Teachers You May Not Know But Should

Ross Nervig on some teachers past and present whose lives and teachings have a lot of offer us.

Ross Nervig
1 December 2021
Image credits listed below.

Ross Nervig on some teachers past and present whose lives and teachings have a lot to offer us.

A Friend to All

Ven. Bhante Suhita Dharma taught through his good deeds.

“Experience is the best teacher when it comes spiritual practice,” the late Ven. Bhante Suhita Dharma once said, reflecting on his own life.

Born into the Jim Crow South, the racism he endured led him to explore spirituality. Early in life, he found safe haven in Catholicism, and after reading Thomas Merton at the age of fourteen, he was among the last “child monks” to enter the Catholic Trappist order in Texas.

Suhita Dharma remained with the order for a decade before traveling throughout Asia to learn about meditation. Adhering to the Merton adage, “Monks are monks, regardless of the religion,” he practiced at monasteries and temples from Nepal to Hong Kong. His journey culminated in Los Angeles, where Suhita Dharma met the Venerable Thich Thien An, the first Vietnamese Buddhist to teach in America. Soon after this encounter, Suhita was ordained by Thich Thien An, becoming the first-ever African American Buddhist monk.

Photo via mountaingatezen.org

As a new bhikku, Suhita Dharma helped resettle refugees from Southeast Asia who came to America after the Vietnam War. A few years later, during the AIDS crisis, Suhita Dharma turned his small temple, Metta Vihara, into a hospice. He often accompanied residents to appointments to make sure they received their medication and benefits. Even with slim resources, Suhita Dharma expanded his hospice program to three houses to serve AIDS patients.

He supported his monasticism as a social worker in LA and led an interfaith program at a federal prison. He also taught at various dharma centers in LA and beyond, and toward the end of his life founded the Seeds of Compassion Buddhist Center in Juarez, Mexico.

“I have found ways in which a bhikkhu can be of service,” Suhita Dharma humbly stated in a meditation on his extraordinary life. He died in 2013.

Teaching: The Only Thing You Own

Everything in this world is impermanent. No one lives forever; we all must die someday.

We must understand the nature of life from our own practice and study of the teachings of the Buddha. We must know this truth, freeing our hearts from the fear of death.

Remember death is not the end; it is the beginning. Death is the beginning of the next life and that life depends on what we do in this one. This is the teaching of the Buddha: “Good begets good and bad begets bad.”

Once we are able to understand the nature of existence, we can see that death is part of life.

The only property we truly own is our deeds in life, which can spur us on to try our best to live a good life. If we can do that, we will have no fear of death. Furthermore, when someone close to us dies, as all things come to an end, we will be able to understand our grief. We can open our hearts, showing true love to the person no longer with us. Once we are able to understand the nature of existence, we can see that death is part of life. Let us now pour out our love for those who are no longer with us, always keeping them in our hearts.

Photo courtesy of Anne Klein

Head & Heart

Anne C. Klein on the intelligence of body, speech, and mind.

Anne C. Klein is professor of religious studies at Rice University. Known also by her Buddhist name, Lama Rigzin Drolma, she’s an authorized teacher in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, renowned for its Dzogchen traditions. She’s co-founder of Dawn Mountain Temple in Houston, where she emphasizes the need for a deep connection between head and heart.

“For many scholars, the body’s main purpose seems to be to carry your head around,” she explains. “But our mind and emotions are very connected with the heart.”

“Buddhism models radical intelligence!” Klein exclaims. “Its scholarly traditions are vast and in constant dialogue with the experiential knowing of your entire being. In studying with so many teachers who completed their own training in traditional Tibet, I felt I was witnessing a decades’ long master class in relaxed, kind, and expansive intelligence of body, speech, and mind. They were never ‘just in their heads.’ They were always whole.”

Klein received her Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Tibetan Buddhism, from the University of Virginia. As a Buddhist practitioner, she studied with Gyume Kensur Ngawang Lekden, abbot of the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa, and with many renowned Geluk and Dzogchen teachers, including Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche of Nepal from whom she received teaching authorization in 1995.

She also participates in the emerging field of micro-phenomenology, in which the combination of philosophical, scientific, and experiential research promises a fresh process of studying the texture of existence.

“I love what I’ve studied and continue to learn by teaching,” she says. “Right now, the world is experiencing a failure of wholeness. Practicing embodied fullness can help heal the fractures.”

Teaching: Three Supports

To begin, become aware of feeling how your body is in contact with your chair or cushion. You feel the firmness of your seat, your external support. Sensing this contact brings you into the present. Allow yourself to relax into this, the first support.

Feel also that this support comes to you from the very center of the earth, which is directly beneath you. Rest in the simple feeling of being held. This feeling supports your ease and trust with things just as they are. You can settle. Tensions in belly and body can ease. Exhaling, feel your exhalations, your letting go of breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Then slowly rock forward or back until you feel your sitz bones in contact with your seat. Feel how your whole skeletal structure is supported from here, your upper body flowingly erect, each rib comfortably resting on the one beneath it. Your midriff, shoulders, hands—all at ease. No need to do anything. Sitting easy, you’re held by your bones, the second support.

Drop your attention again to the earth’s center, feeling how it is perfectly in line with your tailbone. Feel this alignment continue through your spine, your deep belly, your heart, your throat, and your crown. Let your attention flow up and down this vertical corridor through the center of your body. This is your third support.

Finally, settled and easy in every way, let your breath fill your attention. You may be so relaxed that breath energy gently fills your belly. Continue breathing, enjoying the sensation of ease, flow, and grace. Before ending, feel that ease at your heart, and with your closing exhalation sound a long ahhh, sending sound, along with light, out into your room, the world—sharing your practice with all living beings.

Image via thuvienhoasen.org

The Way of Realizing Meditation

The third-century monk Khuong Tang Hoi is considered the earliest Buddhist meditation master of Vietnam and the father of Thien, the Vietnamese Buddhist school known as Chan in China and Zen in Japan. His life and writings reveal a great deal about the origins of Buddhism in Vietnam and southern China.

Tang Hoi’s youth was marked by tragedy. His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in as a novice by a local monastery in northern Vietnam. There, three of his teachers passed away in quick succession.

While so much sorrow might have broken another person, these experiences seem to have fueled his devotion to the practice of meditation. Soon, he was considered a brilliant monk, translating teachings from Sanskrit and accompanying these translations with insightful prefaces. “Mindfulness of breathing is the great vehicle used by the buddhas to save beings who are tossing up and down and drowning in the ocean of great suffering,” he wrote in his preface to the Anapananusmriti Sutra.

At this time Vietnam was under the rule of China. Becoming a Buddhist monk was forbidden by law, and Tang Hoi was summoned to court in Jianye, China, by King Wu Sun Quan. He was questioned about the meditation school he’d established in Vietnam and won the king over. Tang Hoi then founded a practice center in the city, officiating at ordinations and guiding the new monks in meditation. For the first time in China’s history, citizens were allowed to practice as Buddhist monks.

Tang Hoi’s teachings had a wide-ranging effect. He’s credited with uniting various streams of Mahayana and early Buddhist teachings, a combination that defines Vietnamese Buddhism to this day.

“Today when we use the meditation sutras of the Theravada and practice them in the light of the Mahayana,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in his biography, Master Tang Hoi: First Zen Master in Vietnam and China, “we are not doing anything new, we are just following what Tang Hoi did many centuries ago.”

Teaching: Brighter Than the Moon

Meditative concentration is elimination—that is, elimination of the mind that has thirteen hundred thousand unwholesome thoughts, in order to realize eight practices: counting, concentrating, changing, remembering, holding, following, touching, and eliminating. In general, these eight practices can be divided into two parts. Following the breathing enables us to concentrate the mind. If we want to follow our breathing easily, we can practice counting our breaths.

When the impurities have been destroyed, the mind gradually becomes clear…. When you stop counting and place your attention at the end of your nostrils, that is called stopping. If you are successful, then all the impurities of the Three Poisons, the Four Leaks, the Five Hindrances, and the Six Dark Paths are destroyed. At that point, the mind is clear and bright, brighter than precious jewels or the light of the moon.

When the impurities are no longer there, the light appears.

The attention of the mind to sensual desire and the impurities of the mind, which are like mud sticking to a clear mirror, are all wiped clean. Now, this mirror is placed on the earth and turned up toward the heavens, and there is no world that it does not reflect. The earth and the sky are endlessly wide but one mirror can embrace them all.

Our mind is covered with different kinds of impurities, just as a mirror might be covered by mud. If we are able to meet an enlightened teacher and wipe our mind clean so there is no more mud or dust sticking to it, then it will reflect everything. There will not be the slightest, subtlest thing that does not appear clearly in the mirror.

When the impurities are no longer there, the light appears. It is something that happens quite naturally.

Image via terebess.hu

Feminist Forebear

Chan matriarch Qiyuan Xinggang and the precedent she set.

Qiyuan Xinggang was a legendary female Chan master who amassed thousands of devotees in seventeenth-century China, resisting family pressure to marry and skepticism from male Buddhist leaders.

As a child, Qiyuan Xinggang demonstrated a strong interest in Buddhism. Fated to marry, she yearned to train under a Chan master instead. Even after her fiancé died, her parents still refused to allow her to seek a religious life, so she went on a hunger strike until they gave in. Seeking spiritual direction from a series of masters, Qiyuan Xinggang encountered abuse, setbacks, and frustrations as she struggled with the difficult questions put to her by the masters, but nonetheless, she persisted.

Qiyuan Xinggang was in her forties when she gained enlightenment and was recognized as a dharma heir by Master Shiche Tongsheng. She described enlightenment “as if everything in front of her split open, shattering both body and mind.”

She became the abbess of the Lion-Subduing Chan Cloister, and her reputation as an energetic and determined teacher attracted disciples until her small cloister’s number of nuns increased to the hundreds. She encouraged the nuns she mentored to officiate at funerals and other ceremonies for the local lay community. Word of the abbess’s integrity and community-mindedness spread. Qiyuan Xinggang’s biographer reports that thousands of people would line the roads she traveled.

The abbess was fifty-eight when she died. Passing away in lotus pose, she was survived by seven female dharma heirs and an untold number of disciples.

“Qiyuan Xinggang is important to know about primarily because of her valiant efforts to establish a largely self-sufficient community of nuns intent on engaging in serious Chan/Zen Buddhist practice, including the sorts of intensive meditation retreats that were normally restricted to men,” says Dr. Beata Grant, author of Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China. “She named several female dharma successors with a view to establishing a female lineage, which was virtually unheard of at the time. Although this lineage did not last more than a few generations, it set an important precedent for modern-day female monastics.”

Teaching: The Disk of Luminosity

Enlightenment Poem

Before my mother and father were born:
Emptiness congealed silent and complete
Originally there has been nothing lacking;
The clouds disperse, revealing the blue sky.

Death Poem

Like the moon shining on a thousand rivers
The disk of luminosity is pure and unsullied.
Now I will teach by sitting in the lotus position;
Sentient beings will look and see through it all.
If you ask what the last phrase is,
Clapping my hands, I will say it is this.

As translated by Beata Grant in Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China (University of Hawai’i Press).

Photo courtesy of Mushim Ikeda.

Being the Change

Mushim Ikeda’s teachings integrate Buddhism, creativity, and social action.

For Mushim Ikeda, dharma teacher and co-founder of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, life could have gone in a completely different direction. In the early eighties, she’d already published a well-regarded book of poetry and graduated from the prestigious Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop. It was assumed she’d take a job teaching creative writing at a college and settle into a life of letters.

“My ‘life script’ had been written,” she says with a laugh. “But I realized I couldn’t follow it.” A spiritual seeker wrestling with the “big questions,” Ikeda tossed out the script and entered the Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor.

Dharma wandering took her to Canada, Mexico, and South Korea, putting her in touch with luminaries in the Buddhist world, such as Zen teachers Venerable Samu Sunim, Robert Aitken, and Nelson Foster.

Especially life-changing was Ikeda’s time spent training at the famous Sudeoksa temple complex in South Korea. “Life in the Korean monasteries is no joke. It’s meant to be arduous, and it is. I was a complete renunciant at that point, taking a vow of poverty: no assets, no private money. It was transformative.”

She landed in California with her head still shaved and fifteen dollars in her pocket, started a family, and returned to writing, penning a column about family life in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s magazine, Turning Wheel. Eventually, she co-founded the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, where she teaches meditation and mentors practitioners, guiding an award-winning, yearlong program called Practice in Transformative Action, in which she trains teachers, government workers, activists, and agents of social change in secular mindfulness practices.

“What I love about teaching is the interaction,” reflects Ikeda. “It’s when things come alive in the spark of excitement and creativity in mutual learning. Student–teacher, teacher–student, we’re learning from one another. It’s all about the relationship.”

As for teaching the dharma through writing, “Language is how we construct reality,” Ikeda says. “When I write, I try to enter into a deep state of receptive listening. There, in the unknown, is where it’s most alive.”

Teaching: I Vow Not to Burn Out

Every movement is made of real people, and every action is broken down into separate tasks. This is work we need to do and can do together.

How can you make your life sustainable—physically, emotionally, financially, intellectually, spiritually? Are you helping create communities rooted in values of sustainability, including environmental and cultural sustainability? Do you feel that you have enough time and space to take in thoughts and images and experiences of things that are joyful and nourishing? What are your resources when you feel isolated or powerless?

We need a path of radical transformation, and there’s no question in my mind that the bodhisattva path is it.

Samsara is burning down all of our houses. We need a path of radical transformation, and there’s no question in my mind that the bodhisattva path is it. Speaking as a mother and a woman of color, I think we’re all going to need to be braver than some of us have been prepared to be. But brave in a sustainable way—remaining with our children, our families, and our communities. We need to build this new “woke” way of living together—how it functions, handles conflict, makes decisions, eats and loves, grieves and plays. And we can’t do that by burning out.

Photo by Evan Rokan Kaufman.

Freedom in the Heart

Liberation is never an individual activity, says Ejo McMullen.

“Teaching means to continually uncover the freedom inherent in our hearts,” says Soto Zen priest Ejo McMullen, founder of Buddha Eye Temple in Eugene, Oregon. “We’re not training to gain power but to fully realize the liberation that’s right in the very center of our consciousness.”

McMullen was in his formative middle school years when a friend invited him to Japan and he was smitten by the Buddhist temples in Tokyo. His interest in Zen deepened when he returned to Japan as an exchange student a few years later. After battling lymphoma at seventeen, glimpsing the fragile line between life and death, he moved to Japan and met his teacher, Joshin Keira-Roshi, who ordained him a priest in the mid-1990s.

“His simple presence and deep receiving of me taught me that this was the most important thing I could do for other people,” McMullen says. “He showed me his way was a viable way to live. It had real medicine for my life and the world.”

Returning to the Pacific Northwest, McMullen established Buddha Eye Temple in Eugene in 2002, while also teaching philosophy and world religions to high schoolers. A dedicated family man with a wife and kids (and now grandkids), he modeled Buddha Eye after the “family temples” common throughout Japan, but rare in other Buddhist countries. McMullen and his wife live at the temple, where he maintains a bustling schedule of administrative work, mentoring, and meeting his students with the medicine of liberation.

“Liberation is never an individual activity,” he says. “If I want my own practice to function, it can’t be in isolation. That’s how I practice and that’s what I try to express when I’m teaching.”

Teaching: Clear Water

In India, almost two thousand years ago, the Indian monk Nagarjuna set out a bowl of clear water as his student Kanadeva approached the mountain gate. Coming upon the water, Kanadeva pulled a needle from his robe and cast it in. He carried the bowl to Nagarjuna, and they celebrated a meeting of minds.

Although it can be easy to forget, our hearts are just this bowl of clear water. Ungraspable. Filling every crack. Seamless. No gap to be found! At the gate of our own being, in meditation or work, we may have a sense of how things are deeply connected or an intuition that all beings are in mutual support.

How can we accept the invitation when there’s no way in to something we have never been outside of?

Seeing the clear water invites us to return to our innate, peaceful capacities. It invites us to stop being pulled out into a world of objects to which we, a subject, then have to relate. Encountering the water encourages us to let go of our unskillful clinging to self and other and to trust our own interdependence.

But a vision of water is still an object, and while the water is an invitation, it’s also a barrier. Looking into clear water that’s located “out there” cuts off the path of the living water of our own body, breath, and mind. How can we accept the invitation when there’s no way in to something we have never been outside of?

Kanadeva gives us a clue with his totally singular needle. It turns out, no opening in the water is necessary to receive us. Kanadeva wasn’t caught in apprehending the water. He didn’t stop at the gate and stare. He took the clear water as his own eye, as his own way of seeing. He proceeded by considering not just what is seen, but how to see!

Ross Nervig

Ross Nervig is the assistant editor of Lion’s Roar magazine.