The Practice of Zen

Zen can offer something very simple, very direct and readily accessible to anyone seeking inner peace, seeking healing in some form, or seeking answers to questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ‘How can I find meaning in my life?’ ‘How can I live in a most authentic way?’

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Home » Articles by the Teacher, Practice

The Zen Teacher As Midwife

by Ruben Habito

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Healing Breath (Orbis Books).

ZenTeacherMidwifeMKZCIn Zen practice, one cannot emphasize enough the vital role of the Zen teacher who has charted the paths of this arduous journey to the core of one’s being and is familiar with the terrain. There is a proliferation of literature on the matter that may just leave the individual seeking a handle or practical guide as to what Zen is all about all the more confused. The opportunity to receive guidance from an authentic Zen teacher can make all the difference in getting through the maze.

In this connection, it has been a source of greatest blessing in my own life to have been sent to Japan as a Jesuit student in 1970, when I was in my early twenties. The school I was sent to in order to learn the Japanese language was located in Kamakura, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. This was also where San-un Zendo, or the Zen Hall of the Three Clouds, was located, and it was here that I had the privilege of being initiated into Zen by Yamada Koun Roshi. Guided by his astute hand and compassionate heart, I was led step-by-step into the inner world of Zen, and in 1987 I finished formal koan training under his direction. There is so much I would like to be able to express and write about in this whole journey to the inner world of Zen, but this will have to wait its due time. As of now, I can only express my gratitude for this privilege of having met and of being guided by Yamada Roshi by carrying out the mandate I have received to carry on the tradition, enabling myself to be of assistance to others wishing to undertake the same journey.

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One of the greatest joys I have been privileged to partake in over the years in helping out in Zen retreats is being able to assist in the process whereby participants are enabled to let go of their baggage and come to a fundamental experience of seeing into one’s true nature, a liberating experience that transforms the individual practitioner’s whole way of seeing, of relating, of being. In this process the feeling one gets is that of a midwife who has been of assistance in the birthing of a new life. The midwife is by no means the source of that life, but is simply one who sees to it that the way is cleared and the conditions made favorable for the new life to come through and see the light. Each birth is indeed a joyous and exciting event, filled with a fresh sense of wonder and mystery.

The teacher-disciple relationship in Zen involves a covenant whereby the teacher agrees to render to the disciple whatever is called for or necessary in enabling the disciple to live more fully the life of oneness and interconnectedness that Zen practice opens one to. In turn, the disciple takes the teacher as a person to look to for guidance in such a vital matter as one’s journey in encountering the mystery of one’s very being. In presenting oneself to a particular teacher in Zen, it is understood that the disciple will take this teacher’s word to be authoritative in matters relating to Zen practice and will not turn to other teachers to seek help on the same matters while one remains in this covenant.

This is especially important for those who are beginning in this practice and need a decisive guiding hand to lead them in this rigorous practice involving a perilous process. Going from one teacher or director to another may only confuse the practitioner, as different teachers inevitably have different styles in their direction of others, and there may be conflicting points in the details of practice given to the same individual. To avoid such confusion on the part of the beginning practitioner, it is of prime importance that the disciple follow the guidance of one teacher that s/he feels confident in being able to show the way, rather than looking for a second opinion on spiritual matters.

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However, if the practitioner somehow begins to feel that this particular teacher may not be the one best suited for oneself, then the practitioner is always free to express this, bid farewell to the teacher, and go to another with whom the practitioner can resonate better. Such a case then is not a breaking, but a concluding of the covenant, and the practitioner is then free to begin another one. In doing so, s/he is enjoined to set aside and forget everything received from the former teacher, lest anything stand in the way of full acceptance of the guiding hand of the newly chosen teacher, who inevitably would have a different style of direction.

A true teacher does not make an issue of a disciple’s departure and, in fact, wishing only the practitioner’s greatest good, is ready to help the latter in finding another teacher who may be of better help. The guiding principle for the teacher in such cases is to translate a famous Japanese proverb: Kuru mono wo kobamazu, saru mono wo owazu (not refusing those who come, not pursuing those who go).

We are describing the fundamental steps involved in the practice of seated Zen meditation, but this written account can in no way take the place of a living teacher who can guide the practitioner by the hand, step-by-step in the process. This chapter gives only an outline and general idea of what is involved in the practice for those who wish to begin on their own before they are able to meet a suitable teacher who will be able to direct them toward greater depths. Also, this description hopes simply to whet the appetite of the reader, by presenting in a simple manner the way in which one can attune oneself to the breath, deepening and heightening the awareness of the mystery of one’s being. One may be able to follow the instructions in a cookbook, but there is no better way to be initiated into the culinary arts than to have at one’s side an experienced chef, such as one’s mother or grandmother, who knows just how to get the ingredients together and can point out those little things along the way that make a difference in the taste of the whole dish.

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Zen spirituality can be described simply as ³the art of living in attunement with the Breath, and it is the Breath itself that will be the most reliable guide in the entire journey. Ultimately, the task of the Zen teacher is to help the practitioner be tamed by the Breath, to be fully given over to its healing and transforming power.

In the Christian tradition, the spiritual director continues to play an important role in the spiritual development and deepening of individuals in their practice of authentic Christian living. The priest-confessor has been one traditional role model in this regard, to whom individual faithful could relate as an authorized representative of the Christian community. The confessor could also serve as a confidante to whom one could bare one’s soul in matters of conscience, and from whom one could receive guidance for the progress of one’s spiritual journey.

Such a role of spiritual director can also be taken by persons who are not necessarily ordained to a clerical or ministerial function in the church. These could be individuals who are graced with the gift of being able to listen and tobe for others something like a mirror by which they can see themselves and their own souls more clearly and objectively.

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Also, it is a precious gift to be friends with a person who can be one’s spiritual confidante. Such a confidante may not be a director in the proper sense, but the very sharing of one’s spiritual life with another person enables one to see some things a bit more clearly than when one keeps them to oneself.

The role of a spiritual director can be especially crucial for an individual’s progress in meditation and contemplative prayer. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the role of such a director who is well versed in these exercises is indispensable, especially for help in that very delicate endeavor called discernment of spirits. This is the task wherein one is called to look into the movements within oneself to discern if these originate from a divine source and therefore must be ascertained and given heed to, or from another source that must be shunned. Such discernment is especially crucial in making decisions that affect one’s way of life or way of dealing with persons.