July 11, 2019

This morning I had the idea of writing about the Four Reliance, inspired by a friend who recently broke with his spiritual group. I have seen this happened often enough that I wondered what went wrong? I guess the Buddha had foreseen the confusion that future practitioners will be facing and therefore taught the Four Reliance in order to help us all stay on the right path. The Four Reliance are:

  1. Rely on the teaching, not the person.
  2. Rely on universal truth, not conventional truth.
  3. Rely on the meaning, not the word.
  4. Rely on wisdom, not mental discrimination.

It seems clear that the idea of relying on the teaching not the person is to prevent personality worship that obscures the spiritual message. This is all about the seeker’s attitude instead of the teacher’s qualification. The most famous example is Ananda, who thought by being the Buddha’s attendant he would somehow be saved without having to seek the Truth from within. This problem is not just Buddhist, it exists in all religions. In fact it exists in any organization where the leader becomes larger than the organization’s mission. So many people decided to strike out on their own, staying away from any teacher-student relationship. But is this the right approach? Clearly a teacher-student relationship is critical in spiritual cultivation. For a tradition epitomized by its freedom from ritual and dogma, the teaching of Zen is actually entirely sustained through generations of unbroken teacher-student connections. It seems impossible to practice Zen without having a teacher who embodies the spiritual realization who can then guide and confirm a students understanding and experience. Book realization just won’t cut it. All the Zen masters and patriarchs in China and Japan had teachers who guided and challenged them. So how can we practice ‘rely on teaching but not the person’? The idea of rely on the teaching not the person is not saying one should practice without a teacher. In the Zen koans, we see often that the teacher would say something or behave in a way that forces the students’ attachments to surface. At this moment, a student can either (a) rely on the teaching or (b) rely on the person. If a student relies on the teaching, he or she will always look into his or her own mind when any challenging situation arises. The situation will serve as a training ground for dissolving one’s habitual attachment. This is what the teaching is all about. If the student instead relies on the person, then in that moment he or she would be seeking an answer from the teacher. He would project his or her suffering on the situation or on the teacher, acting out the same habitual behavior and emotions – in other words he would lost and never learn anything new. As long as a spiritual seeker don’t look within himself or herself, there is no chance for liberation. Having looked deep within oneself, then we allow a deeper understanding, in fact wisdom, to arise that can then guide our action. So have you ever had a challenging moment with a situation or a teacher and how did you handle that experience? Did you rely on the teaching?