Finding The Right Teacher, Finding the Right Practice

Lama Yeshe and Jan Willis, 1974

Wesleyan University Professor Jan Willis tells a beautiful story [1] about finding her teacher, Lama Yeshe. The first time she heard his name mentioned:

“I began to experience a strange, though pleasant, sensation.  It was unlike any sensation I had ever experienced before: a sort of warm tingling feeling that began at the nape of my neck and then radiated downward and outward to encircle my whole body.  Then, as though I had suddenly stepped into an invisible field of static electricity, I noticed that the hairs on my skin stood up erect.”

Before meeting her future teacher, Willis had a near death experience in a terrible automobile accident while hitchhiking from Paris to Lyon. After Willis’s first meeting with Lama Yeshe in Nepal, his parting words were:

“Lama is so happy you… have come, especially after… you know… that bad thing in France.”

She had never discussed her accident or traveling in Europe with him.  How could he have possibly known?

Their’s was a magical connection from the very first.

If you have a story like that to tell, then you too have met your teacher.

If you don’t have a story like that, how do you find your teacher?  How do you discover which tradition to practice with?  One of the Tibetan schools?  Zen?  Pure Land?  Theravada?

There are so many choices — 84,000 Dharma doors.

For most of us, our journey begins from the time we first learned about the Dharma.  It seems pure happenstance, how and when we first learn of something.  Of course, some would say it’s no accident — that our opportunities to learn the Dharma are a function of our karma.

I’ve written before about my first exposure to Zen at a series of Alan Watts lectures at my college.  Those lectures kindled my interest in Buddhism, but didn’t lead to my finding a teacher.  At least, not immediately.  Think of it as a seed that had been planted, but the conditions were not yet ripe for it to come to fruition. Some of my contemporaries did find teachers.  One friend went to Rochester and became a Zen priest under the guidance of Philip Kapleau Roshi.  I, on the other hand, had just graduated college, was looking for work, was thinking about a career, was getting married.  Running off to Rochester – never mind Katmandu!  — was not in my plans.

My introduction to practice came years later when Ferris Urbanowski, one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR teachers, came to Connecticut to give a talk.  I’d seen Jon’s work on a PBS Bill Moyer’s series called The Healing of the Mind and was immediately hooked.  Watching the filmed images of Jon teaching meditation to chronic pain patients awakened the seed planted years earlier by Alan Watts.  As a psychologist, I’d treated chronic pain patients with biofeedback and hypnosis with limited success.  I was intrigued by the possibility of using meditation to ease their suffering.  When I attended Ferris’s workshop, I thought I was acquiring a skill to help my patients.  Instead, as I meditated for the first time under her guidance, I discovered something of vital importance for myself.  At the end of the workshop I asked Ferris if I could train at the Center for Mindfulness.  She told me I’d first need to cultivate my own meditation practice and then complete at least one ten-day retreat before applying.  I began sitting daily, did my first ten-day retreat at IMS with Ruth Denison, and did my internship at the Center for Mindfulness.  I was off and running.

Ferris, Jon and Ruth were fabulous first teachers, but neither Ferris nor Jon billed themselves as Buddhist teachers, and Ruth, who was authorized to teach, was on the other side of the continent.  I began searching for local teachers I could learn more from.  I attended the Buddhism in America conference in Boston in 1997 where I heard Dharma talks from a variety of teachers from different traditions.  Two of them “clicked” for me: Larry Rosenberg and Toni Packer.  I then went on a number of retreats with both of them and am deeply grateful for what I learned.

What made Larry and Toni “right” for me?  For one thing, they didn’t have inflated egos.  They didn’t call themselves “Enlightened.”  They didn’t surround themselves with  admirers.  They didn’t project themselves as charismatic leaders.  They didn’t ask for submission, obedience, agreement, or belief.

The first thing I felt with both of them was “safe.”  I didn’t have to surrender my intelligence or my independence.  For better or worse, that’s what I needed.  You might argue that I overvalue intellect and independence — that these are attachments I need to work on — but I could never have gotten started by surrendering them.

Another thing that attracted me to Toni and Larry is that they didn’t push aspects of the teachings that would have been too much of a stretch for my analytical-empirical mind.  I could explore everything Toni and Larry talked about on my own to see if it was true for me.  Teachers who might have stressed rebirth, celestial beings, special powers, etc. would have lost me at “hello.”

Finally, as I spent more time observing Larry and Toni I could see that they were trustworthy and that they embodied the Dharma in their own lives.  Who they were was consistent with how they presented themselves and what they were teaching.

To summarize, I started with them because they were 1) nearby, 2) non-threatening, 3) trustworthy, and 4) allowed me to absorb the Dharma with my analytical-empirical approach to things 5) without surrendering my independence.  That’s what I needed to start out.  As I’ve continued my journey I’ve met many wonderful teachers.  It may be that as I go on in the Dharma I may need teachers who offer something different — something more challenging — something less compatible with my natural approach to the world and my view of myself.  We’ll see.

Over the years I’ve been exposed to a variety of traditions.  I started out in the Insight Meditation tradition, which has sometimes been described as Theravada practice with a Mahayana frame. I’ve practiced with non-teacher Toni Packer in her non-tradition.  I’ve received pointing-out instructions for Dzogchen practice from a Tibetan lama.  I currently practice with Zen’s White Plum Asanga tradition.  All of these traditions stress the cultivation of awareness.

What brought me to my current practice community?  It’s nearby.  I like the leadership and the teachers.  I like the sangha members.  It stresses the practices, values and teachings that are important to me: awareness, compassion, and non-clinging.  There isn’t a lot of talk about reincarnation or celestial beings.  It’s a congenial practice home.

Is it the “right” place for me?  Is it the “best” practice for me?  Where is the all-knowing Celestial Judge who could possibly answer that question?  It’s the one my karma has led me to, and I’ll continue to follow it as long as it continues to be of benefit.  Or until my karma brings me to the teacher who makes my hair stand on end.

Here’s my advice on how to find a tradition and a teacher.  Try a few out.  See what’s a good fit — a place where you can practice with sincerity and without giving up what you value in yourself.  See if you seem to be benefiting.  See if the teacher is genuinely there to benefit others and isn’t simply on an ego-trip.  There isn’t one true school of Buddhism.  There are 84,000 Dharma doors.  You only need to find one that works for you.

When you find one that’s congenial, try sticking with it.  Don’t keep looking for the perfect place, the perfect practice — the one that will magically make you enlightened within a year.  The perfect place is wherever you happen to be.  The perfect practice is your own awareness here and now, and compassion for the people you encounter every day.

Thanks to Terry Sherwood for suggesting I write on this topic.




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  1. [1] Willis, Jan (2001). Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Riverhead Books: New York.

How to Listen to a Dharma Talk

I once heard filmmaker Stan Brakhage tell a story about a movie theater that opened in some unnamed African country.  The theater opened with King Kong and the moviegoers loved it.  A few weeks later the owners tried a new movie, but this time the audience rebelled.  They wanted King Kong again.  And so it went.  The theater showed King Kong for years.

If you have young children, you know what it’s like for a child to latch onto a story and want to hear it over and over again.  There’s something sweet and reassuring about old favorites, even after the excitement of newness is gone.

Dharma talks are a lot like that.  They’re always the same: suffering, attachment, mindfulness, letting go, loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, awakening.

The Buddha said I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the release from suffering.  I guess the Buddha couldn’t count very well, because that’s actually two things.  But the Buddha said it over and over, thousands of times in long discourses, medium length discourses, short discourses, numbered discourses, and miscellaneous discourses —  the whole Sutta Pitaka.

I’ve listened to nearly one thousand Dharma talks over the past fifteen years.

The Dalai Lama. Toni Packer. Thich Nhat Hanh. Henapola Gunaratana.  Bhikkhu Bodhi. Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Joseph Goldstein.  Sharon Salzberg.  Larry Rosenberg.  Sylvia Boorstein.  Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Lama Surya Das.  Stephen Batchelor.  Robert Thurman. Narayan Liebenson Grady.  Michael Liebenson Grady.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Peter Matthiesson.  Grover Genro Gaunt.  Claude Anshin Thomas.  Gavin Harrison.  Jan Willis.  Sulak Sivaraksa.  Myoshin Kelley. Ajahn Amaro. Rebecca Bradshaw. Christina Feldman.  Michelle McDonald. Alan Wallace. Ruth Denison. Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia. Robert Kennedy Roshi.  Paul Seiko Schubert.  Michael Koryu Holleran. Tsultrim Allione. Annie Nugent.

I’ve even been guilty of giving a few myself.

Toni Packer sometimes begins talks by asking “is it possible to listen freshly?”

Toni Packer

What does it mean to listen freshly to something one’s heard a thousand times?

The mind is like a Greek chorus listening in and ceaselessly commenting.

“That makes sense!”  “That doesn’t make sense!”  “I agree!”  “I disagree!”

The mind can’t help itself.  Usually when teachers say something we agree with they’re brilliant, when they say something we disagree with they’re wrong.

“Listening freshly” means two things. (Let’s see if I can count better than the Buddha.)

First it means not assuming we’ve heard something before.  We actually haven’t heard this particular talk before.  This particular talk may say something in a way that allows something new to click, or that helps new questions to arise.  Thinking you’ve already heard something before is a way of shutting down and preventing the possibility of discovery.  So first and foremost, “listening freshly” is adopting an attitude of openness.

Secondly, “listening freshly” means listening to everything that’s going on.  The speaker’s words.  The sounds of birdsong in the background.  The Greek Chorus in your mind.  When thoughts like “I agree” or “I disagree” arise, can they be bracketed off and seen as conditioned responses to what’s being heard without assigning them a truth value?  The speaker’s words sink in, and reactions arise.  Watch the entire movie.  It’s King Kong.  Again.  You may learn more about the Dharma from observing your reactions with genuine interest and non-attachment than you do from the speaker’s words themselves.

I’ve recently been re-learning this lesson as I’ve been listening to Dharma talks in my zendo.  As my faithful readers may remember, my particular zendo has a Jesuit priest as it’s roshi and another Catholic priest as a visiting sensei.  Getting used to this has not always been easy.  I was raised within the Jewish faith and attended synagogue until I was fifty years old.  I never set foot inside a Church until I attended a friend’s wedding in college.  With a history of nearly two thousand years worth of persecution by Christians, sitting in the Episcopal Church, where my zendo is located, still carries some negative connotations.  My initial entry into Buddhism was made easier by the fact that most of my earliest teachers were either Jewish or half-Jewish in origin.  If my current zendo had been my first Buddhist experience, I might never have become a Buddhist practitioner.  This is not a negative statement about my zendo, but a statement about the power of conditioning.  We all come from somewhere and have attachments that can close us off to what is actually transpiring in the moment here and now.

What’s actually transpiring in my zendo?  It’s a beautiful structure with a vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.  The building creaks and groans in the wind when the weather is stormy.  Cicadas chirp outside in the summer.  It’s a wonderful place to sit.  It’s a friendly community, and we all sit together with inspiring sincerity and determination.

Occasionally a teacher will mention God during a Dharma talk, or even Jesus.  As a Jewish agnostic, my mind goes into overdrive whenever that happens.  “Buddhism is non-theistic!As a member of an historically persecuted minority, I don’t want to hear Jesus talk.  “That was a perfectly good Dharma talk until he dragged Jesus into it!” My fellow sitters, who are mostly Christian in background, are probably comforted by the reference, just as I was comforted by my early exposure to Jewish teachers.  “What I’m doing here really isn’t apostasy.” All of it, the raised hackles or the comfort, conditioned response.

The hard thing is to hear what the teacher is saying behind the words.  What he means by “Jesus” or “God” may be what I mean by “dharmakāya.”  Or maybe not.  Can I “listen freshly?”  Is there something in his experience that can reverberate in mine?  Something beyond conditioned responses?

It’s not for nothing that the Buddha’s first disciples were called śrāvakas, or “hearers,” those who actually heard the Buddha speak.  That’s our aspiration too, to be “hearers.”

Larry Rosenberg used to say (maybe he still does) that watching our own conditioned responses over and over is like watching “Gone With the Wind” one thousand times.  It’s a great movie, but (unlike the King Kong audience!) we eventually tire of it and are able to drop the story.

That’s our job in Dharma practice.  Dropping the story.

Dharma talks — stories to end stories.






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Is Buddhism Non-theistic?

You often see the claim made that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.  As is often the case, however, things are never quite so simple.  There are ways in which the claim is true,  ways in which it’s untrue, and even ways in which it’s just quasi-true.  It makes my head hurt just to think about it.

The claim of Non-theism is true in the sense that there is no God in Buddhism who is a Creator, Judge, or Deity-in-Charge.  In Buddhist cosmology the universe has always just existed and is continually evolving and devolving based on causes and conditions.  There’s no First Cause or Prime Mover setting the machinery in motion.  In addition, the fate of human beings is determined by their own actions in accord with the laws of karma.  There’s no Divine Intercessor putting one’s merits and demerits onto a permanent record card that follows one around over countless lifetimes.

The claim of Non-theism is not completely true because the Buddhist suttas and sutras make reference to all sorts of supernatural beings who inhabit the universe, from ghosts, demi-gods, devas, and brahmās to celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas.  The Buddha, himself, is often described as “a teacher of gods and men”.  The ghosts, devas, and brahmās are reborn into their own realms, and the celestial buddhas reside in Pure Lands.  As you might imagine, all of this leads to a very complicated cosmological space.  At times these beings visited the Buddha in our world.  At times he went to their realms to teach the Dharma.

In the Brahmajāla Sutta, the Buddha describes how a brahmā may come by the mistaken belief that he is the “Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer, and Orderer, Father of All that Have Been and Shall Be.”  The Buddha sees this delusion as an natural consequence of the particular way the universe happens to expand after periods of contraction.  During this expansionary phase one of the beings residing in the Ābhāsvara realm (which corresponds to the second jhāna) is reborn alone into the lower Brahmā realm (corresponding to the first jhāna) through exhaustion of his accumulated merit.  Forgetting his former lives, he imagines having come into existence spontaneously and without cause. Brahmās are long-lived beings and over the eons this solitary brahmā becomes lonely and wishes for company.  When others come to co-inhabit his space through the natural process of rebirth, the brahmā mistakenly believes his wish for company made it happen.  This is the start of his delusional grandiosity.  The gods within the Buddhist cosmology are not omniscient, and they apparently need Buddhas to help straighten themselves out.

Do contemporary Buddhists believe in ghosts, devas, and brahmās?  It depends on whom you ask.  In traditional Asian Buddhist cultures literal belief remains widespread.  For example, Mirka Knaster quotes John Travis regarding Munindra’s teachings:

“I listened to him go into great detail, sometimes for two hours.  There was this incredible excitement about the Buddhist cosmology.  You felt like you were surrounded by devas and all kinds of unseen things, in some way.  He had that twinkle in his eye about the unseen.  It was not just a belief system for him.”  [1]

Western Buddhist communities, on the other hand, are often made up of converts who have left a prior theistic belief in an Abrahamic Sky God behind.  They often view celestial beings as outdated cultural vestiges which can be safely jettisoned without changing the essential meaning of the Dharma.  Western Buddhists are the foremost promulgators of the idea that Buddhism is non-theistic.

There are three additional issues, however, which complicate the relationship between Buddhism and theism even further.

Deity yoga is a practice within the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.  In deity yoga, a particular deity/bodhisattva/Buddha (the lines between these concepts get quite blurred) is taken as one’s yidam, or tutelary deity.  One engages in complex mental visualizations of one’s yidam, then engages in a process of imitating and merging with one’s yidam, and finally one dissolves the merged self/yidam.  The yidam is seen as having an existence within relative reality (within a Pure Land saṃbogakāya realm), but as being essentially empty in terms of absolute reality, so that it’s both real and unreal at the same time.  In yet a third understanding of the yidam’s reality, the yidam is a representation of one’s own unrealized Buddha nature.  Finally, the yidam is a means to exploring the reality of identity itself.  We have our usual view of ourselves as limited and unable to become a Buddha.  In deity yoga one practices giving up that limited self-view and tries on a different narrative in which one has the unlimited wisdom and compassion of a Buddha.  In the end both narratives yield to the realization of emptiness.

Asking a celestial Buddha for assistance is a practice within Pure Land Buddhism.  Pure Land Buddhism teaches that one cannot reach enlightenment through one’s own efforts, but if one recites the mantra of Amitābha Buddha one will be reborn into his Pure Land after death and will achieve enlightenment from there.   Having faith in a Buddha’s divine intervention seems similar in some ways to theistic beliefs and practices in the West.  Keep in mind, however, that Amitābha Buddha is neither a creator nor a judge.  He offers assistance to all who recite his mantra.  Prior to achieving Buddhahood,  Amitābha Buddha was a simple monk who declared an intention to create an ideal realm for Buddhist practice.

There’s one final issue concerning Theism and Buddhism which is probably unique to Western Buddhism.  I currently sit with a Zen group that meets in a church, has a Jesuit priest as its roshi, and a priest who’s a former Carthusian monk as a regular visiting teacher.  Dharma talks sometimes include references to Jesus and/or God.  I personally don’t find god-talk helpful to my Buddhist practice, and I’ll say more about my personal reactions in a future post about how to listen to Dharma talks.  But it’s evidently helpful to those who are using it, and I suspect to more than a few of my fellow listener/sitters.  I imagine their concept of God has evolved from a concrete, personified creator-controller-and-judge deity to something coexistant with creation itself, maybe a synonym for the ground-of-being.  You can certainly find strains within the Christian mystic, Sufi, and Kabbalistic traditions to  support such a view.  There are those who believe in the concept of the perennial philosophy, the idea that the mystical experience has the same content regardless of religion, and that underneath the hood all religions point to the same experience.   I think that many of those who are comfortable with god-talk in a Dharma talk believe there’s no fundamental contradiction between being a Theist and practicing Buddhism, or at least practicing Zen.

I recently heard Roshi Robert Kennedy, who’s both a Jesuit priest and a Zen master, talk about this issue with great subtlety.  He considers himself a Zen practitioner, but not a Buddhist.  He understands that the Buddhist and Christian views of the ultimate nature of reality are not really reconcilable, but he also believes that sitting zazen is a practice without theological content.  You don’t have to believe in anything to sit.  I suspect roshi believes that the truths (with a small “t”) that emerge from sitting are not the provenance of any religion and that sitting assists our maturation as human beings regardless of our religious beliefs. But I don’t want to put words in Roshi’s mouth.

So is Buddhism theistic or non-theistic?

As Suzuki Roshi was fond of saying, “not always so.”


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  1. [1] Knaster, M. (2010).  Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra.  Boston: Shambhala, p. 26.