The Old Woman’s Miraculous Powers

Magu, Nanquan, and another monk were on pilgrimage. Along the way they met a woman who had a teashop by the side of the road. The woman prepared a pot of tea and brought three cups. She said to them, “Oh monks, let those of you with miraculous powers drink tea.” The three looked at each other, and the woman said, “Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous powers.” Then she poured tea into each cup and went out.

–Zen koan from 9th-century China

Forty years ago, I sat down on a black cushion, feeling separate and alone, longing to find big meaning in my small life. Who am I and what am I supposed to be doing? I’ve been sitting here ever since, with a few tea breaks. I find, to my shock, that I’m now 73, the cushion has become a chair, and I still don’t know who “I” am.

I wear the green bib of a lay Zen teacher, and now and then I lead Zen retreats and classes. I love exploring the Buddhist teachings with others. But I doubt my own wisdom. How can I call myself a “teacher”—a Buddhist teacher—when I am still full of self-doubt? It’s not like teaching someone how to crochet. That I can do. But to be a Buddhist teacher would imply a depth of understanding I don’t possess. Or do I?

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