15 July 2010

What makes a good student a good student?

There are many ways to be a good student. People bring a great diversity of strengths and aspirations to the path with them, and the different kinds of obstacles people face as they undergo the path lead them to cultivate new ones. While my comments here may seem a bit scattershot, they are intended to reflect the spectrum of "good" in the phrase "good student." Some themes come back, like a reprise. My hope is that at least one or two these comments will resonate with anyone and will encourage stronger practice. So, a good student should:

Commit to practice completely in thought, word, and deed. When you do something, do it as a part of your practice and once committed do not hold back, just jump in without reservation and go for it one hundred percent. Heard the one about the guy who practices like his hair is on fire? Be like that dude in everything you do, focused and active. This is no time for half measures.

Don't be evasive. Don't avoid praise or criticism, don't sneak around your teacher or your mistakes, don't imagine you can hide. [Avoidance strategies like this just postpone the inevitable. You'll have to deal with your karma sooner or later, so you might as well just rip the band-aid off the fast way instead of making yourself and others suffer more by playing make-believe.] It is said that one should practice in every moment as though the Buddhas of past present and future are watching your every word, deed, and thought. This is a helpful attitude to cultivate. It feels like complete exposure. It takes courage. Find the courage in yourself. It's there, you know.

Don't pick and choose. When you come to the teaching, you come to learn; Buddhism is not a fashion statement or a career choice but a learning situation. This means you recognize that you have something to learn: you begin to face your own shortcomings and seek guidance on how to amend them. You begin to face the possibility that you have something real and good and helpful to offer the world. In this context, your teacher's job is a bit like a physician's, since he or she needs to prescribe specific medicines to help seal the cracks, pull the bolts, and knock the crazy out of you. Your prescription may surprise or even nauseate you at first, depending on your karma. Again, don't pick and choose. Example: Prostrations can be an antidote to excessive pride. So do not, in your excessive pride, assume that prostrations cannot be of use to you. Practice is difficult anyway, but it is most difficult at that point where it most effectively cuts the knots of your accumulated karma. Whatever you most dislike in practice is likely the place to start digging in and drilling down. [In my own case, I found it very very challenging to overcome my fear of performing before others to become a competent leader, specifically to sing the service and lead the chants: my preference is to be Ringo instead of John or Paul, but here I am...]

Remember that the most important teachings are often the first ones you hear, the most fundamental ones. Attend the the basics (bodhicitta!) again and again to keep the knife sharp and your aim in sight.

Put yet another way, have a positive attitude. Be game to try new things, especially things that seem to be out of your range or foreign to your experience so far. You might even like green eggs and ham. Endeavor to do a good job without a fuss, be willing to learn. Be curious and inquire. Have an "active edge."

Be prepared to travel and put some time and energy into it if you really want to learn. Ask me about gyo sometime for an object lesson in this.

Finally, it helps a lot to practice with others, for dozens of reasons [of which more later]. Foremost as an antidote to self-delusion and the gaps-in-education all autodidacts experience. If you want to be a well-rounded student, expose yourself to all the teachings and all the sangha.

This is all a tall order, obviously. "It don't come easy." Be prepared to fall, dust yourself off, apologize as appropriate, and get back to work. Learning from mistakes and persevering through to the end is all part of the practice too.

I hope everyone becomes a good student of the path and accomplishes it quickly.