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Mother's Day 2020

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Zen’s relationship to mothers has always seemed a bit strange.

Mother’s Day, 2020 is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of Maezumi Roshi’s passing — my grandfather in the Dharma, in Japan to be with his mother. He had taken his mother’s name to ensure that it would live on, although he had received Dharma transmission, from his father Hakujun Kuroda Roshi, who achieved great prominence in the Japanese Soto Sect. All of Maezumi’s Roshi brothers were Kuroda. But his attachment to his mother was very strong.

It’s worth noting that to me, Zen’s relationship to mothers has always seemed a bit strange. Two of the most important of all Zen teachers in our lineage, Huineng (the Sixth Chinese Ancestor) and Dongshan Liangjie (the founder of our Soto lineage) embody a relationship to mothers that bothered me from the time I first heard their stories. I will quote from Transmission of the Light (Denkoroku) by Zen Master Keizan (Thomas Cleary, trans. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990). The Transmission of the Light, the final collection of four books of Koans that we study in our lineage, tells the enlightenment and transmission stories of all the successors in our lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha in India 2500 years ago to Koum Ejo, first successor of Dogen who brought the Soto lineage to Japan.

“After his father died, Huineng was raised by his mother. As he was growing up, his family was extremely poor, and he eked out a living by cutting wood.

“One day when Huineng went to market with a bundle of wood, he heard a traveler reciting the Diamond Cutter Scripture. When the traveler reached the part where it says, ‘You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything,’ Huineng experienced enlightenment…

“Huineng told his mother that he intended to seek a teacher for the truth.” (page 138).

Huineng then left home to pursue the Way although he had been the sole support of his family.

A hint of horror.

Dongshan’s Story

Dongshan’s story is even more shocking.

“Dongshan was his mother’s favorite son. His elder brother had passed away, his younger brother was poor, and his father had died. But once he aspired to the school of emptiness, he left his old mother and vowed he would never go back to his native place to see his relatives without having realized the Way. He left home with this determination.

“Dongshan eventually completed his study successfully. His mother, separated from her son, had no other support; day after day, she looked for him, eventually becoming an itinerant beggar. When she heard where her son was living, she wanted to go to see him, but Dongshan refused – he barred his door and wouldn’t let her in because he wasn’t willing to see her. Because of this mother finally died of grief outside his room…

“Although the Zen masters were not better or worse than each other in terms of virtue, Dongshan, ancestor of our school, especially caused Zen to flourish. This was due to this power of leaving his parents and keeping his determination.” (Page 165).

I shudder.

Roshi Bernie told me that whenever Maezumi Roshi gave teisho on these koans, he would weep. I love that. I smile, gratitude for the lineage.

I Remember My Mother

I remember my mother. When Jishu Roshi was going to shave my head, the first step, Tokudo, on the Zen priest path, I invited my mother to come with us to the ceremony in Yonkers.

“I’m going to become a monk,” a bad Anglicization but the one we used at ZCNY in those days. Very misleading.

She began to cry.

“Mom, what’s the matter?”

“I’m never going to see you again.”

I reassured her, “No, not that kind of monk. You’ll see me just as much. I’m not going anywhere.”

She did come to the ceremony, but when I peeked over at her during the ceremony, she was looking away. She was afraid to watch.

My mother was a better teacher for me than I realized.

My mother was an elementary school teacher for many years while I was growing up. Throughout my childhood, my mother always deferred to my father. She looked up to him. I did too. There was something there that led to my lack of appreciation. Stubbornness. When she offered to help me with my penmanship, I refused. In college, I looked down on education majors. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

And here I am, almost 20 years after her passing, building great schools for students and teachers. Over and over again, hearing her words which I never fully appreciated as a kid.

When I was Little

When I was little, she used to bring me to work with her on the last day of school. My mother allowed her students to bring comic books to class to read when they finished their work. How radical. On the last day of school, her students would give me those by then over-read comics. I loved it. I would go home with a great pile of comics. Now I appreciate what a wonderful teaching her students were receiving. Just read. More important than what you read. Build fluency.

My mother used to break up the school day. When her kids were getting exhausted, brain fatigue, she would get them up to dance. I never saw my mother dance, although I heard stories of my parents jitterbugging before I was born, but somehow she got them up. I remember her telling stories at dinner about a fifth grade boy who was a wonderful dancer, although I guess he had some challenges academically. He had been with her for two years, looping from fourth grade.

I am smiling appreciating her much more every day.

And here I am, myself a Zen teacher, trying to see how to be a teacher.

To Be a Teacher

For me, there are two elements that give Zen its distinctive flavor, zazen (seated meditation) and lineage, that face-to-face, eyeball to eyeball, eye brows entangled transmission of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, generation after generation.

The essence of Zen teaching, truly of all real teaching, is intimacy. It is not essential to be perfect to be a teacher, but it is essential to care.

I got to see Maezumi Roshi in person twice, I think, when he came to visit ZCNY. Once I had the extraordinary opportunity to have Daisan (the individual interview with a teacher) with him, with my teacher’s teacher. Great privilege. Great honor.

The interview of course was short. The teacher is seeing one student after another. I have no memory of what we talked about. I may have been speechless. I certainly don’t remember anything I said, but at the end he told me, “Take care of Bernie.”

I was totally moved. I felt that Maezumi had given me this personal responsibility. Perhaps he said the same thing to every student he saw that day. I never knew. It was my responsibility. Always was. Still is.

It has been said, often in a severely disapproving tone, was a flawed human being. Perhaps Maezumi Roshi did have feet of clay. Maybe Roshi Bernie had clay feet too. I have feet of clay.

We are, none of us, perfect.

Jishu Roshi said, “There is no perfect teacher outside. I have a perfect teacher inside.” Sometimes we are embarrassed by family members. Probably happens to most of us. Maybe Huineng had clay feet. Maybe Dongshan. Maybe Keizan too. I don’t know.

For me, on the pathway to becoming a Zen teacher, after thorough, formal study of 300 plus koans, the final koan is “the teacher has feet of clay”.

After years of raging internally and sometimes externally against the perceived imperfection of my teachers, — “You must be perfect. How can I achieve perfection if you are not perfect?” — I can finally accept your imperfection and then, my own.

And then finally perhaps I can teach, as an imperfect teacher. Perfect.

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