I recently traveled to Boulder to visit my sister, and to attend a seminar there with my first Zen teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, Richard Baker Roshi. He is the dharma heir of Suzuki Roshi, the most famous Japanese Zen master to live and teach in America, and the author of Zen Mind Beginners Mind. I hadn’t seen him since 1981, and I was really looking forward to seeing how we had both changed in relation to each other over the years. The first thing he mentioned was that he struggles with making the teaching relevant to his audience. He said after 50 years of being a teacher, for him the nature of the process changed over time, but doesn’t go away. I was immediately aware of a tendency in myself to hope that when I’ve been teaching for 25 years, that struggle will be over. I had to laugh at myself, after all that is kind of like hoping that with the all the struggles of parenting my boys up to now, the struggles will be over by the time they actually are full fledged adolescents!
The first Zen teacher I read about many years ago, Huang Po, said the ultimate reality is that which is always right before you, in all its fulness, utterly complete. In other words, we always are the full complete expression of the ultimate reality, but we are unaware of this. The unique nature of Japanese Zen teaching is that first timers are directly presented with this teaching the first time they walk through the door. Baker Roshi talked about how during the first 20 years of his teaching he didn’t really explain anything. In essence his teaching was presenting different versions of Huang Po’s statement about the nature of the absolute, and students were left to face that block to recognizing its truth. He mentioned that students were often left feeling like that block was a huge cliff, always rising right before them, that they felt powerless to climb. I realized this was very true in my case when I was young. The cliff has changed over time. In some ways it’s no longer my cliff, but the block to pure awareness that is shared by us all. After 50 years of teaching, Baker Roshi is now facing the same cliff in a different light.
In the Japanese Zen tradition, the title Roshi means old man, or a very seasoned teacher. Baker Roshi received the title at age 35. Not only was he much too young, but the collective evolution of the consciousness of teachers and students back then was quite different than now. Fascinated by the lure of transcendental bliss and wisdom, those on the spiritual path were looking within. However both students and teachers were largely unaware of the many obstacles lurking in the depths of our being. Baker Roshi, and other teachers from other disciplines, were presenting the teaching as if the teachers had already climbed the cliff, and were at least close to being fully enlightened beings. This created a huge gulf between the teachers and their students, and both students and teachers were largely unaware of this. Both were vulnerable to unconscious wounds manifesting in destructive patterns that threatened to, and did in fact ruin many spiritual communities. This is the primary reason that the realm of psychotherapy is now such a powerful adjunct for teachers as well as students.
Now it is more in the muscle memory of everyone to realize that it is natural to recognize the unchanging nature of the block. We’re learning to respect its power in guiding us to learn to more fully occupy our lives. We can now more easily learn how to gradually allow a deeper absorption into the actual nature of our emotional wounds. We can learn to let our blocks dissolve together as the spirit of our inter being in action. This is the real fuel of our inquiry, this is the real support of the fellowship of sangha.