Jun 07

The Importance of the Teacher in Zen

The 36th Patriarch, Great Master Yaoshan, visited Shitou and asked him, “I understand the 12-part teachings of the 3 Vehicles for the most part, but I hear that in the south they directly point to the human mind, see their natures and become Buddhas. This is still not clear to me. I humbly ask you in your compassion to explain it.” The Patriarch said, “This way won’t do and not this way won’t do, and both this way and not this way won’t do. How about you?” The master was speechless. The Patriarch said, ” Your conditions for understanding are not here. You should go to Great Master Ma.” Accordingly, the master went and paid his respects to Mazu and asked the same question.  The Patriarch said, “Sometimes I make Him raise his eyebrows and blink, sometimes I do not make Him raise his eyebrows and blink. Sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is all right, sometimes raising the eyebrows and blinking is not all right. How about you?” With these words, the master was greatly awakened and he bowed. The Patriarch asked, “What truth have you seen that makes you bow?” The master replied, “When I was with Shitou, it was like a mosquito mounting an iron ox.” The Patriarch said, “Since you are so, you must guard it well, but still, your master is Shitou.”  Case 36, The Record of the Transmission of the Light, Francis Cook

These days, there is much discussion on social media and elsewhere about the value of the teacher in Zen. In ancient times, this was not even an issue, as it was understood that finding a master teacher was virtually a prerequisite to deepening one’s understanding and awakening to the truth of Zen. Perhaps people experience this in different ways, but in my own personal practice the teachers I encountered were extremely important, as they modeled the awakening that I deeply felt but also wasn’t clear about. There was something about the presence of these men and women that enabled me to open in a way that didn’t seem possible on my own. In one particular instance, I traveled to Maine to the Zen Center of a former teacher of mine who I hadn’t seen in years.  I arrived early and there didn’t appear to be anyone about, so I entered the zendo, did a bow and sat down preparing to meditate. Upon my rear hitting the cushion, before anything else could happen, body and mind fell away more completely than I had ever experienced. It was as if a thunderbolt had struck, vaporizing everything in its wake. When I realized what had happened I was astounded by how different life was – everything was functioning without ego involvement, flowing and without resistance in a state of perfect harmony.  At the time there was no “teacher” about, and yet I felt strongly then and still do now that this bodhi mandala, or space for awakening, that had been created by the teacher, had been a proximate cause of this shift.

So, was the teacher necessary? Was the teacher present? Would this experience have happened without the many years practice of the teacher and my connection to him?  If we use the tales of the ancient masters as a guide, this rarely occurs without the element of the close teacher/student relationship. In the case of Yaoshan, he had the great karma to live during a time where there were many great masters available. He visits Shitou in a state of doubt, and Shitou immediately teaches him, but does so in a fascinating way.  Somehow he recognizes that  Yaoshan needs someone else, and so he sends him to Mazu – perhaps the greatest of his era. Who knows why he did this, but the proof is in the pudding, and it worked – Yaoshan awakened. And then, Mazu, rather than appropriating a promising student, sends him back where he came! No ego, no clinging on the part of either Shitou or Mazu.

Often these days we hear “life is the teacher” as a justification for not having a teacher in Zen. We also see those who devalue the teacher/student connection by saying it isn’t necessary, citing koans that they’ve never studied with a koan teacher and likely don’t deeply understand. This does a disservice to a 1500-year-old tradition in which finding a teacher is not just recommended, but is an integral part of the process. In my experience, it is rare that a practitioner challenges their attachments on their own in the same way those attachments are challenged by a good teacher.  Perhaps we don’t live near a teacher we connect with, or we are busy with family and work, or we have little money . . . often these are used as excuses. When I met my first teacher, I literally only had $10 to my name, which I donated to him during our first meeting. Evidently he heard from a fellow student that I didn’t have bus money to get home, and as I left his house he came running out waving that $10 bill. He didn’t speak English, but it was clear he wanted me to have the money to get home safely. If we seek, we will find. If we have no resources, they will appear. This is the attitude that the ancients had, and it can still be employed today if we have the faith to experiment with it.

Aug 12

The Difference Between Knowledge and Practice

Today vast amounts of information are easy to obtain. Choice is endemic. If we are interested in meditation we can access the teachings of thousands of years in a few short seconds and soon be reading hundreds of pages of the sayings of ancient masters. It’s a wonderful thing to have such ready access to virtually all the wisdom traditions in the world.


However, too much choice can be overwhelming and the very volume of this information can be a barrier to embracing and practicing the teachings. Often when many choices are available we have trouble making up our minds at all. It is possible to simply hop from teacher to teacher and method to method, never really getting to the core of any of them. This can often be justified by the notion of diversity being better, and while there is some truth to this, it can also be a way of avoiding the real work that needs to be done. The real work begins when boredom and avoidance kick in. If we bolt at the first feeling of resistance there is little possibility of overcoming it and making a quantum shift in consciousness.


Here we definitely need to consult our inner wisdom and listen to our heart.  In Japanese Zen there is the word “shin.” Shin is normally translated as “mind,” but in reality means something more akin to heart/mind. The notion is that each of us has access to wisdom which, when we sense it is being reflected in an outer teaching, causes our heart/mind to vibrate in accord with it. It was like this with my first teacher. My connection with him was obvious from the very beginning, and although I didn’t think I was looking for a teacher at the time, a deeper part of me came through and I recognized that I actually was.


There is often confusion between information that is accumulated through outside sources and that which is obtained through the many hours of inner search necessary in Zen practice. The ego self often uses information gathered from outside sources to reinforce its own beliefs.  In Zen, our practice is about letting go of this type of accumulated knowledge. We acknowledge its value, but realize that it limits our life experience in the same way blinders limit the view of a horse pulling a carriage. We don’t want to turn our spirituality into a basic reinforcement of our own delusions.


The problem, of course, is that it is comfortable and easy to search for knowledge on our computer, but difficult to sit for many hours dealing with our inner turmoil. It is difficult, boring and painful to just be present with the chaos that we see when we first attempt to turn our attention inward. Fortunately, the chaotic energy diminishes in time, and is eventually replaced by clarity, peace and bliss, but only after considerable time and energy are expended. Although we would like to skip this step and go straight to mastery, it is just not possible. Whether we are learning to play the guitar, learning to swim or beginning meditation, we have to pay our dues. This is the way the human body/mind works.


In times like this I often find myself returning to what is referred to in Zen as the Three Treasures. The Three Treasures are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These ancient Sanskrit words can be seen as Awakened Mind, Teaching and Community. We all possess awakened mind from birth, but are asleep and don’t recognize it. We go through life in a dream of our own creation, a blue pill Matrix-like delusion reinforced by vast amounts of outside suggestion. Because of this fact, Dharma, or teaching, is necessary as an antidote. Teaching is manifested by teachers, and finding a challenging teacher is a wonderful and essential thing. And teaching of this sort is supported by community, for without community teachers would not have a place to teach and students would not have place to gather to practice. The community creates and defines the place of practice, and this benefits all who are currently members. At the same time we can view our participation as a contribution, in that while it benefits us it also does the same for others.


When we realize and embody the Three Treasures, our life becomes a Bodhi Mandala, a place of awakening, wherever we go. But it is important to continue to clarify and deepen our understanding as this process has no beginning and no end. Relying on our heart/mind we see that a choiceless choice is always in front of us showing us the Way. If anything can be called Zen, this is it.

Sensei Al Rapaport is an Authorized Zen Teacher and Director of Open Mind Zen Meditation Center.

Jun 25

Getting in Touch with the Aware Ego – Transforming Through Zen Dialogue

For thousands of years, the primary way that Eastern spiritual disciplines dealt with the problem of the barrier of the controlling ego mind was basically to exhaust it through long hours of meditation, chanting, no sex or other human physical contact, little sleep, etc. This is basically the monastic model that was transmitted to the West in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These methods work provided the practitioner is willing to go through excessive physical and mental hardship.  You could say that when we are exhausted in body and mind, our ego is also exhausted, and occasionally this will result in the ego just letting go, which is the definition of awakening, or “enlightenment,” in Zen practice.

Most of my own training was in very traditional Japanese Zen settings, which attempted to replicate the Japanese monastic system in America. The problem with this system is that it is not oriented to the lay practice lifestyle of maintaining a family, work and home life, but rather, was developed for monks and nuns practicing full time with no outside responsibilities.

However, over the last 20 years, we have found a way to bring a person to an initial awakening experience without doing battle with the ego.  Although there are several stages to this process, it starts with a method we call Zen Dialogue, which is based on the notion that it is the controlling ego itself that must be “enlightened” as to its proper position for the self to be at peace. The deluded ego always sees itself as the center of the universe, with all others and all other things rotating around it, much as the earth rotates around the sun. Once the ego has been awakened, it can see that it is just one planet in the universe, rather than the center. This results in giving up the constant attempt to control what cannot be controlled, which in reality is almost everything, and frees up tremendous energy to control what can be controlled, which is basically how we treat ourselves  and others.

Zen Dialogue is led by a trained facilitator who asks permission from the Controlling Ego to speak with different “voices” or aspects of the participant’s Self.  The participant then speaks from the perspective of whatever voice is being spoken with. Although ultimately all these voices are simply parts of the Self as a whole, breaking them down in this way gives one an amazing shift of perspective that reveals much about the workings of the controlling ego. The end result of this process is that by the end of the first session, which lasts about 2 hours, many of the previously hidden methods of the controlling ego are revealed, and the participant has had an experience of what we call Buddha Mind or the Mind of Awakening.

The controlling ego will acquiesce in this journey if:
1) it does not feel threatened and
2)  it feels it is in own self interest to do so.

The fact is, it IS in its own self interest, as the ego has a much easier job when other aspects of the Self are not in resistance mode. This happens when ALL parts of the Self are given voice and allowed to express the information they possess. Voices that are suppressed generally will find some neurotic way to express their needs, and the more hidden they are the more neurotic their message becomes. These neurotic patterns produce the stress and anxiety that many people experience way too much of in their lives today.

The Zen Dialogue approach is to see that the controlling ego is simply part of the whole rather than a world onto itself. The Aware Ego is one that clearly sees that merging with Buddha Mind, or Universal Consciousness, is an essential part of what it means to be human.  In fact, without this realization, we are extremely one-sided. Operating from Buddha Mind, the Self can manifest wisdom and compassion, which serve as bridges to an expanded sense of purpose.   This frees the aware ego to have access to whatever aspects of the larger Self are needed to understand and accomplish the true life purpose of the individual.

As this happens, our whole being begins to experience the ecstatic union of personal purpose and universal energy.  “When the student is ready the Guru appears,” is an old Hindu proverb.  Recognizing that the “Guru” can manifest in anything at any time is a key part of understanding Zen.

Sensei Al Rapaport is Director of Open Mind Zen Center in Melbourne, FL. He is an authorized Zen Teacher who continues to experiment with melding ancient eastern and modern western techniques for awakening. For more information, email  openmindzen@aol.com.