Three times Linji went to Huangbo and asked him,”What is the true meaning of the Buddhadharma?” and three times, Huangbo hit him and drove him out of his room. Discouraged, Linji left and went to Dayu, a teacher Huangbo recommended.

Linji recounted the story to Dayu, and said, “I don’t know if I was at fault, or not.”

Dayu replied, “Such a kind old grandmother! Huangbo exhausted himself with your troubles, and now you ask if you were at fault, or not!”

With this, Linji was greatly awakened, and replied, “There is not so much to Huangbo’s Buddhadharma, afterall!”

~ The Record of Linji, Pilgrimages, I

As we mentioned last week,, it is so easy for us to fall into the blame game: was it my fault? His or her fault? My parents, my teachers fault? If we take away all fault, what do we find? Freedom.

Last week’s note recounted a recent trip I took to the SanUn Zendo, in Kamakura, where in the 1980s, I had studied with Yamada Koun Roshi for nearly 8 years. I struggled in my practice there, and wondered, by the end of those years, whether I had a karmic connection with him. Like Linji above, I did not know if I was at fault, or not. As this story continues, I am now six years into study with Yamada. I had broken up with my girlfriend and had just been fired, after only one month, from a new job as the head of the Tokyo office of a technology market research company.

A few days later, I entered SanUn Zendo’s five-day spring meditation retreat. I had been working on Case 10 of the Gateless Barrier, “Ch’ing-Shui’s Alone and Destitute.” The student goes to the teacher and says: ”I am alone and destitute, please help me.” The teacher replies, “Venerable monk!” “Yes?” “You have already drunk three cups of the finest wine, and still you say you have not moistened your lips.” So, with both girlfriend and career gone, and feeling like my life was falling apart, I took this koan into dokusan. I presented to Yamada what I thought was a pretty solitary and destitute figure. Yamada shook his head and just said “No.” He looked at me for a long minute, then said: ”I want you to go back to the beginning of the Miscellaneous Koans.” This was a collection of about 60 koans, at least two years of work. He rang his bell, and I returned to the zendo, stunned. Who was at fault?

If I had felt alone and destitute before, I was now devastated. I had lost the confidence of my teacher and with it, my Zen practice, the primary reason for my living in Japan. I sat on my cushion, and tears began to track down my cheeks. There was a new Head of Practice in the Zendo, actually a former Army general, and he decided not to follow the usual rule that required participants ask for the kyosaku, or warning stick, before being struck. So, seeing my tears, he started to smack me on the shoulders with the stick, time and again. After a few periods of this, with my shoulders feeling pretty sore, I went to him and asked him if it was o.k. that he wait until I requested the stick. He walked away with a “Hrumpf!” Now I was not even worth beating.

So, practice and life went on for the next 18 months, and it came time for me to return to the U.S. I bade a warm goodbye to Yamada, and later heard that the weekend I departed, he fell down a steep set of stairs, injured his spine, and was confined to bed. A year later, by chance, I was on a business trip to Tokyo, and joined the Sunday Zen meeting at the Zendo. I was able to pay a visit to Yamada Roshi, who lay unconscious in his bed, and looked very weak. That Wednesday, he passed away and on Friday there was an informal tsuya, or wake, held for him at the zendo. With his body in a casket near the altar, about 15 of us sat in the small zendo telling stories and drinking sake. Late that night, we pulled out our futon pads and blankets, just like during sesshin, and slept. I had the most wonderful, deep and satisfying sleep. The next morning, I got up early, and left. Walking through the alleyways back to the station in the bright morning sunshine, I knew that I did, in fact, have a deep karmic connection with Yamada. Who had been at fault?

~ To be continued next week ~