Charlotte Joko Beck on Authority

Zen Tree

After years of talking to many, many people I’m still amazed that we make such a problem of our life and practice. And there is no problem. But saying that is one thing, seeing it is quite another. The last words of the Buddha were, “Be a lamp unto yourself.”  He didn’t say, “Go running to this teacher or that teacher, to this center or that center” — he said, “Look — be a lamp unto yourself.”

What I want to discuss here is the problem of “authority.” Usually we’re either an authority to others (telling them what to do), or we’re seeking someone to be an authority for us (telling us what to do). And yet we would never be looking for an authority if we had any confidence in ourselves and our understanding. Particularly when there is something in our life that is unpleasant or baffling or upsetting, we think we need to go to a teacher or authority who can tell us what to do. I’m always amused that when a new teacher comes to town, everyone goes running to see him or her. I’ll tell you how far I’d walk to see a new teacher: maybe across the room, no farther! It isn’t because I have no interest in this person; it’s just that there is no one who can tell me about my life experience.

But you may say, “Well, I need a teacher who can free me from my suffering. I’m hurting and I don’t understand it. I need someone who can tell me what to do, don’t I?” No! You may need a guide, you may need it made clear how to practice with your life — what is needed is a guide who will make it clear to you that the authority in your life, your true teacher, is you — and we practice to realize this, “you.”

-Charlotte Joko Beck Everyday Zen: Love and Work


This was the first book on meditation that I ever read. The meditation taught in yoga classrooms is pretty different from zen meditation, but I believe they’re aimed at the same goal. I have been reading and re-reading this book since I was about 14. the other day, I was reading it while soaking in the bathtub and looking for new perspectives on the creative life. What she says about being your own spiritual authority applies very well to the creative life, I think. No one can teach you to be a great poet or singer because you simply have to find your own voice, find your own truth, and speak it.

You can have guides, both creatively and spiritually. You can have people who introduce you to the works of the past. You can have someone to affirm that what you’ve created is effective, that it’s reaching your audience. You can have someone to prompt you (as I hope to do) and help you nourish your own growth. But you are your own real authority.

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