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Returning Home in Peace

Walking down the street in Kamakura I suddenly heard someone call out, "Sensei!" I turned and was face-to-face with a man with long blond hair who was smiling at me with seeming familiarity and affection. I didn't recognize him. He sensed my confusion and said, "It's Dietrich, your student at Tokyo University."

Now I remembered. More than twenty years before he had come into my life. He was an international student from Germany who had come to my office to talk. I recall feeling that he wasn't finding what he was searching for in our psychotherapy.

Dietrich invited me to join him on the bench where he was sitting and we began to reminisce about old times. He was curious why I was there. And I wanted to know why he was there.

He had been in Japan all those years and was about to return to Germany in three days. We sat there for hours as he told me his story, recounting his journey from a youth in Germany to a now middle aged man in Japan.

As a teenager in the midst of existential struggles he had read about Zen Buddhism. It awakened something deep inside of him and he was certain that this was his path. He knew that if he dedicated himself to Zen he would become enlightened and happy. So he had come to Japan.

But after practicing for twenty years he had a revelation. The happiness he sought was unattainable. It would elude him no matter how much he practiced. He was simply human, imperfect, and incomplete. He was disillusioned for a long time but gradually came to accept this as reality. Dietrich realized he was capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, and let go of the idea of reaching a perfect state.

The irony was that accepting that Zen would not bring complete happiness brought him greater understanding of Zen. Rather than mastering uncertainty and reaching a state of blissful perfection he was experiencing satori (enlightenment) as insight into reality. As he deliberately and relentlessly strove for enlightenment he eventually saw it as the outcome of passivity and receptivity.

And so he was going home. I wished him well on his homecoming, we hugged, and we walked away in different directions. I looked back and he did too. We smiled and waved good-bye. The words to an old poem came to me.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time


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