more dalai in your lama

September 29th, 2010

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.

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  1. aha. keeping the ‘picture’ from becoming an expectation is a big one, seems so small at first, but just isn’t. this was a rich post! 🙂

    Comment by kate — September 29, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  2. “You are that Buddha you seek!” – my motto for the rest of the busy week (and more to come of course). Thanks for this – again – fabulous post Karen!

    Comment by Roos — September 29, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  3. This: “A true teacher embodies that kind of life, and so the picture of a teacher is a constant encouragement to practice it for yourself.”

    …is why you are my teacher.

    Comment by Swirly — September 29, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  4. “stone sitting in a layer of dust on an alter” captured my heart.

    The other day I pondered, “instead of worrying about the famous shortcomings of various Buddhist teachers, perhaps I should reflect on how much worse their behavior might have been without dedicated practice?”

    Comment by Alan — September 29, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  5. That’s one way to look at it. Or, not reflect at all, and just practice. The latter we owe to ourselves.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 29, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

  6. I’ve always had a bit of trouble with that New Age line: You are the person you’ve been waiting for. This helps. You shine a clear, bright light — so welcome on darkish New England morning in NH.

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — September 30, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  7. Yesterday, during breakfast oryoki, my teacher dropped the bowl of yogurt being passed to him and it spilled all over. My first thought was ” well thank GOD!” Usually it is me that is spilling and clanking bowls and missing cues. Of course, how he proceeded from there was very instructive too.

    When we need our teachers to be different from us – as holy beings or as people who never spill yogurt – then we are still seeing ourselves as separate.

    Pretty sure that is true when we see the smelly homeless guy on the subway or that jerk who just cut us off on the highway too.

    Comment by Robyn — September 30, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  8. Robyn, you make me laugh (and cry). Hallelujah, brokenness.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — September 30, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  9. yes, it is all about the practice. love it. thank you, karen.

    Comment by melissa — September 30, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

  10. I was telling a member of my sangha here in NZ about the amazing time I had with a great teacher in the US recently.

    Her response? She said: “This is the blessing of never having the money to travel to see the great teachers, I’ve had the motivation to find that same great teacher in me. I’ve created my own safe, deep, challenging practice space here on my own mat.”

    I realised that one of the reasons I like to go to retreats with great teachers is because, even just for a week, I can abdicate a little bit of the responsibility for creating the space in my life for my practice. I’m okay with taking refuge or rest in the form imposed by others for a little while, but eventually I have to come home and make my own way onto my mat, onto my cushion and trust that all the wisdom I need is already with me me.

    Comment by Marianne — September 30, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  11. Very wise, you.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 1, 2010 @ 12:16 am

  12. I would like to say, simply, YES.

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — October 1, 2010 @ 4:00 am

  13. I keep deciding to or not to order tickets to hear the Dalai Lama with my daughter. One day one idea, the next day the next idea. It is quite expensive and not as useful as a bit of kindness in the morning, but …. I do not just let the idea go. I asked my daughter and she instantly said no, she did not wish to go. So we won’t but I will keep having the ideas until the posters come down and the trip is over.

    Comment by chris — October 1, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  14. on a day when my mind was pulling away and forgetting my practice this was a gentle reminder, thank you

    Comment by Joanne M — October 1, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

  15. Chris, that’s the thing. Children are so helpful in the way they see and say it as it is.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 1, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

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