There Is No Teacher of Zen

It’s a paradox, says Hokuto Daniel Diffin. No one can teach you Zen, but you need a teacher to understand that.

Hokuto Daniel Diffin
3 July 2021
Bodhidharma is considered the first Chinese patriarch of Zen. Every day, Zen practitioners chant his name, as well as names of other teachers in their lineage, from legendary buddhas to recently deceased ancestors. Enso by Taido Shufu, 19th century, Japan, courtesy of Minnesota Institue of Art

In a tradition renowned for paradox, the biggest paradox of Zen is this: Zen teachers have nothing to teach. That’s because the dharma is already yours—it is your own faceless face, unborn and indestructible, and only you can discover it. There is no magic mirror any teacher can hand over to make you see it.

Yet despite having nothing to teach, Zen teachers are regarded with love and reverence. Every day, Zen monasteries and temples chant their lineage, starting with the prehistoric, legendary buddhas, right down to the most recently deceased ancestor.

Bodhidharma, who is said to have brought what became known as Zen from India to China, acknowledged this seeming contradiction. He said he had only one thing to teach: that your own mind is Buddha. Enlightenment means nothing but dropping the desire for anything else except the mind that is right here, right now.

Yet Bodhidharma also stated, as translated by Red Pine, “If you don’t find a teacher soon, you’ll live this life in vain. It’s true, you have buddhanature. But without the help of a teacher, you’ll never know it. Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher’s help.”

Nine generations after Bodhidharma we meet the teacher Obaku Kiun (Chinese: Huangbo Xiyun), who, standing seven feet tall, was both literally and figuratively a giant in the history of Zen. One of the three schools of Zen that remain today is named for him, and one of the others is named for his student Rinzai (Chinese: Linji).

Obaku Kiun was known for both austerity and kindness, for his somewhat violent teaching methods and his compassion. In The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofed, his teaching is summarized this way:

All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.… The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient beings, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood.… They do not know that if they put a stop to conceptual thought and forget their anxiety, the Buddha will appear before them, for this Mind is the Buddha and Buddha is all living beings.

This One Mind cannot be understood through books alone, though some, like the Diamond Sutra, attempt to push their readers beyond the limits of conceptual thought into the realm of naked reality. Nor can it be understood through the words of the wise alone, even when they talk about such things as the One Mind.

We cannot substitute others’ words and ideas for our own shining light, and so Obaku warned his students against all the fallbacks of being “a good student.” He admonished his students, in no uncertain terms, to put away their books and notebooks, their pilgrims’ robes and staffs, and just open their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to this moment, right here, right now. Echoes of Bodhidharma abound, as they must, for there are only so many ways to phrase the essential directive of Zen.

If even carefully chosen words run the risk of filling students’ heads with fluff, how does the Zen teacher proceed? Obaku’s interactions with his most renowned student and dharma heir, Master Rinzai, are instructive.

Rinzai was an unusual student. Having studied the sutras and shastras prior to arriving at Obaku’s temple, he worked and practiced as a simple monk there for three years without ever presuming to seek a personal interview with Obaku. The head monk, Bokushu, having noticed this quiet, intense young monk, pressured him to go see the master.

“But I don’t know what to ask him,” Rinzai protested.

“Why not ask him, ‘What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?’”

Submitting to monastic discipline, Rinzai went to the dokusan (interview) room, and asked Bokushu’s question. He was immediately beaten with a stick by Obaku and chased out of the room before he’d even finished speaking.

Afterward, he told Bokushu what had happened, and the head monk advised him to ask Obaku the same question again. He did, with the same result. But Bokushu kept encouraging him. “Third time’s the charm—go ask again.” Same question, same stick, same result.

By now, Rinzai was thoroughly dismayed. With utmost simplicity and sincerity, he blamed himself: “Three times you instructed me to ask the master about the essential meaning of Buddhism, and three times I was beaten and chased from the room. I deeply regret that my own karmic hindrances have left me unable to grasp the master’s deeper meaning. So today I’m going to leave here.”

“Well, that can’t be helped,” Bokushu told him, “but make sure to pay your respects to Master Obaku on your way out.” Then Bokushu ran to Obaku and told him, “That Rinzai fellow is something special. With proper care, he will become a mighty oak giving shade and comfort to countless future generations.” So at Rinzai’s exit interview, Obaku told him to go to the temple of another famed master, Daigu. “He’ll explain everything.”

One can imagine Rinzai traveling alone over mountain passes, with plenty of time to chew over everything that had happened. Perhaps he walked and meditated, sat and meditated, with only his own doubts to accompany him. He questioned everything—himself, Obaku, the meaning of Buddhism, the meaning of existence. Alone with his thoughts, he could find no way to lift himself out of the depths of his ignorance.

Finally, arriving at Daigu’s temple in a state of confusion and distress, Rinzai told the master the whole story, adding, “After all that, I don’t understand. Was I at fault or not?”

Rather than “explaining it all,” as Obaku had promised he would, Daigu immediately upbraided Rinzai for asking such a question. “Obaku has worn himself out, treating you with such grandmotherly kindness, enduring all sorts of difficulties for your sake, and you come here whining that ‘I don’t know if I’m at fault or not.’”

It must be pointed out that neither Obaku nor Daigu had ever attempted to teach Rinzai anything at all. In fact, they’d done nothing but rebuff his attempts at being instructed, leaving no room for argument. This is the method of Zen: to rely not on words but on practice—sitting, working, listening, questioning, and the readiness of time—to activate the process of awakening. Zen teachers use various tools to push and prod students. Obaku’s stick was one such tool, Daigu’s reprimand another. But “teaching,” as we usually think of it, is considered malpractice in Zen, like a surgeon operating unnecessarily on healthy flesh.

So how did Rinzai respond to Daigu’s challenge? Having thoroughly stewed in his own ignorance and confusion until he was ready to burst, Rinzai was shaken by Daigu’s harsh words into a sudden great awakening. With a hearty laugh, he proclaimed, “Ha, now I see! Obaku’s dharma is nothing special.”

Sensing the sudden change in Rinzai, Daigu grabbed him and demanded, “You bed-wetting little devil. First you say you don’t understand, and now you say Obaku’s dharma is nothing special. What do you see? Speak! Speak!”

In response, Rinzai punched Daigu in the ribs three times, causing Daigu to push him away and declare, “You’re Obaku’s problem. I’ve got nothing to do with it.”

Everything about this story strikes the modern reader as bizarre. Hitting students for asking questions? What kind of “grandmotherly kindness” is that? Punching a master in the ribs when you’ve only just met—after he has just triggered the most significant event of your life? How is that repaying the teacher’s compassionate toil? Obaku’s “grandmotherly kindness” consists precisely in refusing to be a purveyor of “teachings” that draw Rinzai away from the realization that his own mind, the One Mind, is Buddha alone.

The arc of Rinzai’s journey to enlightenment started with his initial questioning, which couldn’t be satisfied by his reading of sutras and shastras. This was followed by a semidormant period in the monastery as he absorbed the lessons of daily practice and work. Then there was a period of intense doubt fueled by the collaborative efforts of the masters Bokushu and Obaku. Finally, Rinzai made a pilgrimage—both internal and external—that triggered the cessation of doubt and realization of his true nature.

It can be said equally that there is “no Zen teacher” involved in any of this, and countless myriads of Zen teachers who are. Every being, both sentient and insentient, known and unknown, cannot help but extol the dharma and guide the Zen student to realization. Most of this dharma activity remains well below the surface, not even dreamed of, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It is all these teachers, collectively, who light the fire under Rinzai that is ready to consume him at Daigu’s least provocation.

Zen often describes enlightenment in such mundane terms as “drinking water and knowing for yourself if it is cold or warm,” or “seeing mountains and rivers as mountains and rivers.” It’s not something that can be acquired or learned. It is a human birthright, always present but obscured by the filters of attachment and delusion. When those filters fall away, reality shines forth, brilliantly self-evident. Thus, Rinzai’s expression “Obaku’s dharma is nothing special.” This One Mind is just the way things are, nothing more, nothing less. Nothing special about it. Rinzai might just as well have said, “I was a blind fool not to see it, but I’ll never be fooled that way again.” And when he answered Daigu’s urgent question, “What is it you see? Speak! Speak!” with three sharp jabs in the old master’s ribs, he was as much as saying, “You can’t trick me into trying to put it into words, you old rascal! You know there aren’t any words for this!”

There are many synonyms for what Rinzai has realized: the One Mind, buddhanature, and original face are just a few. Bodhidharma called it awakening to “your own nature” and realizing this nature is nothing but pure awareness. In the Bloodstream Sermon, Bodhidharma attempted to put the inexpressible into words: “Buddha is Sanskrit for aware, miraculously aware. Responding, perceiving, arching your brows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet—it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is buddha. “

Having said this, he also cautioned against putting any faith in words: “The ultimate truth is beyond words. Doctrines are words. They’re not the way. The way is wordless. Words are illusions.” The kernel of this teaching was wordlessly expressed by Rinzai’s three sharp jabs in Daigu’s ribs: trying to put the nature of this miraculous awareness into words violates its very nature.

Obaku famously said, “Don’t you know that in all the land of T’ang [Imperial China] there are no Zen teachers?” This is one of the best-known sayings in Rinzai Zen. It might even be considered the Rinzai equivalent of the American Declaration of Independence, since it is a declaration of independence from doctrine, dogma, words, and concepts. It means that no one can teach Zen to anyone else. It is something that must be realized through our own efforts.

However, Obaku summed up the paradox when he then continued, “I do not say there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher.” Masters continue to deliver talks and engage students; ceremonies are performed and sutras are chanted; monks and laypeople continue to do zazen, using physical stillness as an aid to seeing into their own nature.

In reality, our true nature, our original face, remains closer to us than our own breath, indivisible from the One Mind, perfect and in no need of improvement. But Zen practice and teaching continues, not because there is something to learn or improve, but because the realization that there is no such “something” to learn runs counter to our natural way of thinking. Practice is essential precisely because there is nothing to teach.

So what of the paradox we started with: If Zen teachers have nothing to teach, why are they so revered? It seems there is a difference between having nothing to teach and being capable of teaching nothing. Having nothing to teach takes no special training, but only those who have deeply seen into their own nature can teach nothing.

Hokuto Daniel Diffin

Hokuto Daniel Diffin

Hokuto Daniel Diffin Osho is an ordained dharma teacher, president of the board at the Zen Studies Society, a poet, and a physician.