Is it possible to have a student-teacher relationship through email or the internet? Karen Maezen Miller wonders.
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
Traveling the country as I am right now, I am encouraged by what I find. People are hungry for the practice of Dharma. More precisely, people are hungry, whether or not they realize that a practice is the only thing that will satisfy their longing.
So it’s natural to be asked what I think about online teaching. Is it possible to have a student-teacher relationship through email or the internet? Others may disagree, but I don’t think so.
To be sure, online teachings can inspire and provoke. But they do not teach, except in an intellectual way. The point of our practice is to literally move beyond limited and ego-bound intellectual understanding, to follow the pointer outside words and letters. Only then do we enter true mind and see our inherent Buddha nature.
When I first started meditating on my own, I’d taken up yoga as well. The studio owner gave new students an orientation and invited us to ask questions. I asked only one: “Who was your teacher?”
He said the name of a famous author whose bestselling paperbacks were on my own reading list. He hadn’t studied with that teacher; he’d read the books. I didn’t know the answer I was looking for when I asked the question, but I do now.
A book may teach, but a book is not a teacher.
A teacher may find fame, but a teacher is not a celebrity.
A teacher comes from a line of teachers and completes a length of training that he or she freely admits is never complete.
A teacher is rarely found, and yet astonishes you with his or her complete availability.
A teacher doesn’t ask much of you — not your life, not your loyalty, and not a high fee for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A teacher waits.
A teacher waits for you to make the first move, and all the moves after.
Meeting a teacher face-to-face is how you meet the teaching.
An online community doesn't teach, it supports. I recall reading wonderful letters from Shin practitioners to their teachers. Most rarely were able to meet their mentor more than once or twice every few years but the letters of encouragement and instruction kept them in their practice.
Things haven't changed now. Most of us are unable to attend weekly retreats or monthly sesshin. As a friend explained to me "I have to live like Mad Max to attend my 100 day retreat". When we can't have teacher at our extended sits or sesshin, I recommend for him to skype in.
That is the one-to-one contact as many of us working-class Buddhists can expect. And it is prefectly fine. So I disagree, just as in the past when teachings were written out in letters and correspondance, they can be transmitted online and via new technology.
Does listening to a roshi's dharma talks online make him my teacher? No, but emailing and communicating online with one does. We should really cease searching for authentic relationships and accept those that we have available.
John http://www.zendirtzendust.com http://www.tiferetjournal.com
Whether it's a teacher in the real-virtual or virtual-real world, does it matter?
I do understand the difference between what can be transmitted from a real live teacher and any other sort of media. The problem is that there are so few teachers, and for most students that means trying to find a way to go to where the teacher is. As a result, we can only read and interact electronically and otherwise be self-taught. In my own limited experience, a little teaching can go a long way. After all, a teacher can only point the way. It's up to the student to go there through practice.
Cathy Zucker says
"A teacher waits." I love it! I just finished reading your book Hand Wash Cold. Thank you so much for your unique spin on ordinary life. I just bought a copy for a friend of mine who makes homemaking, cooking and mothering a beautiful art.
Just goes to show that dogma is alive and well in Zen! Good to see that stupidity dies hard – if it didn't, with what would we practice?
The argument doesn't even make logical sense. Her claim is that people can't teach or learn through an online community and have a tradtional student-teacher relationship. Her example is of someone referring to reading a book and calling the author his or her teacher. That doesn't follow logically since an online community is so much more interactive. But, beyond all that, ANYTHING can be a teacher and to regard ANY category of THING as being unable to teach is being a very poor student. She is certainly entitled to her opinion, but I don't share it.
One point that I do take home from her post is that reading books does not make you a student of the author. Reading is not a relationship. It doesn't grow. I can't say that John Daido Loori is my teacher but I can say that his writings continues to have an effect on how i practice and my view of the dharma. Did I learn something? Yes. Did Loori teach me? Yes. Did we have a relationship? No.
But that relationship can be fostered through any medium where there is a giv and take. Email, skype, forum, letters, face to face, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that the student takes the opportunities provided to them and the teacher utilizes the tool that are available.
John http://www.zendirtzendust.com http://www.tiferetjournal.com
Dosho made the first point I was going to make… that the author sets up a ridiculous straw man to knock down. Ms. Miller makes an argument that does not even apply to Treeleaf, the only fully Internet based sangha I know of that exists. Treeleaf is not a correspondence course where students read some e-texts and then apply for a Dharma certificate afterward. It is a complex, multi-layered, interactive practice community where people interact via forum, PM, video conference, phone call, and even occasional visits to Japan.
Another absurd point is her argument that Zen teaching is not about words, that teaching based on words is too intellectual. Well, whether you're studying online or in a 'brick and mortar' sangha, the main body of the teaching occurs through language. In a Internet sangha, teaching primarily occurs in the format of video spoken word Dharma talks, one-on-one interviews with the teacher, and group discussion (mondo). In a 'brick and mortar' sangha, teaching occurs primarily in the format of spoken word Dharma talks, one-on-one interviews with the teacher, and group discussion (mondo).
In Zen, the teaching is not that words are useless; it is that they are limited and can only be seen as pointers rather than the thing itself. Truth is not something that can be formulated in words, but the realization of truth can be pointed to through word-based instruction, poetic expression, etc. Dainin Katagiri's famous words: "You have to say something." Words are never adequate, but they're all we have.
In my experience practicing with both online and 'brick and mortar' sanghas, the only thing notably missing from the online experience is samu, which makes up a good part of the day in the monastery but is also practiced only in a very limited amount by lay students who do not live in the practice center (maybe 30-60 min once a week). But, of course, the lay students training at a practice center spend most of their days in 'samu'–at work and then doing chores at home.
My personal experience has been that Treeleaf has been a more powerful source of guidance in my practice than any of the 'brick and mortar' groups I've sat with. The nature of the interaction there has lead to more constant and personal feedback and direction than I've ever gotten working 'face to face' with a teacher. Through the guidance of the teachers and sangha members at Treeleaf, I've seen a lot of my neuroses a lot more clearly, I've let go of a lot of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) goal-oriented attitudes I had toward practice, and I've found insights that have transformed my daily life, particularly having to do with ambitions to control and seeing how much I believe in my thoughts.
This surprised me–I never expected Treeleaf to have such an impact on my life. I too shared prejudiced attitudes toward the idea of an online sangha. And me and Jundo went round and round for a while. But the reality is that all the while I was still sitting with 'face to face' groups, and having face to face interviews with teachers in the same room to me, Treeleaf had far more of an impact on my practice.
You possibly grew up to reach a certain point…. to where you became at least minimally teachable. Or maybe this online "teacher" gave you back what you wanted to hear, for once.
Your "answer" is definitely a shade of gray.
Like most people, Maezen Miller is making the mistake of reacting to an idea–her opinions about the images in her head–rather than the actual reality. Not having practiced at Treeleaf or online with any similar group, she knows nothing of the actual experience–of the intimacy of what people share at Treeleaf; of the engagement of the teachers with the students; of the effects it has on people's everyday lives.
Of course, this error–reacting to our ideas of things, rather than experience itself, and mistaking our ideas for reality itself–is exactly the mistake that Zen practice aims to correct. Apparently Ms. Miller's authentic face-to-face Zen training has not yet helped her see this matter clearly.
Everything we encounter in life cannot help but preach the Dharma. Everything is a gate. There is no requirement to be involved formally with any sort of practice to have realization. Hui-neng had a realization when he heard a few verses of the Diamond Sutra. A friend of mine had kensho after reading a chapter on meditation in a book that also talked about UFOs and astral projection. And many people who diligently master the forms of traditional Zen never realize the Truth.
And as if I haven't said enough–I want to stress the emphasis on zazen at Treeleaf, where everyone is encouraged to develop a daily sitting practice. Most Zen centers emphasize zazen as the main Dharma gate, and it is no different at Treeleaf; it is not a place of idle armchair speculation, but active engagement in practice and seeking feedback and support in that practice.
Wow Stephanie… You just said everything! 😉
First, I think there are a lot of people truly dedicated to this practice that cannot for a reason or another go to a zen center, for those folks an online Sangha is ideal!
There is are also the fact that an online Sangha is not just a vague idea, it is an actual community LIVING and PRACTICING together. Karen Maezen Miller seems to emphasize on the fact that online Sangha have an "intellectualistic" purpose or practice… to be true I thought too, and it may seem like that from outside… but from the inside it depends on the teacher and , at least at Treeleaf Sangha, I know it is not the case… I mean, Jundo is constantly focusing on the PRACTICE OF ZAZEN.
As Stephanie (and many in Treeleaf!!!) I know perfectly "brick and mortar" zendos and zen centers have been in them for years… but it is true that, as Stephanie perfectly said it, Treeleaf had far more of an impact on my practice (and in my life in general).. And we really share something as a community or more simply as a Sangha!
Of course, I don't talk about the other online Sangha like plumline sangha, because I just don't know them, so my point of view on this subject is centered on what I know –> Treeleaf Sangha.
Frank S. says
Give it a break, guys. There is actually a forum turning its attention to this article?
Indeed, Karen Maezen Miller has certainly very good reasons to write what she writes. We might not agree with the content of her post, we have to respect a different opinion and speak out of a space of tolerance and understanding. She certainly represents a traditional view of the relationship between student and teacher, a view we can all learn from even if we are now exploring to do the same good old thing in a different way. In Treeleaf, we don't charge a single penny, we are not after celebrity and we certainly give plenty of our time, without counting. Virtual and real are views of the mind, and we experience it everyday. The dedication of students, sitting, sewing, reading, discussing is really stronger than anything I met before in bricks and mortar communities.
Thank you for these pointers, may we all benefit from them.
It seems that Ms. Miller is writing out of pure speculation, about something that she has no experience with. She's reacting to something that's different from what she knows, and rejecting it out of hand.
Karen Maezen Miller says
What makes you think I am writing about Treeleaf? Indeed, I said no such thing, as I have no experience with it. I am responding to those who ask me if I teach through email or skype. And I don't do that, because I have experienced the transformative power of motivating myself out of my chair and meeting a teacher face-to-face, well out of my preconceived range of motion or comfort zone. It is the same power that we manifest whenever we meet our life face-to-face without mediation. It rarely occurs and it is worth it when it does. It appears to me that you are arguing with yourselves. For your own well-being, I wish you wouldn't.
Remember Buchanan says
Stephanie: did your read her post? She's traveling. And even if she wasnt, did you read her one followup post? That should say it all. But you really seem to want a fight. Please just drop it; this can and should be a place of discussion and reconciliation.
Harmony is so much nicer.
Just wanted to clarify that the post above by "Stephanie" was not posted by me, who posted the long-winded response to this article 4 days ago. I've now registered an account here as "Stephanie1983" to avoid any further confusion that could be caused by the trolls / losers from Brad Warner's blog who have nothing better to do than misrepresent people and stir shit. If you see anyone posting as "Stephanie" who is not logged into this account in the future, it isn't me.
I've pretty much said all I have to say about this post.
Argument first of all, is not the way to go. Karen is neither wrong nor right. Speculation, and occurrence are two different things. Whether it is right or not right, our practice goes on. We still bow, and wake up, and walk, and give, and receive. These points/matters are only a spec in the intangible life on this Earth. SO what does it matter what Karen says? What does it matter what “you” say.
No right no wrong. No good no bad. I see Karen and that’s all that matters (even though I don’t see her. Never met her.) But I’m sure she’d bow, or at least say “Hi”.
It seems to me that the point of Maezen's post is about the transformative power that exists in face-to-face interaction. The feeling of community, of sangha, that is created when sitting zazen in the close company of others, the palpable energy experienced when walking into a room during retreat and feeling the samadhi enveloping the space in deep calm, the teaching that happens in the doksan room which has nothing to do with any spoken words… It seems to me that practice is about dropping the story and cultivating emptiness. It is so much easier for me not to deceive myself when I am sitting with my sangha in the zendo.
Stephanie writes: "So just to be clear, and with any due respect, you ARE ducking my posts on this thread, right?"
I'm sorry Stephanie – and some may dismiss this comment as ad hominem, which, I guess, it is – but no one is obliged to be impressed by, or comment on what you write, however formidable your powers of expression; however much you believe you've said things which cannot be ignored. Perhaps Ms. Miller considered her reply (immediately prior to your last comment) appropriate and sufficient. To assume that those who don't respond to your posts are "ducking" them indicates, to me, an unhealthy degree of self-obsession and arrogance.
Your passionate defence of Treeleaf, worthwhile thing that it clearly is, makes me wonder whether you might have too much invested in it.
That comment wasn't posted by me (see above).
An apology is due, then, Stephanie – for my particular response to that one mis-attributed comment. If indeed people from other sites are seeking to 'stir it', that's sad.
Nevertheless, If that happened to me, I'd be wondering why – why me? What is it about what or how I write that attracts, as well as approval and assent, such negative attention?
Just a thought…one that may already have occurred to you.
Honestly, it doesn't matter that much to me whether my comments stir love or hate or both or neither. I have no control over what other people think or do. I can only be myself–messy, imperfect Stephanie. I can try my best not to harm others, at least not to be intentionally hurtful, but I even fail at that sometimes. So much less am I able to do anything about the fact that my personality and communication style stir up arcane and passionate reactions in other people sometimes. Frankly, I think I more often bore people than stir them up, because I still haven't gotten over my tendency to be wordy and go on too long.
Thank you Karen for your warm and wise answer.
The teeleafers could now have a rest. I think we should now go back to our cushion and life. Some people try to stir up things? A very good reason to return to the source and be quiet.Don't you think?
deep bows to all
Thanks for your words Karen!
As some of us, I think I felt the need to defend Treeleaf just because you said something related to Internet and face to face transmission… but I don't really understood your words in the first place…
There is no need to attack or need to defend ourself … Sorry for this…
I'll just follow Taigu's advice and get back to my cushion