Warning: Falling rocks ahead.
A few months ago, a young newspaper reporter asked me a very good question, the kind of question that comes from the mouths of keenly observant babes:
“Do you encounter resistance because you don’t fit the stereotype of a Buddhist teacher?”
Honestly, I had never presumed as much, but it makes sense given the human proclivity to idealize and worship images.
Some people might like a little more Dalai in their Lama, I laughed.
I know I did, at least when I was starting out. And I know that most of us still do, taking a measure of comfort and even confidence when a teacher appears to be so altogether other, so unattainably spiritual, so removedly saintly. It must have drawn me closer, then, when Maezumi Roshi fit the bill of a short, smiling, impish Asian. He was nothing that I thought him to be, but his appearance upheld my standard of the real thing.
Being Maezumi, being a man, being an American, I once heard him say to describe his life, to no one in the room who believed him. We had a stake in him being a holy man.
Why this comes up I’m not so sure, although it may have something to do with an email I received yesterday telling me about a public talk by a revered Buddhist author. The talks are rare, I was told, and routinely sold out. There might not ever be another one, the message urged. I could get on the bandwagon and even make a little profit from the books I sold through my website.
All those things may be true, but this line of thinking does not sit with me, and so I sit with it.
When we begin to practice, we begin practicing with a picture. It is a picture of an undisturbed life, a different kind of life. Dogen Zenji called this recognition “arousing the thought of enlightenment.” All of life, including your spiritual life, is born in a single thought.
A true teacher embodies that kind of life, and so the picture of a teacher is a constant encouragement to practice it for yourself.
But if we are not careful, our picture becomes the expectation, the expectation becomes the ideal, the ideal becomes the icon, and the icon is a stone sitting in a layer of dust on an altar. We are inclined to worship images we place on an altar, even if the form of worship is called celebrity.
The world doesn’t need any more stone Buddhas, I always laugh. And even fewer celebrities.
Members of my own sangha have attested glowingly to the experience of being in the auditorium audience when a beloved Buddhist monk steps on stage.
You could feel something different in the room, they gushed. It was real!
I ask them this: Who is in that room? And who feels different? Yes, it is real, it is the only real, and you will feel it yourself, as yourself, when you begin to touch the bottomless depth and profundity of your own awareness. It is you, recognizing your own birthright. It does not need to be rare, this recognition of what you are, and it most certainly will come again and again, because it never leaves. You are that Buddha you seek! Topple the altar and crack the stone!
Practice is a free-for-all. Give the once-in-a lifetime tickets away.