why you need a teacher

January 7th, 2014

I stayed home in my pajamas this morning filling out forms. My daughter has decided to apply to private high schools and I’m only now realizing what that entails. Rather a lot of forms and questions and tests and interviews, many benefactors, and a slate of events rich with expectation and anxiety.

I support her in this effort unreservedly. After nine years as a precocious public school student, she makes her case convincingly.

“I need a teacher,” she says.

And it is true that since those sweet years in the lower grades when she positioned herself wide-eyed and smiling at the front of a room of darling children, she has been squashed and lost in a class of 41 high-testing kids on whom the burden of excellence is placed without concomitant resources: without time or attention; absent relationship; void of eye contact; empty of personal encouragement; and even shy of enough books, tables and chairs. Not every student appreciates a teacher in the same way, but my daughter says she does and so I stayed home in my pajamas today.

A teacher is important. A teacher is the most important thing of all. Go as far as you need to go to find a teacher. There is a teacher waiting for you.


It was near the end of his time at home, and my father-in-law was deep in dementia.

He would sit alone for hours in an empty room, and if you should enter quietly, he would make the kindest conversation.

“You look pretty today,” he said. He said this to all women.

“Did you come with that fellow?” he asked about the son whom he no longer recognized.

“Where did you find that girl?” he asked about his granddaughter. I answered simply, because I wasn’t here to remind him of anything. “She’s my daughter.”

“She looks very pretty today.”

He was quiet, then up from the vacancy came one last thing.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had many teachers,” he said, giving me another.


Granted, he didn’t look like much—a scrawny fellow, no taller than me, wearing mended clothes. You might suppose it is some grand philosophy that draws us to the spirit — a theory of the cosmos — but it is the feet, the hands, the eyes, this miserable scrap of human life. Luckily for those of us with a wayward sense of direction, a Zen retreat consists largely of following in the footsteps of the person who stands in front of you. I was mesmerized by Maezumi’s sure, elegant footfall. He moved, when he moved, like Kilimanjaro. I would have followed him anywhere. I guess you could say I did, although it led no farther than my own home. Once you realize you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home. — Paradise in Plain Sight, May 2014

taizen maezumi roshi

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com


  1. All it takes is one small gesture, one short phrase. The sign pointing home resonates for me. Thank you, teacher.

    Comment by Jude Smith — January 7, 2014 @ 11:45 am

  2. Maezen–you have written so movingly about Maezumi. My greatest teacher was his student, Daido, at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Woodstock, NY. Maezumi came for a weekend retreat.
    It was late in his life. Over and over he would sigh heavily as he spoke so movingly. You felt the presence of a very real person there. In interview with him, he was so kind to me. I told him of my halting progress and he simply encouraged me by saying: “we are all the same–just like you”. I never forgot this; never forgot him. It was the essence of direct love and direct presence.

    Comment by daniel — January 7, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

  3. Thank you so much Daniel. So few could see him as he was. Or hear the depth of the sigh. It was bottomless.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — January 7, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

  4. Grateful beyond words that you took me in and led me to my teacher. A teacher is indeed the most important thing of all.

    And good luck for Georgia with her application!

    Comment by Roos — January 8, 2014 @ 12:40 am

  5. Maezen–you startle me awake to know what it was about that sigh (of Maezumi)–it was so special and went into me so deeply. Yes, it was bottomless. He was fully there but his words plus sigh just pulled me in to let me experience the wholeness of the moment with no difference, both one, each unique.
    thank you, Maezen, you are, so often, a teacher to me.

    Comment by daniel — January 8, 2014 @ 7:40 am

  6. confirmation that children are our teachers

    Comment by MJ — January 9, 2014 @ 8:00 am

  7. I need a teacher

    Comment by jeff finlin — January 14, 2014 @ 10:12 am

  8. Thank you for sharing this. I agree, when you are lost, everything you see is a sign pointing home… when you live within absence instead of with what is present.

    Comment by Crystine — January 14, 2014 @ 11:26 am

  9. This is stunning – and these three small stories together are just the teacher I needed today.

    Comment by Kris — February 24, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month