The last class of the three-part Zen miniseries I was attending took place yesterday. It was an emotional evening because I had really started getting into and enjoying the discussions and presentations. The cantor told us that any teacher is biased and incendiary, and he admitted wholeheartedly that he hoped his teachings would inspire in us a flame to want to learn more.
There are two parts of this last class that really stuck with me.
The first part came from this quote:
"Through all my teachers I have become wise."
-Song of Songs
The cantor said that there are several interesting things about this quote. First, it points to how one can learn from all one's teachers, not just the most obvious or most acceptable/easy ones. In addition, the quote says "all teachers" and not "male" teachers or "old" teachers or "human" teachers. The key is that one can learn from everything in life, even the plants and animals around us (there were profound Zen quotes about this specifically as well).
A class member raised the question of whether there are still true "teachers" or prophets nowadays or if that is really something that is just in the ancient days when religions were being formed. The cantor had an interesting take: He believed that not only are individual "teachers" or prophets alive now, but he also thought that a teacher can be a collective consciousness that we can all learn from (a Zen concept as well). It struck me at that point that while before the collective consciousness was very hard to make explicit and open for all to see, nowadays it is much easier with technology and social media. Even though networks like Twitter still touch a small segment of our society, they at least hint at some of our collective "teachings" and feelings and make learning from each other a lot easier.
The second part that resonated with me was the following:
"There are few things as straight as a crooked ladder.
There are few things as crooked as the straight face of a con-artist.
There is nothing blacker than the white garments in which a corpse is dressed.
And there is nothing more complete then a broken heart."
-Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
This quote caught me not only in its beauty and structure but also in its message: to have a broken heart is to live and grow. The cantor's interpretation of this was also that "anything worthwhile will break your heart." When I heard this, I almost jumped out of my seat because this has been one of my own mantras for a long time: anything worthwhile in life is difficult, complex, and impossible to perfectly optimize and predict. This goes for relationships, business opportunities, and self-improvement. I was delighted to find references to this same sort of philosophy and also some more perspective on it from others out there.
Overall, I really enjoyed these classes and have come away with many more questions than answers -- which is a good thing.