From Still Point – November 2010 – Question: Authority

By Jeanna Annen Moyer

AnnenI have spent much of my life as a student; I love to learn. I spent the usual years in primary and secondary school, and then went on to college and several years of graduate school.  I’ve pursued many other kinds of learning, in all kinds of things — water safety, software programming, conflict resolution. Through all of this, the idea of being a student in any type of religious tradition or spiritual practice was never an aspiration of mine. I had a thinker’s skepticism for organized religion. Furthermore, it seemed to me that the pursuit of deeper, spiritual truths was deeply personal, as well as unteachable. And yet, I’ve asked for and received ordination as a lay disciple of a teacher here at Dharma Rain Zen Center. I’d like to talk about how that came to pass.

I have a long history of being suspicious of authority. In college, one of my good friends was a student teacher. A favorite phrase among her second-graders was, “You’re not the boss of me!” We used to jokingly say this to each other, but on a deeper level it was really true for me. I was determined that no one could or should be the boss of me. I always reserved the right to make up my own mind — about everything. I took Socrates seriously when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In my mind, taking someone’s word for something was a kind of laziness, an intellectual cardinal sin. In my early Philosophy classes, “Appeal to Authority” (the idea that a statement is true because someone in a position of authority says it’s true) was to me the most transparent of all the logical fallacies. My resistance to authority deepened as my academic and political horizons broadened. During my Master’s work, I discovered intellectually rigorous feminist theory, came out as a lesbian, and read that patriarchy was structurally designed to keep me and all women submissive, marginalized, and disempowered.  I cut my hair, stopped shaving my legs, and dug in against The Man.

My relationship to authority fluctuated over the years, but a core suspicion remained.  When I first started attending events at Dharma Rain, it was with an eye on the door, in case anyone started telling me what to think.  Not what to do — I realized that keeping  specific forms was reasonable, and part of being in any community. But I was hyper-alert for any whiff of groupthink, cults of personality, or appeals to authority.  When I first attended Sunday service, I had a real resistance to doing full bows. Initially, this looked to me like yet another instance of The Man asking a woman, me, to submit to his power. I bowed, but I didn’t like it.

I gradually relaxed as I attended classes and Dharma talks here. I was especially struck by repeated advice to beware the outward path. In a Zen blog called One Mat Zendo, Koro Keisan says of this:

Rinzai instructs… “If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!” This is because any understanding or interpretation of the Buddha that individuals may conceive as being outside themselves is an impostor….any outside authority becomes a hindrance when the student becomes reliant on outside manifestations. It is therefore imperative that the student of Zen recognize his or her own Buddha nature, before any awakening of Buddha mind can be realized.

I appreciated that Zen did not teach that there was something wrong or lacking in me that I should trust someone else to correct or add. Instead, the teaching was that I already had Buddha nature, and methods such as zazen and work with the precepts were provided so I could explore and uncover this directly. That was medicine I could accept. I accepted the authority of these methods because the key to them was testing them for myself, and I could see that their effects were wholesome.

After about a year, I decided I was ready to receive the precepts and formally become a Buddhist. During that Jukai season, Kyogen gave a Dharma talk on spiritual authority that added helpful clarity to what this means in the Zen tradition. He began by raising the issue of paradox in Zen: the one and the many, darkness and light, form and emptiness, and the relative and the absolute. In the Kyojukaimon, the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are described in their relative and absolute aspects as the Three Merits. Each treasure has three dimensions: An absolute, ultimate aspect; the way it has come down to us through the past; and the way in which it appears to us in relative, specific circumstances. For instance, Dharma treasure in an ultimate, absolute sense is called Immaculacy, or Truth undefiled, free from corruption. This Truth as it has been realized in the past by our Dharma ancestors is called Dharma treasure; and the Dharma also appears in our relative, present circumstances, “that which appears in the world and in the scriptures, becoming good for others.” In his talk, Kyogen framed the issue of spiritual authority in terms of the paradox of relative and absolute. He said that spiritual authority lies in the relative realm, in truth manifested by a particular person in a particular way at a particular time, but points toward the absolute — Truth in its ultimate sense. Spiritual authority is also a function of our practice — of mastering the methods of zazen and working with the precepts, and through this mastery attaining a relationship with absolute Truth. I realized that acknowledging spiritual authority in this sense is thus not about giving someone power over you, or accepting some external standard. Instead, it’s a matter of recognizing a person’s understanding of and relationship to a deep Truth, and realizing that you have something to learn from this. Later on, that is the sense in which I recognized Jiko’s spiritual authority, and asked her to accept me as her disciple.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale
Sallie Jiko Tisdale

In my early years at Dharma Rain, before I’d clarified my thoughts on spiritual authority, I viewed lay disciples with — not quite suspicion, but something like it. I didn’t have suspicions about their character, or about their practice, but it seemed to me that I must be different from them in some fundamental way. In my mind, they were somehow drinking a spiritual kool-aid that wasn’t for me. I felt as though I was outside looking in at the lay disciples, and was happy to keep it that way. Of course, Jiko, in addition to being a teacher here, is also a lay disciple. One of the things that first struck me about her was her presence in the Zendo — her attention to form, the seeming effortlessness and ease of her practice there. Although I couldn’t have put it in these terms six  or seven years ago, one way to describe this is as Jiko’s relative, particular expression of an ultimate Truth: non-duality, the oneness of all things, non-opposition. I was drawn to Jiko because I could see she embodied some kind of deep wisdom. This was mysterious to me, but showed unmistakably. I wasn’t sure what she had, but (kool-aid be damned) I aspired to whatever That was.

I’d like to talk about three aspects of my experience so far as lay disciple: not knowing, not copying others, and the koan of surrender.

I asked Jiko to be my teacher in 2008. In preparing for this talk, I looked back in my journal for that year, but I said very little about why, exactly, I’d asked for this. Most of my entries were about other dramatic events that year, including quitting my job, ending a long-term relationship, and trying to come to terms with the wide open, frightening space in my life that these changes created. I think that those dramatic events are an explanation for at least the timing of my request.  I realized that I had (apparently intentionally) blown up two key pillars of my identity (career and relationship), and did not know enough myself to make sense of  the abyss that had opened at my feet. One way to describe my request to become Jiko’s disciple is as a surrender to not knowing.  And that was fortunate! I have not been a lay disciple for very long, but in the time so far, much of my experience has been a deeper and deeper willingness to not know. Unlike an academic student, I’m learning that for a spiritual student there aren’t clearly defined assignments, due dates, grades, or even progress. One example of this is the first time I had sanzen with Jiko after I became her disciple. I asked her for “homework.” She was kind enough to oblige me, and (as Zen teachers have done for centuries) gave me a koan to work with. I soon realized that this assignment was custom-made to thwart my rational, goal-seeking mind. There was no “correct” answer; there was no due date; in fact, there was no bottom to the koan. The more I worked with it, the deeper and more mysterious it became. And Jiko has helped me understand that it’s an endless assignment. The longer I work with it, the more dimensions I’ll see, and the more it will undermine my rational attempts to solve it. Not knowing indeed!! And gradually learning to relax with that.  After all, the Latin root of the word Disciple (discere, discipulus) means student, learner, pupil.

There is a passage in the Kyojukaimon that reads: “To do something by ourselves, not copying others, is to become an example to the world, and the merit of this becomes the source of all wisdom.” In the academic world, a significant part of achieving mastery is making sense of the thoughts and work of others. For instance, in writing my Philosophy dissertation, I had to first understand what Immanuel Kant thought, then what an array of scholars though about what Kant thought, and only then could I devote some time and attention to what I thought about all of those other thoughts. Being a Zen student is very different. The point as Jiko’s student is not for me mimic her, to do what she has done in the same way that she’s done it. The point is for me to practice Zen methods (zazen, work with the precepts) to develop my own relationship with Truth. While Jiko can guide me, only I can do this. Spiritual authority in relationship to not copying others means trusting in my teacher’s wisdom to guide me. I can do this because I can see that she has been on this path ahead of me, and has achieved mastery. This also means trusting in and developing my own authority, or relationship to Truth, which while Jiko can guide me, only I can do.

A third aspect of being a lay disciple has been the koan of surrender. For many people, the idea of becoming a student of a spiritual teacher is intertwined with an uneasiness about power. This was certainly true for me. The word “student” has a flavor of giving way, obedience, and perhaps even submission. Stories about gurus or spiritual leaders taking advantage of students come up with uncomfortable frequency, in many different faiths and traditions. For me, it has been helpful to distinguish between submission and surrender. John Welwood describes it this way:

[I]t is essential to distinguish between mindful surrender, which is an opening to a deeper dimension of truth, and mindless submission, which is a deadening flight from freedom… True surrender is never an enslavement, but rather a step toward the discovery of real power. It is the act of yielding to a larger intelligence, without trying to control the outcome. True surrender is not blind. It requires real discrimination—the capacity to recognize the necessity of completely opening oneself and letting go.

For me, being a disciple has involved surrender rather than submission. Surrender of what, to what?

Surrendering my defenses ­­— trusting that it is safe to do this with Jiko, and that she will receive me with compassion ­­— I’m learning to surrender the patterns and tactics I’ve developed to armor myself against the world, and to bolster my delusions. As I learn to do this, Jiko reflects my experience back to me in ways that help me see myself and reality more clearly. Over and over, she meets me where I am, and at the same time points me toward a deeper Truth. On the other hand, being a student puts me more in charge than ever. The more clarity and insight I gain, the less I can hide behind evasive maneuvers or side-step difficult issues. Once I’ve seen through evasive habits, they don’t work anymore. The koan: Surrendering puts me more in charge than ever. The more I surrender, the more accountable I become for my own choices, my own practice, and for the terms of my engagement with my teacher.