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)