The Treasure of the Teacher

“You do the practice, you realize the way,” writes Norman Fischer. “And yet you must begin by finding a teacher you can have faith in.”

By Norman Fischer

“Separator (detail), 2013” by Jeffrey Simmons.

The Three Treasures are the foundation of Buddhism: Buddha, the teacher; dharma, the teaching; sangha, the community. Taking refuge in the Three Treasures is the beginning, and the end, of the Buddhist path. The beginning, because from the first you’ll depend on them to guide your way; and the end, because your spiritual transformation will bring you to appreciation of and identification with the Three Treasures at their most profound level.

The Three Treasures balance and support one another. Without the sangha there is no companionship, no encouragement, no support, and nothing to uphold the dharma; without the dharma there is no way of life and no understanding of life to hold the sangha together; and without the Buddha, who teaches the dharma and leads the sangha, there is no path at all. The Three Treasures form an inseparable unit, each treasure depending on the others, each one equal and central.

If we can go through this journey of loving maturity with another person, we can go through it with ourselves.

In theistic traditions, the framework seems different. Where there is a God, an Absolute, there can be no other comparable factor. No human being can be on the same level as God. There can be clergy, there can be teachers proficient in the doctrine, there can even be priests who have some special capacity for intercession. But no person is integral to the goal of union with or obedience to God in
the way that the teacher is integral to the accomplishment of the Buddhist path.

In some versions of the Buddhist tradition, the teacher is highly respected, almost deified. They are understood to be a special being, a guru with the unique power to bring a faithful student to realization. I remember the early days of Western Buddhism, when the older generation of Asian Buddhist teachers was still alive—the sense of excitement and hushed reverence you felt in the room whenever such a venerable person entered. It almost took your breath away.

This version of the teacher has always seemed to me to be a bit out of scale. Maybe it was a ’60s fantasy. But it certainly seemed real at the time, and many people of my generation made lifetime commitments to practice the dharma based on it. But, overblown or not, this powerful sense of the special virtue of the teacher was a true reflection of the position of Buddhist teachers in traditional Asian cultures of the past, where family and national structures were—and maybe still are—extremely hierarchical and usually male dominated.

But even in Buddhist traditions that have this idea of the teacher embedded in them, preservation of it in the West, or even, perhaps, in the modern East, seems doubtful—and problematic—because it overemphasizes the teacher, placing them above the dharma and the sangha.

How do we respect and empower our teachers without going overboard? This is especially challenging in Western cultures now, which are, understandably, so mistrustful of power and hierarchy. Even our acknowledged moral heroes—as their tell-all biographies often attest—have feet of clay; we just didn’t know it till now. So why trust any leader, especially a spiritual one? Many who decide to trust spiritual teachers go too far, ending up completely out of whack, losing any critical distance or personal agency. Trusting teachers in the right way is not easy.

The logical alternative to trusting a teacher is to have sangha without teachers or hierarchies. To practice a crowd-sourced dharma that gives people what they expect, want, and feel they need. This sounds good, and, who knows, it might work out well. But it seems insufficient to me. Without the Buddha treasure, the dharma and the sangha treasures are hard to sustain.

Meeting the challenge of having proper, positive teacher–student engagement is important for Buddhism’s future, and will involve a subtle and sensitive dance that I am sure no one will be able to analyze or truly understand. Each community will find its own way by trial and sometimes painful error, as we have seen. But I trust that it will work out, little by little, over time. The Three Treasures are too precious to disappear. They always find a way.

The Buddha gives an interesting set of instructions about teachers in the Canki Sutta (95 Majjhima Nikaya, aka The Middle-Length Discourses;I am reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation). The issue in the sutta is, how do we come to know the truth for ourselves, how do we awaken? Here’s the Buddha’s step-by-step answer:

First, find a teacher.

Next, examine the teacher over time to see whether they have sufficiently overcome greed, aversion, and delusion.

This implies two things: first, that you need to start with a teacher, and that it is your responsibility to find and then evaluate the teacher. Second, that what you are looking for in the teacher is not verbal, intellectual, or spiritual skill, but whether the person is fair, ethical, stable, and kind—in other words, they have overcome the natural self-centered impulses that human beings are all subject to. The Buddha does not seem to be saying that the person has to be perfect—this is impossible!—only that they are aware of who they are and that they are, more or less, in command of themselves. And that you will be able to see this in them through examining their behavior.

Once you have found a teacher in whom you have confidence, you visit them, hang around them, and listen to their teachings. You then investigate and reflect upon those teachings, seeing for yourself whether they are true. This is up to you, and you can do it. And yet, without initial faith in the teacher, you would never have gotten this far—you would never have listened receptively enough to have been able to hear.

When you have investigated and come to appreciate the teachings, you will naturally want to apply energy and effort to scrutinize them more and more deeply, until, as the Buddha said, you “realize with the body the supreme truth and see it by penetrating it with wisdom.” This realizing and seeing is the initiatory moment of awakening. You now know the teachings with your whole body and your whole heart. You know that they are true, whether or not you can explain them. But there is more to do: “The final arrival at the truth,” the Buddha goes on, “lies in the repetition, development, and cultivation of those same things.”

In other words, awakening is an ongoing affair; the “final arrival” is the ongoing practice of cultivation and refinement.

So: you do the practice, you realize the way. No one else can do it for you. And yet you must begin by finding a teacher you can have faith in. That teacher illuminates the dharma and the sangha for you. They open up the Great Road. Trust in the teacher is the magic, the secret sauce, of the Buddhist path. The path begins with it and, perhaps, ends with it.

I have come to see it this way. To me, what the sutta calls “the final arrival” is fundamentally a matter of trust: trusting yourself and the world completely and absolutely, no matter what comes, seems to me to be the essence of liberation. This trust is achieved through the ongoing process of practice, which involves our relationships with our teachers. Coming to have confidence in someone we look to as an example and an inspiration—someone we perhaps idealize at first, but eventually come to see more fully, and love all the same—is necessary if we are to do the hard lifetime’s work of transformation. If we can go through this journey of loving maturity with another person, we can go through it with ourselves. We can trust ourselves to be ourselves, the world to be the world, the dharma to be the dharma, impermanence to be impermanence. 

In Zen, we sometimes call awakening “meeting your true self.” This is not something you do alone. Yes, it is your body on the cushion, your effort to be diligent and attentive in your practice. But to come to see your true self you must be seen by the true self of another. Otherwise your spiritual accomplishment, however great it may be, will retain a shadow of self-deception. Here is where the teacher is essential, not because they are all-wise and all-seeing and can straighten you out, but because they are willing to continue to live and practice with you, to be the background to the foreground of your effort.

I have found in my life of practice that in the end my teachers were trustworthy. They were always themselves as they were, if not as I would have liked them to be. To truly trust them is perhaps the most important thing I have learned, because it enables me to trust myself, and, therefore, everyone else. I have come to feel that this trust is the great gift, the supreme practice, the source of all creativity and growth. It is profound compassion itself.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.