Thursday, 5 March 2015

Are Teachers Necessary?

Lightmatter buddha3 This is a long post. It needs to be. If you're a Buddhist, or just a fan of the Buddha, please read patiently; the topic is of importance to the entire worldwide Sangha.

Regular readers know that "no need for teachers" is one of my refrains. That's a given; I'm a hermit. Some of my ilk want all ordination – all teachers – abolished. In the words of one brother: "Burn down the monasteries. Flush 'em into the sunlight. Make 'em walk The Path."

But I have nothing against teachers, as such, or cœnobite practice. Too many of my friends have pledged their lives to it, taken rakusu, and credit it with their salvation. A central tenet of my own Rule is that apostasy doesn't nullify practice; hypocrisy does. The Buddha said that our paths are all our own. Earned over ten thousand lifetimes; bespoke to each of us; necessary to our enlightenment. Criticising the gait of others is a waste of Sangha, at best; at worst it's a kind of murder.

That said, I regularly run into monastery rats who are entirely comfortable telling me, with blunt satisfaction, that my hermit path is a conceit; that I'm not a "real" monk; that the word "Zen" necessarily means submission to a (living, human) master.

Then they smile indulgently, slap up a gassho, and bow deeply, murmuring something about "the Buddha".

Yeah, about that…

To take a page from my Christian brothers and sisters, "What would Gautama do?" Well, we can't know. We can know what he did, but even that we'll have to know in the koanic sense, because the answer is mu. Fact is, teachers were so important to the Buddha's enlightenment regimen that he never mentioned them, according to my unscientific, non-exhaustive survey of the sutras. (Note: I'm aware that some sutras aren't the authentic words of the Buddha. I'm also aware that the Buddha gave hundreds of sermons that haven't survived to our time. But if we insist on pitching legalities at each other, the sutras are all we've got. And you started it.)

So. Truth.

Almost all sutric occurrences of "master" or "teacher" refer to Gautama himself. (And Ananda, in at least one case.) In parables, "master" usually refers to an employer or householder. In any case, there are very few references to "Buddhist masters", and essentially none to what monks might "owe" them.

But the Buddha himself did have masters – two that he was willing to claim – in his seeking days. One was Uddaka Ramaputta, a Brahmanic meditation teacher; the other was Alara Kalama, a hermit monk (oh, snap!). And in his first-ever teaching, he dismissed both as unnecessary.

Moving forward, in the Pratimoksha – regulations for Buddhist monks – he says:
All of you Bhikkhus [monks]! After my Nirvana, you should revere and honor the Pratimoksha. […]You should know that it is your great teacher, and is not different from my actual presence in the world.
Human teachers are not mentioned, even though he's literally laying down the law.

In a even more poignant moment, the sutras have this to say:
1. Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: "It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: 'Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone. (Emphasis mine.)
Oddly, the sutra then claims that he said:
2. "And, Ananda, whereas now the Bhikkhus address one another as 'friend,' let it not be so when I am gone. The senior Bhikkhus, Ananda, may address the junior ones by their name […] but the junior Bhikkhus should address the senior ones as 'venerable sir' or 'your reverence.’
Let me get this straight: this bizarre command ("after I die, stop following my lifelong example") was important enough for the Buddha to deliver on his death bed, in his final words to his sangha? Yeah. Bullshit. Just as the Gospels were trafficked to serve worldly interests, this document has been hacked. And not even skilfully; check out the very next line:
3. "If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules.
So let's sum up these three paragraphs: "We have too many rules. My teachings are all you need. Oh, and some dictators, too." I'll say it again: Bullshit.

In fact, just in case somebody wants to set himself up as a dictator, the Buddha goes on in the fourth paragraph to make a very pointed last request, entirely consistent with his lived teaching:
4. "Ananda, when I am gone, let the higher penalty be imposed upon the Bhikkhu Channa."
"But what, Lord, is the higher penalty?"
"The Bhikkhu Channa, Ananda, may say what he will, but the Bhikkhus should neither converse with him, nor exhort him, nor admonish him."
Ouch! Why all the hate on this dude Channa? Well, Channa (Chandaka in Sanskrit) was charioteer to the young Gautama. It was he who took the adolescent prince outside the family compound, against the king's orders, to witness human suffering and ultimately abdicate the royal succession in favour of monastic practice.

According to tradition, Chandaka later became a disciple of the Buddha, whereupon, because of his personal relationship with him, he began to lord it over the other monks. As the Buddha's health failed, Chandaka let it be known that he intended to assume authority over the sangha after the Master's death. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta records the Buddha's reply: "As if." (Note also that the worst punishment the Buddha can conceive is simply not responding. Far cry from the shunning and vituperation some contemporary teachers call down on their critics.)

Another version of the same scene omits specific commentary on the Chandaka matter and cuts straight to the chase:
The Buddha further explained: "If there is anyone who thinks [after my death], 'It is I who will lead the brotherhood', or 'The Order is dependent on me, it is I who should give instructions', the Buddha does not think that He should lead the order or that the Order is dependent on Him."
Alright. But seriously, could there really be no sutra passages (besides the suspect Paragraph 2, above) that recognise the master-disciple relationship?

Well, here it says that those who tread the path of Enlightenment should support Dharma masters materially (the modern Buddhist notion of dana), "making sure they lack nothing". So such masters apparently exist. Yet they aren't owed obedience; that's a Confucian notion, foreign to the Buddha in every sense. It's also worth pointing out that of 36 instances of the word "master" in this translation, the other 35 refer to the Buddha himself.

In yet another sutra, the Buddha praises a Master Sunetto – who died long before his lifetime – in the Sermon of the Seven Suns. But again, he draws no parallels with his own programme.

In the Suda Sutta he compares the monk to a cook, who
…takes note of his master, thinking, "Today my master likes this curry, or he reaches out for that curry, or he takes a lot of this curry or he praises that curry. Today my master likes mainly sour curry... Today my master likes mainly bitter curry... mainly peppery curry... mainly sweet curry... alkaline curry... non-alkaline curry... salty curry... Today my master likes non-salty curry, or he reaches out for non-salty curry, or he takes a lot of non-salty curry, or he praises non-salty curry." As a result, he is rewarded with clothing, wages, and gifts. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skilful cook picks up on the theme of his own master.
This sounds thunderously similar to exhortations in Zen literature on the deference and service a monk owes his teacher. Ah, but there's more:
In the same way, there are cases where a wise, experienced, skilful monk remains focused on the body in and of itself... feelings in and of themselves... the mind in and of itself... mental qualities in and of themselves -- ardent, alert, and mindful -- putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. As he remains thus focussed on mental qualities in and of themselves, his mind becomes concentrated, his defilements are abandoned. He takes note of that fact. As a result, he is rewarded with a pleasant abiding here and now, together with mindfulness and alertness. Why is that? Because the wise, experienced, skilful monk picks up on the theme of his own mind.
So the master here is not a person at all. It's a metaphor for the relationship we should have with our own nature. That is, it's the same theme of personal autonomy that runs through the Buddha's entire teaching.

It's true that I didn't search every sutra in existence, and I'm certain a competent zendo lawyer could find one somewhere to build a case on. But after several hours of research, I found not a single Buddhic statement directing seekers to submit to teachers, masters, or abbots. According to my man Gautama, there are exactly three treasures:
  1. Buddha – sole, one-time-only human teacher
  2. Dharma – the universal Truth and master, accessible to all through meditation
  3. Sangha – the community of seekers
Still holding out for categorical?
Yourself depending on the Dhamma, honouring it, revering it, cherishing it, doing homage to it and venerating it, having the Dhamma as your badge and banner, acknowledging the Dhamma as your master, you should establish guard, ward and protection according to Dhamma. (My emphasis.)
I've now dumped a whole truckful of electrons on this subject. Few readers will have made it this far; the Internet rule is "short and punchy". But this issue needs old-fashioned, grown-up attention. And the conclusion is cogent and irrefutable:
  1. Teachers are not Buddhic.
  2. Buddhists are not required to have teachers.
  3. Those who do have teachers, are not required to marry them.
None of which means that teachers are "bad", in my opinion. I read copiously from the written thoughts of contemporary teachers, and listen to their podcasted teishos. Their wisdom and direction are a pillar of my practice. Further, the innovated master-student relationship that currently passes for mainstream Buddhism is rich and productive for many people. It's not in the sutras. But a thing doesn't have to be in the sutras to be valid; scripture never gets around to mentioning most of life. Finally, I find much in the monastery – itself almost entirely exsutric – that's powerful and effective. More that is, than isn't.

But external direction and ordination aren't necessary. Period.

(Photo of the Buddha in vitarka ["giving instruction"] mudra -- "talk to the hand!" -- courtesy of Aaron Logan and Wikimedia Commons.)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...