This blog is the first of a series that will address aspects of Zen practice


One of the most important aspects of Zen practice is the teacher-student relationship. When people first start Zen practice, they usually come to the Center for meditation instruction and dharma teaching.  For many people, this is enough. Others, as their meditation practice deepens, and the teachings of the dharma begin to penetrate their lives, want to commit themselves formally to the Way of Buddha.

From the beginning, the teachings of the Buddha (the Dharma) have been transmitted intimately from teacher to student.  For hundreds of years, these teachings were transmitted orally, and were only written down many centuries after the death of the Buddha. In Zen practice, we continue the tradition of the close teacher-student relationship. When a student identifies a desire to make a deeper commitment to the Way, the student can approach the teacher in Practice Discussion and ask to make a formal commitment. When the student and teacher agree, they then enter into a formal teacher-student relationship. Under the teacher’s guidance, the student begins to prepare for the formal ceremony known as Jukai, or “lay ordination”, a ceremony of commitment and vow to follow the Buddha Way.

The teacher-student relationship is an essential part of committed Zen practice. It is an intimate, personal relationship of mutual accountability and trust. The teacher has been given the authority to represent the lineage and tradition of Zen practice and teaching,.  At Bodhi Oak Zen Sangha, the teacher functions in the tradition of spiritual friendship, acting as a kalyanamitra (Sanskrit), or “spiritual friend”. The relationship between teacher and student is characterized by mutuality and honest, open communication. Each teacher-student relationship is unique, open, and flexible. The relationship is greatly benefited by regular meetings. These regular meetings are a requirement for lay-ordained students at Bodhi Oak Zen Sangha.

The teacher functions as a guide, or spiritual director, because the teacher has walked the path to which the student is now committed. The teacher can help with “bumps in the road” of practice, making suggestions for resolving issues that the student encounters in meditation, in applying the precepts to life, and in studying the Dharma.

There is a certain rigor in Zen practice, which is upheld by the teacher in the teacher-student relationship.  Sometimes the student will be asked to look more deeply at their motivations and behavior than they have previously done.  This can be challenging, both personally and in the relationship. In a healthy, functional relationship, these apparent difficulties can be worked through for the mutual growth of both.

The teacher also has a teacher, to whom she is accountable to nurture and uphold the Dharma, and whom she may consult in case of difficulty.  This relationship provides safety, security, and groundedness that support the teacher’s and the student’s mutual commitment.