Mirror of Zen Blog

Response to an Essay About “Teacher”

I recently read a very beautiful essay about the power of “Teacher”, posted on Facebook by Magda Bepunkt. I recommend this to everyone. In this case, it is inspired by the rare soul called Niko, the founder and Guiding Teacher of Ashtanga Yoga Regensburg. Although there were/are other very very good Ashtanga practitioners in Regensburg when he first arrived in March 2016, his particular passion and honesty and extraordinary self-discipline have farmed a garden of beautiful flowers which continue to bloom today as a group, a family of strong Ashtangis here in Regensburg, called Ashtanga Yoga Regensburg, still practicing under his clear direction as the main teacher. 

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In Tibetan Buddhism as well as in traditional Yoga, the root teacher (sometimes called “guru,” but that’s not important, because of sometimes strange connotations, and Niko would never accept that) is not just some “phase,” but a lifelong relationship. It is not a “friend.” It is not a “buddy.” And the relationship is never meant to be “easy”. It is meant to inspire and to hone, yes, and also to challenge, to “thwart,” where necessary, a “regular” person of mediocre sensibilties into a true Teacher of others. 

Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say to some of us, his students, “I am not your ‘friend.'” Most people today don’t “get” that dimension of true apprenticeship. They want a teacher like a cuddly object who just agrees with the student’s karma, letting them go on with their karmic movie uninterrupted. In another place, Dae Soen Sa Nim said, “There are two kinds of students: the student who ‘likes’ their Teacher, and the student who completely believes in their Teacher. If a student just ‘likes’ their Teacher, even very strongly, this is mostly emotional feeling. This feeling will change when the Teacher confronts them, challenges some part of their mind that they want to hold onto. One day, ‘I don’t like this teacher so much like before! I cannot follow him!’ This kind of relationship is emotional, based on feeling, and feelings always change. This is not very high-class understanding of ‘teacher.’ But a student who BELIEVES in their Teacher means they believe in their own True Self 100%, because the true Teacher is only functioning as a mirror back to them. So, if you ‘like’ your Teacher only, even very much, that’s not bad, but you will not grow; if you completely BELIEVE in your Teacher, then even this Teacher’s bad actions or harsh speech are always teaching you. It’s like a bad man carrying a candle: if you attach to this bad man’s actions or speech, and like or don’t like that, then you do not see this light in the darkness, and maybe you fall into a hole! But if you completely believe in your True Self 100%, and only see this light that is being shown by the Teacher, then you going anywhere with no hindrance.” 

This is a very important teaching. I once practiced under another really great and fearsome Zen master in Korea who made me eat things and drink things (in massive quantities!) and do things that felt really really uncomfortable. He cursed all the time, he was impatient, even sometimes a bit aggressive. But his Dharma light really changed my life. If I had only attached to this “bad man’s” actions, I would not have stayed around long enough to benefit from his light.

Jesus was also so: he was a very very “bad” rabbi, by the standards of the day — very bad. Eating too much, drinking too much, hanging around with the “unclean” and people who were collaborating with the Roman occupiers ((Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19)). He even cursed sometimes and had arguably racist views (Matthew 15:21-28). Yet his light travels into our hearts until today. A real bad-ass with a candle.

I worry about students these days. In the age of social media “liking” and “friending/unfriending,” inevitably this consumerist mentality enters the teacher-student relationship. There is a vast marketplace of so-called “teachers” (mostly, “instructors for hire”). Do a few boldface workshops, have a few good Instagram poses, and you’re good to go. But are you really a Teacher? Even after 30 years of this apprenticeship, I am still deeply afraid of asking that question to myself.

So, you cannot push a student these days to really shape and re-shape them from the inside-out: everybody clings to their comfort zone. This is a terrible disease in meditation communities. It is something which yoga practitioners must be especially careful about, not because of the teaching itself, but because of the vast, highly-commercialized marketplace of yoga opportunities. If I don’t like this product or service, I can just choose another. Collect a few teachers at this or that workshop, with no allegiance to any single one of them. Maybe get some new teaching by Amazon Prime, in the future.

But this is not the way the sacred alchemy of teacher/student works, whether it’s in Zen or in yoga or in becoming a great violin virtuoso.

Working with a true Teacher is never meant to be a simple or easy or even entirely pleasurable affair. This relationship was never meant to reaffirm your ego and make you feel “good.” It’s not even meant to get you “certified” to get paid to lead classes for others. If it was, the people would not be filling stadiums and concert halls and festivals for noisy spectacles — they would be crowding yoga shalas and meditation halls. Our parents don’t raise us well by indulging us, and keeping danger far away: they teach us with whatever the situation demands, always knowing that our growth will only happen strongly when we have met the challenge through serious and constant trial and error.

My relationship with Dae Soen Sa Nim was one of — if not THE — most significant relationship of my life. Yet it was quite often a very very very hard struggle. It went through periods of real hurting, and I was often angry with him. (This was common among many practitioners in those days, especially those with strong egoistic attachment, like me.) I and others who now consider him to be our lifetime Teacher even went through periods of significant estrangement from him. He used to say, “A Zen monk is most dangerous thing in the world, more than atom bomb!” Well, he was positively off-the-charts in that regard. But it wasn’t the karmic package of the “him” that I followed: it was the shadowless light radiating from his great candle that I followed, and it led me to the equally-strong light burning from within my own life. This was the power of our relationship. It’s not about “him.” And it’s definitely not about “me.” But it might take a really significant commitment of time and energy to get there.

In another situation, he would say, “The greatest sword in the world is a samurai sword. It is a piece of special metal that is stuck in very very hot fire, then taken out and beaten with a hammer. White-hot fire, then beating; fire fire fire, then beat beat beat; fire fire fire, then beat beat beating. This makes a samurai sword. A samurai sword can cut anything, even most kinds of metal.” Then he would look at us and say, with a smile on his face, lowering his head a little and looking over the rims of his glasses, “So, what do you want to be? A samurai sword, or just another kind of knife?”

In Western yoga, with this emphasis on Asanas and getting some resume to be able to teach as soon as possible, it must be very hard to train and shape real and true Teachers, I imagine. Frankly, it would be somewhat depressing to have to work in that field, just because the marketplace and the commercialization mitigate so pervasively against all of the teachings and training regimens. These wines are often rushing to market before the real and true fermentation takes place. Economic necessity does that, social affirmations do that, and the superficial flow of life in the modern world — saturated with a constant, withering blast of cheap sensory over-stimulation and instant public approval — makes it hard, I hear, for even the most sincere yoga practitioner to rise above the degradation. People come to believe that a temporary elevation of dopamine levels is, in fact, true spiritual experience. And they become addicted to that, and they do not want to go any further. The lotus-eaters, of ancient Greek myth, one could say. No one can teach them!

The Chinese Zen master Ta-Hui (1089–1163) once said, ““In the conduct of their daily activities, sentient beings have no illumination. If you go along with their ignorance, they are happy; if you oppose their ignorance, they become vexed.”

I had one student. She is a yoga teacher in France. She always likes me when I talk about practice and give soft affirmations for her work and study and have coffee with her and tell interesting Zen stories and talk about her kids. But when there are significant rough spots that need smoothing out, and I challenge that with clear and direct speech — when I hold up the mirror of Zen — she doesn’t like me anymore. As an Ashtanga teacher, she is very comfortable giving physical adjustments to other people — that is her job. And they can often be quite painful, because of my body condition. But when a Zen monk gives “mind-adjustments,” somehow it is too painful. “How can you say such things?” Such is life. She is a good person and I love her very much. But I feel very sad about her resistance. If the mirror reveals some blemish or problem, and you punch the mirror, is that a correct way? All you do is destroy the mirror and bloody your own hand! Is that true wisdom?

One time she asked me for some advice on an important matter in her family-life. “What should I do about this? I want your view…” she asked. I gave two alternatives, very clear and simple, and not really that difficult. Then I said, “With these two alternatives, you have a choice: You can be a Big ‘T’ Teacher, or a Small ‘t’ teacher. You decide.” Well, as expected (sadly), she followed her karma and chose the Small ‘t’-route, and things eventually ended up in a total stupid disaster which caused (and still cause) great pain for several people. Naturally, she stopped asking for advice on difficult matters, and I stopped offering it. I just told her pleasant Zen stories and made her laugh and talked about her kids, because that was all she was ready to accept. She wanted a teacher she could really really “like.” And so I gave that to her, and she was really really happy. She said that we “got along” even better than before, better than when I was trying to give her real and true adjustments, which I do with all the other students. She was much happier being petted, but inside, I was very sad. She did not believe in her True Self, only her feelings and attachments. She thought of her little karmic-prison as the Palace of Versailles, and she did not like when I tried to break a hole in that wall. Now, she’s a queen of her beautiful little prison.

When Niko Miko founded Ashtanga Yoga Regensburg four years ago, he had nothing in Regensburg, nothing in Bavaria, nothing in Germany. But he was definitely known for one important thing, among the Greek yoga community of which he is a particularly respected and beloved member: He served teacher and lineage with untiring energy, always deferring to the teacher, always serving the teacher. He handled everything with impeccable grace and true respect, no matter what. First meeting him in 2011 reminded me of the attitude of a newbie Zen monk. And that is why he is the Teacher today who many love and respect. This is very very different from someone who has attended a few yoga workshops here and there, flitting around collecting yoga “experiences” under this teacher or that, saying that they “teach” just because they have an Instagram account which promotes their asanas.

In my 30 years actually living in spiritual community — in the temples of Asia and in the Zen centers of the West — it is only the practitioners who make a strong CONTINUOUS effort under one Teacher, enduring everything that that Teacher throws at them (as long as it is ethical, instructive, consensual) who become the true vessels of the practice, the tradition, the Way. Only they are the ones who can develop the practices and souls of others. Anyone who claims or acts like they are a Teacher before their own teacher has affirmed that work to be complete is merely an Instagram-instructor, and maybe not much else. At least as far as true practitioners view things.

It’s great to see the students continuing to work strongly with Niko through the Ashtanga Yoga Regensburg community which he built out of nothing, together with the support of the Zen Center Regensburg family. We are so happy and proud to be a part of this wonderful, challenging journey together.

Thank you for your beautiful reflections on the power of t/Teacher, Magda.

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