness are indispensable.
I am happy to know that you have been practicing wholeheartedly with your current teacher and sangha. For the benefit of all beings, I wish you many more years of committed practice. I also wish for you the joy of finding and settling on a teacher-student relationship that you can commit to without reservation. That depends as much on you as it depends on the teacher. It is fine (and a part of the Zen tradition) to visit many teachers. But at some point you need to “dig one deep hole instead of many shallow holes,” as Suzuki Roshi once said to us.
If you are truly drawn to a new primary teacher and decide to change, that is also all right if you take care to inform your current teacher of your decision and express your sincere gratitude for all of his or her care and effort on your behalf. You sound like a person who has made a commitment to practice. I sincerely hope that you find the confidence to also make a commitment to a teacher.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: In the Theravada tradition, teachers cultivate an attitude of non-attachment when it comes to working with yogis. A teacher is called a kalyanamitta, which means spiritual or noble friend, someone that you sense has realized more wisdom and liberation within them than you have. It follows that we can have more than one spiritual friend in our lives. It’s more a matter of freedom and choice than a question of loyalty.
As an example, at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center we have had three guiding teachers for the past many years. Members can choose to work with one of us or two of us or all three of us. One may start with one of us and then move to another. For our part, there is no sense of attachment or expectation that someone should be working with us in an enduring way. Of course, many people do work with one of us over the long term, but what really matters is that it is a beneficial relationship.
Knowing whether you should be with one teacher or another has to do with trust and affectionate resonance, as well as a sense that, at least at times, you are being stretched. Is it someone you are learning from? In this case, it’s not that you don’t appreciate what you have, it’s that you feel you might have a better fit with another teacher. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t, but there is no problem in finding out. In any case, it’s always best that when you leave one teacher for another, you do so with gratitude for what you have learned.
The other side of this, of course, is that you do have to be with a teacher long enough to let that person get to know you. As trust grows, more is possible in the teacher-yogi relationship. The particular patterns and habits and torments of the heart can be seen more clearly by the teacher, which can really benefit the yogi.
Geography is not unimportant. In the midst of our full lives, it can be very beneficial to practice at a center that is close to you. On the other hand, going out of your way or letting go of convenience to study with someone you want to study with is also highly beneficial because it points to one’s commitment and dedication. And of course, it is great when the person you want to work with lives close to you as well.
To me, you sound perhaps a bit too focused on getting or not getting something instead of recognizing that there is nothing to get or get rid of. Why don’t you have a chat with your current teacher and talk this out?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.