Your Teacher’s Karma

I’m not sure with the term “teacher” in a Zen-Buddhist context, to begin with. It is not that there is “something” to teach, a certain skill, as in Art or Science. There is no, or very little curriculum. Yet there are those elder guys, hanging around long enough and still being kind enough to share their time and experience. If you are lucky, you might find one.

Friendly elder guy (Portrait of Bodhidharma by Hakuin Ekaku – from our Dojo’s collection).

When I was younger I spent considerable time with such elder companions. Although it was not always easy, I feel grateful towards them for allowing me into their life, more or less. Most of my “teachers”, when they were younger, started a family or engaged with a partner. Actually, I don’t remember any of them was living a celibate lifestyle. So there always was some echo from their wilder (or more conventional), younger days present, in terms of a partner, and sometimes children. In Buddhist terminology, the echo from the past, or more correctly, the past deeds or actions causing certain future consequences, are called Karma.

My late Shakuhachi teacher’s wife was kind enough to serve delicious self-made cake occasionally when I came to visit him for a lesson, while his young daughter was busy with her play-station. Kobayashi Sensei, the Japanese master who’s Aikido style we practice, used to say that he always hopes his wife will not wait for him at the Airport when he comes back from Europe. I never met her, but I vividly remember once his daughter pinning me, a young beginner at the time, on the tatami during Aikido practice. I didn’t know who she was, but couldn’t believe that tiny Asian girl had such an enormous strength.

During my stay at the rural Zen-temple in Kameoka, occasionally the Master’s wife sent us some meal she had prepared for us. In the cold and harsh environment her soup and steamed vegetables appeared to me as the most delicious Japanese food I ever had, and I imagined to taste her kindness through that meal. She must have understood how hard our life in the unheated temple was. Aside from that, I only saw her once, friendly greeting us while closing the curtain at the Master’s main temple we just visited.

Oomori Sogen Roshi with his wife and my former teacher (private picture).

There is an old picture showing my former Zen- and Calligraphy teacher together with his teacher, Oomori Sogen Roshi and the Roshi’s wife, carrying a bag while walking half a step behind between both men. I don’t remember any occasion where my former teacher mentioned Oomori’s wife, or her role or activity within the nine years he was his student.

When I married at the age of 35, I told my wife that I had been told
by a person that I respect absolutely, “Even if you starve and die, do
the right thing.” I asked her if it was all right with her. She said, “If
that’s what you say, it can’t be helped.” Though she was reluctant, I
made her consent.
– Oomori Sogen, “The Art of A Zen Master” by Hosokawa Dogen.

That sounds very much a prototype Japanese relationship of that time, and it seemed she was able to keep her tremendous suffering caused by that life-style mainly to herself.

I prefer not to share questionable stories concerning my former teacher’s wife, but for sure it wasn’t primarily caused by the teacher himself most of his students, including myself left, or were made to leave. During the 13 years I worked with him, he changed town and back, opened and closed Dojos at various locations and ended up with no students and no place to work or teach. Such a pity, he was such a good person to learn from.

Past involvement, past actions cannot be undone. Karma works, merciless, and it may cause tremendous Dukkha or suffering to oneself, without any easy way out. Yet it is the decision of each of us, and the responsibility of anyone teaching others, not to pass on that Dukkha.

Dukkha niroda, the third one of the so called “Four Noble Truths” (a terribly misleading translation of the Pali term āriyasaccāni btw.) I read more as ending and cutting of the passing on of my own Dukkha to others, not so much as bringing an end to my own suffering.

No teacher was born as a teacher, no elder companion entered the world old and wise. Once you meet such a person and get to know him or her better, you might also meet or see the results of his or her past deeds and actions, the wake of a shockingly unwise and turbulent life. Don’t judge him due to past actions or how much Karma he carries on his back. But watch out carefully how much Dukkha he or she is willing to pass on to you!