When my first Zen teacher, Nancy Amphoux visited me for the last time, nearly thirty years ago, she was suffering a recurrence of the cancer which would kill her a year later. Although she could feel it eating away at her bones, she wouldn’t take painkillers while she was teaching, because she felt that her temporary pain was insignificant compared to the risk of imparting error to her students due to befuddling sedatives. I remember talking to her in my living room. We were both standing up. She was behind me. I was pontificating about something or other, when I was suddenly aware of her launching herself towards me, flying through the air, legs first, grasping my hips with her legs. Her response to her impending death was joyful, playful exuberance.
I’ve always been frightened. For years I disguised it with my intellect, my studied vagueness, my capacity for distracting myself, but more recently I have been able to see it plainly. And because of that, I can see other things more clearly: the courage and generosity of my teachers.
Other than my dear teacher Michael Eido Luetchford, who gave me Zen transmission, all my teachers have been women, particularly in the fields of sexuality and dance. And I think this isn’t an accident because in my experience, generally, there’s a crucial difference between men and women teachers. Men tend to want to share their knowledge and wisdom. Women share themselves: how it is to be them, and what they have learnt and understood through that. And because that is so, with these teachers, I haven’t learnt how to become like them. I’ve learnt how to become myself.
In that spirit, I honour my teachers not by copying them, but by doing my best to be completely open to them, to take it all in, and then carry on with this mixture of them and me in as open hearted a way as is possible. To follow and honour them, not by repeating them, but to understand and express how each human heart is transformed by another. So something both new and not-new can arise.
And through my wish to honour my teachers, it appears, from the outside, that I diverge from them. My zen teaching is nothing like Eido. In fact, it often sounds contradictory, but I don’t think it is. It is like dancing with someone. Both persons are unbalanced, but in their unbalance, they create a greater balance, a dynamic one, which can move through time. Not like an object, or an institution, but like a person.
And for the same reason, although I deeply respect and love my tantra teacher, Hilly Spenceley, I don’t want to teach her structures, brilliant though they are. I want to hold them in my heart and then birth something from myself. Likewise, I feel that while I have engaged – and continue to engage – in a deep way with Betty Martin and her Wheel Of Consent teachings, I don’t want to become a certified member of her School. Not because I disrespect her, but because I love her.
Our teachers don’t want us to walk through the world wearing a mask of their face. They want us to take off our masks. They don’t want us to have confidence because we carry their certificate in our hand. They want us to open our hand.
And our heart.