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Who are you?

Updated: May 17, 2023

Prelude: Bodhidharma

The first case in the Blue Cliff Record tells a longish story of Bodhidharma’s arrival in China and his meeting with the emperor. Here’s an important moment.

When the emperor proudly asked Bodhidharma, “I have built temples and ordained monks, what merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma responded, “No merit.” A dousing with cold water. In the sequence which follows, I hear outrage in the emperor’s voice when he responds. When he asks, “Who is facing me?” I hear, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Bodhidharma replies, “Don’t know.” Bodhidharma is not intimidated.

Roshi Bernie had invented a wonderful way of helping students dive into the work of this koan, although I don’t know that he ever made the connection explicit. Jishu introduced me to it in an early Ox Class. Jishu paired us off. I sat facing Jennifer Dohrn. “Who are you?”

Whatever I answered, Jennifer repeated the question.

“I’m a social worker.

“I’m a sociologist.”

“I’m a social activist.”

“I’m a man.”

“I’m a Jew.”

On and on until Jishu rang the bell. Did I ever answer, “I am Ken”? I certainly never said, “Don’t know."

Then we switched rolls. I became the questioner, varying the emphasis as I repeated the question.

Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

When the bell rang again, we reformed the big circle. Bernie, who was there that evening, told a story.

“Growing up, I was always Bernie,” he said. “Through high school and college and into graduate school in Los Angeles, I was always Bernie. It was not until I had begun Zen studies with Maezumi Roshi, when I took Jukai, that I got another name. Maezumi gave me a Dharma name, ‘Tetsugen.’ Totally penetrating wisdom. And after that I was ‘Tetsugen.’ Until Maezumi gave me Dharma transmission, made me a teacher. Then I became ‘Sensei’, Japanese for ‘teacher’. Today, no one calls me ‘Bernie’ except my sisters. People who have known me since the early days at ZCLA, some of them still call me ‘Tetsugen’. Most people now call me ‘Sensei’.”

In the years that followed, after he received Inka, Bernie became “Roshi.” And then he went back to being “Bernie.” In the last years of his life, he was always “Bernie” to me and “Grandpa Bernie” to Morrigan although for a while I called him “Roshi Bernie” in public.

Bernie and Bodhidharma seemed to be saying the same thing. Don’t confuse the finger pointing with the moon. Don’t confuse the label with the what’s there. Bernie, Tetsugen, Sensei, Roshi, Bernie again. Labels change, and what’s there is always changing as well.

There were important resonances here for me, linking me back to important teachings in my life. Sometime during my marriage to Joan and my psychoanalysis, working on “Who am I?” without knowing it, working on the suffering of relationships, Peter Bornstein, the best man at my wedding, roommate in college and in our first year after Carleton, had offered the sage advice, “You cannot feel good in a relationship until you feel that you can leave it.” That was a koan too. I could feel its rightness through my fear. “What would happen to me without Joan?” was a terrifying question.

There was another association. Peter and I had shared an apartment in Greenwich Village for a year, a 6th floor walk-up on Christopher Street. We had inherited the apartment from Carleton classmate Peter Schjeldahl who had dropped out of Carleton the year before we graduated and moved to the Village. When he went on to Paris pursuing his poet’s dream, we got his apartment.

Peter got the one bedroom. I slept on a bed in the living room/kitchen which also contained the shower. When we showered the water overflowed into the kitchen area and down 6 flights. Someone, maybe Schjeldahl, had inscribed a verse in the ceiling above Peter’s bed.

Tis better to have loved and lost,

Than never to have lost at all.

This riff on the famous Tennyson line always made me smile. It was so 60’s.

“Who are you?” There was an important Buddhist teaching here for me, percolating from the mid-60’s and finally crystalizing with Bernie 30 years later. Suffering arises from attachment, from clinging.

“Who are you?”

“I am a husband. I am a married person.”

“Then who are you if your marriage ends?” I can remember the fear. Will I still exist? Will I survive?

“Who are you?”

“I am an angry person.”

During my analysis, Erika asked me, “What would happen if you stopped being angry?”

I was sitting in a chair across from her in her office, in the same chair that I had been sitting in three, two, then one hour a week. I could feel myself dissolving as I imagined letting go of my anger. I would be a puddle on the floor. There would be nothing left of me but a puddle.

There was relief in this insight, and I was able to begin to be less fierce all the time. But years later, working with Bernie, I could see in the attachments of my life the sources of my fear and suffering. I could see it in people who lived in terror of losing their jobs.

“Who are you?”

“I am a professor.” A big deal.

“Who are you if you don’t get rehired, if you don’t get tenure?”

No one. A puddle.

I saw it in grief.

“I am a son.”

“And when your parents are gone?”

At the same time, I felt strongly the other side. I saw something worse in the detachment of others, sometimes in fellow Zen students, who shielded themselves from suffering by avoiding relationships. In Tennyson’s original words,

Tis better to have loved and lost,

Than never to have loved at all.[1]

For a while, I was describing myself as a Zen Romantic, ready to plunge into relationships, to plunge into life while knowing, really knowing in the moment-to-moment that all things are impermanent, that all relationships will end.

Fugue: Abraham

There is also a counter melody. Is this a Jewish song? Where does this tune come from? I had no Jewish education. When one of Morrigan’s teachers for some unknown reason, -- Morri said that she seemed to know a lot about a lot of stuff beyond the course content, -- had directed her attention to the “Abraham” section of Genesis, I read it, as if for the first time although I know I had read it before. The part of the story I remembered, the “sacrifice” of Isaac, I knew from the retelling by Danish existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard.

On this reading, I was struck by the importance of names.

Avram fell upon his face.

God spoke with him,


As for me,

here, my covenant is with you,

so that you will become the father of a throng of nations.

No longer shall your name be called Avram,

rather shall your name be Avraham,

for I will make you Av Hamon Goyyim/Father of a Throng of Nations!

-- Genesis 17: 3-5.[2]

How different an answer to the question, “Who are you?”

Bodhidharma answered, “Don’t know.”

Avram would now answer, “I am Abraham.”

I am struck by this moment in my internal, generally barely audible, Jewish/Buddhist dialogue. I am reminded of Roshi Bob Kennedy’s story about his study with Japanese Zen master Yamada Roshi. Bob was then a young Jesuit priest, and Yamada sensed that Bob was worried that Zen practice might undermine his Catholic faith.

“Not to worry,” said the Roshi. “Zen will not make you a Buddhist. It will make you a better Catholic.”

I can feel the tension. “Who are you?”

“I am a Jew.”

“I am a Buddhist.”

“Don’t know.”

Am I being pulled in two directions? Are these really two directions? Actually, there is a counter theme in Zen. A lot of importance is attached to the name that Zen students are given during Jukai.

Jukai is an important ceremony in our American Zen Soto tradition. It is referred to often as “Lay Ordination,” as “Taking Refuge,” or “Taking the Precepts.” It is thought of often as the ceremony of becoming a Buddhist, for most Americans, a conversion ceremony. At the central, pivotal moment of the ceremony, the teacher gives the student a new name. In our lineage, the new names are usually in Kanji, which is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese ideograms. In medieval Japan, Kanji was the language of the educated nobility.

Today, no one, even in Japan, speaks Kanji, which gives these Dharma names as they are called an aura of mystery. Approaching Jukai, students await their new names with excitement and trepidation.

The naming is taken seriously by students and teachers. Some, as Bernie did for many years, totally embrace their new names. Some barely use their new names at all. But everyone takes the naming seriously. There is an important teaching in the name that is given.

Zen practice did make me a Buddhist. I had no noticeable Jewish education, but now after 30 years of “serious” practice, is Zen actually connecting me with my Jewish heritage?

What’s in a name?

Is it nothing?

Or might it be of profound significance?

Is the taking of a new name a life changing event?

[1][1] Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam” [2] Genesis and Exodus, an English Rendition, translated with notes by Everett Fox (New York: Shocken Books, 1991): p. 68.

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