On the final day of my first sesshin—a seven-day Zen meditation retreat—at the conclusion of a six-week training period, I asked the presiding teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, if he would accept me as a student. Formal interactions have never come naturally to me, but I felt it important to do this with as much formality as I could muster. I went into my last dokusan—a private, highly ritualized interview with a Zen teacher—with that mix of excitement and anxiety that comes with sensing one might be about to turn a new page in one’s life.

I entered the dokusan room, gently closed the door behind me, did my bows, sat on my knees Japanese-style, in seiza, and scooted up as close as possible to sit face-to-face with Maezumi Roshi. I got right to the point:

“Roshi,” I said, “I feel a deep connection to you and your teaching and I would like to continue to study under your guidance. Please accept me as your student.” Or words very much like those. It was a long time ago—1977, to be exact.

While my memory of my words is imprecise, my recollection of Roshi’s response is more accurate. He was silent for some seconds (uncomfortable ones for me), staring ahead impassively with the stern frown that is something of a characteristic among Japanese Zen masters. I assumed he was rolling the matter around in his mind, but it soon became apparent that he was rolling around something different.

“Are you Jewish?”

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