Meditation Teachers, Behaving Badly

A great modern Tibetan meditation master recently described the difference between the appearances we expect from people functioning “normally” in polite society, and the boundary-busting work of a real Dharma teacher — and how those expectations often become mixed up with one another:

By and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit in to society by following accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful. The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to behave badly, we shake our heads over his/her audacity at presenting herself as a follower of the Buddha.

Yet such judgments are better avoided, because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives for.

Think of [the great tantric meditation master] Tilopa [988–1069]*, for example. He looked so outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, you probably would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most likely be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be wearing some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being? “Him! A Buddhist?” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice, according to the vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Khyentse Rinpoche (b. 1961)

“To go beyond all our concepts, including those of our morality.” How dangerous are those words, so easy to imagine yet near impossible to attain with any impeccability. Who is really willing to do this, in the work of practice and waking up? Who, in these days, would risk taking themself to the edge with a teacher — and maybe beyond? Who would enter what the ancient Zen kong-an [koan] describes as “Taking one more step from the top of a 100-meter flagpole?”

I was beaten beyond any concepts in the So Baek Sahn Mountains of Korea, while not yet an old monk, by a genuinely awakened mad court jester of a Zen master during the days of a frigid winter Kyol Che intensive retreat. Bong Cheol Sunim was either a demon who was destroying Korean Buddhism, or else one of the great awakened ones of the nation’s 1,700 year-old tradition. It wasn’t a smooth ride when living with such a crazy wisdom teacher.

Back during those crazy years of mountain-practice with his pirate-like Dharma activity (during which time, for example, when he would run out of pocket-money for eating, he would drive us to a financially well-endowed temple and honk his car horn furiously until someone came out and placated him with a fat wad of cash, at least so that he would shoo away). This was vintage Bong Cheol Sunim, one of the great Zen masters of modern Korea, or perhaps any age there. (Again, the jury is still out on this matter.)

For him, though, amidst all the mayhem and crazy testing, he was always driving us “beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.” Screaming some Dharma talk while aiming his car on winding winding back-country mountain roads slithering under the front bumper at 90-100 km/hr, slaloming white-knuckled back to the hermitage deep inside So Baek Sahn Mountains, having just concluded some dinner meeting with his local cadre of monks and various restaurant owners and professors and law enforcement folks professing their fealty to him like a Father (really), he would continue the Dharma talk in the car shouting in my left ear grabbing my lapel area for emphasis, just one hand on the wheel, often smoking and using the window control up and down as his ashtray.

Bong Cheol Sunim was always destroying what people thought Buddhist practice should be, and raising it back through a constant, unrelenting baptism by fire. In this, he always reminded us of the words in So Sahn Dae Sa’s 500 year-old classic The Mirror of Zen:

  • [from Wikipedia]:
    As advised by [his teacher] Matangi, Tilopa started to work at a brothel in Bengal for a prostitute called Dharima as her solicitor and bouncer. During the day, he was grinding sesame seeds for his living. During a meditation, he received a vision of Vajradhara and, according to legend, the entirety of mahamudra was directly transmitted to Tilopa. After receiving the transmission, Tilopa meditated in two caves, and bound himself with heavy chains to hold the correct meditation posture. He practiced for many years and then met the mind of all buddhas in the form of Diamond Holder Vajradhara. He is considered the grandfather of todays Kagyu Lineage. Naropa, his most important student, became his successor and carried and passed on the teachings.

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Great Dharani Practice (1)

A fascinating snippet about Dae Soen Sa Nim’s (Zen Master Seung Sahn) personal practice in the midst of his busy, daily life, as told by the Kwan Um School of Zen teacher Zen Master Hae Kwang (Stanley Lombardo):

Once, before a retreat in Boulder, I asked him what he did when he sat. He told me he recited the Great Dharani over and over, very fast, one repetition per breath. “Then your mind is like a washing machine on spin cycle, moving very fast. All the dirty water goes out, but the center is not moving.” The Great Dharani (or Dharani of Great Compassion) is a very long mantra—about 450 syllables. I asked him if he actually pronounced, sub-vocally, every syllable. He said he perceived each syllable, moment to moment. He was fond of the notion that in Buddhist psychology moments of perception go by at about the same fraction-per-second rate that frames of film must be projected in order to create the illusion of motion.

Quoted in [emphasis mine]

Batman and the Diamond Sutra.

Ouch! Sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation. Ouch! Ouch!!

From The Diamond Sutra:


Buddha said: Subhuti, all the Bodhisattva-Heroes should discipline their thoughts as follows:

All living creatures of whatever class, born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation whether with form or without form, whether in a state of thinking or exempt from thought-necessity, or wholly beyond all thought realms all these are caused by Me to attain Unbounded Liberation Nirvana. Yet when vast, uncountable, immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, verily no being has been liberated. Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.


Subhuti, it is the same concerning Bodhisattvas. If a Bodhisattva announces: I will liberate all living creatures, he is not rightly called a Bodhisattva. Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, there is really no such condition as that called Bodhisattvaship, because Buddha teaches that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of separate individuality. Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva announces: I will set forth majestic Buddha-lands, one does not call him a Bodhisattva, because the Tathagata has declared that the setting forth of majestic Buddha-lands is not really such: “a majestic setting forth” is just the name given to it.

Subhuti, Bodhisattvas who are wholly devoid of any conception of separate selfhood are truthfully called Bodhisattvas.


Then Subhuti asked Buddha: World-honored One, in the attainment of the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment did Buddha make no acquisition whatsoever? Buddha replied: Just so, Subhuti. Through the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment I acquired not even the least thing; therefore it is called “Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.”

The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng
(Shambhala Publications, Boston)
Translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam)

Reply to a Reader: Is There a Creator God?


Good morning, Shifu. I would like to know, is there really a God that created us? Thank you.


No. Now, go look into your True Nature. Here is a better question for doing that: Just reflect inward on the matter, “Before my parents were born, what am I?” You will find there an answer that is way, way better than God, OK?

Photo by Jeon Jewoo (전제우 한국불교사진연구소장)

No “Safe Spaces,” No “Trigger Warnings,” and “Micro-Aggressions” Abound

The way that Dae Soen Sa Nim used to teach would simply be impossible today. He was so direct, so striking, so cutting straight down to the point — I am sure he would have been “called out,” in the last few years, if he employed his usual laser to today’s minds as he had freedom to do with his post-6os first-generation (and Communist bloc) disciples. It would be total social/political suicide today to teach the ways he taught. He would definitely be cancelled.

The eminent meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first Western disciples, some years before he developed the revolutionary method which has become known to us as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). Some years ago, I contacted him to ask if he would contribute a Foreword to the collection of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings I was then working on, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake. Despite his very busy schedule (and a nasty cold, I remember), he readily agreed. Such was his love and gratitude for his first Dharma teacher.

The essay he submitted tells so much about the knife-edge style that Dae Soen Sa Nim employed, back in the 70s and 80s, which I fear might be far far too “dangerous,” even offensive, to employ in today’s politically hyper-sensitive environment:

He writes: “One night, with Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’ Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”

Quoted from Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006)

Sun-Face Buddha, Moon-Face Buddha

One of the Zen adepts I respect with greatest ardor is great Mazu Daoyi (709–788 C.E.) [Korean: Master Ma Jo; Jap.: Ma-tsu Tao-yi]. He was known for his shocking teaching style, utilizing everything from shouts and strange words to extraordinary actions to wake his students from their solipsisms and self-enclosed mind-traps. The school that flourished under him is regarded, universally, by scholars as “the golden age of chan [Zen]”.

I remember feeling deeply inspired, for years, by the story of his first big enlightenment: As a young monk, Mazu was renowned in the Zen Hall for his arduous practice. He sat in meditation intrepidly, without moving in the least. And even after the rest of the monks retired to sleep for the night, or on rest periods during the day, he routinely continued his sitting practice out in some clearing near the meditation hall. He was absolutely determined to attain his True Self, and not waste a minute otherwise!

One day, the Patriarch of the temple, seeing him sitting deep in meditation, went out and sat on a rock beside Mazu.

“Young monk, you are practicing very hard. Everyone really admires your practice! Why are you practicing so hard like this?”

Mazu replied, “I want to get enlightenment [in Sino-Korean the term “get enlightenment” is expressed “to become Buddha”].” And Mazu kept on with his strong sitting.

After a few moments, the Patriarch reached down. Picking up in one hand one of the rooftile shards that lay nearby, and grasping a rock in the other, the Patriarch began grinding them together. The scratchy-screeching grinding sound was unbearable!

Mazu could not take it any longer. “Master, what are you doing?”

The Master replied, “I’m rubbing the tile to make it a mirror.”

Mazu said, “That’s crazy! How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”

The Master answered, “Just like you! If I can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile, how can you achieve buddhahood [“become Buddha”] by sitting in meditation? When you want the horse to pull its cart, should you whip the cart or the horse?” When he heard these words, according to tradition, Mazu attained enlightenment.

As a teacher, Mazu really established the style of “wild teaching” and “spontaneous methods” which you to characterize many teachers from his age to the present.

“Mazu Daoyi, in order to shake his students out of routine consciousness, employed novel and unconventional teaching methods. Mazu is credited with the innovations of using katsu (sudden shouts), keisaku (unexpected strikes with a stick), and unexpectedly calling to a person by name as that person is leaving. This last is said to summon original consciousness, from which enlightenment arises. Mazu also employed silent gestures, non-responsive answers to questions, and was known to grab and twist the nose of a disciple. Utilizing this variety of unexpected shocks, his teaching methods challenged both habit and vanity, a push that might inspire sudden kensho.” (Wikipedia)

For many years, he taught simply, “Mind is Buddha. Buddha is mind.” When some monks became attached to these teaching words, and spouted them off as if having attained their true meaning, he changed it to, “It’s not Mind, not Buddha.” The teaching was equally the same point. But in this simple phrase, he was able to throw off the scent of the fakers, jumble their expectations, and set their Great Doubt back on firmer footing. Probably the tersest expression of an entire teaching of a tradition, and its apparent — seeming! — flipping, the greatest display of the teaching not having been moved by a single hair’s-breadth while renewing its impact and power:

“Mind = Buddha; Buddha = mind.”

And when people get too attached to that:

“Not Mind. Not Buddha.”

A monk once asked Mazu why he always taught, “Mind is the Buddha.” Mazu smiled wanly and answered, “Because I want to stop the crying of a baby.” The monk then persisted, “Well, then, when the crying has stopped, what is your teaching then?” “Not Mind, not Buddha”, he replied. Sweets might be given to a child to stop the crying-mind, but when the child becomes attached to sweets, and depends on them, a compassionate parent must take them away! How amazing!

It was the late afternoon of the day before he was to pass out of this world, and Mazu was in the midst of a serious illness. The Head Monk paid a visit to his chamber. “Master Mazu, how is your condition today?”

“Sun-face Buddha, moon-face Buddha,” Mazu replied. The next morning, he passed peacefully into Nirvana. [The names of the two Buddhas are from The Scripture of the Buddha’s Names: Moon-Face Buddha manifests for an extremely short time, just one night and one day; whereas Sun-Face Buddha manifests for exponentially longer, around 1,800 years. Thus, Mazu was answering the worried monks by reassuring them of the relativity of time, of impermanence and constant change: THIS is his “true” condition, and also that of the monks and of all of us.]

Your Emotional States Are Only Real to You

A prominent Zen monk once wrote to me after describing a conflict with one of his most senior students, “We who teach Zen have the daily privilege to bring an ancient wisdom to people which helps them to open their minds, just so that many of those same people can then later hate us for helping reveal to them all the areas where they have been stuck and suffering, but not be able to fix the problems for them.” He was expressing, in dark humor, an irony that often lurks at the edges of this work.

One of the greatest joys and blessings of this job and this calling is seeing how many people can liberate themselves from habitual patterns of self-created suffering. And yet, when people become just “half-liberated” — when they merely begin to taste the fruits of relief as they see it, but for one reason or another cannot do the strong, consistent application of effort to “follow through” on their initial insights — they can then expect the guide or teacher to somehow “solve” these matters for them. Or they become discouraged by the inching progress of refining their first, seemingly rapid insights, and feel they are being “cheated” somehow by the teaching or the “methodology” (for want of a much better word) that does not grant them lasting, constant relief. I have seen this countless times over the last three decades. And then when the guide cannot or will not solve these matters — because he or she CANNOT do that — then there is often a bitterness toward the teacher. Relations become sour. As a colleague once said to me, “If a student does not like what they see in the mirror, often the easiest solution is to punch the mirror!”

When we have the sacred honor to “teach” this mind-tech called meditation — especially the exquisitely refined hacking-tech packaged as Zen, real temple Zen — we also get the downside of experiencing the suffering of those who have only the time or resources or karmic commitment to see the work merely “halfway through.” Even my own work is not finished, in the sense that I am constantly in awe of the constant production of tricks and seductions by the mind and its habitual patterns. Even seeing those patterns to be completely unreal, and have them realized as the utter illusions they are, yet some wiring can have been installed by the unexamined repetition of thought-patterns for the decades before meditation practice became firmly committed on the disk.

How much more for people who get but a little taste from a few retreats. The stabilizing trust in this vast, indescribable awareness can take much more time, especially while going about life in this distracting, distracted world.

As Dae Soen Sa Nim used to sign-off his letters, “Only go straight don’t know — try try try, for 10,000 years nonstop, get enlightenment, save all beings from suffering.” This is the only way through such things.