The Sad Tale of How My Zen Teacher Failed to See Me

I want to study the doctrine of non-self. But first, I want you to listen to all my personal details. 

I said this (more or less) to all of my Zen teachers. They listened politely while I talked and talked and talked about my life story. Maybe they’d nod, or shake their heads, or go, “Is that so?” or, “That’s too bad” every once in a while. At the time I didn’t know that they were waiting for me to shut up about myself, so that some kind of real interaction might be possible. 

But I was too busy talking about me for that to happen.

I can still remember some of the thoughts I had about this when I was practicing with Nishijima Roshi. I’d come away from an unsatisfying conversation with him, and I’d be thinking, “As an elderly Japanese man, he can’t possibly understand what I’m going through. People his age just don’t realize how times have changed. Plus he’ll never know what it’s like to be an immigrant living in Japan, and all the things I have to deal with.” And so on, and so forth.

In short, my ego had been bruised because my teacher failed to acknowledge my specialness. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be recognized. But he refused, and that made me mad. And it was his fault that I was mad. If he’d treated me better I wouldn’t be so angry. Well, screw him anyway!

I was too much of a loner to be able to join up with other likeminded people and commiserate about how my teacher had dismissed my needs. The Internet hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I was able to find people there to validate me. 

At the time this felt bad — lonely, too. But in retrospect, I think it was better. Because if I’d been able to find someone to validate my concerns, I’m not sure I would have taken stock of myself and asked if, perhaps, the problem was me. 

Nowadays, I’ve switched positions. Now it’s me who gets to sit and listen to people rambling on and on about themselves — pleading for personal validation without knowing that’s what they’re doing, practically begging me to do the very opposite of the thing they presumably came to me for.

Some of them get angry when I fail to see them properly. Sometimes they vent their anger directly at me. Sometimes they vent it to their social media followers who tell them that they’re right about me. Luckily I rarely see that stuff, but occasionally I do. And when I see that stuff, it always nags at me a little. But, then again, that feeling of it nagging at me is just my own ego getting bruised like I probably bruised theirs. Besides, I know what it’s like to be in their position.

Nishijima Roshi, like most Japanese people, didn’t share much about his personal life. Actually, as both a Japanese person and a Zen person, that “intersection” (as the kids say these days) made him even quieter about his personal stuff than most Japanese people. But as I hung around him I picked up bits and pieces. 

He had three or four little black totems on top one of his bookshelves. They looked like miniature Japanese style gravestones. I asked about them once and he said they were for the children he had lost. As far as I knew, he had just one daughter. He never elaborated on these other children. 

He’d been conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. He had to have feared for his life when they called him up. Two years later he was one of the lucky ones who made it back. He returned to find most of his country burned to the ground, much of it scorched by radiation. 

How many of his friends and family had died in that war? He never said. We Americans love to share our stories of coping with post-traumatic stress over so much less than what he had seen and endured. I know we do, because I’ve done it. In fact, I’d done it to him.

Looking at those little totems on his shelf, I thought about all of this. And I remembered those thoughts I’d had about how he couldn’t possibly understand what I’d been through. I felt deeply ashamed.

After that I stopped trying to get him to see me. Instead, I tried to see what he could see. He was almost 50 years old the year I was born. The entire world had gone insane when he was at the age that I was when my worst struggles were about finding a job and navigating relationship problems. Oh, and watching my mother slowly die of a genetic disease that I had a 50% chance of inheriting in a few years. I was dealing with that too. 

Yet in spite of all the things my teacher had seen and had survived, he never played the game of trying to rank suffering on some kind of scale. He could have stopped me during any one of my rants and told me about things he’d gone through that would have made my stuff sound weak and trivial. But he never did. 

That’s how I learned that you cannot compare suffering. To the person who is suffering through the worst thing they’ve ever experienced, that suffering is real. Even if, to me, what they’ve experienced might seem like nothing. Plus, the things people tell you they’re suffering from are often shorthand for a host of other matters they’ll never tell you — and that they might not even be able to tell themselves. I can never really know the depth of someone else’s pain, no matter what triggers that pain.

This is why I don’t try to measure anyone else’s suffering. That, plus an understanding that’s been dawning on me over the past several decades — every individual’s suffering is actually my suffering too.

As I sat silent zazen in sweltering temples or on freezing floors, I watched the parts of my personal story of suffering present themselves. Sometimes it was like a kaleidoscopic jumble. Just shapes and colors with no set form, mutating in front of me. Sometimes it was crystal clear. Some incident that I’d buried. Words I should have said. Things I should have done. Words I should never have said. Things I shouldn’t even have thought of doing that I did anyway.

And yet my teacher never showed much interest in any of that. Instead of berating him in my mind for not seeing me, I started to wonder just why it was that he never showed any interest. Because I could sense that he cared very deeply for me, and about me. Yet how could he care about me if he didn’t know my story? Why would he care about someone he knew so little about?

And why did I care about him when he never shared the details of his life with me? What was that relationship? It wasn’t like any other relationship I’ve experienced.

What was it we shared?

The answer was stupidly obvious. 

We were both dedicated to this strange practice of sitting very, very still and allowing life to present itself. Not many people are willing to do that. Especially when it comes to spending years at what, to regular people, seems like the most pointless thing in the world. Which, of course, it is. 

He must have treasured knowing anyone else who also shared a deep interest in such an uncommon thing. Maybe that’s where I could meet him.

When I tried to meet him there, that was the moment that everything changed.

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