Just before a teacher gives a dharma talk, the community of practitioners chants, “the dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is rarely met, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas.” A kalpa is an immeasurable period of time, sometimes compared to an aeon.
When we say these words, we are really evoking the almost unimaginable boundlessness of the dharma, and yet such boundlessness means nothing other than yourself. One of your teacher’s most important jobs, if not the most important one, is to point you in the direction of yourself so you can see for yourself. In order for this to be possible, a special kind of intimate bond must be established between you as a student and the teacher. Your teacher must truly know your heart and mind. And, likewise, you should know the teacher’s heart and mind; that means, of course, that you know your own heart and mind as well, which is the same heart and mind of all things.
To help us better understand the student-teacher relationship, Suzuki roshi used to tell us one of his favorite stories about Isan Zenji, who comes from the lineage of hui Neng, the sixth Ancestor. Isan was resting one hot summer afternoon, just kind of dozing in his room, when his disciple kyozan walked by and peeked inside.
When he saw him, Isan said, “Oh, Kyozan, don’t think that you’ll bother me, please come in.” Kyozan came in, and when he was settled, Isan said, “I had a wonderful dream. Do you want to know what my dream was?” Without saying anything, Kyozan stood up and went out to get a pan of water and a facecloth. Then he came back into Isan’s room and offered it to his teacher. His teacher dipped the cloth in the cool water, wiped his face, and felt joyously refreshed.
Just about this time, Isan’s other disciple, Kyogen, walked by, looked in, and saw the two of them. “Can I come in?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” Isan said, “please join us.” When Kyogen was settled, he proceeded to ask the same question of him. “I just had a wonderful dream,” Isan told him. “Do you want to know what it was?” Immediately Kyogen went into the next room, made some tea, and brought it in. Then the three of them all drank tea together.
That’s the story. But also this is the exact life of Zen.
It’s very different from when we ask someone about their dream, or when our friend asks if we had a dream and what kind of dream it was. If we are not familiar with dharma, we may tell a long story about our great dream, including all the details we can remember, and then begin to interpret and speculate about what it could possibly mean. Isn’t that so? But each student—or in the case of this story, each disciple—awakens the present moment. This present moment is the dream. Our lives are not about another dream. If it is a hot day, we could use a cloth dipped in cool water; perhaps you might make someone a pot of tea. That is the meaning of relationship, and it’s a very good illustration of a deep student-teacher relationship.
This story also means that the student is independent. The students weren’t interested in the dream of their teacher. In fact, they didn’t even think about it; what they did was a simple and natural response. When a student is a student of Zen, their practice should help them forget that they are a Zen student. This is like forgetting the self. When you forget the self, you become a free and ordinary person. And so, on a hot summer day, you can bring someone a cool facecloth and serve some tea.
From No Beginning, No End by Jakusho kwong, 2003. Reprinted in 2010 by Shambhala Publications by arrangement with Harmony Books, a division of Penguin Random House.