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A friend once complained her teacher was incompetent. The teacher “doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t make sense,” she said. Consequently, students met after class to discuss the lesson and work out problems. 

Actually, the teacher appeared to me quite effective, forcing students to figure things out for themselves. They seemed to be truly learning.

A “bad” teacher can be a “good” teacher in this way. After all, the ultimate goal is the student’s learning, not the teacher’s teaching. In other words, the teaching doesn’t exist for its own sake, rather it exists to help students learn. Buddhism, or the Buddha dharma, is the same way. 

Someone once asked me, “If Buddhism is real, where are all the Buddhas? Where can I meet one?” This person missed the point. The goal is not finding a Buddha or a “supreme being” out there somewhere. The goal is awakening to the wonder of our own life here and now—in a sense, to become a Buddha ourselves.

There’s a Zen Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” Don’t be distracted by searching for something outside ourselves. The key to understanding lies within. 

To clarify, the teacher/student relationship is an ancient Buddhist tradition. The three treasures give us the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Dharma is the “teachings” and the Sangha is our “community.” The “teacher” is the historic Buddha, called Shakyamuni or Gautama, who lived in India 2,500 years ago. His words and life serve as the origin of the Buddhist religion. All Buddhists traditionally consider the Buddha as their teacher. 

However, the Buddha was a man who came to understand deep, universal truths about life. He taught these truths in order to help people overcome their suffering. “Rely on the Dharma, not on the people who expound it,” he once said. That’s why we don’t “worship” the Buddha or think of him as a being with supernatural powers who will solve our problems. 

So then the question remains: How do we come to understand?

Come to the temple and hear Dharma talks, chant and sing gathas. Check out books on Buddhism from our lending library. Listen to guest speakers and attend lectures. Sermons, rituals, and practices help point you towards the Buddha Dharma, but ultimately they’ll fall short of solving your problems. These words and rituals may seem like a “bad” teacher who doesn’t make sense. You may scratch your head and say, “I don’t get it.”

Exactly right. 

The teacher is only a stick poking us in the back, prodding us forward. We alone must walk the path towards understanding. That means struggling with our problems and suffering, and living our own lives. In confronting life’s challenges and hardships, with the Buddha dharma as our guide, true understanding emerges.

In this way, any experience we have and any person we meet, may become our teacher. 

The Avatamsaka (“Flower Adornment”) sutra tells the story of Sudhana, a young man who embarks on a journey seeking spiritual enlightenment. In his travels, he meets various people, each one different. For instance, he meets a hermit living in the forest, a king, a beautiful woman, a child, a sailor, a sage and a doctor. Sudhana learns an important lesson from each one.

The sutra says, “Just as all beings appear in the deep and vast ocean in which countless gems are hidden, all kinds of images appear in the pure body of the Buddha. They are the deep sea of causes and conditions in which the gems of virtue are stored.”

On our temple’s altar stands, not the historic teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, rather a statue of Amida Buddha, with wooden rays behind it, symbolizing infinite wisdom and compassion shining throughout the universe.

We can learn about life from our parents, family members, our children and friends. We can learn about ourselves from people we don’t know or don’t like. We can discover meaning in life from loved ones who are no longer with us. 

Where are the Buddhas? They are everywhere.