Although I have very little empathy or compassion,
I like the perk of being called “teacher.”
-- from Shozomatsu Wasan (my translation)
I remember when I started attending the Sunday morning meditation session at our temple, not many weeks went by for me to notice the pecking order – so-and-so was Rev. Kubose’s number one assistant, such-and-such was number two and so on down the line. And the ambition arose in me to get into that pecking order and rise to the top. Looking back on it now, I wonder where did that ambition come from – newly joining a Buddhist group and right away seeing myself moving up the ranks to an exalted position? My guess is it came from the Buddhist books (mostly Zen) I was reading at the time.
It’s not just from the English translations and Western culture, but Buddhism from the very beginning has been used by people to feed their egos even though the teachings are about freedom from ego-attachment. The historical Buddha lived at a time when people were seeking direct spiritual experience instead of going through Brahmanic priests. Ironically institutional Buddhism has become the means for people to be the priests who get to command others to look up to them.
Of course, for the teachings to be transmitted we need to have guides to point out the misunderstandings and clarify the points that get muddled in cultural and linguistic contexts. But for anyone to take on that role, they must be aware of the grave danger: in conveying the teachings of not-self, one can get totally engulfed by the sense of self-importance.
My message to all of you in the roles of assistants at our temple and at other Buddhist centers is also a stern reminder to myself: kiss humility goodbye. It’s no use putting on the charade of “I’m not a teacher – I’m only a student.” The only way I can think about it is: to be in the role of Dharma teacher is to know you are really a smug asshole.
If you don’t want to think of yourself as a smug asshole, then don’t be a Dharma teacher. If you take on that role, it will be apparent to people far and wide that you are full of yourself, no matter how much you deny it.
I think Shinran felt so strongly about defending his teacher Honen and passing on the Pure Land teachings that he had to keep telling himself, “I know I’m a smug asshole and will forever be known as one, but getting down on paper the great teachings from Honen means more to me than my self-esteem.”
Most Jodo Shinshu people translate Shinran’s ji-shin-kyo-nin-shin as “First I must receive/understand the teachings, then I can help others to receive/understand them.” Now I’m thinking he’s saying, “For me to receive and deeply understand the teachings, I need the help of others who are receiving and understanding the teachings.”
The above thoughts have been on my mind as I’m preparing to ramp up the training of our temple’s lay leaders so they can serve in the minister role when I’m out of town, incapacitated and someday retired (or run out on a rail). Then this morning I saw the comment of Tucker, a Midwest Buddhist Temple member, reacting to my “No Sage, No Stage” post. He is the nin-shin, the others who are receiving/understanding that I need to learn ji-shin-kyo more from. I should remember that all of you folks politely nodding and keeping silent are just as vocal as Tucker in telling me, “You smug asshole!” That is when I truly hear Namu Amida Butsu.