SOME MORE THOUGHTS ON AUTHORITY
The question of authority, particularly in something that sounds as intimidating as the “Master-Disciple relationship,” bears very close examination. The way I was taught, the “master” does not hold mastery over the disciple, but in the practice; like a master craftsman. That is one reason it is often simpler to refer to a “student-teacher” relationship; yet in many ways that description misses the deep significance in it. One thing that was made very clear to me was that in matters of a disciple’s personal life, the master has no authority at all. Choices about career, marriage, education, etc. are not the business of the master; unless, of course, there is a moral or ethical question involved. The authority that the master has is just this: he or she can affirm matters of lineage transmission. That is it. While the master must define what the program is, and must make it clear whether or not a disciple is “with the program,” so to speak, when that authority is used to interfere in other areas of the disciple’s life, it is an abuse of power.
When I was studying with my teacher, it used to feel like I was piloting an airplane, while she tried to direct me from the ground by gesturing. I could get a clear “yes” or “no,” but not a lot of detail beyond that. Learning from a teacher how to direct our inner world of practice is a lot like that. The authority she had was to confirm when I was going the right way, and to indicate when I was going awry. But in this type of teaching it is very easy for the boundary to become blurred between personal choices that are clearly the right of the disciple, and matters of attitude that indicate going awry in practice. It is the responsibility of the teacher to keep it straight; a responsibility I consider sacred. I should make it clear that my own teacher did a 180 degree turn on these principles, and that was when this center became independent.
A few years back we had a resident student here that was showing clear signs that it was time for her to move on to focus on other aspects of her life. When we talked about it, she became apprehensive and didn’t want to move out. When I continued to press in this direction, she showed signs of genuine panic. It became clear to me that moving out would push her directly into a source of deep fear, and that she was ready to do it, despite all her protestations. Moving out was the painful beginning to a year and a half of intense growth for her, growth that included processing a lot of anger directed at me. With my wholehearted approval, she sought therapy at this time, from a therapist with no connection here whatsoever, and this proved enormously helpful. While this time was painful, it also lead to profound awakening. In many ways this story is almost exactly the same as the story of Kanadaiba- daiosho, told by Mike Port in the preceding article. This student felt I was asking her to jump off a cliff. Over and over she asked how I could be sure she could handle what I was asking her to do. Her particular cliff may not seem like a cliff to you as you read this, but I can assure you that to her it was the edge of a bottomless pit. One day, not too long after moving out, she sat across from me in the dokusan room with a boundlessly open mind.
In Tozan’s “The Most Excellent Mirror – Samadhi” (Hokyozammai), there are wonderful passages that describe the interplay of master and disciple. At one place he says, “Although not made by artifice, this Truth can find expression in the words of those who teach true Zen.” I’ve always been struck by the phrase “although not made by artifice.” It seems to me that the Dharma unfolds as a miracle, pretty much by itself. A good teacher helps a student get out of his or her own way. When we see it unfold, it can be very dramatic, like Kanadaiba’s student going out over a cliff. But when we consciously try to emulate that, it is made by artifice. To me the simple, everyday interactions of everyday people are all we need to teach the Dharma. In my relationship with the student who found herself on the edge of her own personal cliff, it was my authority about residency in this temple that I exercised in requiring her to move out, not authority over a disciple. It was my authority as her teacher, however, that permitted me, even required me, to point out that this was an opportunity to go directly into her koan. There was no need to manufacture a cliff for her to face. It appeared naturally, without artifice. I believe that Dharma doors like that one are all around us; we need only recognize them, and face them squarely. When we do this, they will open when we are ready for them to open. As a teacher, it is my job to encourage this process, not to force it. Anything more interferes with it.
The muscles in his arm
with each stoke of the paddle;
pulling us forward in time
to our beating hearts.
His words travel backward,
spinning in bubbled eddies of leaves and twigs.
Words drift in my ears;
the words of his father.
painting a childhood I saw but never knew.
A boy bound to his father,
walking through the forest,
smelling the air,
watching the ground.
Father and son move as one;
eyes and hands searching for bamboo shoots.
Their shovel penetrates the ground
beyond the concerns of the moment.
It is the wisdom of generations;
a father’s love for his child,
binding ancestral dreams
to hearts now walking the earth.
His back and arms shift,
to the other side of the canoe.
The flow of the river rolls off my paddle.
He calls out more memories
to lap against the familiar banks.
Friends come to play in the water,
buoyed by the glow in his voice.
Tin can boats,
with rubber band engines, race before us.
Frogs leap in frantic arcs
from the rush of eager hands
and splashing feet.
Laughter bathes me
in warm sunshine smiles
I’m holding a paddle,
pulling my heart through sweet water.
His father sits with us still;
talking, guiding our journey.
My father’s voice
joins the chorus of fathers and sons
floating down this river.
We are singing our songs,
caring for children yet to come.