Relationships / Spirituality

Are you ready to be the true dragon?


“As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion.” – Pema Chödrön

I recently received a text from a friend of mine who has been on the spiritual path for several years now, practicing yoga, meditation and Reiki. She asked me, “Do you think Pema Chödrön ever gets triggered? Maybe she does and just notices it and lets it go.” I love these kinds of questions, because I often wonder how far along I also am in this whole process. It’s good to have assumptions turned on their end every once in a while.

My answer was, “Of course she does. She’s human!” One thing I do know about Pema Chödrön, having been an avid follower of her teachings for many years, is that she has never shied away from admitting her own instances of being “hooked” (the Buddhist term is “shenpa”) by emotional triggers or situations. As a Buddhist nun and spiritual teacher, it’s her job to vigorously practice, study and share insights on how we all can develop mindfulness practices for dealing with life’s sticky moments.

But this question got me thinking deeper about another issue – our tendency to put our teachers on a pedestal and forget they still deal with the same ego-based issues we do. There are a few gurus out there who are said to be enlightened and thus, beyond the reach of such things. However, even the most popular spiritual teachers out there will tell you that they stumble through their own delusions, dramas, fears and foibles like the rest of us. The best teachers are usually the ones who are struggling mightily with the very things they are teaching! The difference between them and us may be a deeper commitment to practice, willingness to surrender to truth and in some cases, good marketing.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was introduced to Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and it changed my life. It set me on the spiritual path that I’m today and helped me confont the nature of my fears and behaviors. As the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Suzuki helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the West and is a very important figure in the history and practice of Zen Buddhism. So, imagine my surprise when I read the biography Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, and found out he was generally regarded – even by his own admission – as an emotionally distant spouse and parent. And yet, he had this incredible ability to relate directly to his students. The feeling comes through so strongly in his teachings. It’s one of the reasons I connected so strongly with his wisdom. Initially, I felt a bit of shock like people do when they find out a respected member of their community or even some celebrity they admired was caught doing something unseemly. This brings to my mind one of Suzuki’s own sayings: “There is nothing absolute for us, but when nothing is absolute, that is absolute.” We live in shades of grey, not black and white. And this is really okay.

Was Suzuki a teacher with tremendous spiritual insight? Yes. Was he beloved by his students? Yes. Was he at times a less than ideal husband or father? Yes. But all these things change, evolve and eventually go the way of dust. What we are left with are his teachings, which are relevant and true. He innately knew the essence of his practice when he said, “Buddhism is transmitted from warm hand to warm hand” but he too struggled at times with how to make that happen in certain interpersonal relationships.

Suzuki also shared another teaching, which is important for us to consider in the context of putting our teachers – or anyone we think does it or gets it better than we do – up on a pedestal:

Do you know the story of the true dragon? In ancient China, there was a person who liked dragons very much. He talked about dragons to his friends, and he painted dragons, and he bought various kinds of dragon sculptures. Then a dragon said to himself, “If a real dragon like me visited him, he would be very happy.” One day the real dragon sneaked into his room. The man didn’t know what to do! Whaaaah! He could not run away. He could not even stand up. Whaaaah! For a long, long time we have been like him. That should not be our attitude. We should not be just a fan of dragons; we should always be the dragon himself. Then we will not be afraid of any dragon.

Our fear, as Marianne Williamson has so famously said, “…is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We always want to put those dragons in our life up on the pedestal, only to gaze up longingly from the bottom.  I say, get yourself up on the pedestal for a change. Learn from your teachers’ insight, but know that the compassion, peace of mind and spaciousness of heart you seek in yourself is already there within you. Your teacher is simply there to help facilitate the journey to your own truth.  Be the true dragon in your own life.

(Image credit: rumpleteaser on Flickr)

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6 thoughts on “Are you ready to be the true dragon?

  1. 🙂 Im glad my questions inspire writing and your own self examination.

    Love the “true dragon” story- will definitely keep that in mind. And I will add that book to my ever growing wish list. 🙂

    I have had moments of disillusion when discovering that my teachers werent perfect. As I have grown in my practice, this has changed to a feeling of connection and reassurance- if even so and so struggles with this, and yet still teaches such amazing things to myself and others, then there is hope for me.And getting to know the human side of others, not just teachers, has helped me to learn to accept my own human-ness.

    We’re all in this together. And I think the more we share our flaws and struggles, the more I think we will awaken to this.

    Thank you for being the wonderful teacher and human being and friend that you are. 🙂

    • Hi Christine,

      Sherri’s comment above expresses perfectly what I would have probably said to you. 🙂 In so many ways, you are teaching your own “teachers” through your own inquisitiveness, doubts and discoveries. You are shining the mirror back at them, just as they are doing the same to you. Thank you for being my friend and teacher!

  2. We are all both teachers and students at once. Even the one who may seem like the teacher learns from the student, if they are open to such. It is also important that we don’t put all the work on the teacher or expect that they have all the answers, or that it is there responsibility to show us – for each of us should do our part in reaching a more enlightened collective consciousness. Thank you, Dana. You are teacher to me 🙂

  3. wow, this really spoke to me today, Dana! In fact, I was getting ready to write today (well, putting it off, actually) about some things that are related in some ways. Your eloquent manner of writing is inspiration…as is the content. Thank you.

  4. What a beautiful post! Thanks so much for sharing this.

    As an educator, I delight in telling my students about my mistakes. When I teach my newborn class I love the expression on my clients’ faces when I tell them about the time I walked through a doorway, cradling my infant in my arms but didn’t make room for her little head…OUCH! After some nervous laughter, I explain that we all will make mistakes as parents but the thing to do is to embrace them and learn from them and share our experience with others, not that they might avoid the same mistakes, but so we can celebrate our humanness! Ahhh, beautiful humility!

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