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Thoughts About Sensei: A Student-Teacher Relationship

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

In the authentic tradition of our teaching, it is said that this directly transmitted, straightforward buddha-dharma is the unsurpassable of the unsurpassable. From the first time you meet a master, without engaging in incense offering, bowing, chanting Buddha's name, repentance, or reading scriptures, you should just wholeheartedly sit, and thus drop away body and mind. (Bendowa: Dogen)

I met my teacher, Taiun Elliston-roshi, in December 2002. Then, during one of my first Dokusans (formal teacher-student conversations) he said..."together we will teach each other the Dharma." This was Sensei introducing me to heart-to-heart transmission described by Master Dogen in the paragraph above. This startled me, as I recall falling, if not jumping, from a hundred-foot pole--what do I have to teach?

There is a saying, that when the student is ready the teacher will come, yet Sensei seemed to say that, plus when the teacher is ready the student will come, and by-the-way, they flip back and forth between the two roles. "Shinshin" or heart-felt experience, transcends surface-skating wherein heart-felt connecting occurs in an experience (of each other) true Buddha Nature. This connection for me has continued for over eighteen years as Sensei has been patient with this dull student.

So, I will share some aspects of my Teacher. To begin, I recall what Helen Keller said about her teacher. You may recall Helen's "awakening" with hands under the pump, water gushing and Sullivan pressing the syllables for water into her hands again and again, Helen then began making the connection. Recall Helen would then grab something and pull Ms. Sullivan fingers into her hand to have a word pushed in to label the experience as form. After several moments like this, Helen held Sullivan's face asking who was she. Slowly Anne Sullivan pressed the word t-e-a-c-h-e-r into her hand. This is intimacy, and here are three strands of connectivity with my Sensei.

First, Sensei is always teaching, I don't think he can stop. In dozens of car trips Zen terminology was seldom used and the medium explored more likely than not was humor. He has a way of slightly turning our conversation exposing a facet I have not seen before. We've driven through tornado warnings in Tennessee, a hurricane in Massachusetts, and sleep deprivation at 1:00 AM coming back to Atlanta from Troy Alabama. While he was teaching, it took me some time to realize that I could always be learning. Zen is everyday life and in my experience above I tend to see him as a combination of Willie Nelson and Buckminster Fuller. Here is one of Sensei' Dharma-set-to-Music recording:

Second, Sensei is a designer and musician. This is along the lines of, if I can't design what you need to see, I'll sing it! In all of his writings and presentations I have read and seen over the years, it was his talking about meeting Buckminster Fuller in the early 1960 that demonstrates Sensei's love of the eclectic. Roshi did a presentation on "Bucky, Zen, and Me" at our Sangha in Falmouth in 2012. In February of 2013, I attended a one man show called "Bucky" at a theatre in Cambridge that melded Sensei and Bucky in the boundlessness of Dharma. Sensei often uses diagrams and song as bridges to understanding. A new book and work on a composition called Sutra Suite, are in the mix. Creativity as a theme often addressed by Sensei as expressed in the following Dharma Talk:

Three, Sensei is still a student of Matsuoka-Roshi. In Soto Zen we are disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, but students of our teacher (sensei). Our lineage is passed-down from teacher to student through sharing Buddha's teaching. This means Sensei teaches me Buddha's understanding of the Dharma as if Buddha signed this directly into his hand D-H-A-R-M-A. It is common when listening to Taiun Elliston talk, that "Sensei" (Matsuoka-roshi) is mentioned often. How could this not be so? Buddha, Matsuoka, and Sensei are still teaching after all these years. On January 28, 2021, Sensei's new book will be published and our Sangha will spend several months exploring his teachings:

In the Tathagata verse we chant: The unsurpassed, profound, and wondrous Dharma is rarely met with even in hundred thousand million kalpas, now we can see and hear it, accept and maintain it, may we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata truth"

Without Sensei no sensei...



  1. *** Saturday 6/27/2020, 9:00 AM-Noon Eastern, We will have a three hour Zazenkai (brief retreat on ZOOM of course): Miso Soup. So named as we will have lunch together using a miso soup recipe that Mokuo Nancy Sherwood will send to us. This is also a "Bring a Friend or Ten to Zen," opportunity.

*Morning zazen from 6:30-7:15 Eastern, seven-days a week. Email for the Zoom url and password for all. Zoom events



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