Posts Tagged ‘rely on yourself’

Since the death of Walter Cronkite in July, much has been written about the late anchorman’s moral authority. According to a Roper poll taken in 1974, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America”. When he gravely intoned his signature line, we believed him. However shocking or sad the reality just reported, that’s the way it was. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite had opened a window on things as they were.

Zen practice also aims to put the practitioner in touch with reality, as it is in this very moment. And every Zen center or monastery has, as it were, its own Walter Cronkite. Whether he or she is called Abbot, Sensei, Roshi, or simply “head teacher,” the person in this position embodies the inherited wisdom and the venerable authority of the Zen tradition. If the person is a “lineage holder,” which is to say, has received “Dharma transmission” from an earlier teacher, the weight of authority is even greater. It is, in most instances, unquestioned, and one of the core requirements of a prospective Zen student is to believe in the teacher. If a Zen student is unable to do that, the student is well-advised to find another teacher.

Yet if the structure of the traditional zendo is authoritarian, the practice itself is quite the opposite. It is radically egalitarian. From the start, Zen students are enjoined to rely on direct experience: to trust their senses, not the words of any teacher. Every morning, students in Rinzai Zen training chant the verses “Atta dipa / Viharata / Atta sirana / Ananna sirana,” which roughly translate as “You are the Light / Rely on yourself / Rely on nothing but yourself”. This is followed by “Dhamma dipa / Dhamma sirana / Ananna sirana,” which translates as “Rely on the Dharma / Rely on nothing but  the Dharma”. Although the word Dharma has multiple meanings, in this context it is best understood as “reality,” or “the laws of reality,” most prominently those of  impermanence and interdependence. It is left to us to perceive those laws—and to realize ourselves within our immediate surroundings. As one ancient Chinese master told his student, “I can’t  wear clothes for you. I can’t eat for you. . . I can’t carry your body around and live your life for you”. We must do these things—and know we doing them—ourselves.

How, then, is the near-absolute authority of the Zen teacher to be reconciled with the imperative to trust direct experience and rely on ourselves? And to the extent that we embrace a particular Zen lineage, to what extent are we free to question its authority? To speak for ourselves?

For Toni Packer, who left the Rochester Zen Center to establish the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, the resolution lay in dropping the liturgy, forms, and hierarchies of traditional Japanese Zen, leaving only the sitting, listening, and questioning. For traditionalists, however, the resolution lies not in discarding hierarchical structures but in clearly defining the teacher’s role. Often that role is likened to a mirror, which reflects the present state of the student’s mind and heart.

In my own experience, the most helpful teachers have been those who have urged their students to look honestly into their lives, moment by moment, and to act in accordance with what they see. Rather than answer abstract questions with absolute authority, such teachers return their students, time and again, to the concrete, reliable practice of zazen: to a direct and continuous contact with reality, just as it is. Only then can the student realize the richness and depth of present experience. Only then can he or she say, with any real authority,  “That’s the way it is”.

Read Full Post »