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What is a true student?

I can fixate easily on Zen lineages. I find the histories and biographies of lineages and teachers fascinating. I’m not sure I would have this affinity if I was at a big temple, or a temple that has many branches, like Suzuki’s line.

I’m at a Deshimaru temple, whose teacher was Kodo Sawaki. And when I dig up our past, our history- my teacher’s history, I’m afraid of digging too deep. Skimming the surface would give anyone one pause.

After the Sino-Japanese war, which Sawaki fought in when he was 16, “The monks, taking Kodo Sawaki for a beggar-tramp (his clothes were but rags) and a madman (the bullet wound he had received in the mouth impaired his speech and made it difficult for him to speak), refused to listen to him.” Of course, they eventually let him in. And in his later years, he refused to take a seat as Roshi, becoming known as an unsui, a wandering, homeless monk.

Deshimaru’s story is even better. During world war two, floating on a Japanese destroyer on the coast of Indonesia, the Americans attacked his convoy. As ships were sinking, and sailors were jumping over board, it’s written that Deshimaru took up the full lotus posture and sat zazen on a box of dynamite.

Is this Zen mythology?

Completely inline, Robert found Zen after the Korean war, when he fled America. He said the most fucked up thing he saw in Korea was how enthralled his fellow soldiers became with killing. He lost a lot of faith in humanity, and expresses little sympathy for those capable of helping themselves. This is why he loves cats and plants.

A lot of war, a lot of samurai bullshit, and a lot of stuff that Deshimaru retained from Rinzai training, bother me. Looking at Brad Warner’s blog, someone claimed to know some dirt on the Deshimaru lineage and I had to inquire. I e-mailed a Deshimaru monk of 30 years and disclosed some things that happen around here for clarity’s sake. I wanted to know if I was dealing with bullshit, or zen master bullshit.

It's all bullshit, though, and I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know on a gut level anyway, that being, plain and simple, my teacher can be a cantankerous old asshole who doesn’t appear to be “Zen” on the outside. I mean, he wears designer black clothing, drives a Lexus, lives in a big house uptown, acts like his students are a nuisance, and is relatively unconcerned and unavailable. The best thing about my teacher is that he doesn’t come around much.

This monk told me that Robert is not actually a Roshi. That Robert was told to come to America to teach, but that Deshimaru did not intend for him to become a Roshi. Robert has done well to cut ties with all of our French, Japanese, and American connections. Unchecked, He answers to no one.

So before I burned down the temple, I tried to slow myself down. I don’t know anything about judging a true master, I don’t know anything about the politics of dharma transmission (but I suspect they’re there which is bad enough for me) and I’m not sure how this new scandal really changes anything. What, Roberts not a real teacher? Right, and not only that, he’s a bad fake one, and I learn a lot from him.

While I tried to figure out if he was a true teacher, I was acting like a false student. I started looking for apartments, considered moving to San Fransisco, Japan, Minnesota- anywhere, just to save myself from poisoned dharma. And I was getting so worked up, everything right in front me was neglected. Instead of editing the book, I surfed the web for temples, jobs, and apartments. I even skipped a period of zazen to satiate my anxiety.

I felt this overwhelming urge to do something. But finally, the things right in front of me demanded attention- my students, the spring performance of Romeo and Juliet, and the temple work weekend. I had made an appointment to see an apartment, but skipped it to make minestrone soup and bread for our sangha lunch on Saturday.

I have a history of “doing." I think I caught myself. I think I allowed some space between action and reaction, and I don’t know if it was a merit of zen or of the program, but I’m thankful. There’s an ego inside me that demands to be recognized, sometimes using the term “we." It must have a chipmunk in its pocket, because I know that things don’t have to be so chaotic.
I was ready to sit with the Tibetans across town, but was thankful to be sitting in a black robe this morning. I was thankful for the rice gruel breakfast. Right after we eat, there is one more chant before tea, and with full bellies, we always sound louder. Of course, Robert wasn’t there this morning, but that’s okay.

This place isn’t about Robert. He’s the teacher, and we deal with him, and I’ll find a new one when I’m ready to leave this lay life, but for now, I’m thankful for this sangha. It’s an opportunity for me to give. And even if what that monk said was true, Robert has never told me anything beyond offending. He teaches Zazen and work practice, and that’s good enough for me right now. He doesn’t know shit about the Tathagata, but he provides a place for us to practice.

Uchiyama, Deshimaru’s dharma brother:
"Right from the start you have to know clearly that no master is perfect: Any master is just a human being. What is important is your own practice, which has to consist of following the imperfect master as perfectly as possible. If you follow your master in this way, than this practice is the basis on which you can follow yourself."


  1. I was here again. Hopefully, I won't seem a stalker.

    Lots here to absorb.
    Pertinent things.


  2. If you could see your way around it, please get in touch.

  3. You write:
    "A lot of war, a lot of samurai bullshit, and a lot of stuff that Deshimaru retained from Rinzai training, bother me. Looking at Brad Warner’s blog, someone claimed to know some dirt on the Deshimaru lineage and I had to inquire. I e-mailed a Deshimaru monk of 30 years and disclosed some things that happen around here for clarity’s sake. I wanted to know if I was dealing with bullshit, or zen master bullshit."

    I suppose I was the one. But it's not so much dirt on the Deshimaru lineage as that there is no Deshimaru lineage. Deshimaru gave his transmission to no one, because he had no one (except that Japanese monk, Tamaki, who finally never availed himself of it) to give his Dharma to.

    So any claim to the Deshimaru lineage is, from the start, mythological.
    The problem with Deshimaru is not so much himself: he was a man stemming, politically speaking, from a political side highly impopular in our countries, but as he said himself, he had the choice between that and Zen and he chose Zen. He did an enormous work of building a European sangha, but he was little trained into dealing with the adulation that goes with that sort of things, hence his alcohol problem. Typical of all such personalities. He was a bit of an authoritarian, hardly surprising from a Japanese man, especially considering his political credentials. But all that is not the main problem.

    The main problem with Deshimaru is those who claim to be his heirs, monkeying him, to the point of imitaiting his accent when delivering "kusens". Not accepting any criticism of any kind, on the basis that anyone who does so must needs be a traitor to Master Deshimaru. Insisting that anyone who goes in a given dojo must needs be a pupil of the master of reference of the said dojo, and infighting between different AZI masters for allegiance over a maximum number of dojos.

    This goes along with the misunderstanding that a pupil ought to follow perfectly. But what ought we understand by "follow"? My take is that it cannot be a master/slave relation, which is what comes out of most AZI teachers, but a teacher/pupil relation, which is something quite different.

    It is also based upon my knowledge of a few masters in their craft, mainly (but not exclusively) violin making. The best I met are always people who are eager to learn something new, even from people to whom they have taught all they knew.

    If a Zen master can do the same, I think he ought to be trusted. But frequenting a dojo or a temple ought never be taken for an allegiance to the teacher of said dojo or temple.

  4. Dharma is impermanet. How could a lineage not be? Lineage is like our ego. Our ego is the story we tell ourselves to remind us who we think we are. We are this biography or that biography. We have group therapy sessions for testicular cancer victims and admit female members. Ego is to the individual as lineage is to the tribe or group. Both the individual and group made up of individuals are an illusion. Drop them.

    Transmission of Dharma is politics. There are myriad Buddhas who are silent. Practice Dharma.

  5. I posted in haste.

    The three gems include the sangha. Sanghas come and go. Find one hang with it. If it falls apart don't frett. Find another. It is expedient to find friends with whom you can practice. Look for truth. If you find it don't attach to it. The best teacher is a mirror. The mirror does not HOLD an image.

    peace equanimity tranquility,



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