According to tradition, the "proper" way to become a student of Zen after finding a teacher is to present him or her with a small gift and formally request to be his or her student (I guess "traditionally" it would have only been "him" and "his," but whatever). Being a sucker for traditions, I couldn't allow myself to proceed any further in my studies, especially as I approach closer to receiving the Precepts, without doing this. I don't know how far this practice will take me, but I don't want to break with tradition.
So I did this yesterday.
During dokusan, I presented my teacher a small memento of a powerful experience that I had had many years ago and asked to be her student. I was of course accepted, since this is essentially a formality and I had already been her student for some time.
There is no way of me knowing how common this practice is in my sangha, let alone in the world today. I consider this practice to be more a cultural thing; a holdover from different times when becoming a student was an absolute thing where the request was akin to signing a lease to live in a monastery. In today's world people wear many hats and dropping in on a teacher every once in a while is more the accepted practice. Here in the United States, as Zen is still finding its identity, our American practices do not expect such a formal request. For many people, even just the need for a teacher isn't all that strong. I wouldn't have known about this formality if I hadn't read about it in some books. It doesn't really matter to me whether any of my fellow students have done this at all, but I felt it was right for me.
So what's the big deal? I was already a student, why make the request and present a gift?
The relationship between student and teacher is just as empty as anything else. This doesn't mean that it doesn't matter, but that it's like a bucket labeled "teacher/student relationship." It has no fundamental definition. Until we put our own thoughts and feelings as to what it means to us, the bucket remains empty. Until now, my bucket held the idea that here was a person dedicated to spreading the Dharma and saving all beings living a vow to help anyone asking for it. We were fellow travelers on the road and I was being offered advice.
To me the gift represents the idea that this request is more than just a verbal thing. It shows a higher level of commitment. Time and effort were spent pondering it and I am giving something of myself to this relationship. The formal request is just as symbolic. To surrender to the idea of needing help to walk the path is humbling. To make this request to a teacher is to both admit your own humility but to also acknowledge your worthiness of pursuing the path. Until we can do both things we will never quite arrive at our destination.
With this formal acceptance, my bucket holds some new ideas. My actions signal my commitment to the path and that I don't intend to just wander off. Because of this, a new intimacy exists. While I still consider my teacher as a fellow traveler, I now fully acknowledge her as one who has "gone before"* and I will wholeheartedly follow her lead. More than just pointing her finger to the truth for me to see, I have given her my hand so that she may point my own finger.
Our origins are different so in places the route will be completely different. Where it's the same, the road may have changed a little since she passed through. While my exact destination may differ, the direction is the same and I am one step closer to getting there.
*a rough translation of sensei