Today someone sent me an email asking to be my student. This prompted the following thoughts, which I now present to you in the form of a kind of open letter. This isn’t precisely the email I sent in response to the questioner. But parts of it are.
I’m never sure what people mean when they ask to be my student. It’s not a straight-forward question. What do you expect would happen if I said “yes”? What are you asking me to do?
I appreciate you asking, by the way. I feel like it’s your way of saying you think I’m a cool guy and a decent person, that you find what I say to be interesting and useful. I’m glad for that. It makes me feel good that people ask me to be their teacher. I realize the people who ask this are my biggest supporters and I would like to do the best I can for them.
So I’m not trying to be difficult here or hurtful or anything like that. It’s just that I get this question a lot and I honestly do not know what is being asked. Most of the time I just say I can’t do it, mainly because I do not know what I’m being asked to do. I figure that, if one is asked to do something without being told just what that something actually entails, it may be best to refuse.
If you want to know how to do zazen the instructions are in each of my books. There’s even a link on my blog. The address is: http://www.dogensanghalosangeles.org/dsla/zazen.html
If you want to sit with me, you can join me most Saturdays in Santa Monica and most Mondays in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. I say most Saturdays and Mondays because I’m not always there due to my traveling schedule. However, the meetings go on whether I’m there or not. The Saturday group meets at 10 AM at Hill Street Center 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405. The Monday group meets at 8 PM at Silverlake Yoga, 2810 Glendale Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90039.
I also travel the world giving talks, leading retreats and doing book signings. You can attend any or all of these. Many of these are either free or by some kind of voluntary donation. In fact, any time I do a thing in some city that I charge a fee for, I try to do something else in the same city that’s either free or by donation. I try to be available to talk to people one-to-one at all of these events.
Do you want more than just initial instructions on how to do zazen and an opportunity to join a group that sits together? If so, what did you have in mind? Do you want me to be available to speak to you about issues arising from practice? If so, how available do you expect me to be? Would you want me to be someone who you can call on the phone any hour of the day or night to discuss stuff? Or do you want some kind of scheduled thing where, say, we’d do a Skype conversation ever Tuesday and Thursday at 11 AM Eastern Standard Time or something?
If you want something like that, are you willing to pay for it? I’m asking this not because I want to get rich off of merely talking to people on Skype (sweet!) but because you would be asking me to forgo other things that I could be doing to earn money during the times when you and your fellow students would want me to be available for personal consultation. If I were to do that sort of thing I would absolutely have to charge a fee for it, otherwise I would not be able to pay my rent!
Are you asking for some kind of institutional authority, position or recognition? Do you want to be made a monk or priest and thereby become a kind of religious authority figure? Do you hope to get the authorization to wear certain robes or to call yourself by some kind of title?
Do you want me to tell you some kind of secret that you imagine I know and you do not? Do you want me to teach you some special technique that I have used to attain some kind of ability that you imagine I have? Do you want me to help make you a better person? Or perhaps a more powerful person?
Why do you ask me this instead of asking someone else? Is it because you feel a strong connection to what I say in my books and blogs and so forth? It’s nice if that’s true. It makes me happy. But you should know, if you read my stuff, that I’m not a very by-the-book sort of teacher. I don’t have an institution that you can join and whose spiritual/corporate ladder you might climb in order to attain some kind of position or authority. You would not be able to study with me for, say, five years and then end up with, like, some kind of special robe or certificate or anything along those lines. It’s not going to be any sort of spiritual career move. If that’s what you’re looking for there are places that offer it. I’m just not one of them.
What do you hope to get out of the practice? Are you looking for enlightenment? Are you looking for a spiritual career?
Are you trying to become a better person? Do you think I can help? If so, why? Do you think I’m a better person than you are? What would you do if you found out I did things that you did not approve of? Will you expect me to live up to your image of me? Will you be inquiring into my sex life? Or how I spend my money? Or what I do when I’m not working with you? Do you have specific guidelines you expect me to follow in order to qualify to be your teacher?
These are the kinds of questions that are triggered every time someone requests to become my student. I offer them to you to let you know what you seem to me to be asking. Thank you for reading.
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Dec. 12 we’ll show the documentary about me in Seattle, Washington. You gotta get your tickets in advance, though. Here’s the link!
Dec. 13 we’ll show the documentary about me in Portland, Oregon. Again, you gotta get your tickets in advance. Here’s the link!
I will be at all three screenings to do a Q&A afterwards and sign books and generally hang out with people.
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As usual, this blog and my being able to go to these film screenings are supported by your donations! Thank you!