As much as Buddhist practice ultimately comes down to solitary practice and realization, it relies crucially on teachers. As Hui-neng puts it in the Platform Sutra:
Good Friends! You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment! But because your minds are deluded, you can’t understand by yourself. You need to find a truly good friend to show you the way to see your nature.
It’s from this idea of a “truly good friend” (or “spiritual friend” in Chögyam Trungpa‘s teachings) that the Buddhist notion of a guru evolved. As someone who tends to see himself as an autodidact and who was attracted to Buddhism by its emphasis on personal authority and experience, I’ve had some difficulty figuring out how to relate to the idea of a guru.
Fortunately, my practice hasn’t yet advanced to the point where a guru would be relevant, and I’ve had the good sense not to spend too much time making decisions I haven’t reached. In the meantime, as I’ve engaged with the teachers I’ve had, I’ve started to get a sense of what the role of a guru might be. The teachers who have been most effective haven’t simply told me something I didn’t know. Instead, they’ve made clear to me something I already did know. I suppose the traditional metaphor would be something like, “They’ve lit the darkness of my mind to show me its contents,” but my experience has been more tactile, as though they’re pointing out the chair I’m sitting on, the clothes I’m wearing, the air I’m breathing. They’re revealing something much closer, more intimate.
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in the teachers who have been available to me, including my meditation instructor and a handful of other teachers at the Shambhala Center (most of whom were students of Chögyam Trungpa), visiting teachers (especially Ari Goldfield, a translator and student of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and Judy Lief, also a student of Chögyam Trungpa), and various podcasts. And fancying myself an autodidact, I’ve also read a great deal. Yet, as should be obvious, reading what someone wrote doesn’t make me self taught any more than listening to what someone says does. Yes, the truly valuable teachings are revealing what I already know, but there is an important role for someone else in that process. The two teachers I’ve learned most from in this way are Jay Garfield and Red Pine. It was a little over a year ago, when I read Red Pine’s brilliant translation and commentary, that I flailed at the Heart Sutra here until I arrived at the idea that emptiness is like indivisibility. In his new translation of and commentary on the Platform Sutra, he comes back to emptiness again in his commentary on this statement by Hui-neng:
The capacity of the mind is great, but if you don’t use it, it’s small. If you merely talk about emptiness with your mouth, but you don’t practice this practice, you’re no disciple of mine.
Red Pine has this to say:
Talking about emptiness has always posed a problem for Mahayana Buddhists. It is the central concept of Mahayana Buddhism, but it is also its most misunderstood concept. This was true in ancient India, where Mahayana pundits struggled to make clear the meaning of shunyata, and it was also true in China, where Zen masters struggled to do the same with k’ung, and it is now true in the West, where we continue to shipwreck on the shoals of “emptiness.”
I suppose every teacher and every student have their own map for sailing through the Straits of Shunyata. I like to look at it this way: “Emptiness” appears to be a negation, and it is. But it’s a double-negation. It’s a negation of a negation. The negation that it negates is the assertion of self-existence. When we assert the existence of something, whether in time or space or in our minds, we separate it from reality. We confer on it self-existence, which is a delusion. Its self-existence only exists in our minds. Its true nature is oneness with reality. Our assertion of self-existence is thus a negation. What “emptiness” does is to negate this negation. Emptiness means “empty of self-existence,” which is how Avalokiteshvara defines it in the Heart Sutra. So the question arises, if that’s all emptiness means, a double-negation, why don’t Buddhists use a more positive word, one less given to misconception? Actually, they do. For example, Chao-chou told his disciples, “Go have some tea.” What could be more positive than a cup of tea? Or would you prefer the old poke in the ribs? Buddhists have long realized that to attempt anything more would be to create a whole new set of problems, problems of attachment to some kind of “oneness.” Hence, about as close as they ever get to a substitute for “emptiness” is the expression “not two” or “non-duality.”
Reading those two paragraphs was uncanny. On the one hand, they say something that I already “know,” but on the other hand, they pull me deeper into that understanding. They are both profound and mundane.