Monthly Archives: August 2014

This Precious Human Birth


Max and I walk along a eucalyptus lined street at dusk. He-sniffing something I’m unable to smell, me- blinded by the late afternoon light. All of a sudden a cool breeze brushes my cheek. That soft kiss stops me in my tracks as Max stops to smell the dead leaves underneath some oak brush. There is a whisper of impending winter, a damp billowing fog rolling over the Sonoma mountains, and, most striking, an awareness of being alive-right now.

I usually walk through my life taking the breeze, the smell of diesel fuel, the sound of kids on a playground, for granted. I’m alive, so what? But I’m alive now, this fleeting moment. The Tibetan Buddhist texts speak about the miracle of taking birth in a human body and what a rare blessing it is if we land where authentic teachings are available. The Buddha urged us to make good use of the short span of time we have been gifted with.

There’s a koan my meditation group is sitting with now. It goes:

There was a woman who kept the pilgrim’s inn at Hara under Mt Fuji. Her name is unknown, and it is not known when she was born or died. 

 She is completely unknown, just like most of us. There are famous bodhisattvas and unknown bodhisattvas. Throughout history there have been countless unnamed awakened ones walking amongst us. This little detail of the woman from Hara’s life begs the question, how many other unknown awakened ones are in our midst? Our neighbors? Relatives? The bagger at the grocery store?

 She went to hear a talk by Hakuin, who said, “The Pure Land, where everything is only mind, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is in your own body, Once Amida appears- mountains, rivers, and earth, plants, trees and forests, all glow with a great light. If you want to see this, look into your own heart. Since the Pure Land is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? Since the Buddha of Infinite Light is your own body, how would you recognize it?”

 Hakuin was talking to an assembly of Pure Mind practitioners, imploring them to find awakening here and now, within themselves rather than believing that awakening will be ours in some far, distant afterlife. Where is here? What is now? You are here reading these words, drinking your tea, shifting to your left side, feeling an ache in your toe. This is where the Pure Land exists.

 When she heard this, the woman said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.”

 Ah, the practicality of a simple woman! She had a real jump on those young monks who were sweating over texts, striving to understand life through study and hard work. No arcane holy books to understand, no Torah or biblical commentary, no need for explanation from someone more “advanced” than she. We humans tend to make things more difficult than they actually are. We give up our authority to others who are often happy to be “the experts” thereby loosing the opportunity for intimacy within our lives.

 Returning home, she meditated day and night, asking these questions while she was awake and during sleep. One day, as she was washing a pot, she had a sudden breakthrough. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She said, “I’ve run across Amida in my own body and everything on earth is shining with a great light. It’s wonderful!” She danced for joy.

 The autumn breeze is kissing her cheek. What a joy! She is alive!!

“Is that so?” Hakuin asked, “But what about a pile of shit-does it shine with a great light too?”

 Wonderful, blessed teacher! The old scoundrel doesn’t let her off the hook so easily. Is her joy only for the good times? It’s easy to feel gratitude when thanksgiving arrives and the family sits around a full table. How about feeling gratitude when there is only one apple in the cupboard? When there are bills to be paid and the car is breaking down?

 The woman ran up and slapped him, saying, “”You still don’t get it, you old fart!” Hakuin roared with laughter.

 Slapping an honored teacher? How truly democratic! What a fresh response! Hakuin has found another friend on the path. They walk along together.

 Max and I continue to walk together, him drunk with sniffing, me drunk with the blazing late summer sun in my eyes and the breath of fall on my face.




The art of teaching


I once had a voice teacher named Frank Baker. Teaching voice is a tricky thing. Unlike other instruments, the sound of the voice is formed inside the body- hidden from view. With a cello, a teacher can say, “Hold the bow like this” and demonstrate. But with voice the directions are demonstrated with images like, “Open your throat as if you are holding a small ball in the back of your palate”. Over many years of taking voice lessons from different teachers I’ve heard all sorts of metaphors. The vocalist is the only musician who employs words as well as music in her art, which comes in handy when teaching someone how to sing. Frank was brilliant at this, as were my other significant voice teachers. They knew how to intuitively look inside the singer’s body and apply a few choice words to adjust the sound. Frank once said, “The audience becomes the singer and the singer becomes the sound”. The voice teacher is a poet, always looking for the very best words to evoke a feeling.

When I asked Frank how he was so good at finding just the right words to urge my sound to release its nectar, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said, the reason he could teach as well as he did was because he had made every mistake in the book. In my twenties that sounded like a surprising answer, now, in my 60’s, it makes perfect sense. Just like the CEO who works her way up from the bottom, learning all the aspects of the business along the way, any teacher can only really know her students struggles if she’s felt them in her own body. Prodigies don’t always make the best teachers. If they jumped deftly from point A to point B they most likely don’t remember the journey between those two points. It’s that journey which a teacher shares with her students. Sometimes the slowest students make the best teachers.

The teacher student relationship is a precious one. It is personal and intimate, whether between a parent and a child or a guru and his acolyte. To truly love personally and uniquely is, perhaps, the most important thing a great teacher brings to the table. The best teachers really care about who we are and what makes us tick. They love the essence that inhabits the body and mind of each of their students.

Great teachers also have a wonderful sense of humor. They make learning fun. A good example is this Zen koan:

One day Layman Pang and his daughter, Lingzhao, were out selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, the Layman stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.

“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.

“I saw you fall so I’m helping, “replied Lingzhao.

“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

 What a funny picture! A father falls down, then the daughter throws herself to the ground next to him. A delightful way to talk about how empathy requires putting ourselves in the others position-literally!

The artful teacher will tell us to, “go left” or “go right” at times, but she will also walk with us, hand in hand, as we figure out for ourselves whether to go left or right. It requires the subtle art of discrimination to decide when to offer information and when to facilitate discovery.  These are the sorts of choices a teacher is faced with daily. The challenge becomes navigating the friction between wanting the student to learn from our mistakes so they don’t have to waste time going down endless dark alleys, and realizing that the student needs to experience their own repertoire of mistakes. Wanting to ease your pain, a teacher might say, “don’t go there. It’s wasted effort”, knowing that you will use up precious time meandering down a dark path and might even meet an unsavory character or two along the way. It’s the same thing with our kids. We see them going down a dark alleyway and want to protect them. But we won’t always be around to protect them. Maybe it’s best they go down a few dark alleyways while we’re still around to help them integrate what they found there. Then, they can develop their own instincts. Still, we want to protect them, and sometimes it’s important that we do so. What to do? This sort of art takes many years to cultivate.

Having an intimate relationship with a teacher is an important part of the Buddhist path. This sort of close student teacher relationship has led to a great depth of understanding within Buddhist practitioners throughout the ages. It has also led to abuses. Teachers, being human, sometimes take advantage of their position due to their own greed for fame, money and/or sex. It’s surprising how often this is the case, not just in our culture, but throughout the world. It’s a slippery slope for the charismatic teacher. The problem is made worse by any sense of entitlement they may be harboring due to the adulation of others or any feelings of superiority or inferiority they may bring with them to the job. Teachers, all of us, are prone to believing our own press-especially if the news is good! When people are telling us we are wonderful it’s easy to forget that we are just another bozo on the bus, no better or worse than the people we are sharing the path with.

The teaching path is fraught with personal dangers, doesn’t pay well, is hard work and requires living in a state of constant humility regarding what little anyone can actually do to alter another person’s pattern. In the Zen group, where I was a student, when someone becomes a sensai they are greeted with, “Congratulations and condolences.” In it’s truest form, being a teacher is a selfless act. This does not mean the teacher has no ego. All of us remain attached to that red thread. Our teachers are not above us, they’re just taking the role of teacher in this round. It’s good for the student to remember that even the best teacher is just as capable of ignorance as we are. We’re awakening one another.

Teaching is a life of service with no guarantee of financial security or recognition. I am grateful for the generosity of Frank and all my other teachers, past, present and future. They have all been flawed human beings- as am I, and I accept this. But their hearts were filled with genuine concern for my development and they plied their trade with beauty and grace. They allowed me to learn from their mistakes, but also knew I had to take my own first steps alone and wisely stood back, remaining fully present as I walked my own, unique path.