Master as Servant

A sesame seed is permeated with oil. The oil in the seed is not located in a place within the seed, or separate from it. Our minds are permeated with a working impression – accurate or not – of how things work. This determines how we interpret the world, how we frame our experience and how we decide what to do.

To practice Zen for good effect your mind must be thoroughly accustomed to an understanding of no-self nature, karma, and bodhicitta. Without these permeating your mind, and forming the universe of your experience, Zen practice will be fruitless.

D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen to the west, blamed the militarization of the Zen institution in Japan and the devotion of Zen priests to militarism in the 20thcentury, on the fact they were uneducated – Zen priests “have no knowledge or learning and therefore are unable to think about things independently…” (Cited by Brian Victoria, in Zen at War.)

Zen practitioners with no understanding of the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy and practice, have minds permeated with ordinary ignorance. The faulty habits of mind which have caused them trouble, which they are trying to remedy by practicing Zen, are reinforced by their meditation, instead of being removed by it.

This is why disgraced former Zen masters often fell for pleasure-seeking: gathering money, engaging in improper activities with followers, beguiling credulous devotees with hard-to-understand words and frequent reminders of their high status, enjoying the perqs generally available to the top dog in a group. They had undeveloped minds saturated with self-centered, worldly interests, and they deepened these as they practiced.


A famous story about a Diamond Sutra master shows that the steps on the path require that you pass through a thorough indoctrination in rational understanding. You can’t skip these steps and expect to progress.


A monk, a master of a vast body of challenging, classic philosophical literature, was walking down the dusty road. He carried a great burden on his back: a backpack stuffed with all the books of sutras and commentaries he could carry.

He was traveling a long way. He was heading to a great debate where he would challenge the masters of these sutras, he would be challenged by any and all, all testing the depth of their knowledge, deepening their understanding, and perhaps join the ranks of the greatest scholars of the age.

But now, on the road, he was hot. And getting very tired.

Soon he saw a little tea shop tucked into a bend in the road. He entered the shady courtyard and set his burden down. A little granny came out to greet him with a smile and cool drink. She saw he wore the shoes and cloak of a scholar. He took the cup and drank it down and ordered a cup of tea. “I need to refresh my mind,” he told her.

She smiled and nodded and began to go to get the tea, when she stopped abruptly and turned toward him.


Sir, I see you are a scholar?

Yes, I am he said.


What do you study?

The Diamond Sutra – the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, he said.

Ah, I see, said the old woman… Before I get your tea, can I ask you a question?


Of course, grandmother.


The Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the past is gone.

Yes, that’s right, said the scholar.


And the Diamond Sutra says that the mind of the future does not yet exist.

Yes, that’s right, he said.


And the sutra says that the present mind is ungraspable, is that right?

Yes, you really know the sutra well, he smiled kindly toward the simple, old woman.


Then sir, which mind is it that you would like to refresh?


With this he was completely stunned. He was speechless. He could not answer her.


He was shocked, then relieved, then the whole world became quite clear to him. And a freedom he had never experienced before permeated his heart and mind and all the world around him, completely, like the oil in a sesame seed.

The plain, serene face of the tea lady vanished, as she went to get his tea.


It may be that this story means nothing to you. It evokes no feeling, no special insight, no significance. It may be that it breaks your heart and fills you with unexpected exhilaration, leaving a residue of joy. The effect does not depend on the qualities of the story on its own, but on the prepared condition of your mind.

The story goes on to say that the scholar burned his books and turned to meditation. Or that he abandoned scholarship and found direct experience. It is not surprising that the story was heard and interpreted by many people, some of whom were out of their depth, and some of whom grasped it with the mind for which it was intended.


We can be sure that if a beginner burns their books, they will not get the same result as someone who has mastered their content, sets them aside, and puts their knowledge to work.

The tea lady in this story performs the function of the Zen Master – that is someone of great experience and insight who can say just the right word at just the right time for the person he or she is teaching to produce a sudden insight that shatters the limitation, rigidity or ignorance of the student and opens them to deep and direct experience of truth or reality or of their own mind.

The premise is not that a generic waitress knows more than a generic scholar. That is not the message of the story. This tea lady has studied the sutra very well. Not only does she know what it says, she has worked that material hard, and lived it long enough to understand, deeply, what it means. She understands this so thoroughly that she can deploy this understanding deftly and accurately, like an acupuncture needle, to pierce the ignorance of the student – or in this case of the scholar who was in need of her teaching – and free the blocked energy that had built up over time.

The tea lady makes no pretense of knowledge or status or of special purpose.  She acts as necessary. Gets tea. Catalyzes enlightenment. Whatever is needed. That’s it.

The premise is not that the scholar is stupid or foolish. He is brilliant, has a powerful mind that has been laser-focused on mastering the difficult material that has lit the way for generations of scholars and practitioners. He is filled to capacity with this work and it has fully occupied his rational mind, guided his heart, structured his path, and informed his worldview.

His maximum commitment to the mastery and the use of this material is what makes him susceptible to the dramatic revelation produced by the shift in perspective provided by the tea lady. This is his black swan: it is not an accident, or a pivot, or a shock, or something introduced from outside. It is the result of a life of preparation, habituation, cultivation and effort – the butterfly effect on his soul that was nearly – but not quite – impossible to foresee.

If you are untrained and you “just sit” you will cultivate the mind of kitty cat. You will be dependent on your Zen master for approval and you will be passive or petulant, yearning or cranky from fruitless self-attention.  If you consider Dogen’s “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by everything…” and lack understanding of the Buddhist technical term “self” and substitute for it the conventional, ignorant definition of self, then you will only deepen your confusion.

Dogen’s quote is meaningless jargon – unless you have studied and understood the technical terms and processes. Then it is plain. A concise expression of an obvious truth. It goes without saying.

If you are trained, if you cultivate profound and stable samadhi, and direct it to worthy matters, you will travel the paths of life swiftly, honestly and valiantly.

This applies to everything – not just Zen, not just religion – everything worth doing works this way.



Photo of Okinawan woman at top copyright David McLean – by permission

Photo of karate practitioner Cassandra Nelson copyright © 2019 Jeff Brooks and Mountain Karate LLC

Post copyright © 2019 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC

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