Conversations with Joseph (2)

I don't really feel like I'm a dharma teacher. I mean, sometimes people put a microphone in front of me and I say something. Sometimes I write something and send it out to a few friends. But mostly I just feel like a dharma student who likes to have conversations with other dharma students about the dharma.

Still, when I told my friend Cortland about this a month ago, he laughed at me.

His message: people are seeing you as a dharma teacher; therefore you're a dharma teacher; get over it. Also: accepting the role is important because the role comes with boundaries and norms.

(This is part two in a three part series about a single conversation with my teacher and mentor, Joseph Goldstein. Please click here for previous post.)

So I wanted to ask Joseph about this. Am I a dharma teacher? What does it mean to be a dharma teacher? How come I don't feel like a dharma teacher if other people seem to say I am?

Joseph had two things to say on this topic:

1. Role vs. Identity
2. Emptiness

First, he told a story about being at a teaching with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, one of the great Dzogchen masters of the 20th century. Somebody asked, "What makes a dharma teacher?" Rinpoche replied, "Students make a dharma teacher."

In other words, if somebody hands you a microphone and you're saying things about dharma, then you're a dharma teacher. With that, as Cort said, you inherit certain boundaries, norms, and responsibilities. So be awake to the power of the position and tread carefully.

But the moment you hand that microphone back, you're no longer a dharma teacher. Dharma teacher, in other words, is just a role. It's a role you step into, and it's a role you step out of. The more facility you have at stepping in and out of that role, the healthier you'll be.

Conversely, Joseph said, if you identify with the role of dharma teacher, your practice is in trouble. And if you identify too much with the role—if you begin to believe people's projections (that you're wise, or enlightened, or have achieved some special state)—then you are in big, big trouble.

So, Joseph said, the key is to accept the responsibilities of the role, and then put it down. But fundamentally, he said, you're always a student, and only a student, from your own side. It's best to never think of yourself so much as a teacher, but just as a student who happens to be temporarily be taking on the role.

I found these words very helpful. And they led nicely into the next part of the conversation, which was about emptiness. I’ll get to that in my next blog post . . .

Thanks for reading. And thanks for hanging in with me as I semi-publicly explore these questions and roles as they sort of bumpily unfold for me in my life.

Sending many good wishes,

Craig Hase