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Barbara O'Brien

Relying on the Dharma

By October 2, 2012

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I'm still looking at the Four Reliances (or Reliables), which are guides for practice found in several Mahayana texts. I've learned that the original Sanskrit word translated as "reliable" is pratisarana. The root "sarana" means "refuge," and it's the same word translated as "refuge" in the Going for Refuge ceremony.

The first of the four guides usually is translated Rely on the dharma, not the teacher. As I understand this, very basically this Reliance is telling us that the truth of the dharma is the priority, and the role of the teacher is subordinate. Or, the role of the teacher is to reveal the truth of the dharma.

That sounds pretty simple, but I know we get it wrong a lot. This is not always a teacher's fault. A lot of us go through at least part of our lives looking for a spiritual Mommy or Daddy, and when we think we've found one we easily get attached. In my experience, good teachers do not encourage this attachment. But a few do encourage the attachment, and this includes a few with impressive institutional credentials.

I've been told that in Asia it was a common practice for monastics to travel from one monastery to another to receive instruction from different teachers. It occurs to me that this was a healthy practice for the monks and nuns as well as for Buddhism. Constant cross-pollination kept the teachings alive and honest.

However, I want to be clear that I'm not encouraging spiritual tourism. Spiritual tourism is flitting from one retreat or dharma center to another without making a commitment to one path of practice. Truly, this is just skimming the surface. On the other hand, I run into people who seem to think all wisdom comes from the mouth of one particular teacher, and that's attachment.

If you're open to the dharma, you find that the dharma is always teaching. However, the guidance of a teacher is invaluable to help you clarify what you experience and to sort real insight from wishful thinking.

My personal experiences with teachers have all been positive, but maybe some of you have insights from your own experiences to share.

October 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm
(1) Brion Emde says:

I wrote of my experiences at a week-long retreat in California in 2004 in my LiveJournal blog. I’m not sure if you allow links in comments, but here’s the link to the first day’s worth of writing about it (actually, I’d tried writing about it earlier and failed and at the end of the second journal I link to that earlier effort):


October 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Brion — I read your post about the retreat. A few questions — you don’t mention the teacher’s name, so I don’t know if you’re talking about a lineage holder or someone who just is calling herself a Zen teacher, but isn’t. If your account is accurate, the teacher’s response to your questions was odd, but the group discussions tell me this wasn’t a traditional Zen retreat.

Also, the quote by Suzuki Roshi was odd and makes no sense to me. I wanted to know the context, so I did a keyword search in an online text of “Zen Mind” and couldn’t find it. I suspect you remember it wrong. As I said, it makes no sense. If you can find the original quote do give me a page number.

About the conditioning — what Zen puts you through takes a long time. In the beginning it is kind of a counter-conditioning, but if you keep going that drops away. This takes most of us a few years. However, letting that happen means letting go of judgments and opinions. If that’s hard for you, Zen might not be your practice.

October 4, 2012 at 7:06 pm
(3) Dennis Yap says:

In my experience, one teacher points you to another. I have the good fortune of meeting a bikkhuni over some personal and family problems. Her advise made complete sense to me and everything started to fall into place. Since, she has become a teacher of mine. I attend her sutra study class twice weekly.

One day, out of the blue she advised to me was to seek teachers who practice strong sila. Coincidentally, a few days later, I met a meditation guru who in closing the class reminded us to remember how we have kept the precepts for the day.

I had a feeling that for the time being I have found 2 gurus who will guide my practice.

October 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm
(4) Brion Emde says:

I can’t find the quote either. Next time I read ZMBM I’ll be double attentive and let you know.

Now, she’s not a real lineage holder. I’m not sure her teacher was either. Her monastery was/is out in Murphys, CA. Using that, you should be able to track her down.

That experience led me to seek out a real lineage holder.

I’ve always had a problem with teachers, of all sorts. I hold them to unrealistic standards. It’s not only teachers that I do that with. I’ve been practicing zen, on and off, mostly on, for 25 years now, mostly on my own.

Thanks for the feedback, Barbara.

October 5, 2012 at 9:48 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Now, she’s not a real lineage holder.

Ah. Then she’s not a Zen teacher. That’s not to say that she’s a bad teacher, or that an official lineage holder is always going to be better (some are clunkers, actually). But the lineage tradition is critical to maintaining the integrity of Zen, and anyone genuinely respectful of the Zen tradition would not take on a teaching role without transmission, except under extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances do occur, of course.

But here in the West it’s extraordinarily easy to get away with calling oneself a “Zen teacher.” If you’ve got the vocabulary and some chutzpah you can fake it and fool a lot of people, and make a good living at it, too. But it says something that I suspected the teacher (and yes, I know who she is) was not a Zen teacher from your description. She’s not faking it very well.

So here’s my lecture: Any kind of “thing” about teachers or any other authority figure is rooted in the illusion of a separate self. Ultimately the designations “teacher’ and “student” are just that, designations, that have no reality except in relation to each other. In other words, “teacher” is just something you’re creating with your own thoughts that has no separate or inherent existence. Ultimately, there’s just practice.

I tend to feel comforted when teachers reveal themselves to be flawed and human, because they are. I used to be intimidated by them. My first teacher used to scare the stuffing out of me, even though he was always very kind to me. When I began to see the whole process as nothing but ceaseless practice, everything changed. When water is disturbed, there are waves. That’s all it is.

October 5, 2012 at 2:42 am
(6) Jag Kapri says:

The Sanskrit word ‘Pratisaran’ may not mean Relience. Because the prefix Prati suggests the successive action . For instance Kriya in Sanskrit means Action. Whereas Pratikriya is Reaction. Similarly Bimb (image) and Pratibimb (image of image). Pratisaran therefore would mean refuse of refuse ( surrender).
Moreover, the words in scriptures are normally symbolic. The symbolism here is taht the Dharma is the way to Truth and not the Teacher. Therefore go to the refuse of the Dharma not the Teacher.. Same wayu rely on the meaning (experience) not on mere words etc…..

October 5, 2012 at 8:00 am
(7) Brion Emde says:

I found the real quote. It’s in the chapter, “Believing in Nothing”, in Part 3, Page 117, about halfway in, in a paragraph starting, “So it is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing…”

And what I misquoted 8 years ago is, “If you become the victim of Buddhism, I may be very happy, but you will not be so happy.”

It just jumped out at me skimming the book for a few minutes.

October 5, 2012 at 11:12 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ah, OK, here’s the Shunryu Suzuki quote in the context of a paragraph:

So it is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity. This is called Buddha nature, or Buddha himself. When this existence is personified we call it Buddha; when we understand it as the ultimate truth we call it Dharma; and when we accept the truth and act as a part of the Buddha, or according to the theory, we call ourselves Sangha. But even though there are three Buddha forms, it is one existence which has no form or color, and it is always ready to take form and color. This is not just theory. This is not just the teaching of Buddhism. This is the absolutely necessary understanding of our life. Without this understanding our religion will not help us. We will be bound by our religion, and we will have more trouble because of it. If you become the victim of Buddhism, I may be very happy, but you will not be so happy. So this kind of understanding is very, very important.

Ooo, I really like that sentence beginning “When this existence is personified … ” I’ll have to do a blog post on that some day. (It’s been several years since I read this book, obviously. Maybe I should read it again.)

OK, first off, I am on record as saying that “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” or “ZMBM,” is not a good book for beginners. There’s a lot of “zenspeak” in the book that someone not grounded in how Zen uses language would misunderstand. However, it is utter BS to say, as you say Ms. Huber did, that “Suzuki Roshi was an enlightened person and that we can’t really say what he meant by his statement.” What a cop out! That was a huge red flag.

And, anyway, what Suzuki Roshi was saying is pretty obvious, if you look at the context of the quote within the book.

In this part of the book Suzuki Roshi is speaking to a perspective without self-reference, without subject and object. As long the perspective is that Buddhism is something you are doing, subject-object, it’s not going to be right. This is the perspective of attachment. If you are attached to Buddhism or anything else, you are creating subject-object with your thoughts, you are still bound to dukkha, still a victim. And in that way you can be a victim of Buddhism. You can also be a victim of toast, shoes, or anything else you objectify. It would be just as correct to say that you are victimizing Buddhism, toast, and shoes, as well as yourself.

So, Suzuki Roshi says, “But even though there are three Buddha forms, it is one existence which has no form or color, and it is always ready to take form and color. This is not just theory. This is not just the teaching of Buddhism. This is the absolutely necessary understanding of our life. Without this understanding our religion will not help us.” Until you are not attached to it, Buddhism will not help you. “Attachment” is any habit of mind that perpetuates the delusion of a separate self (see article on attachment). So, attachment to Buddhism will not help you and is not sincere practice.

Then Suzuki Roshi says, “If you become the victim of Buddhism, I may be very happy, but you will not be so happy.” I don’t read that as saying he wants people to be victims of Buddhism, because up to that point he clearly is advising against it. He’s saying he finds happiness in the dharma, but you won’t find it as long as you are attached to it.

It’s all in Dogen’s Genjokoan –

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. … To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized [or enlightened] by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

This is essentially the same thing Suzuki Roshi is saying.

October 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm
(9) mark says:

In my previous Sangha, the charismatic leaders traveled, shook hands and spoke with other groups, making nice, but rarely shared anything of import and almost never opened their own, or their members, beliefs or practices to them. No debate, no discussion. Never did they have any other books available in their temples of other’s approaches, dialectics or beliefs beside their own. We were subtly discouraged from participating in other places. Encouraged to believe the leaders, both living and passed on, were all-knowing and infallible parents. Only through their system and methods could some (dubious) little wisdom be squeezed out, and virtually all that coming from oneself without their continued assistance deemed as egotism. You think, in light of the four reliances, they’re wrong-headed and on the wrong track? Am i mis-perceiving them, and ascribing negative intentions or approaches to a basically benign community? When is a lot of guidance just too much–or is it a matter of the quality of it? Still seeking clarification, and wisdom.

October 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

mark — what you describe sounds screwy to me, too. My teachers have always made working with their students their first priority. Also, I’ve never had a teacher discourage a student from checking out other teachers and other traditions. Do you mind saying what tradition this is?

October 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm
(11) Susana says:

Imagine the chill in the back of my neck when exploring on the web the Buddhist offer here in México, I came to the page of an institution which his founder begun to teach only four years after he meet Buddhism, I’ll translate some parts of the curricula of his own website, quote:
“He meet Buddhism since 1996, trough intensive reading of most of the work of the XIV Dalai Lama, who has been, since, one of his principal spiritual guides trough his books and some teachings. Afterwards he formed himself with two important teachers of the Buddhist Order of Occident, Dhr. Upekchamati and the master Kavindu. He has participated in several retreats with Lamas and Guehse, where highlights a retreat with Lama Zopa Rimpoché, among others. Keeps attending as student to retreats, courses and conferences about Buddhism most of all under the direction of Tibetan Buddhist monks, never the less he also participates in Zen Buddhism retreats.
Is author of books of poetry and political science. In total he had published more than ten books. Since 2006 begins the edition of different books about Buddhism and meditation themes. The most known are: The Budhadharma, Pax Editoria, México: Abandon your self and The art of living well, ABK Editorial and Four Tibetan Meditations, EÓn Editorial, México, 2010…
… Since the year 2000, directs and offers courses about Buddhism, meditation seminars and spiritual retreats of meditation and Buddhist teachings in México City; Tijuana, Baja California; Xalapa, Veracruz and Querétaro among other cities…”

October 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm
(12) Susana says:

I may be wrong, but I wonder if some one can really begin teaching Buddhism after of only four years of knowing about it trough “intense reading of most of the work of the XIV Dalai Lama” and publishing books within ten years.
And which kind of Buddhist teaching offers some one who states on his webpage that “… is an institution free, open and autonomous to all Buddhist schools and lineages; because we consider that is more important the quality of the teaching that the authority that exposes it.” And belongs to a movement that here in México has at least another institution than is call “Free and lay (as in secular) Buddhism”
I agree with you Barbara, that been a Teacher is not guarantee of anything, there are good and bad ones, but I think that the Teacher, Tradition and Lineage work together. I been learning Buddhism for six years now, reading, searching, I attended Tibet House in Guadalajara México, as a student for almost two years, now I can’t afford it any more, because I don’t know some were else, but in México been a Buddhist is an expensive business, but that’s theme for another post; my point is that after this six years I barely dare to respond to your posts, not say teach Buddhism to some one else! I keep reading and learning and trying to understand. I’m aware that I’m only, if at all, scratching the surface.

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