A student comes to a teacher and asks, “What is the way?” You might wonder this yourself from time to time. What do I do? Where do I go? Is it this way or that? What next? What if? Did I miss the turn? If you don’t see the way, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
The teacher replies, “Go straight on.”
Crazed by doubts and hobbled by fear, we’re bound to end up nowhere until we stop and ask for directions. As every traveler knows, the best directions come from someone who has already made the trip.
A young Japanese fellow boarded a steamer ship and set his course for terra incognita. Like the rest of us, leaving home was his only option.
Taizan Maezumi Roshi was the product of an archaic system of patriarchy in Japan, where Zen temples operated as a kind of family enterprise. One of seven Kuroda brothers raised at a family temple in Otawara, Japan, he ordained as a priest at age eleven and studied literature and philosophy at university. This was expected. By birth order, he would not inherit the family business. This was decreed. Thereafter, he did two things uncommon for both his time and our own: he took his mother’s patronym, Maezumi, and he took the practice of Zen Buddhism seriously.
He’d lost respect for blind authority; he wanted to part with dead customs. After his institutional training, he sought teaching by radical masters, testing firsthand the truth of an ancient teaching. Beyond the fabled stories, one question seized his mind: What is the way?
At twenty-five he sailed for America, intending to spread the practice of Zen Buddhism in a country hostile to both his nation and his faith. He was posted as a priest at a small temple in Los Angeles serving a diminished and demoralized population of Japanese-Americans.
I am the heir of his American dream. Now you are too.
His reputation grew. He attracted students from all over the world. He was revered by some, dismissed by others, and misunderstood by most. He was still there, in a dinky house in a dumpy part of town, when I arrived to ask for directions.
“I’ve left home,” I told him in so many words, “and I’m lost.”
As if anyone got there any other way.
He invited me to sit down.
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, Los Angeles, Sun., Nov. 10.