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Dear Still Water Friends,
I began meditating eighteen years ago when I lived in Washington, DC. The moment is still etched in my memory: I was at work and a dear childhood friend called to say he had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. As an oncologist, I knew what it meant. While I held back tears, I walked down the hallway to a colleague’s office, closed the door, and began sobbing. She listened for a long time, saying very little. At the end, she gently said something like, “I wish I could ease your suffering, but I am wondering if you’d like to come to meditation tonight with me. That evening, I joined her at Tara Brach’s sitting group in the Unitarian Universalist church off River Road in Bethesda. I’ve been practicing ever since.
I started learning more about meditation. Somehow, I stumbled upon Thich Nhat Hanh and began reading his books. His teachings on Interbeing and the holistic approach to mindful living woven in with themes from nature, resonated with me. After an online search, I found Still Water MPC, and signed up for the weekly newsletter. However, for those of you familiar with DC and DC traffic, because I lived in Cleveland Park and worked in Rockville, the Thursday night commute to Silver Spring felt daunting, so I didn’t go practice.
Summer rolled around and Thay – Thich Nhat Hanh – was in the United States and gave a talk at a synagogue in northwest DC. I somehow got a ticket and went. Thay walked into the synagogue with the monastics and the whole room fell silent: before he had even spoken a word, I thought, “I want to learn whatever he has learned.” And in that moment, I knew that Thay was my teacher. Within the next few weeks, I started practicing with Still Water MPC and have not stopped practicing since then. I still would occasionally go back to practice with Tara or to sit at the Tibet House with Sharon Salzberg or volunteer at events when the Dalai Lama came to town. But still, many years on, I too call Thich Nhat Hanh, “teacher.”
It was and is so helpful to have teachers, showing me the way, sharing what they learned. I often meet people who have taught themselves meditation and I think ‘Wow, there is no way I could have done this without teachers.’ Even the Buddha had teachers before he himself became a teacher. But as I come to understand Buddhism more and more and the path it offers us in terms of touching our awakened nature, I realize that this is an “inside job.” At some point, I have to become my own teacher, trust my own true wisdom, my own Buddha nature and Buddha mind. Thay often reminds us that the present moment is our teacher. This sounds somewhat like what the Buddha reportedly said thousands of years ago: “Don’t believe what I tell you. Question it, experience it and see for yourself if it is true.”
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh about the role of a teacher in spiritual practice.
- Who or what has been a teacher for you?
- Was there a person, a moment, a situation?
- Did the teacher help you because they challenged a belief you had or hooked something in you?
- Did the teacher help you because they helped you understand how to meditate and look deeply?
Bowing together to all of you, my teachers.
“You Have the Buddha in You” An Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh
by Andrea Miller. Lion’s Roar, November 13, 2013
What is the role of a teacher in spiritual practice?
A friend can be a teacher, a fellow practitioner can be a teacher, and you yourself can be a teacher. A teacher is anyone who helps you practice and find more freedom—even freedom from your teacher.
You have to be intelligent and not be dependent on your teacher. If you follow him or her with blind faith, it’s not good. There is no perfect teacher. You can learn the good things from him or her, and you can also help your teacher to be better. Very soon there will be a teacher within you, and you can follow that teacher.
So a good teacher is someone who helps you not depend on him or her all your life. That is why the Buddha said before he died, “Go back to yourself. Take refuge in the island within you.”
You are not lost when your teacher is no longer in human form, because your teacher is always alive in you and in his disciples. When I practice calligraphy, sometimes I invite my late teacher to join me, so as teacher and disciple we do it together. Breathing in, half the circle. Breathing out, the other half. When I smile, my teacher smiles.
I invite all teachers of the past to do a circle with me, and I know that my hand is not my hand. My hand is also my father’s hand and my mother’s hand. Sometimes I invite all my friends to do it with me, because they are me also.
Sun, October 30
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