Zen Student: I’m not sure if and when I should come to sanzen. What’s OK to ask and what isn’t? Sometimes I feel like I need more help in practice, that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s hard to figure out how to put it into words.

Teacher: I remember my first long retreat. On the second day of sesshin, I was surprised by a voice in the zendo that said ominously, “Sanzen is available with Kyogen. For those who want to come to sanzen, all those on the Buddha’s right, please come now.” I didn’t quite know what sanzen was and had a period of panic, frozen to my seiza bench. Should I go? While a half dozen people rose up without hesitation, I couldn’t move, despite another part of me yearning to leap up and go meet this teacher. The opportunity passed and still frozen to the bench, I felt totally defeated for the rest of the day. What was I afraid of? What would this teacher see if we met face to face? What would I say if I didn’t have anything insightful to report or articulate to ask?

       The next day when the same offering was announced, I harnessed my willpower and despite my still present unexplained terror, I felt my body stand up with the others and follow the Jisha outside. Out in the freezing December cold at Camp Adams on a cabin porch, I had nothing to bring except all of this experience. Cold, confused, hopeful, scared. Though I can’t remember that particular sanzen, I do know I was met with kindness and spaciousness and eventual laughter.

       I remember going every day after that. What unfolded was another ten years of intimate meeting after meeting bringing my practice to my teacher (and any other teacher who offered) in whatever form it was taking. It became a touchstone for ongoing investigation into Zen and my life that I both dreaded and anticipated with hopefulness. Only after many meetings could I see that my original wordless fears rooted in the common karmic burdens having to do with worth and belonging were whole and complete. I had everything I needed in that moment to go meet the teacher with what came up in the process. While I thought I needed to become someone more enlightened and speak Zen poetry like others, there was essentially nothing to hide, nothing to prove.

       Our whole life is our practice. What enters the space of sanzen is what is most important to you. Finding what has the most “juice” is key, not intellectual understanding, but what experienced life circumstances and experiences in the zendo grab your attention, cause you pause, excitement, dread, curiosity, fear. Nothing is off limits.

Song of Sanzen

My knees are really hurting me in zazen and my feet fall asleep.

My brother relapsed and is living on the street and I don’t know how to help him.

Today I noticed the new white irises as I walked to the zendo.

I am afraid of dying.

What does it mean when Dogen says this isn’t meditation practice?

I am struggling to find time for sesshin but my partner wants me to spend more time with the family.

I am working with the koan Paichang’s fox and get choked up when they give the fox a burial.

There’s a sangha member who really bothers me and I try to be compassionate but find myself more and more resentful.

Every time I sit, I feel this sense of sorrow and tear up and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.

I am working with being OK with being who I am, but a lot of the time I feel unworthy and that I’m faking it and others can see right through this.

The other day in zazen, all thought dropped away, and there was just the sound of the crow and the wind in the trees.

I’m not sure why I practice.

I had a dream that I was alone on an arid plateau, standing on my zabuton, and a pack of white wolves were off in the distance coming towards me.

I’m not afraid of dying.

My knees still really hurt – isn’t this wonderful?  

       The teacher meets you with the response that arises naturally through the encounter. As a teacher is a spiritual friend who has been on the path for some time, she or he is able to respond from experience and help reflect and point you to your own inherent wisdom. The medicine for one person at one time may not be the medicine for another at another time. It might be sharing silence to be together with a painful truth that is emerging. It might be pointing out something the student is not considering. It may be suggesting a particular practice. It might be spontaneous mutual laughter at our human foibles. It may be the teacher shares his or her own practice with similar difficulties. If the student is stuck in the world of form, emptiness is the medicine. If the student is stuck in the world of emptiness, form is the medicine. Kindness is medicine and challenge is medicine. The empty field is wide open.

       My teacher used to say so many questions get answered in the sanzen line it makes his job easier. That is, as soon as we ask for this meeting, an encounter that comes with the risk of being seen intimately by another, a process begins as we mull over our own personal koan before we arrive. This inner process is vitally important. But, we have to get off the comfortable bench and enter the playing field if we want to experience this.

       I tell people if they want to practice Zen in earnest, to make sanzen a regular practice. While I see many formal students every other week, others may wish to come monthly or every other month or quarterly. When “things are up” frequency may increase or meetings spread out in times of ease or integration. It’s not so important to have an articulate question as it is to be willing to present yourself completely. In the process, we notice where we hide. We notice where we might want to appear more enlightened than we are, or to appear less enlightened than we are. Sanzen is how we find out how practice adapts to our life circumstances unfolding from our own personal koan. Our defenses that distance and divide are invited to rest back so the truth of the moment can spontaneously emerge. Ultimately, we find the teacher within and release into becoming completely who we are. All we need is the willingness to show up.

With palms together,