Standing Alone

Tenkei and Genpo in Salt Lake City

It is a paradox, but most of us need a teacher to help us not to rely on anyone else. Of course, ultimately I can rely only on myself – I am the one who is responsible for my life. But who is that one? Do I really know myself? We usually respond to situations by relying (often unconsciously) on highly conditioned habitual patterns that have developed over time, either to please ourselves and others or to rebel against them in order to defend our comfort zone. And this is what so often gets us into trouble. If I really knew who I am, my responses might be very different and would most likely be more beneficial both to myself and to others.

Zen teachers can play different roles, depending on each individual student. But one of their roles is to encourage us to really go by our own experience – which turns out to be difficult because we so easily take on from others what we need in order to confirm our self-image and dismiss what goes against it. For me this was a very strong issue in my training with Genpo Roshi. He was the first person I had ever met whom I couldn’t fool with any of my ideas about myself. He just wouldn’t buy into them. And although this was really uncomfortable, it was also highly attractive because I intuitively sensed that this could open up my perspective to completely new vistas.

One way to loosen up our self-image is to just copy the teacher. But as this approach is not without danger, it would be wise first to determine whether the teacher you work with is really the right person for you. I remember it was only after some years of apprehension that I completely gave in. Yet at some point I did everything he did as much as the situation allowed me to – I even started to wear his old shirts, went to the gym with him, and shared his ups and downs. My old friends laughed at me, and probably with good reason. But by copying someone else we do have a chance to go beyond our own deeply engrained patterns.

Yet that is not the end of the story. Good teachers will see through the dependency we build up over time – which can become another type of comfort zone – and encourage or even push their students to go beyond it. Master Torei (1721-1792) calls this “the path of progressive transcendence” and he says that it is something that the ancestral masters did not transmit. The uniqueness of our life ultimately requires an individual expression, for which there is no example to be followed. When, after many years, I left Genpo Roshi, it did indeed feel like a kind of liberation, as if he had set me free. He even gave me a rakusu on which he had written a new name and “@freedom.com.”

But it didn’t take me long to realise that being on my own also meant that life itself had become my teacher. Having no specific teacher anymore apparently implied that everyone was my teacher! So standing alone has some interesting implications. The more we realise our inherent independence, the more we dare to admit that we are all interconnected and totally interdependent. In fact, it is only when we really learn to stand alone that we learn how to stand together! I was lucky enough to end up in Japan, together with Myoho Sensei, and study with Junyu Kuroda Roshi (Hojo-san), and he referred us to many other masters – Japanese, Chinese and Bhutanese. Needless to say, this contact enriched our pioneering Zen River project immensely.

Of course, it is not only working with the teacher that can have a liberating effect. Besides the Buddha, there is also the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddhist teaching itself, as reflected in the scriptures, can be highly inspiring and also confrontational because it challenges views we take for granted and shows us again and again how to rely only on our own experience. The Sangha too has a role in this scenario, especially when it is diverse and open-minded. Yet the relationship with a teacher is of special relevance. It can expose our most hidden personal agendas and prompt us to let them go. Without this I would never have been able to learn to be able to stand alone. Thank you, Genpo Roshi.

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