Unintentional Teaching

There once was a Zen teacher, we won’t say Master as that would be inappropriate, who prepared himself everyday for death.  This teacher was quite old and everyone had no trouble telling him so.  Eventually he believed them. 

“I’m old,” he would say, not paying particular attention to who might be around him, but verifying what the whole town knew. So, one day the teacher said, “Enough!” and with that, retired.

As he sat in deep meditation, small sparks would capture his attention.  They would  quickly spark and just as quickly disappear.  The teacher opened his eye, then jumped up shouting, “That’s the answer!” But no one knew what the question was. 

A studied life is nearly always filled with insightful flashes with private meanings flashing across our everyday mind. One insight: being a Zen teacher is an exercise in futility; being a priest, not so.  One can no more “teach” Zen than one can “teach” bicycle riding.  The newbie must just ride, sometimes falling down, yet always getting up and doing it again and again until, “presto,” there she is, flying along with the wind. The teacher has taught nothing.

Being a priest, on the other hand, is not being a teacher, per se, but in the example of his or her being the priest is teaching Zen. How one walks and talks, sits or lays down; how one eats, goes to the bathroom, and attends to relationships; each are teachings in and of themselves, but not intentionally so. This is the best kind of teaching.

Because a truly mindful life can be an unintentional teaching and is just life as it is lived, we students of such a teacher too often fail to appreciate what is right in front of us.  I often say I learned more about Zen from studying my reactions to my teacher than anything he ever said. I learned from his woodworking, his tinkering with race cars, his closely held values, as well as his form as a priest leading a service. But most of all I learned from our kitchen table talks. 

We fought a lot, mostly about politics (he was such a conservative) and the fact that he had a hard time with my desire to practice what I called “Street Zen.” At the invasion of Iraq my teacher supported President Bush! What sort of priest supports an invasion of another country?  Answer: my teacher.

My biases became so evident in our talks that they lived on my sleeve.  My job, he insisted, was to process them, deconstruct them, and let them float away…empty artifacts of mind. In this, he pointed out, my resistance was my teacher.  

If we are not paying attention to our internal dialogue and if that dialogue takes us away from the moment right before us, we are lost, slipping more deeply than ever into the mud that traps us. Robert Bly, the American poet, said something like, “If you don’t like the mud you are standing in, change it!” 

My mud has been like concrete: war, divorce, loss, all resting heavy on my shoulders.  At 68 years old I have retired and live in a body punished by time and a myriad experiences.  It is a challenge at times just to stand up. With each breath some pain or other arises, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual.  Yet, I stand, but I do not stand alone.  There with me are my students and my student’s students. Teachers all.  This is how it is in Zen.   What I ask of myself now is simple:  As I live out my life what is my unintentional teaching? When this question is in front of our eyes we can see our karma in action. 


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