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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
summer 2015 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 61 awakening. As teachers, we sometimes hold that connection for them until they can hold it for them- selves. One of the most beautiful moments for me is when I see them ready to take that back, to hold that connection completely for themselves. BuDDhADhARMA: We often hear stories about students working so hard to penetrate through that first koan, which may take months or years. How does koan practice change for the seasoned practitioner who has been working on koans for ten or twenty years? JuDy ROITMAN: I would expect senior students to have a much stronger don’t-know mind, not deal- ing with all the conceptual hurdles that a beginning student might go through. Once you have pierced through a certain kind of koan, others that are similar will come more quickly to you. But there are many classifications of koans—and you can be a Zen master and run into a koan that you can’t crack. BODhIN KJOLhEDE: In my experience, a great break- through is rare, but there are varying degrees of openings. Over time, students learn to see through words and concepts, to see the emptiness of them, and also not to take their own reactions so seri- ously. Frustration, anger, dejection, and self-doubt are recognized as old conditioning, so it becomes easier to avoid those emotional tangles. JOAN SuThERLAND: If this practice isn’t transforma- tive, what’s the point? The hope is that eventually, among any number of breakthrough moments, there will be one that is fundamentally transforma- tive, revealing what it’s like to not be obscured by our habits and opinions. From there, the work is to integrate that experience into the everyday moments of our lives. Longtime students tend to have a less constricted, self-concerned view and a more gener- ous and open participation in the world. BuDDhADhARMA: Can you expand on what the teach- er’s role is in terms of guidance through the koan, catalyzing that experience for the student? BODhIN KJOLhEDE: I’ve changed how I work with students. I spent a few months working with a teacher in Japan whose style was very different from that of my main teacher, Roshi Kapleau. He was extremely affirming and encouraging, whereas Roshi Kapleau tended to be the opposite, critical and demanding. That worked for me when I was younger, but after working with this other teacher, Harada Tangen Roshi at Bukkokuji, I gave myself permission to be more encouraging and affirming. Americans tend to be very hard on themselves and have a persistently critical inner voice, so I try to help them put that aside and stay engaged with the process. I find it’s a more effective way to work. JuDy ROITMAN: Yes—you want to help them believe in themselves. Even when telling students the answer they gave is not something you’re going to accept, you still want to affirm that you believe in them and that they should believe in themselves. Right or wrong answer doesn’t matter. Someone once asked Suzuki Roshi, “Do you like everybody? It seems that you like everybody.” He said, “No, there are a lot of people I don’t like. But you can’t tell who they are.” No matter if you like or dislike somebody outside that interview room, in the room you believe in everybody. Perhaps the most important thing a teacher does in that inter- view room is to believe in everyone. JOAN SuThERLAND: Work in the room reminds me of Vimalakirti’s room: a ten-by-ten foot room that managed to fit thirty thousand bodhisattvas who came to visit. You set a field into which each stu- dent walks; the variable is who walks through the door and sits down. I see my job as mediating the relationship between the eternal and the particular, working with the person who presents herself while always keeping in mind that eternal aspect of the practice. Each question, each mistake, is a doorway to eternity. Nothing is excluded because awakening happens to all of a person simultaneously, nothing left out. BuDDhADhARMA: Do you see koan practice evolving in the West? JOAN SuThERLAND: Koans by their nature are not