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
It is so easy for us to fall into the blame game: I don’t know if it was my fault, or not. It was his fault. It was her fault. It was my parents’ fault. Society’s fault. If we take away all fault, what do we have left? A lot of freedom.
Earlier this month, I took my family to Japan. It had been a decade since I was last there, and 32 years since I had left to return home. While there, I studied Zen at the SanUn Zendo, in Kamakura, for 8 years. The highlight of this tour, for me, was my visit to Kamakura and the small 16-mat zendo, where I offered Yamada Koun Roshi a stick of incense. I stood in front of the altar for the longest time, with the smoke rising out of the censor, the pictures of his teachers Yasutani and Harada on the right, of Yamada’s wife and family on the left. The deepest sense of warmth and appreciation came up through my feet and soaked into my whole body as I stood there.
I had not always felt that degree of warmth. Great respect and thanks, yes. But at the time I left the SanUn Zendo, I questioned whether I really had a strong karmic connection to Yamada. The first four years there, I worked hard to “clarify the great matter,” as the Zen classics say. I lived in the neighborhood and meditated 1~2 hours nightly at the zendo. Every other weekend, we had a Saturday-night to Sunday-afternoon gathering of about 60 people with meditation, a talk and one-on-ones. We did five retreats a year. In addition, I did extra retreats with an affiliated teacher, and did my own retreats in the mountains outside of Tokyo at a Zen-like temple the Jesuits had built. I was really piling on the practice, hoping to pass the koan “Mu”. But after 4 years, I was unable to pass, and returned to the States for graduate school. I went to an early-December retreat in Los Angeles, and the third day I passed Mu. Had I been at fault, or not, that I could not pass Mu with Yamada?
After two years, I returned to Japan, and began studying with Yamada again. I can’t say the koan work went smoothly, but I plodded along. I had deep faith in the process and a high degree of confidence in Yamada. About two years back in Japan, I reached a kind of crisis in my life. That Christmas, I went to the idyllic island of Boracay, in the Philippines, with my girlfriend. I told her I thought I loved her, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of that relationship. Not long after, I quit my rather cushy journalist job in Tokyo to try and get into business. I gave up a small but steady paycheck, generous expat benefits, and a good group of office mates to take a job as the head of a pretty well-known Boston-based technology research firm that had opened an office in Tokyo. On the announcement of my appointment as president, my picture even appeared in The Japan Times. Yes, there were only three employees, including me, but it seemed like a big deal to me. The job went south quickly, and a month into it, my boss flew in from Boston unannounced and canned me. A failed relationship. A failed career change. And I did not know if I was at fault, or not.