From the third chapter of “The master way: the way as the master”

One of my friends was an elderly, refined and courtly man, who had been for many years devoted to Pio of Petrelcina. Throughout our long friendship, I kept asking him about this holy man. I wanted to know what this relationship had meant for him. My friend was very reserved and usually evaded my questions. However, patching together the scraps of our conversations on this issue, I could build a picture of Pio’s personality. It may be useful to recall that at that time, Pio had not been officially consecrated a saint yet. Although he was surrounded by such an aura of sanctity that most of his devotees already thought of him as a saint, he was only Padre Pio. Padre Pio, so my friend described him, was stern and irascible. He did not mince words. He did not hesitate to use strong words or to make forceful gestures to chase away anyone who addressed him in ways or made requests of him that he considered improper. Little by little, these manners have become part of Padre Pio’s legend, and some of his followers may now smugly spread and embellish on them. But I like to think that this rudeness was a sign of his aloofness and essentiality.


He simply had no room for conciliation and mediation. His was an original and deeply authentic way of practicing a 2000-years old religion. It is, or should be, like this for everyone who lives religion as an authentic personal experience. Even unfolding, developing, and moving along within the boundaries of one of the world religions, religious life cannot but be unique and original. What may look like imitation must be new interpretation. In religion, conformism is a mistake as flagrant as wanting to be special and original at all costs. While finding one’s way in any religion is not easy, it is particularly difficult for Zen Buddhism. For one, Buddhism is the non-way. There is no preordained model out there to follow. As soon as you think your are living Zen the right way this way becomes a travesty for the simple reason that you think it is the right way. Also, not to think of oneself as a Buddhist is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to be a true Buddhist. A special intimate orientation is required. The closer we get to the living heart of Śākaymuni’s teachings, the more we understand how critical it is for us to be able to recognize this orientation. It is this orientation that determines the true form of our daily living. We must try to make sure that we are not swayed by worldly – and unworldly — concerns. For these reasons, to embark on the true path of Zen Buddhism, the bond with a spiritual guide is critical. It is the first thing one must do: find a spiritual father, a teacher, or, as it is often said, a master. In other words, the relation with a teacher is essential because Buddhism is not “a religion of the book”, like the monotheistic religions that have Abraham as their ancestor. In Zen there are no words from which to start with. If any, there are words that must be reached. Only when we understand the writings of our predecessors, and just then is our orientation right. And we can say we have understood when our life is in harmony with what we have read. Only when I am in harmony with those writings have I understood. Also, this harmony is the proof of that understanding. Reading a book or hearing a sermon may start us on the Buddhist path. But our learning truly begins only when we are able to integrate our life into the daily cycle of zazen. This can happen when we see somebody do it; a real person who is living what we want to learn, a witness of the possibility of the impossible. So, who is a teacher? In Japanese, the word for one’s own spiritual tutor and teacher is shishō (1). This word is rich of implicit meanings, including endearment and affection. Also, it is used almost always to refer to one’s own guide. You almost never speak of somebody else’s shishō, and, if you do, you use a particularly respectful intonation of the voice and precede the name with a title that expresses respect. However, this word is not used only in a religious context. It is also used by the carpenter, tailor, mason, potter, actor and painter to address his teacher, where teaching does not consist in imparting a lesson from a podium. A good teacher is one that shares his or her art and his or her own skills in the form of a dynamic, physical and spiritual fact. A good teacher teaches everything that cannot be learnt from books. Don’t forget that the teacher has been and still is a student himself. It is this that makes him capable of being a teacher. While a beginner, he himself looked for and found a guide with whom to build a new life. Now, though he is still – and will always be– a beginner, he knows well enough how to live a life solidly built on (one)self. His efforts are aimed at avoiding to be waylaid by anything that arises either within or outside of himself. He vowed not to let his actions or the overall intent of his life be determined (and directed) by things that come and go, appear and disappear incessantly and senselessly: desire, hate, intentional emotion, sentimental and egotistic attachments, self interest, or the interest of his family, group and species. Instead he is walking on the path of acting according to values rooted in another sphere of life. Aware of the nothing he is, he tries to care with friendly benevolence for life; for life exactly as it is at birth, before it takes this or the other shape. I am not a father because a child is born to me. I am a father if and when I behave as a father to a child, no matter whether his DNA is mine. In the same way, I am not a Buddhist because of my past, my diplomas or my fame, but only because of how I am living just now, in the present moment. Words may – barely – describe life learning from life. But they cannot teach how it is done. This is why a teacher is indispensable. But how can we recognize the right teacher? This question is not immaterial. The choice of this person will determine the life – and the death — we live. The Suttanipata, which is one of the oldest sutra of the Pāli Canon, drafted shortly after Buddha Sakyamuni’s death, says (2): if you gain a mature companion, a fellow traveler, right-living and wise, overcoming all dangers go with him, gratified, mindful. Also, in the Itivuttaka 17, we read (3): Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who has a good friend abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome. When a bhikkhu has good friends, and is reverential and respectful, doing what his friends advise, clearly comprehending and mindful, he may progressively attain the destruction of all fetters. Please notice in these quotes the word “friend”, accompanied by “mature, good, a fellow traveler, right-living and wise”. Originally, only Buddha, was the “good friend”. He was the first and foremost teacher and the ancestor of all Buddhists. But when other members of the Community entered the path that led to awakening, the expression “good friend” began to designate all the virtuous members, young and old. And later on, it came to be attributed to the monk appointed by the abbot to keep an eye on the novices. This elder was usually called “the good friend” but he was not the only one to be addressed with this name. All the other worthy monks too were considered good friends. Every member of the Community is expected to act as a good friend for all other monks, particularly for the young and inexperienced. It is part of a monk’s duty towards his Community. It is very important to understand what “friend” means in this context, because its meaning from the point of view of the spirit is quite different from its common meaning. Of course, there is nothing wrong with friendship as we usually understand it. It is an intimate relationship based on affinity and trust. To our friends we open our heart and they expect the same from us. With them we share our moments of play, joy and sadness. But the relation we are describing here is completely different from friendship understood this way. It is based on principles that belong to another sphere of life. Since the early years of Buddhism, the “good friend” is a spiritual guide and a spiritual model. It is defined by its spiritual nature and not by its social role. It is completely normal that between a “good friend” and a novice there should be no friendship at all in the common sense of this word. Even more; whatever friendship there may be between them before instruction starts in earnest, it must die or must be set aside for this new kind of friendship to develop. To be friends and companions in dharma is not the same as being childhood friends or playmates. The goals and the very nature of these relations are different. To describe it, Dōgen employs the word “zenchishiki” or its shortened version, chishiki. This is the Japanese reading of the ideograms used to translate the original sanskrit, kalyāņamitra (or the pāli form kalyāņamitta), which means precisely “good friends”. Unfortunately, in almost all Western languages this term has been translated as “teacher” or “master”, and this mistranslation has contributed to placing emphasis on the hierarchical and functional aspects of this role to the detriment of those aspects that are more appropriate to describe the true, subtle nature of this relation. It is not a matter of semantics. It is a matter of precision in the use of a concept that is basic to the understanding of Buddhism. Since the early days of Buddhism, the good friend is a friend in the spiritual meaning of this word; he is the true guide. To be able to fulfill his calling, he must be himself a sincere practitioner of the way. He must be righteous of heart and steady in his practice. And he must make himself freely available to walk the path alongside the beginner without any other aim, without any other intention, without any pretense and without any duplicity. How can a good friend be a despot? How can he browbeat us into any form of dependence on him? Or, what about a vane man, one who treasures his name and his appearance above all, how can be a true friend, let alone the true friend? We fasten ourselves to a person of the Way not to learn how to play a music he has composed himself. We do it to learn how to play together a tune that is the same for both — and different at the same time. It is the same because it springs from the same well. But it is different, because different is the instrument we play it with. Also, this tune is muted. That’s why it is so difficult to follow its true notes one by one and ignore the alluring melodies that staff our ears. Truth be said, this fine ear we cannot inherit from anyone. A good friend can show us how these notes resound in his own life, but learning the way is an intimate act, each must learn by and for himself. This is why is it often said that zazen is the true teacher. The true learning is to learn how to do zazen and to learn from the zazen. The abbot Watanabe Kōhō once said: The teacher, the master is zazen. If you hold this point of view, teacher and student manifest themselves by themselves. As a consequence, the student of a dull teacher will be dull and a dim-witted student will face a dim-witted teacher. These words mean this: teacher and student manifest themselves the very moment I do zazen. They show up in the mind’s screen as separate entities, but in fact, they are only different functions of the same unit, myself. Therefore, if I am intelligent, student and the very life which I am trying to get at, are intelligent. If I am not that intelligent, so will be the student, and the life that I work on when I do zazen. Because “zazen” is “me”. What I am when I rest to be “I” . Zazen teaches me (here comes the teacher) or I learn (here comes the student) but my life plays both parts in this comedy. If I am dumb, I will not become more intelligent just because I do zazen. And my zazen will be a dunce’s zazen. It is not important to be intelligent, but to really do zazen, or to do real zazen. The zazen of a dunce will be a dunce’s zazen, but it will be no less valuable from a religious point of view than the zazen of a genius. Another fundamental point is this. It is better to do zazen with a guide but zazen is absolutely central to any effort to advance on the path. If you do not place zazen at the very core of your life, you don’t have a true teacher. There may well be out there someone who acts as a teacher, and you may think whatever you want about yourself and about your teacher. But you do not have a teacher. The goal of the relation with the good friend is on another level as compared to issues such as “intelligent” or “dumb”. It is about learning how to master, to some extent at least, our own instrument. It is about being able to play a tune – our tune — out of the infinity of notes available. This process is not arbitrary. Although there is no preordained, fixed set of teaching methods and practices, there are certain procedures, matured in centuries of experience, that have proven effective, provided that they are modified on the march, to account for the individuality of each path. However, one crucial sign that these procedures are effective is that they encourage the full autonomy of the student. Since autonomy grows naturally throughout the process, it is wrong to feed dependence. A relationship based on dependence is not a good relationship and does not lead to liberation. Our relation with the good friend is not like becoming member of a sect or the follower of a person, or even becoming part of a group or of a brotherhood on which to lean when we need it. These ties are precisely what the right path is not. The Suttanipāta (4) says: Renouncing violence for all living beings, harming not even a one, you would not wish for offspring, so how a companion? Wander alone like a rhinoceros. And, later on: “Because sensual pleasures, elegant, honeyed, & charming, bewitch the mind with their manifold forms – seeing this drawback in sensual strands – wander alone like a rhinoceros” (5). It is absolutely essential to understand the pain and the marvel of that wandering “alone like a rhinoceros”; alone, but related to all and everything, and particularly in the context of the fundamental relation.


1) In modern Japanese, the ideogram “shi” means “teacher, guide”. We know that in the past, it meant “model”, and, by implication, “he who is our model”. The ideogram “shō” means “craftsman, creator, maker”. Literally, shishō means therefore “master workman”, where the work in question is our life, and that includes both the shishō and the apprentice. In Chinese, the same ideograms are read shisheng. This concept is a Chinese gift to Buddhism. It is often said that Chan, or Zen Buddhism was born in China from the union of Buddhism and Tao. While this is true from the formal, and, therefore, transitory point of view, from the essential point of view it is not so. Zen culture contains very few Chinese (Taoist or Confucian) elements.

2) Sutta Nipata I.3. Khaggavisana Sutta. A Rhinoceros Horn. Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, as in:
4) Sutta Nipata I.3. Khaggavisana Sutta. A Rhinoceros Horn. Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. As in:
5) Ibidem

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