Huangbo said, “You’re all gulping down the dregs of the wine. If you keep running around like this, where will you find today? Don’t you know yet that there isn’t a single Zen teacher in the whole country?”
A student stepped forward and asked, “But what about all those places where people are guiding students and leading communities?”
Huangbo said, “I didn’t say no Zen, only no Zen teachers.”
~The Blue Cliff Record, Case 11
When I gave a talk on this koan a couple of years ago, I spoke about how all of us are teachers, and I still believe that: the flower buds pushing out this spring are teaching us, as is he heavy dew following the rains and the moon that shown last night on the still empty owl box. But this time around, I am looking at this koan differently ~ more in generational terms, sort of like when we recite one of our sutra dedications: ‘We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation; in the still halls, the unknown women, centuries of enlightened women, ants and sticks and grizzly bears.’
I don’t watch that much television, but my favorite is The Last Alaskans, which has not garnered quite enough viewership to guarantee a third season. It is a gorgeously shot story of five of the last families in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge, resting above the Arctic Circle and about the size of South Carolina. These families, most of whom came into the country in the mid-1970s, live a subsistence life of hunting and trapping hundreds of miles from the nearest town. I lived in Alaska in the early 1970s, and their life was my life for a little more than a year. I lived in a log cabin I built, hunted moose with my neighbors, and mushed dogs training for the Iditarod Sled Dog race. And I sat Zen in my cabin.
On one episode, Edna, an Inuit woman from St Lawrence Island, who married Heimo from Wisconsin, talked about a seal skin she recently received from her brother. Edna raised four girls in the bush (one of whom fell out of the skiff as a child and tragically drowned), and while she is cleaning the skin in soapy water, she said, “I learned a lot of things from my mom and grandma.” Speaking with an accent characteristic accent of native Alaskans, she said, “I would like to pass a lot of things I learned from them on to my grand-daughter.” She finished, “It is a lot of work for one seal skin.”
I guess my ‘seal skin’ to pass on is far less substantial than Edna’s; certainly no mukluks to be made. In fact, Huangbo rightly points out there is no teacher to pass anything on. And yet generations are born and generations die, and there is a river that runs through it all. That for me is Zen.