S: Can you give an example? Was Daido Roshi saying, “You’re going to be the abbot, so this is what you need to learn to do” the way someone is trained to be either the timekeeper or the monitor?
SS: Yes and no. At some point he said, “This is what I would like you to do. Will you accept this?” But it wasn’t like he said, “Now let’s sit down and talk about what that means,” as though we hadn’t been talking about it for the last twenty-five years. The way that training works is like the student is a sponge absorbing water, being permeated by the training day-by-day, month after month, year after year, and certain essential things are being taught, and sometimes, you understand this particular teaching relates to this responsibility that I have. But most of it isn’t like that. You’re just learning things that are part of the journey, which is large and undefined. And in certain moments in your life, those things that you’ve learned and that you’ve experienced are brought forth by the situation. Then you reflect back and realize, Oh, that’s what’s been happening all these years.
RS: I don’t recognize that Daido Roshi was specifically training me to be an abbot anywhere along the way. As a matter of fact—and it might be that here my course of training is slightly different from Shugen Sensei’s, given just how much more time he had to both be in an administrative role and a teaching role. Because I do remember him also frequently saying that in anticipating someone coming into a position of leadership here, he wanted that person to be able to run the operations of the Monastery, as much as have the capacity to work with people. But I think he trained us as good monks and the vow of service being central within that, I think he trusted that we would be able to step into this situation and continue.
SS: One of the things he also emphasized was that there are a lot of things that are fairly predictable. But that’s the easy part. The more difficult part is made up of the unpredictable things—the things that he could never foretell. And he talked about how there needed to be enough discipline in the training to be able to meet those things that were sure to happen, but also enough flexibility and spaciousness to be able to respond to things that he couldn’t anticipate. There have certainly been situations where I’ve thought, “My teacher never told me about this.” [Laughs.]
RS: He never prepared us for him actually removing himself from the position of the abbot, either by death or by choice. He suddenly disappeared from the picture, and we needed to step into that one place that could never be simulated, even if he had chosen to step down as the abbot with one of us continuing—
SS: It wouldn’t be the same.
RS: Up until the moment that he actually breathed his last breath, even in the moments of just pain and suffering that he was going through, he was there. And what happens in that instant when he truly disappears—that’s the unpredictable factor. Again, I guess that was the trust that he had in us. Because for us to step into these positions is so complex, and by complex I mean rich in terms of how this is an evolution of a sangha and not just not a personal landmark of some sort. But I feel tremendously supported, not just by what he offered me, but how he really trained all of us, and how we evolved together in this process.
S: Could you both speak about how you have managed to go through what you need to go through as a student who lost his teacher, and simultaneously step into this role of responsibility?
SS: One thing I think is important is that every student has a unique relationship with the teacher. So everybody has their own experience, and to no small measure has been dealt with differently, been asked different things, been challenged in different ways. I became more conscious of the responsibility I had when I realized that what I did had an effect—that I was being charged with something that wasn’t about me personally, but about something much larger, that was representing my teacher, this place, was representing Western Buddhism, was representing Buddhism in the world. And so, for any of us, whatever we might be feeling, we can’t ignore it, but it also has to be met in such a way that it doesn’t obstruct our ability to do what needs to be done. I think that dynamic is happening all the time, particularly when people become senior students that begin taking on responsibility.
I remember being a senior and preparing to give a talk during sesshin, and going into dokusan and feeling eviscerated and walking out thinking, I don’t know anything, I have no understanding at all. What am I doing giving a talk? Yet I had to. The ability to hold it all is really important and gets tested because you keep finding yourself in situations where something is being asked of you that you really need to do, and yet you can’t turn away from what’s happening—which doesn’t mean you do it without your voice breaking, but it also means still being able to attend to a larger need.
RS: This was the most complex relationship that—no—this is the most complex relationship that I ever had in my life. I have enough to carry me for the rest of my life, in terms of how I’ll be working with things—seed events that happened across the spectrum of who I am emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, dharmically. Right now I’m stepping into the abbacy, the living space where Daido Roshi lived since 1991. There is so much of him in that space and I’m rubbing against that. I can feel him over the sink, I can feel him heading to the office. It exposes certain gaps that I’m noticing in myself, in my relationship with him that I’ll need to work with without his presence.