Letting Go of the Coin

We may like or dislike the experience of being a student, but actually this doesn’t matter. During my very first retreat at Hwa Gye Sa Temple in Korea, we had a formal breakfast together with all the monastics of the temple, and newcomers were instructed to come forward on the first day and ask the monastery seniors “Please teach me.” This can be a bit confusing for a person who was conditioned in the West. But putting the cultural differences aside, in fact “Please teach me” means being a student.

In the West and in the East too we really like to choose. We want to choose what we want to learn and from whom we want to be taught and, most important, when or when not. Coming home from a stressful working day, do we prefer to choose a glass of wine or switch on the TV instead of what’s already here in this very moment? Do we not want to stop and look at what’s right there? Do we prefer to cover it up with whatever is at hand, wanting neither a teacher nor a student to appear? At these moments there is “Please don’t teach me.”

However, when we meet with each other the idea of student and teacher can get in the way. Often we experience this with our relationships: When arguing with our wife, husband or friends about something, what is it that’s in the way? Is there an idea of how a person should be or has always been? Or an idea of how my marriage or my relationship should be or shouldn’t be? A look or a facial expression can be enough. How is it with my student–teacher relationship? All of a sudden, we don’t see each other directly anymore—we only see an idea. At that moment there is no Please, no teach; there is only me. Can that be seen?

On that retreat in Korea there was a strong desire to learn and to find out, ideally as fast as possible. When we’re trying really hard to understand something, usually two results appear as a consequence: Most of the time, we don’t understand it. We try with our whole being but we just don't get it. That triggers something inside, and with it comes something like “I’m worthless” or “I’m never going to get it.”

The other result is that we finally do understand it and that triggers something inside too: “I’ve done that really well” or “That was not bad.”

Usually we prefer the second result. However, aren’t both of them just two sides of one coin? So often we are just flipping this coin from one side to the other side, in the illusion that this is progress. We love to run after these coins or try to make them go away. Can we stop both trying to accumulate them and trying to reduce them? Then what is it that remains?

Back then at Hwa Gye Sa I had a work assignment to brush the courtyard with a broom in a curved shape so it would make a particular pattern. At that time I really wanted to get teaching from Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was always coming in the morning to comment on one of the kong-ans and then answer students’ questions. I challenged myself to find a question that would combine all my questions. So finally while working with the broom I thought I had found the question that would sum it all up for me. On the next morning after commenting on one of the kong-ans, Zen Master Seung Sahn asked if there were any questions. I asked him, “Why do you believe in Buddhism?” He said, “Me, I don’t believe in Buddhism. But I ask you, ‘Who are you?’” I answered “I don’t know.” He said “Only keep don’t know. That is Buddhism.”

When a question is answered—or in this case, for me it felt more like it was swept away—what happens? Are we back in the habit of flipping the coin from one side to the next? Or can it be left aside without touching it?

After the weeklong retreat my brother and I talked about the experience of sitting a retreat for the first time and how it felt. When you leave the retreat you see, hear, taste, smell and feel differently. I remember saying to him that for me indeed it was a strong experience, but I don’t know if I really want it. Why is that? Is there fear of letting go of the coin? What are we afraid of losing?

We say the true teacher is always in front of us. That actually means the true student is always inside. These two are never separate. Where is the true student right now in this very moment? Where is it? No matter how much we try to run away from it or cover it up, eventually it will bubble up again. Being confronted with a situation that hits us, suddenly—it happens real fast—here it is. Helping us to look freshly, to find out, to open, to learn, to be alive.

Hope we all only keep true student, finding the true teacher from moment to moment and help this world.