by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Chapter 21
The Necessity of Training With a True Master

To make the Truth clear and enter the Way, one must study with a Zen master: one must never try to bring a Zen master's teaching down to one's own level of understanding for, should one try to understand it from one's own self-opinionated view-point, one will never understand. . . . Should the teaching you hear from a Zen master go against your own opinions he is probably a good Zen master: if there is no clash of opinions in the beginning it is bad. . . . Only the Zen masters know the gateway to the Truth; professors have no knowledge thereof."

--Great Master Dogen, Important Aspects of Meditation (Gyakudoyojinshu), translated by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett (in Zen is Eternal Life)

The Importance of Finding and Trusting a True Master

Zen meditation is not a "method" for getting better health, peace of mind, greater competence and happiness, better social adaptation, or any kind of spiritual powers: it is the ultimate act of pure faith, motivated by the deepest and truest of all longings--the longing to fully and eternally re-harmonize with our wonderful True Nature. This is not an area of life in which it is safe to rely on inexpert help or no help at all. To do it right, we need help, and we need the best help available.

It is said in Zen that when the disciple is ready, the master appears. It is far better to wait until one finds one's true teacher and Sangha (community of monks--and in a wider sense, the community of monastic and lay trainees following a particular teacher and teaching) than to follow the advice of the wrong person. When the stakes are so high, it is very unwise to ignore that little voice within oneself that says, "No matter how true this person's words may seem to be, there is something missing here." Similarly, once one has found one's true teacher, it would be very unwise to ignore that little voice that says, "This is what you have been waiting for: trust this person."--And do not settle for partial trust: trust wholeheartedly.

Wholehearted trust is risky: there is no getting around this fact. Zen masters are human beings and can make mistakes. How can one trust another fallible human being?--One can trust another fallible human being by trusting that little voice that told us to trust and follow this person. In trusting one's true teacher one is in fact trusting one's own Buddha Nature. It does not matter that the master is fallible; it does not matter that the disciple is fallible--what matters is that the Eternal is running the show, and both master and disciple are doing their best to follow the Eternal.

The Necessary Context for Doing True Zen Meditation

It has become common in recent years for people to "borrow" meditation from various Buddhist traditions in order to integrate Buddhist meditation into non-Buddhist religious and psychological contexts. While it seems easy enough to do this--after all, anyone can sit down and look at a wall--this mixing of Zen meditation with other practices leads to confusion and the degrading of meditation.

One cannot abstract any part of a complete and finely-tuned contemplative religious practice and teaching from the whole without suffering great loss. The serious practice of Zen meditation requires the following: deep commitment to training in the Precepts; faith in, and penetration of, the Buddhist teachings that so precisely illuminate the path that one has to follow; and, above all, it requires trusting another human being--and the right one--to lead one in one's spiritual journey. Neither I nor my master nor Great Master Dogen nor Soto Zen Buddhism invented this point of view: it goes back to the Buddha Himself, and it has been proved true by countless trainees down through the ages.

It is not enough to spend a few weeks, months or years in a monastery to become a true teacher of Zen; nor is it sufficient to experience a kensho. A true teacher of Zen has trained as a disciple of a master, and always remains a disciple at heart. Commitment to, faith in, and contentment with one master, one spiritual path, one whole practice (not stitched-together bits and pieces of two or more different practices)--these are essential qualities of the true Zen master.

More About Context: The Monastery

Every true temple is the sitting-place of at least one such monk. No secular context for doing meditation can take the place of the Buddhist monastery. That is because no secular context has the monks and the spiritual context that the training of the monks provides. The monastic Sangha is one of the Three Refuges. It is not dispensable.

Traditionally in Zen Buddhism, serious lay trainees are able to join in the training at the local monastery. In the West, for many people who wish to do Zen training, there is no local monastery. However, where there is a sincere wish, a way will open up. It is a mistake to think that because there are few Buddhist monasteries in the West, and because there are relatively few qualified teachers, one cannot find one's true master and one's true Sangha. Again, "when the disciple is ready, the master appears."--And the disciple-to-be will find his or her way to the master via a route that will manifest naturally. Of course, there may be many difficulties along the way, but the truly sincere seeker cannot be stopped by obstacles.

Here is another Zen saying: "The journey to the monastery is half the training." Often, the problem is not that a true master and monastery are not available, but that the prospective trainee allows fear to prevent him from taking refuge in the master and monastery. In the end, we have to want the Truth enough to do some things that we are afraid to do, but that are good to do. When in doubt, when in fear, ask the Eternal for help!



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