Teachers and Students

Copyright (c) 2004 by Kenny Felder

I graduated from college in 1988. I had the long greasy hair and scruffy beard that marked me as either a freak or an intellectual. I had degrees from a respected University in both Physics and English, along with enough courses in philosophy and religion to convince anyone that I had a well-rounded education. After sixteen years of schooling, I was finally no longer a student.

Larry, my best friend and roommate through all four years of college, graduated with me. We moved together to Raleigh, North Carolina. And as we sent out résumés and carved out our new lives, Larry began attending lectures by a local Zen guy named Augie Turak. "This guy is incredible!" he kept telling me. "You have to come hear him talk!" I was not interested: I had studied Taoism in school, so I figured I already had my "Eastern religions" merit badge. But finally, I allowed Larry to drag me to a dinner to meet this Turak guy.

I was expecting to meet a slight Asian from Taiwan, wearing a simple robe. Turak was an oversized white guy from Pittsburgh, wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap. I was expecting someone ethereally removed from the world; Turak laughed loudly at his own jokes, and burst out in snippets of song from The Who and The Doors. This was not someone for me to learn from, this was someone for me to compete with. When the opportunity presented itself I asked him a clever, subtle question, designed to show the other people at the table who the real philosopher in the room was.

Turak turned and looked at me intently. "You're thinking to yourself: I'm not going to listen to a word this Turak guy says until he packages it all up in my terms. Well, I'm not going to do it. Try coming over to my side of the fence and seeing how things look from over here." He paused, then turned back to the rest of the table and continued his monologue, forgetting me entirely.

I was stunned. HOW DID HE KNOW? He had been talking for forty-five minutes—I had barely spoken a sentence—and yet he knew me better than I knew him. Was he right about me, and if so, what did that mean for my whole world view? HOW DID HE KNOW? Was my smug self-confidence masking the fact that my perspective was really very limited, and other people's weren't necessarily so limited? HOW DID HE KNOW?

Although I couldn't have said so in words at the time, something had changed in that moment. For better or worse, I was a student again.


I began attending meetings of Turak's new organization, the Self Knowledge Symposium. And I began calling him "Augie," which I will adopt for the rest of this paper. Augie was a highly successful businessman and an esoteric Zen teacher, but he did not feel like either one. He sat back in the kind of chair that you see at yard sales, drinking Coke from a plastic 7-11 cup or a mason jar. He joked easily and laughed at himself. He could talk casually and knowledgably about MTV or Tolstoy or current political topics, and he could talk intimately about his Catholic upbringing or the death of the grandfather that meant so much to him.

But no matter where the conversation started, it became fuel for a discourse on Augie's unique brand of Zen. "We're used to thinking of koans as being mysterious, almost meaningless questions," Augie explained one night to the small group of us gathered in his living room. "What is the sound of one hand clapping? Where was your face, before your mother and father were born? That kind of thing.

"But a koan is any question that your mind can lock onto, but can't solve." He turned to me as an example. "That first night that we met, I gave you a koan. You had developed a way of debating and making decisions that was working well for you—in science, in art, in philosophy. You wanted me to engage you on that level, and you were ready to win the way you'd always won. Instead I blindsided you by suggesting that there might be completely different perspectives—not different facts or arguments, but entirely different ways of thinking. And you thought about it and struggled with it and rolled it around, trying to fit it into your old framework."

For the first time I realized that what Augie had done to me that first night was not an accident. He knew exactly what he was doing and what effect it would have.

"Eventually, you probably gave up," he continued. "But if you had stuck with it long enough, your brain would have just locked up. That's a koan. It's in that moment that the real Zen can get in."

"I was intrigued," I said slowly, trying to reproduce the emotions of that night as honestly as I could remember them. "And I was stuck. But I guess I wasn't determined enough. How do I build that kind of determination? Is it by practicing koans?"

Augie looked surprised, and approving. I think he could sense that I was not just engaging in intellectual banter for its own sake: I was actually trying to get at something. "You don't build determination by thinking. You have to act. But the paradox is, you need enough determination to carry through a commitment to action. Your determination leads to actions, and actions lead to more determination."

"I'm ready to do whatever it takes," I promised. In that moment, I meant it. Meditate for hours, study Zen books, fast for unhealthy periods of time—I was going to meet this thing head on and lick it. "Tell me what I should do." The whole group leaned in, waiting to hear the challenge.

"Cut your hair short, and keep it neatly brushed. And shave your beard."

Now, wait a minute.

This was supposed to be a Zen challenge, not a hygiene experiment. Cut my hair? I felt a lurch in my stomach. I had been a long-greasy-hair-freak since the middle of high school. It was how I presented myself to the world. Give that up and...and...just blend into the crowd?

I was trapped. The entire group had heard me promise to "do anything." Suddenly I knew why Augie always emphasized the importance of a "sangha"—a community of fellow seekers that keep each other on the path. I knew what he meant by "commitment" and I knew what a koan was and I knew why he said that spiritual work is not something outside of your life, it is your life. I knew what it meant to be a student.

And the next day, at the barbershop, I learned what it meant to drop an ego. It was a surprisingly easy and liberating process.


Fast forward five years. By 1994 I was very comfortable in the role of "Augie's student." I was still attending weekly meetings at his apartment, eagerly learning what I could and applying it to my life, my family, and my business. I was meditating and reading and waiting for a big spiritual breakthrough. My family (wife and three children at that time) went great; my business (software) went great; but the breakthrough never came. Instead, my business success became my next koan: the company I had started in my dining room was acquired, and my family and I moved suddenly to the West coast.

I knew by now that without a spiritual group, I would not be able to keep my mind on spiritual matters. So I started looking around. I looked in the yellow pages under "religion" and called every group I found. I checked ads in the local papers. I found a lot of good groups, attended meetings, went on retreats, became a vegetarian. I tried to build a life with spiritual seeking at the center—and it didn't work. I tried for three years.

It was at that point that Augie called to say he was coming into town for a meeting. To my surprise, he seemed as eager to see me as I was to see him. We chatted about our lives and our families, our jobs and his group. It was a reunion of old friends, and I enjoyed his jokes and musical snippets—and especially, his personal warmth—as much as I did his insights.

But I needed more than a friend. I needed a teacher, and eventually I steered the conversation in that direction. "When I was in North Carolina, my mind was focused on your group and the spiritual life. Now I think about business. All these groups and meetings and retreats aren't working."

I knew, from five years of experience, how dangerous it was to say something like that to Augie. He was going to turn my whole life upside-down: it was his nature. But I also knew that my ideas and all my efforts, on my own, were not working. I needed help in that moment more than I feared it.

Augie responded as if he had been waiting for this question for years. "You need to start your own group."

"How on Earth do I do that?"

"You know. Do the same things we do in North Carolina." He seemed to feel that was all the explanation that was required on that question, so he turned his attention to explaining why this was so important. "You know that my teacher, Richard Rose, always said that spiritual work is a science. It follows rigorous laws, and you can test those laws by experimenting. One of Mr. Rose's most important laws is what he called the Law of the Ladder." I had heard Augie talk about this before. "You have to reach up to someone on the rung above you, so he can help you up. And you have to reach down to someone on the rung below, and give him a helping hand. Ultimately, you can't make any more progress yourself until you start helping someone else learn the things you've learned."

Somehow, Augie always managed to put me in situations where I could not logically argue my way around doing something that felt terrifying. So I started a group.

Augie was right about one thing: after five years in North Carolina, I was very familiar with the system. We would put up posters for an Augie lecture. Augie would give a talk about his own life and throw in some philosophy. After the talk was officially over, dozens of students would crowd around him, asking how they could get more serious about spiritual work—and when they asked, he would tell them about the group. At meetings, we asked questions such as "What do you want on your tombstone?" or "If you could choose between knowing the truth or being happy, but you couldn't have both, what would you choose?" The topics varied, but the message was always the same. If you are a Christian, be a serious Christian; if you are a Buddhist, be a serious Buddhist. Figure out what you want to accomplish, and then become the person who can accomplish it. Who you become matters in the end more than the accomplishments themselves.

I knew I couldn't give a lecture and inspire people like Augie. But I could put up posters. I put up hundreds of them, and took out ads in the paper, and the phone started ringing. Three weeks later, thirty cars were stretched around the block outside my house, and thirty people were crammed into my living room for the first-ever West Coast weekly meeting of the Self Knowledge Symposium. I handed out interesting readings. We talked about finding a life worth living, and about personal transformation. I served refreshments. The people in the room listened politely and had good discussions.

But the next week, several of them didn't come back. One girl sent me an email explaining "It was too intellectual; it didn't seem to touch my life." I tried to get more personal. One guy angrily left in the middle of the meeting; he sent an email to the whole group, saying "This was supposed to be a discussion group, but it's turning into group therapy." I talked too much about religion; I didn't talk enough about religion. I was intensely aware of every person in the room, monitoring them to see if they were interested, if they were offended—if they were coming back. Six months later, the group membership was down to two people, and we all had a beer and agreed to give it up. For the other two people, it was the end of a brief but interesting chapter. For me, it had been—as Augie had predicted—six months in which I was tremendously, even obsessively, focused on spiritual matters. It was also the abysmal failure of my first attempt as a spiritual teacher.


I talked to my wife about starting up another group and fixing all the mistakes of the original. But we were also having other discussions—about me getting out of the software business, leaving the West Coast, and going back to North Carolina. With her usual common sense, my wife pointed out that if we were going back, it was the wrong time to start something new.

So, after four years, I found myself back in Raleigh, teaching math in a local high school and once again attending weekly meetings at Augie's house. I watched the way Augie led meetings with a newfound respect, and I enjoyed the privilege of showing up every week without a plan for the meeting and without the personal responsibility of keeping every other member continually inspired (or at least entertained).

But Augie—and the law of the ladder—were still there, and still demanding. I began leading spiritual meetings for Self Knowledge Symposium on college campuses, and sneaking spiritual discussions into my high school math classes. Becoming more ambitious, I gave a lecture in a large college lecture hall. The talk was publicized widely, attended well, and greeted politely. But when the polite applause ended, the audience headed for the door: no one was crowding around and pumping me with spiritual questions. Once again, life had presented me with its own koan: I could teach math and I could explain philosophy, but I could not inspire people. I could talk about Augie Turak, but I couldn't imitate Augie Turak.

I was able to forget my spiritual struggles for a weekend when my cousin Gigi came into town. 90 years old and almost blind, Gigi is still the lively center of every family reunion. She knows all the old songs, she has fun with my grandparents and with my parents and with me and with my kids, she laughs easily and makes those around her laugh. Her Tina Turner impersonation is always in high demand.

I was driving Gigi from the restaurant back to my father's house, and I started to ask her about her own young adult life—a subject she rarely discusses. "Well, you know," she said, "A lot of people said I had real talent back then. Singing, acting, telling jokes...people said you should go to Hollywood, you should go to Broadway."

"So what happened?"

"Well, my sister Lydia—you remember Lydia—she got me set up in a comfortable office job. The work was easy and the money was good enough and I sort of drifted from job to job. Lydia and I went on lots of cruises together."

Gigi turned and faced me. Her eyes were red. "And I never did anything. I've wasted it all, and now it's too late." She didn't say anything more, and I didn't say anything back.

The next day I was scheduled to lead a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting for college students. I had a clever topic planned, with an intriguing reading and enough challenging questions to ensure an hour of good discussion. But I couldn't do it. I threw the reading away and just starting talking about Gigi. I told them about her Tina Turner impersonation. I told them about her red, puffy eyes. I told them about "now it's too late."

The students waited, and I waited, for the moral to come. But it never came. "All I wanted to do last night was to reassure Gigi. I wanted to tell her that she hadn't wasted her life—but she has no children, no accomplishments, not even any friends. I wanted to tell her that it's not too late—but she can't move around all that much, she can barely see at all, what can she do?" I was barely aware of the students around me at this point. "Gigi's only fault is that she never had the courage to try anything big. She did the right thing every day of her life and somehow she did it all wrong. And in sixty years, when she is completely forgotten, I'll be turning to my cousin's grandson and telling my story, and it will sound exactly like hers." The room was silent for a long time.

But when the meeting ended, the students did not all rush to the door. One by one, they came up and started asking me questions. How could they avoid ending up like Gigi? What could she have done differently, and what steps could they take now? How could the Self Knowledge Symposium help? What books did I recommend? Should they drop out of college?

I didn't have the answers. But I had ideas, and recommendations, and stories to tell, and bits of Augie Turak wisdom to drag out and share. And none of them seemed to mind that I didn't have clear explanations and crisp philosophical nuggets to offer. I was, in their eyes, a teacher.


That looks like a good ending, doesn't it? "I couldn't teach, and then I had a profound transformative experience, and it made me a teacher." But that's too pat, and if I've learned nothing else from Augie in all these years, I've learned to be suspicious of ideas that come neatly packaged and tied with a bow.

Since my first "good meeting" I have led dozens of other meetings, many of them dreadful. I still tend to fall back on pedantic exposition of philosophy, or clever surprises, when I can't muster myself for vulnerability and intimacy. I am still first Augie's student, and second—and inadequately—a teacher.

But I have also had more and more moments of real connection with students. Last month I handed out a description of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The signers fully expected to be hanged for treason, and many of them did lose their fortunes and their families. I asked the gathered students "What would you be willing to die for?"

One young man spoke up quickly: "Nothing. I'm willing to work hard for causes and my beliefs, but nothing is worth risking my own death, or the death of my family if I had one."

I knew exactly where he was coming from: and I told him. "You're thinking that the alternative to dying for a cause is—ultimately—not dying. Your whole life is based on the assumption that if you don't take any crazy risks and eat your vegetables, you'll never die. But you carefully avoid letting that assumption come up to the surface where it might collide with the intellectual knowledge that it's absurd."

He stared at me, wondering: "HOW DID HE KNOW?"

I know because I've been working on this issue—consciously and actively—for fifteen years now. I know because I have the humility to learn and the audacity to teach. I know because I am just like him, and I'm playing the exact same games and telling myself the same lies. I know because I cut my hair.

But I can't tell him any of that. I can't teach it, or transmit it, or explain it in any way that would make sense. There are some things you have to figure out for yourself.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks To learn more about Augie Turak, visit the August Turak web site.

UPDATE, JULY 2013: Augie has a book out! Instead of packaging his message for students as he used to do, he is now packaging it in the language of business, but the core message of personal transformation through action is the same. If you're at all curious about this guy, you can now hear about it in his own words instead of mine: Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks.


From: Michelle Williams
July 22, 2008

I think I've wrapped myself in the comfortable idea that Gigi's life was not wasted. She brought delight to many people around her, apparently. I think I've done that to convince myself that my life is not wasted, even though I'm doing nothing particularly risky or big. Now that I've realized that, will I do anything to change it? Probably not.

From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

I was really touched by this. (It also inspired me to call Gigi, which I never do. Not surprisingly she was very happy to hear from me.) On a minor note, the way you tell the hair cutting story here isn't how I remember you telling it to me. I thought you said Augie asked everyone in the group if they would be willing to commit to a challenge, and then after they all agreed he gave all the others tasks like meditating more and so on, and he told you to cut your hair. The way you tell it here makes it sound much more like it started with your initiative.

From: Kenny Felder
September 1, 2008

"Committing to a challenge" is saying to Augie "I'm ready to do whatever it takes." The essay was an attempt to squeeze several years of dynamics into a couple of sentences, leaving out whatever was not important to my main point. I apologize if it seems that I was trying to sweep something under the carpet.

From: Melissa Carter
August 28, 2009

This brought tears to my eyes. The part about Gigi, that's when the tears started...tears of sorrow for a wasted life. Then I just continued to cry, but not out of sorrow...I cried because I am once again touched by the story of another's journey. I am encouraged to be patient and get back up when I fall short, when things don't work out...nothing truly worth having comes easy and yet in all the students of Augie that I have met, I find a dedication to stay with it...to stay on their paths and to get back up when they fall. Our inadequacies may not be our biggest fear, but they are powerful. Seeing that others have gone first, regardless of their place in their journey makes me think that I to can do the work that needs to be done despite my inadequacies.

Kenny describes Augie so well (I laughed a few times too).

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