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What Is a Teacher?

What is a teacher? The true teacher is awareness—silence—life itself. This teacher is always here-now, closer than close. But because we seem to overlook or lose touch with the simplicity of what is, many of us require human teachers to help us see what is apparently in the way—in other words, how we fall into confusion and how we suffer. 

The best teachers are pointing to right here, right now. They are inviting a direct exploration and investigation, not claiming to be infallible authorities or encouraging their students to adopt what the teacher says as a belief or a philosophy. Seeing for ourselves is what liberates—not taking on second-hand information and clinging to comforting ideas.

I see being awake as the natural state, the default state, what is already fully present right now. It’s the sound of traffic, the taste of tea, the pain of a headache, the song of the bird, the cool breeze on the skin, the ache of grief—just this!  The so-called “process” of waking up is about seeing through the mental overlay that creates so much of our human suffering—the belief that we are separate, independent, in control, authoring our thoughts, making our decisions, and so on. Seeing through all of that may take time (although the seeing and the insight always happens now), but what I’m calling awakeness is timelessly always already fully present, right here, right now. Simply paying attention to the happening of this moment, not as a goal-oriented practice like mindfulness, but simply in an open way, because it invites us, is the best way to see for yourself how everything is changing, how no boundaries can actually be found between inside and outside, observer and observed, self and not-self. Being awake is simple, natural, already present. It doesn’t mean you’re always feeling great. It means you’re feeling what you’re feeling. And it doesn’t mean you lose all sense of being a particular person or that you are no longer human. But you begin to see the difference between the ever-changing reality of you and the self-images, thoughts and stories that make “you” seem separate, solid, deficient, “not awake,” and so on. And yes, a teacher may be helpful in this.

But is this human teacher an infallible authority, a perfect being, somebody for whom all delusion has ended, somebody who lives in perpetual bliss? Is there any such human being? 

I function as a teacher—giving talks, holding meetings, writing books and so on—and I do on rare occasions use the “teacher” label for practical descriptive purposes. But I truly don’t think of myself as a teacher or anyone I meet with as my student. I don’t ever assume that I know what anyone else “should” be doing or how their path needs to unfold. I think of myself as a companion or a friend on a common journey—not a journey to someplace else, but a present-moment waking up to exactly where we are. I feel we are all exploring and unfolding together.

The more closely we investigate the “I” to which we all refer and the nature of here-now, the more clearly it is seen that we are not actually separate or independent beings. As people, we are like waves on the ocean—inseparable expressions or movements of one seamless, undivided whole. We can easily see that no wave is wetter or closer to the ocean than any other wave. The tallest and most powerful wave is not separate from the shortest and gentlest wave—they are one waving energy. We cannot find a beginning or ending to any wave. No wave worries about whether it will survive death—the very idea would be absurd. The ocean is unborn and undying. Like now, it has no before or after. As the ocean, we are the whole show, from the surface froth and the infinitely varied waving to the deepest, darkest, stillest, most silent depths.

Student and teacher, Guru and disciple, lover and Beloved are one whole happening. The beauty is in the relationship, the encounter, the meeting between them—the dance—and it’s also in the discovery that they are not separate, they are not two.

As a human being, I am far from perfect. I can feel angry or hurt or fearful. I make plenty of mistakes. I fall into delusion. And I'm not alone, although many in this teaching business like to pretend otherwise. Many well-known and widely revered teachers, gurus and sages have struggled with addictions and compulsions, and many have done harmful or abusive things far worse than any of my neurotic imperfections. We all, as bodymind organisms, have different weather patterns as a result of infinite causes and conditions (genetics, neurochemistry, childhood trauma, life experiences, and so on), and this weather isn’t personal. I can only live the life I’m given, as it is. It does me no good to compare myself to others, and that's true for you, too. It’s so easy to put teachers up on pedestals, to turn them into idols, to worship them and swallow everything they say, to be hypnotized by them, and to imagine that they are perfect. That’s why in Buddhism they say, if you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., outside yourself), kill him. That doesn’t mean we can’t work with a teacher, but ultimately, the teacher must be left behind.

I find there is a subtle but important middle way between the twin delusions of, on the one hand, putting teachers up on pedestals—idealizing and idolizing them and drinking the fatal Kool-Aid—and, on the other hand, insisting on some false equivalency that asserts that teachers are totally unnecessary and useless. We also don't need to assume that everyone must have a teacher. There are no rules in waking up or in seeing the false as false. Some people need teachers, and some apparently don't.

When Zen teacher Joko Beck created the Ordinary Mind Zen School, one of the founding principles was that the teachers never stop being students. This, to me, is very healthy—to never stop deepening and being open to new discoveries. In my life, sometimes I am the teacher, sometimes I am the student. But truly, I am no-thing solid or persisting at all. And I never stop learning, and unlearning, and seeing new things, new aspects of the truth.

My main teacher, Toni Packer, who rejected teacher/student labels entirely, was always undermining people's desire to turn her into an authority. She told us repeatedly that nothing she said was said "with the closure of authority," as she put it, but was rather "something to be considered, questioned, wondered about, taken further."

When I first started working with people, Toni told me, “Listening is everything. Not knowing. Not having any system at all.” She advised me not to plan or think about a talk before I gave it. Simply show up and trust in presence.

One satsang teacher told the story of how he had once asked one of his senior students to hold satsang during the teacher’s absence, and the student nervously replied that he couldn’t hold satsang. “That’s right,” the teacher said. “You can’t hold satsang.” Satsang happens when “you” get out of the way and allow presence to speak.

A “teacher” is not so much giving the answers as inviting the “student” to discover them for herself or himself.  It's not about explaining how the universe works or providing some metaphysical truth, but simply being present and awake and allowing what emerges from that to emerge.

And in teaching, honesty and authenticity are very important—to speak from direct experience and not from second-hand beliefs, to not pretend that one is beyond human delusion, and to be willing and able to acknowledge when you have been wrong or deluded.

The brilliant therapist who saved me from near-fatal alcohol and drug addiction back in the 1970’s once asked me how I felt about our relationship. I told her I felt like she had all the power. She said, “I do. You gave it to me. You gave it to me for a purpose, and when you’re ready, you’ll take it back. You’ll assimilate all my skills, and you’ll be your own therapist.” That’s exactly what happened, and that feels like a remarkably good description of what ideally happens with teachers, healers, therapists, and anyone we turn to for healing or guidance in some form. To some degree, we do put ourselves into their hands and give them power, and wisely so at times, but the true teacher or therapist (or parent, for that matter) recognizes that their ultimate job is to make themselves obsolete. As the Buddha famously said on his deathbed, “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help.” In other words, rely on direct seeing, direct knowing, present experiencing.

There’s an old Zen story that illustrates this beautifully. A teacher and student have been talking late into the night, and finally the teacher tells the student it’s time for the student to leave and go back to his sleeping quarters. The student opens the door and says, “It’s very dark outside.” The teacher offers the student a lighted candle to find his way home. Just as the student receives the light, the teacher blows it out.

Long after that therapist who saved my life had died of a brain tumor at the age of 57, and after Toni Packer and Joko Beck, two of my earliest and most important spiritual teachers, had both died, and after my mother and father had both died—I felt a bit like the poet W.S. Merwin when he wrote: “Now all my teachers are dead except silence.”

This silence is not the opposite of sound. It is the listening silence that Toni spoke about, the not knowing. It is the silence that is beholding every sound, the silence in which there is no you and no me, no teacher and no student, no enlightenment and no delusion. This all-pervading listening silence is the very essence of here-now, this open awaring space in which the wind is howling right now, and the trees are bending this way and that, and a miraculous wave-like carpet of white and pink blossoms just blew down the pavement dancing and swirling in wild ecstasy. 

When the need to explain it all and get somewhere and be somebody disappears, there is simply this, just as it is. It needs no explanations, no final answers. Those are just excess baggage and fuel for doubt.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017 --

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