Who Is Your Teacher?



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            "Many people place great importance on having a teacher in order to follow the Way, but having had several already, I’m not sure about this. Is it really necessary to have a teacher, mentor or spiritual guide?"

            There is an old saying: "When the disciple is ready, the teacher will appear". The ‘teacher’ however, may not be a person; indeed, it could be anyone or anything that inspires or even shocks one into awakening, anything that might cause one to say, "Oh yes! I see!"

            Some people are surprised when, in reply to the common question, "Who is your teacher?", I say: "My teacher is a monkey" (meaning one of my many teachers, that is). They say: "You mean a monk, don’t you?" And I say, "No, I mean a monkey, as I said", and then tell the story of how, when I was living in the Refugee Camp in the Philippines, one day, an old Cambodian lady brought a monkey to the temple for sanctuary. She had seen it for sale in the Camp market and felt compassion for it, knowing some people liked to eat monkeys. Spending some of her very limited funds to buy it, she then carried the poor creature to the temple, where she offered it to me.

            When I saw it, however, I put my head against the door post in sorrow, because when it had been trapped in the forest near the Camp, its right hand had been cut off at the wrist, and the stump was bloody and swollen, with two bones sticking out of it. I was sad to think that some refugee, who had fled his country in search of peace and happiness, had gone to the forest to deliberately trap monkeys, never thinking for a moment that these animals also had families and friends and wished to be free and happy, just like him; the money that he got for his victim—a paltry sum of one or two dollars—would be quickly spent; but the results of his callousness would probably go on for a long time.

            When people are suffering or in danger they pray for help and make promises, but it is often too late then and the pain must run its course. If they wish to avoid suffering, they should consider the causes of it, more than the effects. Most of our suffering is self-caused, and we are therefore able to do something about it. To pray for release from pain when one has sown the seeds of it will not have much effect.

            I thanked and praised the old lady for her kindness and asked someone to tie the monkey up behind the temple and give it food and water, while I went to look for someone to treat its wound, but in this, did not succeed. Feeling it useless to apply ointment and bandage (as it would only have pulled it off), I left it there, not knowing what to do and thinking it would probably soon die. When I went to see it two days later, however, I was surprised to see only one bone sticking out of its wrist! How it had broken the other off, I don’t know, but several days after this, the second bone was also broken off, and the flesh and skin began to grow around the wound until it was completely healed, with no infection at all! "Wonderful!", I thought; "I spent many years in school, studied many things and traveled widely, but with all my knowledge, I didn’t know what to do. This monkey has never been to school, cannot read or write, has never studied First Aid, but somehow, it knew what to do to save its life. Surely, there is a lesson in this for me. Perhaps we listen too much to others and over-depend upon them to teach us. What if we listened more to ourselves—to our own deep, inner voice—like this monkey had obviously done? It had no teacher, but knew—somehow—what to do to save its life. How did it know? Did it have a store of natural wisdom? And, if so, might we not have, too? And if we have, why do we not see it and use it? Is it the ‘common sense’ we hear about, but which is really not so common?"

            So, because of the train of thoughts that this event started in my mind, I can honestly say that "My teacher is a monkey". Some people have misunderstood this, of course, and a least one monk—hearing this story—thought I was being sarcastic about monks, but such was/is not the case. There is no hidden meaning in it; it means just what it says; but if people wish to interpret it otherwise—and no doubt some will—it’s up to them. Moreover, many of us do not like the plain and simple, thinking that anything clear and obvious somehow can’t be true; instead, we look for mysteries, secrets and hidden meanings where none exist. I once heard a radio talk about Van Gogh’s famous Irises picture, and was amused at various interpretations of it. Raving on about the color, one man insisted it symbolized the crucifixion and ‘resurrection’ of Jesus! Well, since Van Gogh is not alive to tell us why he painted it, it is a matter of conjecture, of course, but maybe he painted it simply because he liked irises, and enjoyed doing it! Why should we impute any other motive to him?

            I once put a picture of a leaf on my bathroom wall, and later learned that people had been wondering what I was trying to say thereby, or if the picture had some esoteric meaning. I laughed, and explained that a leak in the roof had caused a stain on the wall, so I had covered it with a picture from a greeting card, which just happened to be a leaf; the picture had no other meaning, to me, except that I thought it rather nice. Thinking about this afterwards, however, I realized that they might have been more edified if I had concocted a mysterious explanation; the truth is often bland and prosaic, and not what people want.

            We shouldn’t always wait for someone to teach us but should strive to discover and learn for ourselves. A teacher helps us to do this, instead of always standing by to teach us. If the teacher does not set the student on the way to learning, for himself, that everyone and everything is a teacher, with Dharma lessons to impart, but keeps the student attached to him, causing him to think: "This, and no other, is my teacher", he has failed in his sacred responsibility as a teacher, and is not a teacher at all, but a cheater! What a teacher tries to do, what he attempts to inspire—or sometimes to trick or shock—his students to see is the reality of life, which is nobody’s property, but is here for anyone who has eyes and minds to see—and even for those without eyes, for that matter! Certainly, there should be respect for anyone who helps one to see this, but it is a mistake to exalt a person to the point of near deification for it! The time will come when the person who has been so-helped will have opportunities to help others in similar ways. With one hand we receive help from those who know more than we, and with the other hand we extend help to those who know less than us. Thus, we are like links in a chain—not the first, and not the last. And the best way to show gratitude for having received help is to help others in turn. Moreover, gratitude is something that arises in us as a result of understanding, and not something that we do; we cannot do gratitude; it does us!

            Some people are fond of reciting names to impress others: "Lama So-and-so is my teacher. Guru This-and-that, too. Another is Swami X-Y-Z", and so on. But if asked what they learned and understood from their teachers, there is often an embarrassed silence. They obviously think the teacher’s name is sufficient and will somehow take care of their spiritual development, without them needing to do anything! Other people quote words of famous teachers, but pay no attention to words spoken by others, no matter how clear or true they might be; they are regarders of persons rather than of truth.

            Then, there are ‘teachers’ who play the ‘disciple collecting’ game—who has the most disciples—more concerned with their own name and fame than with the growth and progress of their followers. Putting themselves at the center of things, they oust the Dharma, to which alone, the center place belongs. So we see the proliferation of personality cults. There are a number of self-proclaimed ‘Living Buddhas’ (or, if they themselves do not claim to be, they don’t discourage their gullible followers from claiming it of them); they openly boast of psychic powers, thereby attracting people to them like moths to a candle flame, but the people thus attracted are generally lost and confused and looking for something to hold onto. Often, these people exude an air of superiority, as if thinking that —because they follow a ‘Living Buddha’—they are the elite and have things that others don’t have. Such ‘Living Buddhas’ are springing up like mushrooms these days. There is no shortage of charlatans in the world, and no shortage of gullible followers; thus people get side tracked for a long time.

            Depending heavily upon teachers we easily become entangled in webs of personality, and then, when lessons of life present themselves for our attention, and we see no connection between them and our teachers, we overlook them. I am afraid that Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese monk, is in danger of becoming a cult figure, and hope that he is aware of this, so that he will advise people not to depend too much upon him, personally. I have seen how people consider him and no-one else to be their teacher. And it seems that he is so surrounded by followers screening and protecting him that it is hard for even monks to get to see him.

            Like the moon, which has no self-light, but mirrors the sun, so everything reflects and echoes the Dharma; everything and everyone has Dharma lessons to impart, even if they are unaware of it.

            In Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT, a Duke whose dukedom has been usurped by his brother, and who now resides in a forest, instead of feeling resentment at his condition, speaks of it so:

"Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
hath not old custom made this life more sweet
than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
more free of peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam;
the seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
which, when it bites and blows upon my body
even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘this is no flattery; these are counselors
that feelingly persuade me what I am’.
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
and this our life, exempt from public haunt,
finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
sermons in stones, and good in everything".

            In plainer and less-poetic English he is saying that, having grown used to the simplicity of life in the forest, he finds it more agreeable than restricted and formal court life—and less dangerous, too. It is not a loss, like Adam’s loss of Eden, but a gain. The changing seasons and weather do not lie, like flatterers, but serve as reminders of man’s frailty. Adversity, though unpleasant, has lessons in its hands (like the toad, which was commonly believed to have a jewel in its ugly head). And so, living far from complicated society, it is easy to perceive Dharma all around.

            Seen in this way, therefore, it is inappropriate to ask "Who is your teacher?" But, since such a question is often asked, the only answer would be: "Who is not my teacher?"

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Last Updated on:  03/16/2001 07:24 PM