Gone But Not Forgotten: 7 Buddhist Teachers Who Changed My Life

lotus-whiteby Toni BernhardAll of these teachers were alive when I began studying and practicing Buddhism in 1991. I’ve only met two of them in person (Ayya Khema and Toni Packer), but the teachings of all of them are alive for me in their books.Ayya Khema (1923-1997)Ayya Khema was born to Jewish parents in Berlin. Her parents sent her to Scotland, along with 200 other children, to escape the Nazis. When she was reunited with her parents in Shanghai two years later, the family was put in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp where her father died. After the liberation of the camp, she emigrated to the United States. She became a Buddhist nun in 1979 and was instrumental in making Buddhist teachings available to women for the first time at several centers around the world.Ayya Khema has written some of the most widely-read Buddhist books. Being Nobody, Going Nowhere was one of the first books that made the Buddha’s teachings easily understandable to me.In 1995, I had the opportunity to go on a ten-day retreat that she led in California. The teachings of hers that I’ve included in my three books come from that powerful retreat. In her tough Germanic style, she could be blunt, as can be seen in the following quotations: Thoughts are just there, like the air around us. They arise but are arbitrary and not reliable. Most of them are rubbish, but we believe them anyway.Suffering is our best teacher because it hangs onto us and keeps us in its grip until we have learned that particular lesson. If we haven’t learned our lesson, we can be quite sure that the same lesson is going to come again, because life is nothing but an adult education class. If we don’t pass in any of the subjects, we have to sit the examination again. Our own mind can make us happy. Our own mind can make us unhappy. There is no person or thing in the whole world that will do this for us. And she could be soft and compassionate:The heart is always the place to go. Go home to your heart where there is warmth, appreciation, gratitude, and contentment.Unless we practice loving feelings toward everyone we meet, day in, day out, we're missing out on the most joyous part of life. If we can actually open our hearts, there's no difficulty in being happy.Seung Sahn (1927-2004)Korean Zen master Seung Sahn was one of the first Zen teachers to come to the United States. He was already a Zen master in Korea, but when he settled in Providence, Rhode Island, he worked at a Laundromat for many years, repairing washing machines.. He found his first students at Brown University. This small group turned out to be the seed for what has become one of the largest Zen movements around the world: The Kwan-Um School of Zen, with Master Seung Sahn as its original guiding teacher.I first encountered his teachings in the dusty basement stacks at the University of California—Davis library. When I saw the title of his book, Only Don’t Know, I took it down from the shelf, thinking, “That’s me. I only don’t know…”Readers of my books will know my favorite of his teachings: “Don’t-Know Mind.” He said: “If you keep a Don’t-Know Mind, then your mind is clear like space and clear like a mirror.”I count this teaching as one of the most important in my life because has saved me from needless suffering. When I’m worried about the future (perhaps the results of a medical test), I tell myself “Keep a Don’t-Know Mind.” When I think that someone is unfairly ignoring me, I tell myself “Keep a Don’t-Know Mind” until the next time we’re in touch (it invariably turns out that the person was dealing with troubles of his or her own and was not intentionally ignoring me). When I find my muscles tightening and my mind hardening around my views and opinions, I tell myself “Keep a Don’t-Know Mind.”By keeping a Don’t-Know Mind, I’m able to experience the blessed relief of letting go of whatever I’m clinging to at the moment.Master Seung-Sahn was also a poet. Here is one of his poems:            In front of the door            is the land of stillness and quiet.            Spring comes,            grass grows by itself. Toni Packer (1927-2013)Toni Packer was a Zen teacher at the Rochester Zen Center when she decided to discard the rituals of Buddhist practice and strike out on her own. She founded Springwater Center and taught what she called “meditative inquiry.”I was fortunate enough to go on a ten-day retreat that she led. During the retreat, I had two one-on-one sessions with her, where I could talk with her about anything I wanted. During those sessions, I had a profound experience. I felt in the presence of a fully awakened being. I can’t find the words to describe why I felt this with Toni Packer, other than to say that she was wholly and compassionately present for me while, at the same time, seemed to be looking through me as if I were transparent.Here is a quote from her book The Light of Discovery:To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything. Ajahn Chah (1918-1992)I consider Ajahn Chah to be one of my root teachers because several of my own teachers were students of his at his forest monastery in Thailand, including three teachers I’ve practiced with in person: Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Sumedho, and Ajahn Amaro).Many people who write to me about my books tell me that this quotation from Ajahn Chah changed their lives:If you let go a little you a will have a little peace. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.His book, A Still Forest Pool was one of the first Buddhist books I read and I still turn to it. I love his sense of humor…and I love the many pictures of him, laughing like a child. Here is a teaching that always makes me laugh:Blaming somebody else for your suffering is like having an itch on your head and scratching your bottom. Now you have two itches for the price of one. Dilgo Khyentse (1910-1991)I’ve never practiced in the Tibetan tradition, but I went through a period when I read dozens of books by Tibetan masters. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was my favorite. One reason was that his picture was on the cover of his books, and he had one of the kindest faces I’ve ever seen. I learned about kindness and compassion just by looking at him.He was the head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism from 1987 to 1991 and was also a scholar and poet. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, his personal effort was critical in the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism.From Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche I learned about the nature of thoughts. They are simply arising and passing energies in the mind, but we make our lives harder by not recognizing their fleeting nature. Instead, we cling to them, letting them accumulate in our minds, one on top of another, until we’re caught in a miserable web of stressful stories.Here are a few quotations from him:The wind blows through the sky and flies over continents without settling anywhere. It traverses space and leaves no trace. Thus should thoughts pass through our minds, leaving no residue and not altering our realization of fundamental simplicity.There is no emotion that will not pass because emotions are simply thoughts, and thoughts are just like the wind moving through the empty sky. There is nothing to them.Instead of allowing wild thoughts to enslave you, realize their essential emptiness. Examine the nature of hatred; you will find that it is no more than a thought. When you see it as it is, it will dissolve like a cloud in the sky. S.N. Goenka (1924-2013)S.N. Goenka was a Burmese-Indian teacher. He emphasized that the Buddha’s teachings were non-sectarian, universal, and scientific in nature. He was influential in bringing Buddhism to the West and established meditation centers all over the world.I learned a simple but powerful lesson from S.N. Goenka. I write about it in my book, How to Be Sick. He taught me how to break the cycle of mental suffering, in which I make things worse for myself. Like most people, I tend to have a knee jerk reaction when things aren’t going my way: I get angry or in some other way react in aversion when an experience is unpleasant, even though there’s nothing I can reasonably do to change things at the moment.This reaction is a type of unhealthy desire—the “Don’t-Want” side of what I often call “Want/Don’t-Want Mind.” It’s inevitable that some of our experiences will be unpleasant. I learned from S.N. Goenka that I have a choice. I can get upset and pour my energy into trying to get rid of something that’s here to stay for awhile; or, I can simply observe, “Yup, this is an unpleasant experience” and calmly acknowledge that this is how things are at the moment. When I do the latter, in S.N. Goenka’s words “…the cause of suffering does not arise.” This is why I titled this particular chapter in How to Be Sick: “Getting Off the Wheel of Suffering.” Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011)Joko Beck was a teacher in the Zen tradition. In 1983, she opened the Zen Center of San Diego and served as its head teacher until July 2006.I quoted Joko Beck in my book How to Be Sick, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve written to me about what she said. It was this:Our life is always all right. There’s nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it’s just our life.This quotation from her helped me recognize the mental suffering that I was adding to the physical suffering of my chronic illness. I knew intellectually that we’re all subject to illness at some point, but something about the way Joko Beck described life made me realize that, despite that illness, I was all right.Recently, I turned her words into a “practice challenge” for myself. I start a sentence with “It’s okay if…” I’ve been working on “It’s okay if I never regain my health.” Joko Beck’s quotation helps me with this practice because it enables me to accept that my life is the way it is; no amount of willing it to be different works, so I might as well be at peace with it.In this vein, here’s another quote from Joko Beck:A life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of our life as they are, not in fulfilling personal wants, but in fulfilling the needs of life. And one more that I’ll use to end this piece:Joy is being willing for things to be as they are. Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at

Form by Hazrat Inayat Khan