by Michael Matuszewski
My journey of searching for a teacher started out because of an experience I had while trying to meditate. Something happened within my body that reverberating all the way up to the brain. I wish I could say it was something transcendental or mystical, but it was an insight: a thought that something was wrong with my perspective on meditation.
Before this awareness, my opinion still considered personal practice a singular endeavor. My dreams about practice envisioned me on the romantic journey of a hermit. My personal view was that the experience of meditation was an exclusive one, not needing anyone for personal growth, and not having to have a teacher or sangha to be a Buddhist.
After some time, what surfaced was that something wasn’t feeling honest in my approach to my practice. Over and over again while sitting, this insight stirred inside me, and it slowly steered me towards questioning my approach about being alone.
My approach to separate myself from others erupted in me particularly while sitting one day. I saw it was a manifestation of my arrogance, and also an inability to deal with myself.
So, what was I to do? After researching on the internet, I found an article emphasizing the importance of working with a spiritual guide to help with a personal practice. To my dismay!
Personally, I was secretly hoping that I could find some article or a book that would give me some great reasons to stay within my self-imposed meditation exile. The consideration to find a teacher did not fill me with great joy. Owning up to the realization that now was the time to venture out into the world to find a teacher was frightening. To say it wasn’t a struggle would be a lie. The thought of not being able to do things by myself, and entering the domain of the sangha, was ego crushing.
Despite being afraid, I followed this feeling, with the wisdom to take a leap with my eyes open. There are many teachers and groups that study meditation in New York. Through experience, and , for success in any field, I believe you have to find a teacher that you connect with.
An Existential Background
While searching for a teacher of meditation, I believe it is important to make sure the teacher has an ‘existential background’ in Buddhism. What I mean by an existential background is a background based on their education and experience in practice. The teacher should also have a recognizable lineage; meaning they should have trained with a teacher that has an authoritative background in the teachings of the dharma. Most important of all is that your heart has to be open to recognize the teacher. Your heart will tell you the right one to let in.
The key to this is to let the mind rest, about debating the merits of which center or teacher to practice with. Your heart will know. Something inside the body will resonate when the truly right teacher comes along.
Luckily for me there were several zen groups located near my home. I decided one day by chance to walk into the Clear Mountain Zen Center, that was housed in a plain brick building with a worn wooden sign in the front window. Finally I had taken a definite step to have my heart opened, to explore the possibilities of finding a teacher.
On the first day of practice at the center there was a sitting, then a kinhin “walking meditation”, and after the last sitting, a personal meeting with the teacher – called Sanzen. When the bell rang to signal Sanzen, only a few people got off the cushions quickly to see the teacher. This was a bit of a shock to my senses. Doubt swelled up in me. Why wasn’t everyone running over to see their teacher? My head was filled with a crescendo of debating thoughts. After a few minutes of debating, to my surprise and relief, I became aware of my body moving off the cushion and walking to wait in line. The walk to Sanzen was like climbing a ladder on a diving board, it was a mixture of excitement, fun and fear. What I remember the most was an awareness of my heart beating very rapidly.
My encounter with sanzen, one on one with the teacher, was startling because suddenly there was no place to run, or hide. This meeting began by the teacher and I looking at each other in complete silence. I felt like a spotlight was shined on me, and it was burning hot.
Then the teacher spoke, and said some kind of nonsensical question. It was actually a koan, the zen questions used to jolt oneself out of one’s intellect. Now it felt as if smoke came rising from my head, as I blew a fuse trying to puzzle out an answer. Looking right through me, he asked me, “what am I afraid of?”
My guts were ripped out. I was afraid: the illusion of being able to hide was dropped for the moment. It became apparent that although I couldn’t charm or negotiate my way out this, this teacher was there for me. I said I was afraid of myself.
The bell rang, sanzen ended, and I had to get back to the cushion. A great elation took place inside me, because there was no more questioning of where to go for guidance: this was the place to be. That was the beginning of my practice with Shaka Kendo Richard Hart, at the Clear Mountain Zen Center.
What became clear to me was how necessary it is to have a teacher to guide you through the practice. Not only does the teacher have to have a formative background in the dharma, but the student must feel in their core a trust for the teacher. This trust is essential for the student to have an engaged practice. When a student, such as myself, discovers a teacher where this is present, the dream of the practice dies and the practice becomes actual.
Michael Matuszewski is a librarian and a student at the Clear Mountain Zen Center in West Hempstead, NY. You can find out more about the Clear Mountain Zen Center at their meetup page.