Thursday, January 10, 2008


The whole teacher/student thing is interesting to watch. At a big residential place like San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) where I've been staying for the past week or so, it's vital to keep some clear lines of demarcation between teachers and students. The rakusus (little bib-like thingies you get when you receive the Buddhist precepts) are color coded so that you instantly know who here is a priest, who is a lay person and who has dharma transmission. Blue is for lay people, black for non-transmitted priests and brown is for transmitted teachers. Only priests can wear an o-kesa (the sash-like thingy over your shoulder), though other people can wear robes. And non-black o-kesas are a big no-no for anyone not having received transmission. There are written rules for how these various levels should interact. If you want to keep a large scale residential practice center operating smoothly, it's nearly impossible to avoid some variation on this kind of practice.

It's very different, though, from the way I came through the ranks. Even in the matter of rakusus, Nishijima Sensei's policy has always been that whatever color you like is fine. In his lineage anyone can take the precepts, and anyone who does so he considers to be a monk. There's no division between a lay person and a priest. Everyone is encouraged to wear o-kesas, though even I seldom do (sorry, sensei!). Dharma transmission is a different matter. You don't just get that cuz you ask for it as is the case with the precepts. But this too is handled more loosely than it is at SFZC. In Nishijima's line there are no specific steps you must complete before being eligible for transmission. It's more a matter of how Nishijima Sensei or one of his dharma heirs feels about your ability to understand the teaching and practice.

In the worldwide Zen community you'll find all sorts of variations from super tight Soto-shu style which makes even SFZC's style look like a cakewalk, to super loose teachers who make Nishijima's style look like pure Japanese authoritarianism.

In my own case I have been avoiding calling anyone who studies with me "my student." I remember dealing with one Zen teacher who, the very minute he got his robes and started teaching, was all "my student" this and "my student" that. He seemed to cram those words into everything he said just to make sure you knew he had students. It was comical, I tell ya! Maybe that's where my aversion comes from. But casting my mind back to days gone by I'm hard pressed to think of a single instance when my first teacher, Tim, ever called anyone his student. And I can only think of a few times I've heard Nishijima Sensei say it either -- though he does not avoid the word entirely like I do.

The usual teacher/student relationship involves authority and power. As such it can easily be perverted. In fact it seems that it requires great care just to keep such relationships from getting weird right from the get-go.

Anyway. Even once I start giving the precepts to people I will still won't consider any of them "my students." They'll still just be my zazen buddies, like some people have drinking buddies or golf buddies. Please do me a favor and don't start thinking of yourselves as my students either. OK? We cool? Good.



cometboy said...

Another thoughtful post. I do enjoy reading them even when I don't like them.

The thought that comes to mind about the student teacher thing is an old definition of a teacher as someone who knows more about the subject than "his" student(s).

After doing this stuff for twenty some years,( both zazen and Buddhist literature), Brad has just gotta know more about this stuff than me.

I'll work on not respecting him too much for that, though. The whole Godzilla thing does help in that area.

Owen said...

Oh yes, great knowing master thank you for imparting your starry wisdom. :P

Your biggest fan said...

My tea's gone cold I'm wondering why I got out of bed at all
The morning rain clouds up my window and I can't see at all
And even if I could it'd all be gray, but your picture on my wall
It reminds me, that it's not so bad, it's not so bad.

Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain't callin I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got him
There probably was a problem at the post office or something
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot him
but anyways; fuck it, what's been up? Man how's your daughter?
My girlfriend's pregnant too, I'm bout to be a father
If I have a daughter, guess what I'ma call her?
I'ma name her Bonnie
I read about your Uncle Ronnie too I'm sorry
I had a friend kill himself over some bitch who didn't want him
I know you probably hear this everyday, but I'm your biggest fan
I even got the underground shit that you did with Skam
I got a room full of your posters and your pictures man
I like the shit you did with Ruckus too, that shit was phat
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
This is Stan

Dear Slim, you still ain't called or wrote, I hope you have a chance
I ain't mad - I just think it's FUCKED UP you don't answer fans
If you didn't wanna talk to me outside your concert
you didn't have to, but you coulda signed an autograph for Matthew
That's my little brother man, he's only six years old
We waited in the blistering cold for you,
four hours and you just said, "No."
That's pretty shitty man - you're like his fucking idol
He wants to be just like you man, he likes you more than I do
I ain't that mad though, I just don't like being lied to
Remember when we met in Denver - you said if I'd write you
you would write back - see I'm just like you in a way
I never knew my father neither;
he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her
I can relate to what you're saying in your songs
so when I have a shitty day, I drift away and put 'em on
cause I don't really got shit else so that shit helps when I'm depressed
I even got a tattoo of your name across the chest
Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
It's like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me
See everything you say is real, and I respect you cause you tell it
My girlfriend's jealous cause I talk about you 24/7
But she don't know you like I know you Slim, no one does
She don't know what it was like for people like us growin up
You gotta call me man, I'll be the biggest fan you'll ever lose
Sincerely yours, Stan -- P.S.
We should be together too

Dear Mister-I'm-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans,
this'll be the last package I ever send your ass
It's been six months and still no word - I don't deserve it?
I know you got my last two letters;
I wrote the addresses on 'em perfect
So this is my cassette I'm sending you, I hope you hear it
I'm in the car right now, I'm doing 90 on the freeway
Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, you dare me to drive?
You know the song by Phil Collins, "In the Air of the Night"
about that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drowning
but didn't, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?
That's kinda how this is, you coulda rescued me from drowning
Now it's too late - I'm on a 1000 downers now, I'm drowsy
and all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call
I hope you know I ripped ALL of your pictures off the wall
I love you Slim, we coulda been together, think about it
You ruined it now, I hope you can't sleep and you dream about it
And when you dream I hope you can't sleep and you SCREAM about it
I hope your conscience EATS AT YOU and you can't BREATHE without me
See Slim; {*screaming*
Shut up bitch! I'm trying to talk!
Hey Slim, that's my girlfriend screamin in the trunk
but I didn't slit her throat, I just tied her up, see I ain't like you
cause if she suffocates she'll suffer more, and then she'll die too
Well, gotta go, I'm almost at the bridge now
Oh shit, I forgot, how am I supposed to send this shit out?

Dear Stan, I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy
You said your girlfriend's pregnant now, how far along is she?
Look, I'm really flattered you would call your daughter that
and here's an autograph for your brother,
I wrote it on the Starter cap
I'm sorry I didn't see you at the show, I musta missed you
Don't think I did that shit intentionally just to diss you
But what's this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that shit just clowning dog,
c'mon - how fucked up is you?
You got some issues Stan, I think you need some counseling
to help your ass from bouncing off the walls when you get down some
And what's this shit about us meant to be together?
That type of shit'll make me not want us to meet each other
I really think you and your girlfriend need each other
or maybe you just need to treat her better
I hope you get to read this letter, I just hope it reaches you in time
before you hurt yourself, I think that you'll be doin just fine
if you relax a little, I'm glad I inspire you but Stan
why are you so mad? Try to understand, that I do want you as a fan
I just don't want you to do some crazy shit
I seen this one shit on the news a couple weeks ago that made me sick
Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge
and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid
and in the car they found a tape, but they didn't say who it was to
Come to think about, his name was.. it was you

Kat said...

uh well... if I can't be a student can I be a grasshopper?

z0tl said...

yo, brad, i[this email] am yo teacher right now & so's all teh wxrlds around & inside you.

ps: i heard your commentary on Zen Noir movie. now eat a tangelo, it's better than an orange!

Mysterion said...

As I read the book that you wrote, I am your student. If I listen carefully to a question being asked, regardless of the situation of the person asking, I am being a good student. First, a good teacher is a good life-long student.

Unfortunately, not all teachers (pointing at self) can consistently be good teachers. This post sharing your observations with your sangha makes you (Brad) an interesting teacher.


Mysterion said...
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dood said...

just so you guys don't call yourselves my "thinking" buddies - i gave that up years ago!

take care,

Reiki said...

a tibetan teacher said.. from the teacher's side it is like someone had a dream and in that dream you two got married. and now they are all upset that you are talking to the hot girls down the street.

Mysterion said...

Reiki said...
"a tibetan teacher said"

I like that... don't make an emotional relationship out of every episode of intellectual intercourse.

Rich said...

Hey buddy, we cool. anytime you want to hang out and do zazen is fine with me.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

It's interesting to think about. Perhaps since I've been an English teacher for longer than I've been formally involved with Zen, I really don't feel any glamour in the words "my student"--it brings to mind not a reverent disciple, but a bored teenager slouching in a desk. Now that I'm an ordained Zen teacher, I'm seeking a structured place where I can lead meditation and rituals, but I'm pretty sure it will be more like "This is a person who sits with me" than "This is my student."

My teacher P'arang seemed to be careful with those words as well. If someone was in the seminary program, she would likely say, "This is a Dharma student," rather than "my student."

Anonymous said...

One day the master went to the provincial capital. The governor, 0 Joji, invited him to take the High Seat.

Then Mayoku came forward and asked: "The Great Compassionate Kannon has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which eye is the true one?

The master said:
"The Great Compassionate Kannon has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which eye is the true one? Speak — quick, quick!"

Mayoku pulled the master off his seat and himself took the place.

The master went close to him and said: "How goes it?"

Mayoku hesitated.

The master in turn pulled Mayoku down from the seat and resumed his place.

Mayoku left, and so did the master.

Doug said...

I like the doctor/patient analogy, personally. A teacher offers up a prescription: "sit this way, breath this way, *thwack!*" The student can follow that prescription as closely or loosely (or not at all) as he wants, and it might work for him. He can also go see a different doctor if the medicine isn't doing the trick. The authority is only born out of the patient's belief that the doctor knows what he is doing, or the extent to which he deceives himself to that effect.

Good Post!

- Doug

Jinzang said...

A teacher is just somebody who's made the mistake that you're making before and can warn you about it.

There's no way to teach meditation once you explain the basics, because you have to figure it out for yourself. But you can keep people from getting trapped in a mistake, if they're willing to listen.

Roman G. said...

"If the guide is not respected
And the follower not cared for
Confusion will result
no matter how intelligent one may be."
-Tao Teh Ching, Verse 27

anonymouse said...

jinzang & roman G: word

Anonymous said...

Few good teachers are verbose about it so I don't know, but isn't it often that teaching a bi-directional process? Teaches getting taught by the resonance their teaching has on their students...

You start teaching as soon as you speak. You start learning as soon as you listen. Quality does exist but it is hard to measure.

Artaud said...

Hi Brad,

Are you at the same zen centre as Gil Fronsdal? I listen to his podcasts on i-Tunes and quite enjoy them and I was wondering what you thought of his teachings?

They seem to be similar to yours, perhaps just not as aggressive :), but I don't want to get my wires/teachings crossed.

If he's there, say hello from the UK for me, although he wont have a damn clue who I am but it's just to let him know we're listening :)

Plaudertasche said...

Jinzang & Roman & Anonymous:
Amazing how the human bean never gets tiered of using a lot of words for simple things :)

Plaudertasche said...

Jinzang & Roman & Anonymous:
Amazing how the human bean never gets tiered of using a lot of words for simple things :)

Plaudertasche said...

Jinzang & Roman & Anonymous:
Amazing how the human bean never gets tiered of using a lot of words for simple things :)

Plaudertasche said...

Jinzang & Roman & Anonymous:
Amazing how the human bean never gets tiered of using a lot of words for simple things :)

Redwood City said...

Gil Fronsdal Redwood City

Map of Redwood City, CA US

Artaud said...

To Redwood City:

I thought I'd read somewhere that he was in the San Fransisco Zen Centre, possibly on the description of one of his podcasts.

Obviously, thats not the case and now I look very foolish, like a stupid limey with no concept of American geography...which isn't entirely untrue :)

Still if you know Gil, tell him I said thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I love the term 'zazen' buddies'
mentor works for me also
some have been demented mentors. But mentors just the same
I am glad there are many folks and styles out there when it comes to teachers and lineages
truly amazing times we live in
folks just sample what's out there finding the flavor you like is one thing, finding what nourishes...

Mysterion said...

Artaud said...
"Obviously, thats not the case and now I look very foolish..."

No you don't. Locals refer to the entire area as San Francisco and that generally means something like within 25 miles - if not 50. If we named our little villages (e.g. San Leandro - or worse 'Meekland') people in general would have no idea where on Earth that might be hiding.

mysteriondan said...

"The usual teacher/student relationship involves authority and power. As such it can easily be perverted. In fact it seems that it requires great care just to keep such relationships from getting weird right from the get-go."

You are right Brad-sensei. A situation like that could easily devolve into a dreaded butt-buddy relationship. No one wants that..

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

--- 新テロ法案断固反対!

Anonymous said...


Lone Wolf said...

Being Zen Buddies seems a whole lot healthier than the teacher/student. With the latter, it's to easy for that relationship to turn into a Godhead/dorkboy thing.

I recently discovered you have a myspace page Brad. I sent a friend (zen buddy) request.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Nishijima describe zazen as a 'hobby' of his?
I love it! I love it that zazen can be added to a list of so many other 'interests and hobbies' there is something very simple and straightforward about such an approach.
Zazen as a 'shared hobby' to practice with other 'enthusiasts'!
Refreshing, I tell you!

Anonymous said...

Good post Brad :)

Jack Parsons Ghost said...

“Nothing of any importance can be taught. It can only be learned, and with blood and sweat.”

- Robert Anton Wilson

aumeye said...
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Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

Let's see... I refer to Brad as 'my teacher.' I think of myself as his student (and zazen buddy). I've gotten out of bed I don't how many times on Saturdays to attend what Brad calls a 'zazen class.' I've learned (or 'unlearned') a lot from him. When I thought that Brad was moving (he's not, so suck it, Vancouver) my first reaction was, "We need a new teacher -- I wonder how I can convince Kevin to drive down here every Saturday."

But Brad's not a teacher and I'm not his student. I mean, I get that Brad is wary of organizations and hierarchy, but this looks, feels, smells, and tastes like dogshit. After extensive investigation, I'm pretty sure it's dogshit. Maybe he's just warning me to not step in it.

It's either 'very Zen,' or stupid.


Mysterion said...
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friendly neighborhood anonymouse said...

just to continue a little further...

All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made." John I: 3

'In him was life, and the life was the light of men." John I: 4

"And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not." John I: 5

"That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that is born into this world." John I: 9

this little section always struck me, as in "Eureka!"


Mysterion said...
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Jinzang said...

But Brad's not a teacher and I'm not his student.

I think Brad is a little embarrassed by the idea of being a teacher. From my experience, what happens when you start teaching about this stuff is that all the ways you fall short of what your talking about (compassion, mindfulness, etc.) stand up and accuse you. It's difficult to present because people assume you've realized what you're talking about. It's hard to balance the roles of being a teacher and someone who's still not very far on the path.

Noiret Sym Laden said...

Mysterion said "A few people are starting to wake up to the idea that Jesus was an occidental adaptation of the oriental Buddha."

It is much more likely that Sufi teachers were responsible for the innovations and similarities found in Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism and Gnostic Christianity that separate them from the original philosophies/religions that they grew out of. Guru Nanak had an even more obvious Sufi influence from the very beginning of Sikhism.
Check out "The Sufis" by Idries Shah.

Mysterion said...
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Mysterion said...
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Anonymous said...

ありがとう anonymous 9:13 PM,

Joyful to hear that Prime Minister Fukuda
must listen to facts in front of live
national TV audience!

Here in Copenhagen, largest TV
station in Denmark broadcasted live
on "Good Morning, Denmark" with
Professor in Chemistry Niels Harrit.

Godt NytÅr! said...

No getting around it, I'm afraid: Brad you are 'the teacher.' I understand this isn't something you set out to become and you didn't aspire to it, but you is what you is. Part of your charm as a teacher is your eschewing the moniker.
I like the fact that you are letting yourself grow into whatever it is you is, and that you are busting up the starry eyed who come seeking a 'master'.

I hope this is a good year for you and that you get to enjoy yet more of the enjoyable aspects of living in LA.

osho said...

There are two types of creators in the world. One type of creator works with objects - a poet, a painter, they work with objects, they create things. The other type of creator, the mystic, creates himself. He doesn't work with objects, he works with the subject; he works on himself, his own being. And he is the real creator, the real poet, because he makes himself into a masterpiece.

You are carrying a masterpiece hidden within you, but you are standing in the way. Just move aside, then the masterpiece will be revealed. Everyone is a masterpiece, because God never gives birth to anything less than that. Everyone carries that masterpiece hidden for many lives, no knowing who they are and just trying on the surface to become someone.

Drop the idea of becoming someone, because you are already a masterpiece. You cannot be improved. You have only to come to it, to know it, to realize it. God himself has created you; you cannot be improved

noiret sym laden said...

Mysterion said "Hasan of Basra (d. 728) and the Sufis of Islam were only nine centuries too late."

Sufi knowledge and practice predates Islam by thousands of years. They just weren't known by that name yet. One Sufi teacher lamented something like "Sufis were abundant before they had a name. Now that they have a name they are very rare." Some even say that Seth, the son of Adam, was the very first Sufi. Go ahead, Mysterion, tell me that Adam was a Buddhist.

Jinzang said...

Both Christian and Muslim mysticism were derived from Neo-Platonism. The founder of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus, studied Indian philosophy.

Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, Egypt in 204 or 205 C.E. When he was 28, a growing interest in philosophy led him to the feet of one Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. After ten or eleven years with this obscure though evidently dominating figure, Plotinus was moved to study Persian and Indian philosophy.

noiret sym laden said...

Jinzang stated "Plotinus was moved to study Persian and Indian philosophy." It says right there that he LEARNED from it, he didn't invent it or influence it. It was Sufism that influenced later Hinduism, especially regarding Bhakti, not the other way around. The difference between Vedanta and the early Vedas is a revolutionary leap caused by an outside source. The same influence happened to Buddhism in India and generated Zen from Theravada. And it certainly wasn't caused by Plotinus.

dan said...
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dan said...
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dan said...
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dan said...
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dan said...
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dan said...


It's my band.

Jinzang said...

I'm no expert in this stuff, but the time line goes sort of like this:

In India:

600 BC Early Indian mysticism in the Upanishads
500 BC Buddha
200 BC Patanjali, Yoga Sutra
100 BC Pali scriptures written down
100 AD Rise of the Mahayana
200 AD Nagarjuna and Madhyamika
800 AD Sankara and Advaita monism
900 AD Tantric Buddhism

so Indian mysticism reached its full expression long before there was any contact with Islam or Sufism, which started after 1000 AD. You are correct that bhakti was strongly influenced by Islam and so was later Hindu mysticism (Buddhism had mostly disappeared from India.) Of course, there was also some influence the other way.

I don't know enough to construct a time line of western mysticism, but the most relevant figures are Plotinus (200 AD) and Pseudo-Dionysius (600 AD), both who pre-date Islam and Sufism.

DaBeiSyin said...

I just ran into your book at the library: Sit Down and Shut Up. I really love it.

roman g. said...

brad warner wrote:
The rakusus (little bib-like thingies you get when you receive the Buddhist precepts) are color coded so that you instantly know who here is a priest, who is a lay person and who has dharma transmission.

Hmm. Even vestments vary from place to place, I see. For Southwind Sangha, the local Soto Zen group of Wichita, laypersons wear wagesas embroidered with the crests of Eiheiji and Sojiji. Only those with full discipleships get to wear rakusus (which aren't color coded).

Mysterion said...

noiret sym laden said...
"Go ahead, Mysterion, tell me that Adam was a Buddhist."

Nope. Adam = first man. He was not the first man on Earth, he was the first man in the Tribe of Jacob. And Jacob's Tribe was apportioned off to YHWH, one of the Sons of El, and thereafter called Israel.

Son of El -- Tribe
Chemosh -- Moab
Dagon --- Philistia
Baal --- Canaan
Yahweh --- Jacob --- Adam
Milcom --- Ammon
Hadad --- Aram
Qos --- Edom

Amos 7:8
And El said unto Amos, what do you see? And I said, A plumbline. Then said El, Behold, I will set my son YHWH as a plumbline in the midst of (Jacob's Tribe) Israel: I will not again pass by them again.


Mysterion said...
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coburn said...

another bukowksi:
I think it was in "erections, ejaculations, and tales of ordinary madness" published probably in 1969. A story entitled "hey Zen!" About a wedding. And Hank firing on a priest. Pretty funny. I think you'd enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you are a teacher who refuses to consider others as 'students' It's an interesting way remove that power thingy that comes up and has to be resolved with the unveiling of the clay feet--or some other such irrefutable flaw. It's always a bummer, but there is no other way to 'grow up'
But here you are showing another way to 'grow up'--never take on that 'power thingy' from the start.

It's sure sets up an interesting first experience (after having experienced a 'regular' zen teacher)
It's like falling through space--there's no 'solid' to hold on to or push away from.

well that's the best I can come up with now to try to explain the experience


SG article...When's the new one, I mean 'Santa Died for your sins is just so last year!

Anonymous said...

Some claim that Barack Obama was elected by the head Mason as the next President of the USA. And as such, has the backing of all Masons globally.

This has difficulties as the Mormons also claim Mason connections and so you have the head Mormom / prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) electing Romney as the next President with Hinckley's Mason "brothers" electing Obama as the next president...

Which (Mormons or Masons) will win out and so who will rule the USA, behind the scenes ??

Also via his mom, Obama descends from the Davidic Jesus line back to Jesus AND also, back to Mohammed, his father's Muslim religion founder.

All these conflicted intersects bring out the real nature of many candidates in this election, being unknown entirely; and so the key to understanding Obama or any of them, is, who they are?

Can someone get the Masons/Head Mason/Grand Master (Donald Berg) up in New Hampshire to comment on the Mason connection, backing, electing of Obama as next President?

Mysterion said...
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Mysterion said...
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Roman G. said...

The American Masons are a smokin' and jokin' society with a bit of charity work thrown in.

It's those European Masons you have to worry about. . . particularly York rite.

Mysterion said...
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CristionAmerico said...


Bullshit Detector said...

Mysterion, can you really quote sources that you call "later contamination?" Like you want it both ways.

But the bigger issue is habit of dismissing anything you don't agree with as total bullshit.

Which can be fine, except you decide what's bullshit based on what you believe-- not vice versa.

In other words, give some thought to why you put so much stock in Ken Wilber and a bunch of unsourced and unpublished internet "research."

Arturo said...

Hi Brad
Thanks for writing about the differences in the various Zen centers. I practice at SFZC and elswhere, so it helps me understand better. I was not aware of the color coding you mentioned.

I also practice with a pan-Buddhist group, so I'm exposed to other traditions. Zen just feels comfortable. My main practice, though, is yoga. In yoga the teacher-student relationship is very important.

I've heard that if you practice Zen eventually you have to have a teacher. I have informally asked a Zen priest who I met when she gave a Dharma talk at my pan-Buddhist group if she would advice me from time to time. I prefer that to being assigned someone.

What do you mean by D.C in your statement "Teachers that try to be too P.C. do their students a great disservice"?


arcadesdude said...

A real teacher teaches you how to be a true friend, no matter what you're doing or practicing.