What am I Supposed to be Teaching You?

The honorific we use as monks is “teacher” - and this crosses many traditions, in Thai and SE Asian Buddhism - Ajahn, in Ch’an - Shi, in Vietnamese - Thay, etc. - but just what is it we’re teaching? Some people running seminars and retreats will tout that they will teach you to find enlightenment; others that they will teach you to control your impulses, or reduce your stress, or focus your mind. What can you expect when you come to a Center for Pragmatic Buddhism? None of these.

I’m not going to teach you to find enlightenment because it’s not something that you can find and keep like a new pair of shoes. Enlightenment - or Realization as we term it - is not an achievement, it’s an ongoing activity. If we think of realization as the experience of nirvana then we first have to ask, “what is the experience of nirvana?” Stephen Batchelor in his new bok “After Buddhism” says that nirvana “can be compared to the sudden opening up of a space within one’s experience when one’s innate inclinations die down and reactivity fades away” and that it is achieved by constantly carrying out the Fourfold Task - his reformulation of what have been enshrined in Classical Buddhism as the Four Noble Truths. He states this task to be:

  • To comprehend suffering (dukkha)

  • To let go of the arising (reactivity)

  • To behold the ceasing (experience nirvana)

  • To cultivate the path (the eightfold path of appropriate view, appropriate thought, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration)

Notice that for him the experience of nirvana is the third part of the fourfold task. This may seem like a radical departure from Buddhist teaching but he has some compelling arguments. If we - like Classical Buddhism - define nirvana/enlightenment as an attained state in which dukkha has completely ceased then by that definition the Buddha was not enlightened because he still suffered from bodily aches and pains and from mental frustration and anguish. If it is - as the Buddha said many times throughout the sutras - the cessation of reactivity (tanha, sometimes translated as craving) then it is truly something that he lived within AND THAT WE CAN LIVE WITHIN AS WELL. When we have those moments in which we behold the fading away of reactivity we are motivated to practice the path so that it can become our natural state and -we hope - permanently displace our conditioned state of reaction against/upon/about the world. This is not something that you can be taught nor is it a truth to be believed but a realization on your own part this state is the true ground of your being. You are not defined by your conditioned place in the world but by how grounded you are in your natural state of nirvana. Batchelor goes on to say that the person who experiences this state “does not shun involvement with the world but moves nimbly and lightly through it”.

Thus I have no truths to teach you. I have nothing for you to believe that will bring you salvation. I don’t give you doctrines to follow or rules of right and wrong. I only have a task for you to undertake. Again referring to Batchelor he summarizes the fourfold task this way: “Embrace Life. Let go of what arises. See its ceasing. Act.” All I can add is the shampoo injunction - “rinse and repeat”.

As with Enlightenment so with the other claims that some Buddhist teachers will use to beguile their audience - and often to make quite a sum of money. I do not claim that I can show you how to relieve your stress or make you more focused or control your impulses. These are not truths to be taught or achievements that I can help you attain. These, indeed, are simply the effects of living in the grounded state nirvana and they will come and go as you come and go from that grounded state of being.

So why did I accept the honorific of Shi? What can I teach you? Only what you’re willing to act on. Another Western Buddhist teacher, Brad Warner, says that Buddhism is a philosophy of action. Not ABOUT action but OF action. Buddhism is embracing moving “nimbly and lightly through” the world. Teachers abound in theory. Buddhism isn’t about theory but about practice.

What we as monks can teach - and why we embrace the title of teacher - is at once historical, philosophical and practical. Just don’t confuse what we teach for a true path you have to follow to reach some supranatural state. This was a task even the Buddha refused. When asked about the supernatural experiences often ascribed to prolonged meditation he said:

There are other things, higher and more perfect that these, for the sake of which mendicants lead the spiritual life under me. (Digha Nikaya 6)

We can - and are charged to - teach what the Buddha taught within the context of his society so that you can determine how to apply these teaching in your own life. We can teach how other teachers in the past have interpreted these teachings so that you can determine if any of these interpretations make sense to you. We can teach of other philosophies that also lead to a path of the cessation of reactivity. Most importantly we can and - I hope - do teach you practical techniques for integrating “the path” into your life. These include exposing you to different techniques of meditation - both individual and communal - as well as teaching ways in which you can decide on and integrate appropriate thought, speech, action, livelihood, etc. into your life.

I actually love the fact that our title in Buddhism is most normally teacher because it implies accountability and responsibility on our end. Teachers are not Fathers or Reverends but guides who walk beside you on your path. It is up to you to walk the path though….


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