Monday, August 26, 2019


            I had the privilege—and the pleasure—of spending last Saturday listening to the wisdom, the practical realism and the sparkling wit of the man who has been teacher, mentor, guide to the small Laguna Beach sitting group of which I have been a member for more than twenty years. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the prolific writer and translator of Buddhist texts, is well known as a Thai Forest monk and abbot of the Wat Metta monastery in Valley Center. Our sangha hosted this day-long retreat, which attracted at least two dozen ardent students of the dharma from throughout Southern California.
            The topic for the day was the deepening of the meditation experience and questions turned, in the afternoon, to the importance of the student-teacher relationship in developing one’s practice. I asked no questions, and in truth was tuning in and out of the discussion as my mind went back to an issue I have never managed to resolve: the need for a teacher. While Than Geoff, as I have addressed him since I first knew him (or Ajahn Geoff as he is more properly titled now) has been a deeply respected presence in my life for many years, I have never been able to approach him with the request that he be “my teacher” in the Buddhist sense. Certainly my loss. Perhaps he would not have accepted me. I don’t know.
            The important role of the teacher has been impressed on me since I first started sitting in meditation some twenty-five years ago. I have read a great number of books, many of them in sufficient depth to have been able to review them; for several years in the early 2000s, my reviews would appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times. More recently I have been publishing them quietly online. Virtually every one of these books has stressed the vital importance and value to any serious student of Buddhism of seeking a teacher. And yet, a student of the dharma myself and a daily meditation practitioner, I have never sought one.
            So I woke this morning thinking of that discussion on Saturday and asking myself yet again what it is about me that has resisted the knowledge that to progress into a profound embrace of Buddhism and its tenets I would need to find a teacher. I asked myself who had been the greatest teacher I had encountered in my life and, strangely perhaps, my mind leapt immediately and unquestioningly to Mrs. Smith, the woman who was my first French teacher at my private boarding school in England. I would have been seven or eight years old when I sat in her classroom, and she scared me stiff. She was a strict disciplinarian, liberal in her use of the ruler on the back of your hand when you had failed to learn all the tenses of an irregular verb correctly, or an entire poem by LaFontaine. In the eyes of a little boy (this one) she was terrifyingly beautiful, a woman to be honored and obeyed without question. And yet she changed my life. It was from her that I learned the love of language, syntax, words that has been the lifelong beacon for my profession and my passion.
            Her counterpart was Mr. Ellis, at that same school, the pederast who took me into his bed when I was twelve years old and used me to gratify his sexual lust.
            I once received, with many others, I’m sure, an online message from a well-known authority on Buddhism asking me what I would be looking for in a teacher. I thought about the question seriously and in some depth—this was a number of years ago—and responded, genuinely, I thought, that I had resisted not only Buddhist but every other kind of teacher in my life because of a profound and persistent sense of distrust dating back to that moment of abuse. The teacher, in my young mind, was the violator and the predator, and there was something in me, some deep part of my psyche, that had been unable or unwilling to shake off the involuntary instinct to protect myself.
            Which was, of course, an excuse, a pretext for a more complex web of qualities that stood between me and the search for, and acceptance of a teacher. Beyond this instinctive, little boy’s distrust there is, for example, a broader more mature intellectual skepticism of all things “religious.” I was brought up in the home of an Anglican minister and learned first the stories then the dogma of Christian belief. But I chafed against it from the earliest age. I “went to church” as a child because my parents took me. When I reached adolescence, I began to doubt. My schools required my continued attendance at church services, but my mind had already begun to reject the underlying belief in an almighty God. By the time I was ready to leave school and home and move on into the life of an adult, I had abandoned any serious attachment to Christianity. If I went to church at all, it was when visiting my parents; and then it was only out of deference to my father’s feelings. I would do anything rather than offend him.
            For the longest time I thought did not need religion in my life. It was pain—an assault of deep emotional pain—that brought me to the realization that, along with Christianity, I had discarded a value that had dwelt in my psyche since childhood; and, with that realization came the longing to fill a spiritual vacuum in my life. It was thus, already well into middle age, that I found my way to Buddhism.
My first teachers were books. On an impulse—perhaps it was a combination of the title and subtitle—I picked up a copy of Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” in a book shop in Ojai, where I was spending a week away from the turmoil of family crisis in Los Angeles. Again on impulse, I bought it. And reading it I was drawn to her words, and readily persuaded by her quiet, powerful message that there was relief to be found in meditation. I went back to “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass—a book I had scornfully rejected, without having read it, when it came out in the 1970s.
            That was the start: reading, an old habit acquired the long years of my academic education. I found my way into the practice of meditation first by chanting, thinking that this activity would distract my always busy mind. Then, later, realizing than chanting itself had become the “busy,” I made the transition to silent breath meditation, sitting at first for a few minutes at a time. Ten minutes, twenty. I first sat for a full hour with the Laguna Beach sangha I mentioned at the outset. That would have been in1994, perhaps 1995.
            I have been sitting in meditation as a daily practice ever since. I have attended retreats, some short, some week- or ten-day long---though I have never engaged in the kind of retreat I read about, the kind that lasts for months, or years in distant mountains. I have read dozens of books about the dharma, about the history of Buddhism, about the benefits of mindfulness in daily life. I have read religious texts and scholarly works, books by such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, books by a great variety of Western propagators of Zen,Tibetan, Theravadan and other schools of Buddhist thought. I have shelves lined with books of a spiritual nature, and have learned enormously from them and from those who wrote them.
            And yet I have not found a “teacher.”
            Over the years I have engaged in a good deal of inner conflict (and not a little self-flagellation!) about not being a good Buddhist, or not having worked harder to be a better one. Should I not have gone to India, as many of those authors had done, to sit at the feet of the masters and to have learned from their wisdom? Should I not have made, or be making, a more serious, consistent, sustained effort in my study of the dharma? Should I not be attending more classes like so many of those whose dedication I admire, whom I credit with knowing so much more than I will ever know? Should I not have surrendered myself to the wisdom of a teacher?
            That conflict, of course, is nothing more than another pretext, another prevarication. I recognize that. In my internal dialogue this morning, as I sat, I recognized and acknowledged disturbing qualities in my character to which I could attribute my reticence. In addition to the distrust, the source of which I described earlier, and the earned intellectual skepticism, I confess to a deplorable arrogance—the kind that whispers persuasively in my ear that I know it all already, that I don’t need anyone to teach me. When I read yet another book about Buddhism, or the ever-popular mindfulness, it seems to me that I’ve heard it all before, these same thoughts and ideas, however differently expressed. It has all begun to seem, well, rather obvious. My vast intellect has no need of improvement. Even my heart intelligence has already embraced it all.
            So there’s that. Worse, possibly, is the indolence that has stood between me and the attainment of many of my goals, be they personal or professional. It shames me to admit to having learned as a child that I was possessed of a certain easy-going charm that could be used as a substitute for hard work. I was always able to get by with very little effort. I was easily enough satisfied with good enough. Doors opened and I was happy to walk through, and to be greeted with a welcome on the other side. Kind friends will rush in with good intentions to tell me that I’m being too harsh on myself, but I know this to be a part of the truth about myself. My indolence has served to allow me to overlook, even indulge my arrogance.
            I have struggled with these things, with feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. I have blamed myself for being less than the good Buddhist I think to see in others, the good Buddhist I myself would wish to have been. Still, thanks perhaps to the advancing years, I am more at peace with myself now, more content to reflect honestly on what I perceive to be my failings without allowing myself to be tortured by them and yearning to be what I am not. I am tired of that struggle. It is so much more important, I believe now, to live in as much open awareness as I am able, and work more simply, day by day, to being a better human being, more generous, more compassionate, more loving that I was the day before.
            That, surely, is enough.

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