On Pleasing One’s Teacher

On Pleasing One’s Teacher July 25, 2008

Recently a student has become aware of how he has been doing his practice – in part – in an effort to please me. This is something students often go through, including myself with Katagiri-roshi. It can be an important part of finding one’s own feet and then standing up and walking as a free person.

Zen is meant to help us break our chains, sometimes through the skillful means of tightening them so that they catch our attention. Sometimes by illuminating those that can be broken only through becoming one with them – life and death, for example.

In Soto Zen the teacher-student relationship is much like the master-apprentice relationship in the arts or building trades. Only through closely following the master’s way and then going beyond it can we ourselves “…walk free with even steps across the blue sky.”

Many years ago I heard a story on tape by Bobbi Rhodes, now the head of the Kwan Um Zen School (pictured above), that points to one important movement in the teacher-student relationship. The story stuck with me and goes something like this:

A Zen student had heard that a certain Zen master had the true dharma. This student could think of nothing other than receiving the true dharma from this master and so he traveled many miles to the Zen master’s monastery and requested an interview.

The Zen master welcomed him and asked, “What have you come here for?”

“I’ve come,” said the student, “in order to receive your dharma.”

“Well, you can’t just expect me to give something so valuable to you, an ungrateful person who has not even made an offering,” said the master. “Now get out!”

The student went away and sat for several days, planning how he could make an offering so he could get the master’s dharma. Finally he was able to pull together a large sum of money from the resources of friends and family members.

He went back to the master and presented the money and asked, “May I now receive your dharma, please.”

The master shouted, “Get out! My dharma is not for sale.”

The student went away and again sat for days, trying to find an appropriate offering. Then one day he thought that he knew what the master wanted so he returned.

“I’ve come to offer my body,” he said.

Again the master shouted, “What need have I for that stinking skin bag! Get out!”

Again the student went away and sat for days, trying to think of an appropriate offering. Again, one day he thought that he knew what the master wanted so he returned.

“I’ve come to offer you my mind,” he said.

But the master said, “What need have I for a dim mind like yours. Get out!”

The student had finally had it and jumped to his feet and shouted back, “You can take your dharma and shove it up your ass!”

The student then charged for the door.

Just as he was about to slam the door, he heard the master say in a soft voice, “Please don’t lose my dharma.”

An important beginning for the student. Not losing the dharma might take forty more years of training.

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