Once at a lecture on Buddhism, someone sitting across the aisle recognized me and said, “Sensei, why are you here? Don’t you already know this stuff?”
I don’t really so I welcome the opportunity to learn more. To me, following the Buddhist path is about constantly deepening our understanding of ourselves, and in turn, growing our appreciation for life. It’s a process that continues throughout our entire life. There is no “end.” No one ever becomes an “expert.”
Yet we live in a world of experts. Turn on the TV and you’ll see countless “experts” talking about the economy, politics, sports, health, beauty, food and so forth. Even young people in their twenties already talk as experts about social networking and the Internet. Experts speak with confidence and authority, fiercely defending their positions and rarely backing down or admitting their failings.
We human beings generally are the same. I think almost every one of us would say we are at least experts at knowing ourselves. These feelings come out when we say, “Don’t tell me what to do” and “I know what’s best for myself” and “I’m right and you’re wrong!”
Interestingly enough, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon among karate teachers. Many Americans receive a certain amount of training, feel they know best, and open their own martial arts schools, proclaiming themselves “grandmaster,” which really irks many tradition-bound teachers, who feel these self-proclaimed experts don’t give enough credit to their teachers and don’t follow traditional lines of lineage. If you’ve ever studied tea ceremony, flower arranging, koto playing, Minyo dance, judo, kendo or any other Japanese art, you know about the great emphasis put on the teacher/student relationship.
A student learns from, respects and appreciates his or her teacher, but the relationship doesn’t stop with two people. Even teachers have teachers, someone they studied under and learned from. Those senior teachers also have teachers, and so on all the way back to the founder. In Japanese arts, this lineage typically extends back to a headquarters in Japan, which symbolizes a tradition’s founder.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism also follows this kind of traditional thinking, but in a deeper and more profound way. We can all look to Shinran Shonin as a teacher who helps us understand Buddhism and ourselves, even though he lived 800 years ago and we have never met him. Our temple represents his teachings and the Higashi Honganj mother temple in Kyoto symbolizes his life and works.
During his lifetime, Shinran expressed gratitude to his teacher, Honen Shonin, who illuminated to him the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” In his writings, Shinran also cited other Buddhist teachers, some of whom lived centuries apart and in different countries: Genshin (Japan), Shantao, Tao-ch’o, T’an-luan (China), Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna (India), collectively they are known as the Seven Patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran credited his spiritual understanding to this lineage, which ultimately traces its roots back to the Buddha in India.
In Buddhism, the teacher/student relationship transcends mere tradition. It is really representative of our state of mind and attitude in life. As long as we are confident in our views, defend our thinking, are attached to our opinions, think that we are right while others are wrong, that only we ourselves know best, then our minds will never be open to a higher wisdom, greater self-knowledge and deepening compassion. We must feel from the bottom of our hearts the emptiness and ignorance deep within that spurs us to find answers. When we come to realize these feelings, we become spiritual seekers and true students.
In this way, we naturally begin to learn from others, because we are seeking answers. We also naturally become humble, viewing others with appreciation and warmth for what they may teach us.
Only when we become true students does a true teacher appear. Only when we begin to have questions do answers begin to appear. This dynamic is symbolized in the sutras in which the Buddha remains silent, until a seeker approaches with a question. Once asked, the Buddha begins to speak. Likewise, once we become a true student, then the sutras begin to make sense, the rituals begin to take on meaning and the Nembutsu begins to touch our hearts. Anyone and everyone can teach us something.
Through the teacher, we begin to discover answers. Unless we become students, no teacher can help us. True students forever seek answers, constantly learning, constantly growing, in a never-ending process that deepens our understanding and appreciation for the rest of our lives.