A monk once asked the priest, “The Buddha of Unsurpassed Wisdom sat on the Bodhi seat for ten kalpas, but did not attain Buddhahood. Why was that?”
“An excellent question,” the priest replied.
“Yes, but why did he not attain Buddhahood?”
“Because he was a non-attained Buddha,” the priest responded.
~ The Gateless Barrier, case 9

The Pacific Zen teachers met about a month ago, and the subject chosen was dokusan, one-on-one work with a teacher. In Japanese, doku 独 means “individually” or “alone” and san 参 means “to go”, in honorific language. In the Rinzai (Linji) tradition, sanzen 参禅 means “going zen”, implying going to see the teacher for koan work. We often call dokusan “interviews” for convenience, but one translation we have used in the past, and which I like, is “work in the room.”

At our teacher’s meeting, we took turns reflecting on our experiences with dokusan both as teachers and as students. Several recalled their very first encounters with their teacher, from which they remembered a few simple words exchanged or a feeling afterward that they had found their true, life-long teacher. “Dokusan is a perennial and deep question for me,” said one participant. “Direct encounter with a teacher is at the center of touching the heart-mind in sesshin.”

The memory that came up for me was not of a dokusan I went to, but one I did not go to. I spoke about this story at sesshin about five years ago, but in the intervening time, I must say that the way I view the non-encounter has evolved.

I was a member of the SanUn Zendo, in Kamakura, where I studied with Yamada Koun. While in Kamakura for four years, I sat daily at the zendo, attending bi-weekly zenkai , all-day meditation meetings, and about five long and short sesshin a year. I had not yet passed through Wumen’s “barrier set up by the ancient teachers”, Zhaozhou’s Dog, the koan Mu or No, as we now work with it. Soon after the retreat, I was scheduled to return to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and was uncertain whether I could come back to Japan. If I wanted to pass the koan No before returning, time was short.

“Sit as much as you can,” advised Yamada, and I did. That summer in the mornings I rode my bicycle to extra sittings with the Benedictine priest Willigis Jager, who was working closely with Yamada. I also went up to the mountains outside Tokyo to a kind of Zen temple, called Shimeikutsu, built by the Jesuit Enomiya LaSalle, another Yamada student, where I would spend some days meditating by myself.

Our week-long summer sesshin rolled around, and I jumped into it with great passion. The daily schedule called for about eight hours of meditation, a sutra service, work practice, teacher talks and dokusan. Though against the rules, I also got up at night when everyone else was asleep to do extra sitting at my place in the zendo. The sesshin went quickly and the last day arrived. I still had not passed the koan No. By about noon, all of the 50 participants had completed their final meetings with Yamada, and we were all silently sitting in the small zendo. The head of practice yelled out: “If for any reason whatsoever, anyone wishes to go see the Roshi one last time, you may go now!”

I so wanted to go to dokusan. But I could not move off my cushion. I was frozen. Everyone would know it was me who went: what would they think? What if I failed? I had nothing to bring the Roshi. What would he say? Would he be angry? Was my enlightenment waiting for me in that room, and was I afraid of it? A couple of seconds went by. Then another few, and a minute. Finally, the bell rang for the end of the period, and the sesshin was over. The opportunity had passed.

After the retreat, I was absolutely devastated. I had taken it for granted that by the end of summer, with all my extra work, I would pass the koan No. Instead, a shocking nothing met me. Everyone gathered around in the zendo to share tea and snacks, but I went off for a time, tearfully trying (as a non-smoker) to drag on a cigarette, which I held in my shaking hands. I was so thoroughly disappointed. Maybe I did not have what it takes to pass the koan No. Perhaps I never would pass.

Five years ago, when I last spoke about this experience, I still saw “not-going” that day as a bit of a lost opportunity. Even now, I can play out heroic fantasies about what I would have said and done in that dokusan. But my view has changed about the “failure”, as I saw it at the time. How wonderful it is to “not-go!” Though I may not have appreciated it at the time, the not-going was whole and perfect in itself. As is all of the “not-going” in our lives. “Coming or going we are never astray,” says Hakuin Zenji. There is not one thing out of place, even our perceived lack of enlightenment. After all, from the very beginning we were unattained Buddhas. So what was waiting for me in that room? Perhaps a kindly but exhausted 80-year old man, looking forward to some rest after sesshin. I think he did attain that.