When Dongshan was still a young monk, he was leaving Yunyan. He asked, “After your death, if I am asked by others whether or not I have your portrait (the essence of Buddhism), what should I answer?” After a long pause, Yunyan said, “Just this, this!”

Dongshan left still doubtful about what Yunyan had said. Later, on crossing a river he saw his own reflection in the water and experienced a great awakening to the meaning of his old teacher’s words.

~ The Record of Dongshan, Chapter 9

This koan was offered in Pacific Zen’s Open Temple sitting a few mornings ago, and immediately it resonated with some thoughts, dreams and emails regarding teaching that I have been exploring over the past weeks. This exchange between Dongshan and his teacher was all the more touching to me because it was their last; Yunyan died soon afterward. Traditionally, a teacher would give his student the teacher’s portrait when he formally recognized the student as his successor.

I received an email recently from a friend, who had been recalling one of my old blog notes about my koan work with Yamada Koun, in Kamakura. At times, the work did not always go smoothly for me. At times, I wondered if I had a strong karmic connection with him, despite the fact that he was a major presence in my life for eight years.

The friend asked, “Why didn’t he recognize you more? Did he not see you? Did you not see you? Did you both not see each other? Or, you both saw each other just fine? Or, some combination of each of you, seeing and not seeing?” I find I don’t need to answer these kinds of questions anymore, as I once did.

I remember one bi-weekly dokusan in Tokyo at Kenbikyo-in, the small hospital that Yamada owned and managed with his wife, who was a medical doctor. He leaned forward slightly, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “Hmm, I could tell you the answer, but that is not the best for you,” a version of the classic ‘If I told you, you would not forgive me afterward.’ Like Yunyan, he was compassionately allowing me to find my own way.

For thirty years, though I had dreams of all my past teachers, not once did I dream of Yamada. But something has changed. In the past year, Yamada has come to my dreams several times, including one just a week ago. In the dream, there were perhaps two dozen of us sitting facing inward along the walls of a large, square room with the seating area around the walls at ground level, and a sunken floor in the center for standing up and walking. Yamada was sitting on what would have been the west side, opposite the entrance, and I on the north side.

The dream opened up during meditation, and I remember sitting for some long time in deep samadhi. When the bell rang to end the period, I slowly, and rather reluctantly, rose. People began to leave, and one of the participants, sitting on the east wall, was a small-statured man from Africa, with very dark skin and close-cropped hair. He looked like one of the many Jesuit priests from around the world who visited the SanUn Zendo in Kamakura.

In the dream, Yamada passed by me, went over to the young man, and tapped him on the shoulder with his short stick, which was the usual signal to follow him into dokusan. As people left, I recognized Paul S, a long-time regular at San-un Zendo, who was asking another senior person about a student that she had taken on. Paul seemed unsure of, and disappointed by the circumstances. My thought at seeing this was: “How completely unnecessary it is to be concerned about how one acquires students.”

Teacher and student, student and teacher, what are our karmic connections? We cannot know. It is important for both teachers and students to allow each other their own awakening. At that deepest level, in the student-teacher relationship, there is not one thing out of place. How could there be? It is just this, this!