Searching For An Inner Teacher

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Throughout my life I have read books, attended retreats, and otherwise searched for authority in my meditation practice.  I’ve always wanted someone to tell me ‘how things are’—including an understanding of my innermost experiences, so I could learn richer ways of being alive.  Still Water’s senior teacher, Mitchell Ratner, has been a trusted guide for many years.  He offers learned teachings and wise counsel, and exemplifies the qualities that I associate with a genuine dharma teacher.  Mitchell has brought the wisdom of his own teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, to our community and many of us look to Thay for penetrating insight.  Mitchell and Thay have been the pedagogical pillars of our community.  

Mitchell’s absence this coming Thursday provides an opportunity to practice a training he has long encouraged: the search for our inner teacher.  Mitchell has always urged us to check out reality for ourselves. Buddhist teachings tell us that we are each a Buddha-to-be and thus each of us must practice skilled discernment.  

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will explore our attachment to teachers and the levels of trust we have in our own deep wisdom.  We will recognize the importance of external teachers in our lives and examine our own pedagogical voices.  

We will ask: What have we learned from the great teachers in our lives?  How can we enhance what we learn from those who have cultivated insight?  We will also ask: What limitations are involved in the teacher-student (or student-disciple) relationship?  In what ways do we continually search for an authority to understand our own lives?  What holds us back from trusting our own deepest experience?  In short, how can we grow in relation to our inner and external teachers?  

You are invited to join us. Passages on students, teachers, and spiritual friends are below.


Paul Wapner

A Good Spiritual Friend

by Ayya Khema, from When the Iron Eagle Flies


A good spiritual friend who will help us to stay on the path, with whom we can discuss our difficulties frankly, sure of a compassionate response, provides an important support system which is often lacking. Although people live and practice together, one-upmanship often comes between them. A really good friend is like a mountain guide. The spiritual path is like climbing a mountain: we don’t really know what we will find at the summit. We have only heard that it is beautiful, everybody is happy there, the view is magnificent and the air unpolluted. If we have a guide who has already climbed the mountain, he can help us avoid falling into a crevasse, or slipping on loose stones, or getting off the path. The one common antidote for all our hindrances is noble friends and noble conversations, which are health food for the mind.”

Excerpt from “No Teacher of Zen”

BY Norman Fischer, from  Lion’s Roar, October, 2015

People come to Zen practice, as they do to any spiritual practice, with plenty of human needs. They come with trust, mistrust, and hidden expectations. Of course, the Zen teacher, an imperfect human being, is going to disappoint a fair number of them. Some will be disappointed on the first day, others only after many decades. You, the teacher, will misunderstand them and they will misunderstand you. You will say and do things that are hurtful, even if you never intended to. Meaning to straighten someone out (always a dubious proposition), you will completely botch the job, reinforcing the behavior or view you were trying to soften. Students who have practiced faithfully with you for years will realize it has all been wrong and leave, creating confusion and dissension. Your public words and actions will, in being variously understood and misunderstood, create confusion among sangha members who will act out their confusion in sometimes painful ways. You will have all kinds of complicated and contradictory feelings about people who come to practice with you—loving them, worrying about them, dreading them, seeing them make terrible mistakes you can’t prevent, watching as they manipulate you and set you up for all sorts of falls. In the end, you will realize you can’t help them at all and will have to watch them suffer, or watch them make you suffer, and maintain your composure even so.

I have spoken to many Zen teachers who are trying hard to get better at what they do—to see where they make mistakes and to correct those mistakes, maybe even to get some psychological or other training so they can understand the various twisted ways students sometimes present themselves. I have learned from commiserating with other teachers (something I think is essential) and from my many mistakes. Ultimately, I think Zen teachers can no more learn than teach. Each situation, each person, is unique, and one’s own response, at that time, to that person, must and will inevitably be unique. I always trust my response and am, of course, willing to change or be corrected when proven wrong. But in the end, I know I’ll never get it right. Sometimes getting it wrong is the best thing anyway.


To My Teacher

by Taigu Ryokan

An old grave hidden away at the foot of a deserted hill, 

Overrun with rank weeds growing unchecked year after year; 

There is no one left to tend the tomb, 

And only an occasional woodcutter passes by. 

Once I was his pupil, a youth with shaggy hair, 

Learning deeply from him by the Narrow River. 

One morning I set off on my solitary journey 

And the years passed between us in silence. 

Now I have returned to find him at rest here; 

How can I honor his departed spirit? 

I pour a dipper of pure water over his tombstone 

And offer a silent prayer. 

The sun suddenly disappears behind the hill 

And I’m enveloped by the roar of the wind in the pines. 

I try to pull myself away but cannot; 

A flood of tears soaks my sleeves.

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