Teacher and Inner Teacher
The master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them
She lets them go their own way
and resides at the center of the circle.
—Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell
I have been a teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen since 2009, and I practiced Zen for about 26 years before becoming a teacher. I was also a schoolteacher, so being a Zen teacher is not entirely new. A teacher’s position is a very powerful one. I knew that even as a little girl, as my mother was also a schoolteacher, and many children often came to our house to get additional help from her. I always knew I would be a teacher; however, something about being a Zen teacher is also completely different from being a schoolteacher. Nonetheless, they have two things in common: power and trust.
When I became a schoolteacher, I was still very young, and some of my students in high school were only a few years younger than me. It was difficult both to be friendly and also to do my teaching job, in order to prepare students for exams and later to give them knowledge useful in their adult life. I understood the importance of keeping healthy boundaries, so they could feel more grounded and safe and for them to trust the teaching process.
I perceived the job of a Zen teacher when I started practicing in my early 20s; somehow, this fascinated me. I once told Zen Master Seung Sahn that I wanted to be a teacher, and he said very loudly, “Wonderful!” At that time, I wasn’t aware why this job appeared to be so awesome. At that time, I wasn’t as conscious as I am now of how much power a Zen teacher may have. According to Rob Preece in The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life (Snow Lion, 2006), “This can lead to a greater depth of insight into the power of the relationship as well as the potential dangers contained within it.”
Carl Jung said that human beings have a tendency to project onto others some of their internal dreams. Not perceiving the power within themselves, they project it onto people who hold powerful positions. One of the most powerful positions is that of spiritual teacher. Other powerful professions are often connected with fame or notoriety, such as directors or celebrities. Humans love to attract attention and be recognized by others, and those who do this are also given power by the ones who look at them.
Nowadays we are in a time of challenging powerful people who have abused their power. This is a time of coming out with the truth, following years of pain after being abused. This is a time of the #MeToo movement, when many women and some men have finally decided to confront and overcome the pain in their life that had come from their own power being taken away through an act of abuse. Power becomes very attractive and desirable, perhaps because it has the ability to make a human feel most alive and to make life greatly meaningful.
The position of spiritual teacher carries a reflection of the human dream of being superhuman, free from human limitations. In Jung’s language, it is an archetype of guru, a deep part of our psyche. Preece points out, “When we encounter an individual who draws out our projection of the archetype of the guru the effect can be dramatic.” I remember my first visit to Warsaw in 1981 and the reaction of people who told me that Zen Master Seung Sahn could go to different planets and was fighting with demons while doing night practice.
It was shocking and dramatic to see this under the Communist regime in Poland, but it was probably what people needed—the great guru and teacher, the superhuman. According to Preece, “As we transfer the inner archetype onto the outer person we may see him or her as truly awesome. We may fall in love with the wonder and inspirational quality we are seeing.
As we do so, that person begins to have a powerful effect on our psyche.”
The person may have great gifts and qualities, but if it were not an archetypal projection, the effect wouldn’t be so dramatic.
This phenomenon is what we face as teachers. It is critical, and maybe moreso in these times, that teachers see their power and use it wisely to help students toward a more authentic and mature relationship. It may, however, happen that a teacher is unaware or even in denial of the subtle motivating forces that lead to using this power for their own ends, thereby abusing students as well. We are perhaps most aware of sexual relationships between the teacher and student, but this is certainly not the only form. It can lead to abuse of power and trust not only with the student but also with the whole community.
Sometimes the teacher-student relationship may have a resemblance to the parent-child relationship. It can be very healing, if the trust a student has with the teacher is not exploited. Very often our wounds around parental difficulties leave us with longing for a perfect parent. If this is unconscious, it may well be projected onto the teacher as a longed-for ideal parent.
Sometimes this projection may be so intense that it becomes unbearable for a teacher. It is important in that case that teachers see their limitations and perhaps talk with the student and encourage them to seek help outside this relationship. This honesty about the teacher’s limitation can be quite important and may help the student to find their own way of healing and regaining the power lost some time in childhood.
It may also happen that a teacher makes a mistake, and the student keeps silence. For the student, it is important to speak out. This helps the student, and their healing and self-protection should be their primary concern. It also helps the teacher and the sangha, for speaking out can prevent further harm. Even without direct harm, in many situations, interactions between student and teacher provoke the student’s disillusionment and the confusion that goes along with it. It helps to return to reality and get back our own power. While this may be painful, we may end up being more connected with our own inner authority and our own inner teacher, and thus learn to trust ourselves. If there is less illusion in the first place within the teacher-student relationship then the process of becoming independent is faster and less painful.
It seems that modern life is disillusionment’s friend. Especially in Western culture, we are encouraged to be self-sufficient. In a way, this creates a healthy suspicion of others and their motives. In another way, it inhibits healthy connections with others. This self-sufficiency can also inhibit cult-like behaviors in different religious organisations, making it less likely that the student will spoil the teachers with too much respect.
What is the perfect model of a teacher, then? In the words of Rob Preece: “authentic in his openness about himself, his joys, and his struggles.” I would add: always developing, empathetic, challenging students, a great listener who h