Meeting A Teacher

by Rev. Sarika Dharma

I met my teacher in 1974. Eastern thought was part of the alternative lifestyle in those years; even the Beatles had their guru -- the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. My cousin gave me a copy of "Be Here Now" by Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and I began to see that there was another way to look at the world. The next thing I did was sign up for a class in Eastern Philosophy and then one in Buddhism at a nearby college. Very typical approach for me -- read a book, take a class.

In the meantime, I'd also been trying to learn Tai Chi Chu'an by watching a show on Public Television, a rather difficult proposition. Then I saw an ad in what was then the "underground paper" for a Tai Chi Chu'an class at the International Buddhist Meditation Center. I got there early and was sitting on the front stoop waiting for someone to come and open the door.

A friendly looking Asian man was watering the lawn. He was wearing some kind of pajamas, a light blue color, and had a very open smile. He finished his task, rolled up the hose, and came and sat next to me. He asked why I was there and said that Tai Chi was a very good thing to learn. It was meditation in action. He suggested I come and try sitting meditation too some time.

I enjoyed the class, certainly learning the moves a lot easier than while watching tv, and after a few times felt comfortable enough to come to the beginning meditation class. When I walked into the zendo the first time and saw the Zen Master sitting there, I was quite surprised. This was the man I thought was the gardener!

This man became my teacher, spiritual father, role model and friend. He was extraordinarily ordinary, but when he looked at me, I knew he saw me, without any expectations or judgements. And he reflected back to me what he saw, so I could see what I needed to work on. He didn't do this only for me, of course. He was able to do this for every one of his students and disciples.

Ven. Dr. Thich Thien-An was a Vietnamese Zen Master who had come to L.A. to be a guest professor at UCLA. His academic students wanted him to teach the practice as well, so in 1970 he started a meditation center, which grew rapidly and today consists of six houses on a street near downtown Los Angeles.

Suto, as we called him, died in 1980. We were all at the hospital with him when he died from cancer of the liver which had spread to other areas, including a brain tumor. He was only 54 years old and had many plans, but he was so peaceful and accepting before the end, knowing what was coming, knowing he didn't need to fight against it.

We all learned a lot from his death. We lost our finger pointing to the moon, and some of us didn't feel we could see the moon on our own yet. But he remained within my heart as he still does today. And when I have a difficult decision to make, I remember what he would have done. What compassion and loving-kindness would be the Right Action.

What does this have to do with how we choose our teachers?

I knew nothing about Buddhism or Asian culture, but I knew I had found my home when I discovered this man. He was compassionate, gentle and encouraging. I went to other places to hear other teachers at first. But I always came back assured that I had made the right choice. I also knew that I had to work on myself so going to other places didn't matter, because I could stay right where I was and do the work; I was already there.

I never could explain why I chose to follow a monastic path, but I knew that was what I needed as well as I knew Suto (teacher in Japanese) was the one to guide me. All my concern for reason and rational analysis meant nothing in this case. I had never trusted my intuition before. I certainly have more and more since then.

Everyone has different needs; that is why we are so lucky here in the west to have so many choices. In L.A. alone, there are Buddhists from every Buddhist tradition and every Buddhist country in the world. There are Asian masters and a growing number of Western disciples of Asian masters, now teaching their own disciples. A new kind of Buddhism is developing, just as it developed in Asian countries when it spread out from India. In each place, Buddhism developed according to the ways and needs of the people and their culture.

Whatever our criteria, I think that when we find our teacher, we know.