What Is a Teacher?

Mondo by John Daido Loori Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 27.3, Spring 2009

Daido Roshi: This evening we’re doing a mondo—a question and answer session—one of the five ways that teachers and students interact in the Zen tradition. The other ways are teisho (discourse), dokusan (face-to-face teaching during periods of zazen), casual encounters, and dharma encounter (a public dokusan). Mondos tend to be intellectual, although they can also involve very direct pointing, depending upon the questions. Mondos start with the teacher bringing up a problem or question, and then opening up to a discussion with the sangha, or community.

This evening I’d like to take the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment with commentary by Master Sheng-yen. Specifically I’d like to discuss the chapter entitled “Universal Enlightenment,” which addresses some questions regarding the teacher-student relationship. The reason I bring it up is that I want to be sure that you have a clear and unequivocal understanding of what the teachings are here with regard to universal enlightenment, which are not necessarily the same as those of Master Sheng-yen. I have a very high regard for Master Sheng-yen, but nonetheless he has his point of view, I have my point of view, and in some cases they differ.

I want to deal exhaustively with the first section of this chapter (see page 25). So let’s open the discussion with the question, “What is a teacher?” We talk about teachers, about finding a teacher, the qualities of a teacher. What is a teacher? In Buddhism, the definition of teacher has no relationship whatsoever with the way we use that word in the English language or in the West. Teacher, as we commonly understand, is someone who imparts knowledge, who passes on information. Zen teachers don’t pass on information. Zen has nothing to do with information. In fact, a Zen teacher has nothing to teach. That’s a fundamental fact of our practice. So what is a Zen teacher? What kind of training should a teacher have? How long should that training be? Years? Months? Have different teachers received different training? Have some received dharma transmission and some not? Are they all teachers?

Student: Ryushin and I were talking about this question last night, specifically in terms of working with you as my teacher, but not having a lot of direct contact with you right now. He was emphasizing that all things act as a teacher, and can be discovered through working in the kitchen, living with other people, and so forth. This makes sense to me, but my question is why do I need to have a human teacher in the first place if everything can be a teacher?

D: Everything is a teacher. When we talk about the dharma we’re talking about the phenomenal universe, but we’re also talking about the teachings. The word dharma means teaching. But we likely don’t see it as teaching. That takes a certain degree of maturity. For years I studied with my teacher and then he transmitted to me, and I came and started this Monastery. Questions would come up, problems would come up, and I would either go visit with him, do sesshin with him, or call him up and we’d talk. So, even though I was finished with my training, I was still learning from him. Then came a point when he died, and I didn’t have him to turn to anymore. But it didn’t mean the teachings stopped. When a question came up, I would hear Roshi. Or something would appear before me that was a manifestation of Roshi’s teaching. In addition to that, I turned to my own students to help me solve the problems that I would have normally gone to my teacher for. So my students became my teacher, just like all things became my teacher. It continues that way.

S: I don’t really feel that I’m at that point.

D: You keep doing what you’re doing and be patient. Anyone else?

S: If my memory serves me correctly, the Sixth Ancestor didn’t have any formal training but suddenly he was awakened. Then soon after he entered a monastery, his experience of enlightenment or wisdom was approved by the Fifth Ancestor. It’s a bit hard for me to make sense of it all.


Eric Lindbloom


D: I understand the dilemma. First of all, let’s clarify the Sixth Ancestor. His name was Huineng, and he was eighteen years old at the time of his enligthenment. He was a woodcutter, with no education. In fact, he was totally illiterate. One day, while hearing a monk chanting the Diamond Sutra, he had an enlightenment experience. He asked the monk where he came from. The monk told him, and Huineng then began a journey to that place, to the home of the Fifth Ancestor, Hongren. When he got there they had a dialogue through which Hongren immediately recognized that Huineng had realized himself. But Hongren knew that he couldn’t just transmit to him, due to the politics within the sangha of a thousand monks. These were very educated, highly sophisticated monks who would not have easily accepted an illiterate dharma heir. It was only after a period of time, and after Huineng publicly surpassed the head monk in his understanding of the dharma, that Hongren actually transmitted to Huineng. Then he told him to go far away, to go into hiding for sixteen years and not to emerge as a teacher before his maturation was complete.