On meeting a true teacher

This article was originally written for Zenbow, a quarterly publication put out by Rochester Zen CenterIt is a beautiful summer day in Suffolk, UK and I am relaxing with a cup of coffee watching YouTube. I stumble on an interview with Shodo Harada Roshi from the eighties and within a thirty seconds I am unexpectedly sobbing.There is a great vitality and openness in the face of this little Japanese priest. I am touched more deeply by this than the words he is saying. There are no shortage of eloquent voices articulating ways to awakening in the world, but few faces that are marked so deeply by such a long and sincere inner journey. This face I am watching - innocent and at the same time full of inner confidence. Humble, yet at the same time fiercely honest and disciplined. I become resolved to meet this Rinzai teacher before the video is done.For years prior to this I'd been practicing in the Soto Zen tradition in Europe. I was always curious to learn who was teaching what and where, within other Buddhist lineages around the world.  Until this encounter however, I had never felt compelled in this way, to seek out a particular living representative of the Buddhadharma. From the time I began Zazen practice, around the age of twenty, I cannot remember ever hoping to find a teacher that would answer any question I had about the my own inner work. When I read my first Zen book, which was the Three Pillars, I had no doubt that here was a method to reveal the truth of my own reality and the reality of all things. What was not clear, I at least knew, would be revealed in time through patient practice. Of course, I was unconsciously chasing  freedom and happiness externally, just as much as anyone else but all the signposts to liberation I saw in my sitting pointed directly inward. I think this analogy is representative of the way saw it during these first years of Zazen.  This deep confidence in the direction of my Zazen combined with a bone headed stubbornness was such that I sat for many hours every day for twelve years before even sitting with a Sangha, let alone a under the guidance of a teacher.  The flip side to this ‘apparent’ self reliance, in my case, was an unchecked accumulation of noxious Zen pride and arrogance, a potential pitfall of any ‘successfully’ negotiated solo Zen training. Unbeknown to me back then was that meeting a true teacher would reflect this stinky self delusion right back at me. In the end, our deepest delusions that bring us the most trouble, when seen from a place of complete acceptance can become our greatest gateways to freedom.  After watching the movie of S H Roshi I do a little digging around on the web and discover that he is conducting a seven day sesshin in Germany the following week. I optimistically shoot off an email requesting a place to every email address I find on the Onedrop Zen community site. I receive an email from Ondrop letting me know the Sesshin is fully booked. Completely unperturbed, I reply saying I’m happy to sleep in a tent and sit outside the Zendo if necessary. Now that I was having a conversation with someone from Onedrop my confidence actually grows that I am going, it doesn’t seem to make much difference what they say. Unfortunately for my poor wife and current work client it is the same scenario. I now receive the email I have been waiting for, offering me a place due to a late cancellation. After Googling around for tickets I see I can get there for just fifty British pounds by taking a twenty four hour bus ride. In the UK long journeys to Sesshin was the norm for our Sangha brothers and sisters. Our lineage had its origins in France after Deshimaru settled there from Japan. Complaints about long travel times were common, but my thinking was this: “Dude - you are going somewhere to face a wall for seven days - why are you complaining about having to look out of a bus window for half a day?”.Sesshin always stuck me as the most rare and precious opportunity. If I was travelling alone, Sesshin would begin the moment I set foot out of my back door. By the time I would reach the bus stop I generally had already forgotten about my projects and even my family. I would often think about them and look forward to seeing them again on the way home, but leaving my home was like a flight from the unknown to the unknown to quote Rumi. Often I ask myself in Sesshin - “Hey Dim Witt - what do you think you are doing here? - How did you get to be here?” If I draw a complete blank to this type of question then it is a good sesshin and the question is forgotten. I arrive two days early to help with Samu. Together with two guys from opposite corners of Europe we drywall a new room that will house sesshin members. We work hard to get the room ready and we are all physically exhausted before the Sesshin begins, but we have developed a great bond and our energy is high. A few hours before Sesshin commences I go outside to get my first look at S H Roshi as he arrives. I stand silently watching under a shaded porch as S H Roshi gives a cursory inspection over alterations to the premises made since his last visit. He has a diminutive figure and his movements are quick and precise for a man in his mid seventies. There is a energetic bubbling quality to his his walk and gesticulations. When looking and listen his mouth hangs open a little, like his whole face is an open to receive what’s in front of him. I am impressed by both his innocence manner and naturalness.  As S H Roshi approaches the door we make eye contact, putting his hands flat against the fronts of his legs he gives a short polite Japanese bow to say hello. At once, I feel I am meeting my mother after spending a thousand years apart. My eyes immediately fill up with tears and after a quick bow I leg it to the rear of the building out of sight where I sob again for a few minutes before gathering myself together.

Sesshin begins. For all Onedrop sesshins outside of Japan, Sanzen (Dokusan) is given in the order of sitting so your turn simply follows your neighbour’s. Like this, our time comes around about once a day for a sesshin of seventy participants. In Soto tradition there is no equivalent to Dokusan. A formal one-to-one encounter with a Roshi, is replaced by Mondo, where a student can ask a question of the teacher in front of the entire community in a form not unlike Satsang. This was my first time sitting with a Rinzai tradition so it was my first experience of Sanzen.  Entering the Sanzen room I simply follow the prescribed sequence of bows and prostrations without any real expectation or apprehension. Although S H Roshi himself had made a big impression on me I am not yet convinced about the value or significance of this new form. As I raise up from my final prostration the immaculate spectacle of an ancient Zen master swims into view. I see the precise positioning of his hands on the short Kyosaku in his lap, the vivid blue hue of the carpet under his Zabuton and the precisely folded robes of this gentle man sitting erect with dignity and serenity. On S H Roshi’s face is a exquisitely tiny smile. Whilst waiting for my turn to go to Sanzen, I’d imagined S H Roshi might ask me when, where or with who I had practiced, or just something about ‘my story’ as a Zen practitioner. S H Roshi simply asks: “What are you practicing here?”.  Oh crap - from this one simple question I can see he really didn’t give a hoot about where I was from, who I sat with or any piece of the ‘story of me’. Right off the bat he is not just asking me what I practice, but what is my state of mind right now. Right there, I knew this is all S H Roshi was every going to ask me in the Sanzen room. Helping his students open their narrow minds to their true vast and boundless nature was all he cared about, and I feel he would give his life to help anyone to do this. This little serene man, without any effort or agenda is actually going to kill me, is the bug eyed response of my ego.  To go in front of S H Roshi in the Sanzen room is to stand naked in front of a great round mirror. To seize this opportunity we need the courage to open our eyes and take a good look and from there we can no longer deceive ourselves of anything. The function of the teacher in Zen as I now realized was not to answer questions and administer wisdom, in order to build us up to be Zen people. But to reflect back to us where we are masking and obscuring the clear light of wisdom that is already inherent in us all. S H Roshi could do this profound action without knowing anything about it. Just by sitting there with his vast simplicity, open and alert, without building ideas about what was in front of him. Whatever he said to me was really coming directly from me. For the next five days, each time it nears my turn to go to the Sanzen room, more and more fear arises in my gut. I now knew why the people in front of me in the Sanzen queue were often trembling and could not even strike the bell without fumbling. My pride of course is acting out in the only way it knows, wanting to impress S H Roshi and to get some validation to make itself even stronger. However, now I could not reason it away into my subconsciousness where my pride liked to operate in safety with a mischievous efficiency. S H Roshi would be handing it to me in a bucket every time and I’ve reached a place where there is no looking away from it. At the beginning of the final block of sitting each day, S H Roshi would sit with us for forty minutes or so and then silently get up and proceed to give the Kyosaku. Seeing this ritual executed by S H Roshi is a piece of ancient Samurai theatre. Between each sitter S H Roshi movements are utterly silently with the four foot long Kyosaku aloft behind his head. With complete attention S H Roshi creeps slowly around the room as if administering killer blows to oblivious adversaries. The only sound you hear other than the actual strikes is the sound of the stick whistling past your ear as you take your own turn to be nailed into the ground. This whole performance takes a further thirty minutes before S H Roshi sits back down to resume Zazen and the bell eventual rings. On the fifth day a knot begins to form in my chest and I can no longer sit up straight. The whole grasping mechanism of pride and underlying insecurities S H Roshi was showing me in the clear mirror of his huge mind was starting to manifest as tension in the front of my body. In this extended round of sitting, in the scanning presence of S H Roshi I am broken. In front of this man, I had hoped so much to impress, I cannot even sit up straight and I am slumped like a sack of potatoes as he passes in front of me. I am utterly defeated - I can only surrender to what is.  At once this huge edifice of pride, this whole dream of wanting to impress another is seen from a perspective outside of the universe, prior to space and time. S H Roshi and the world can no longer persist as external or internal independent entities. What relief. What absolute relief. This relief is itself just an appearance, but how exquisite it is. Right there, I know we are only here on Sesshin because of our great vow to save all beings. We may feel we are in this game to get some special experience for our self and to become something in the eyes of others, but this is only ever a sublime comedy played on a screen in the silence before the Big Bang where nobody is even watching.  Going to see the S H Roshi that evening and I only feel a huge love for him. All fear has been completely washed away. I see the frailty of his old human body and am so stirred by his continuous effort to free all those he meets. As I look into his face it is the same boundless, untouchable mind looking through his eyes as through my own. Now six years on, if there has been even the slightest reduction in the odious pride that still constantly raises up in me, then it is solely thanks to the great kindness of S H Roshi.

The seekers’ journey is a fat joke
Enlightenment and delusion are repugnant in equal measures.
Grasp the static and the fabric of the sky folds on you in darkness,
Grasp the void and the great naturalness will remain a dusty myth forever
Leaping clear of all traces - dive into obliteration -
No smudge, no whiff of realization can taint this!

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