Much has been said in recent months and years about the dynamics between teachers and students in Zen, primarily due to instances of boundary crossing that go beyond painful into harmful. This kind of relationship is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by students, teachers or sanghas. Yet there are Zen teachings that seem to lead to gross misunderstandings about the way to have a skillful relationship between teacher and student, particularly as that might be understood in Western culture.
One such teaching is the role of teacher in pointing out patterns of thought that the student is unable to identify for themselves. Often these patterns are ways that students relate to themselves but fail to acknowledge their own agenda. Sadly, some teachers have gone from shining the light of wisdom on such delusion to entangling it in an intimate, sexual relationship. Certainly this cannot lead to greater clarity for either person.
Also, I believe there is another dynamic at play. I call it the “answer machine mentality.” That is, once a student begins to have confidence in a teacher, this can evolve into a desire for the teacher to provide the answers to all of the student’s questions. The student ties him or herself into all kinds of knots trying to find the perfect question. Certainly, Zen rituals such as Shosan, in which students present themselves one by one and have a public dharma encounter with a teacher, superficially seem to encourage this kind of thinking. Yet it could hardly be further from the truth.
Not only is the “answer machine mentality” a lazy way to practice, it also sets up a dependency upon the teacher who is seen as the source of wisdom, while the student is seen as simply a receiver. It is dangerous, in part, because it sets up a hierarchy in which the teacher can be tempted into thinking that the student lacks something which she or he can and should provide. Thus both teacher and student relate to each through the illusion of power dynamics and guru worship, sometimes confused with filial piety. It can even become a form of infantilization of the student and a Napoleon complex for the teacher. That is to say, it leads to even further delusion about the nature of the self.
This is sad, not only because it creates further entanglements, but also because it goes against Buddhist teaching. Each and every being is intrinsically capable of enlightenment, inherently able to relinquish suffering and experience ultimate wisdom. So hierarchy and experience are merely aspects of the veil which is the samsaric world. It is the student’s responsibility to find themselves equal to the teacher, and the teacher’s responsibility to point the student toward their true self again and again. The only “answers” would be directional – hotter or colder, if you will.
So I urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your time vainly crafting the perfect question and vainly awaiting the perfect answer to fall from your teacher’s lips. Bring forth the self that skillfully, completely meets the self and demonstrate how equal you really are!