Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Teacher in Everything

Robert Aitken Roshi

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           © Mindy Gross

In taking up Zen Buddhism, we find that the life of the Buddha is our own life. Not only Shakyamuni’s life, but the lives of all the succeeding teachers in our lineage are our own lives. As Wu-men Hui-k’ai has said, in true Zen practice our very eyebrows are tangled with those of our ancestral teachers, and we see with their eyes and hear with their ears. This is not because we copy them, or change to be like them. I might explain Wu-men's words by saying that in finding our own true nature, we find the true nature of all things, which the old teachers so clearly showed in their words and actions. But the authentic experience of identity is intimate beyond explanation. And it’s not only with old teachers that we find complete intimacy. The Chinese thrush sings in my heart and gray clouds gather in the empty sky of my mind. All things are my teacher.

On the Zen path, we seek for ourselves the experience of Shakyamuni. However, we do not owe fundamental allegiance to him, but to ourselves and to our environment. If it could be shown that Shakyamuni never lived, the myth of his life would be our guide. In fact it is better to acknowledge at the outset that myths and religious archetypes guide us, just as they do every religious person. The myth of the Buddha is my own myth.

Thus, it is essential at the beginning of practice to acknowledge that the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else’s. You must walk it for yourself. In this spirit, you invest yourself in your practice, confident of your heritage, and train earnestly side by side with your sisters and brothers. It is this engagement that brings peace and realization.

From Taking the Path of Zen, by Robert Aitken, ©1982 by Diamond Sangha. Reprinted with permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Image: © Mindy Gross

A student said,
"I compare myself to other students
and feel inadequate.
"I haven't read anything about Buddhism."
"Oh! That's the best way to come to practice."
Suzuki Roshi answered.

It was my first sesshin and,
before the first day was over, I was convinced
I couldn't make it.
My husband's turn for dokusan came that afternoon.
He asked Suzuki Roshi to see me instead.
"This is all a mistake," I told Roshi.
"I can't do this; I just came to be with my husband."
"There is no mistake," he insisted.
"You may leave, of course, but there's no place to go."

Suzuki Roshi said during a talk
that some of us wanted to be Zen masters,
and that this was very foolish.
He said that he wished he was like us, just starting out.
"Maybe you think you are green apples
hanging on a tree,
waiting to ripen so that you can be Buddhas," he said,
"but I think you are already ripe,
perfect Buddhas now, ready to be picked."

—from To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

Our path is always our own but by studying the Dharma within the Sangha we also learn how our path is everyone's.

tf's picture

I especially liked this:
"He said that he wished he was like us, just starting out."

marginal person's picture

*the myth of the buddha becomes my own myth* Interesting how myth hardens into dogma . If you meet the buddha on the road kill him! Not really, but at least be skeptical.

celticpassage's picture

"Interesting how myth hardens into dogma"

Only if you're trying to be a Buddhist

marginal person's picture

Or maybe trying not to be one.

marginal person's picture

Perhaps when we label or name any thing, we take it out of the flux of the universe and isolate it. Then we speak about it as if it has an independent existence apart from everything else. Language is necessary but using it is like walking through a minefield.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Which is why it's critical to use a dependable mine detector (i.e. your wisdom) as you carry on.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Myth hardens to dogma: the 10 Commandments were carved into stone tablets. People find comfort in certainty.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's the human condition. Myths, religion, spiritual questions are not the concerns of animals.

marginal person's picture

Not my point Sorry I wasn't clear.

Dominic Gomez's picture

No prob. Shows how important dialogue is.

jigme_phuntsog's picture

What a beautiful article! Indeed, when we look from pure awareness -our true identity-, everything is our teacher. "The Chinese thrush sings in my heart and gray clouds gather in the empty sky of my mind. All things are my teacher". Thanks for this gem.