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

This is the last of a three-part series of short blogs on my experience with the blame game in my own practice. It is so easy for us to fall into the trap of attaching blame to those around us and to ourselves: It was my fault; his or her fault. Certainly, it was my parents’ fault or my teachers’ fault. But if we take away all that fault, if we don’t attach any blame, what do we find? Freedom. And more freedom.

In the previous notes, I recounted a recent trip I took to the SanUn Zendo, in Kamakura, Japan, where I had studied Zen with Yamada Koun Roshi for nearly 8 years. Though I left 32 years ago, it was a deeply important time in my life. While studying there, I felt I was struggling in my koan practice, and wondered if I really had a strong karmic connection to my teacher.

It is complicated, that thread of karma that makes up the weave of the golden brocade which we call our lives. It is rich, that pattern, and ultimately unknowable. Recognizing a new Zen teacher is a big deal in our school, and some of us who are inducted as teachers have stories about dreams of succession. A close friend of mine had a dream about Yamada, his former teacher, who came to him in a dream before he was designated a Roshi.

About a month before I was given the title of Sensei at Pacific Zen, the old teacher who appeared in my dreams was not Yamada, but Maezumi, the founder of Zen Center of Los Angeles, where I was a periodic participant in retreats as a young man. In the dream, I was sitting in a zendo with a large group of dark-robed monks. The pre-dawn darkness was illuminated only by candlelight and the fragrant smell of incense hung thick in the air. Facing each other on long platforms (called tan), the room was full, except for one empty seat next to me, on my right. Maezumi Roshi came into the room, crossed in front of me, and without saying or indicating anything, took the empty seat. For me, the dream was a sign of approval.

Here is the complicated part: Despite that dream-world recognition, it is Yamada’s legacy that I deeply feel I have inherited. It is his comments on the classic koans and poetry ~ The Gateless Gate, The Blue Cliff Record ~ not Maezumi’s, that I most often turn to. It is Yamada’s words that resonate within me when I give a lecture, and of the old teachers, it is his example as a layperson that I look to emulate (as a sidebar, one of my daughters is named after Yamada, and one Maezumi). So, several weeks ago, standing at the altar in the SanUn Zendo, having lit incense to Yamada Roshi and his wife, I felt a warm glow move up from my feet into my whole body. Like him, I was now a teacher. Our relationship has continued to develop over the last decades, and i am grateful.