From Western Philosophy to Zen
- A Short Introduction to the Author of This Website -
I am the author of this website, a Japanese Zen master belonging to the Rinzai sect.
I had been studying German philosophy at Kyoto university but somehow wasn't satisfied. I would like to introduce a little bit about why I have renounced the world and become a Zen monk and the history of my practices before I became a Zen master.
I hope this will help Western people who are interested in Zen Buddhism, and I hope that they will find my story interesting.
1, My Childhood
I was born as the first of three boys, on January 9th, 1948 in Osaka, Japan. Osaka is the second biggest city in Japan, and Tokyo is the largest. I was born into a family of bookbinders. It was not long after the war ended and the entire country of Japan was living under very difficult circumstances.
My parents divorced when I was still an infant. My father had already left and was not living with us. I was living with my grandparents, my mother, my two younger brothers, and our housekeeper. As I think back, I am very thankful for my family's love and our peaceful, trouble-free home.
I can never forget my mother's warmhearted personality, but what influenced me most was my grandmother's presence. She was the youngest of eight children. She had never gone to school proper, and was working at one of the old stores of that time in the famous town of Senba in Osaka when, during her seventeenth year, she married my grandfather. He had started as a bookbinder and was then working at a old bookbinding store.
My grandmother faced a very difficult situation. I never asked her if it had to do with the early marriage, but it must have been a very pressing problem. At seventeen, she did all sorts of training, for instance meditation under a waterfall. Finally she met Konkokyo, a young Shinto that was born at the end of Edo era. She visited the Tamamizu society in Higobashi, Osaka, looking for a solution, and confessed her problems to an eminent Shinto master.
I was told by my grandmother that both of this great master's legs were shrunken because he was sitting down listening and solving the believers' problems all day long. The answer he gave my grandmother was beyond our imagination. The great master didn't give my grandmother any difficult doctrine. All he said was a short phrase, "FINE, FINE." This is the benevolence of God, the practice of affirming everything. The moment that my grandmother heard that one word, her inner anguish disappeared like fog, the clouds cleared, and her heart was relieved at last.
As a young child, I had fun massaging her stiff shoulders and listening to her stories. After I was finished massaging her and slept by her, I felt my mind was relieved. It was as if I were embraced by something big.
One time, my grandmother told me a story about what happened when she went to the bath house with my great grandmother whom she was taking care of. After they came back home, my great grandmother said quietly to my grandmother: "When I was in the bath tub today, the lady beside me was talking about you and asked me if you were my real daughter or my son's wife. I answered 'my real daughter'. Then she said 'That's what I thought. Your daughter-in-law wouldn't be as thoughtful and nice with such delicacy as she has'." My great grandmother had reported this happily to my grandmother. Just before my great grandmother passed away, she imagined that she was in a place she had traveled to in former times, and spoke joyfully of its beautiful scenery.
When I was about ten years old, I went with my grandmother for the first time to the Shinto shrine where she had obtained peace of mind. The path, which I walked as my grandmother led me by the hand is even now still present in my memory. At the moment I stepped into the temple, I was, for the first time, touched by the solemnity of religion. Without thinking I took in a deep breath and felt a great awe. I now think that this experience planted in me my reverence towards religion.
In our household, in the early morning while we children were still sleeping in bed, we heard our grandmother praising the Shinto gods and our mother's chanting of the Heart Sutra. In the Japan of my childhood, mixing Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism in one household was very natural. Chanting the sutra in Buddhism is connected with the Confucian tradition of thanking and venerating one's ancestors.
We children received some religious training quite unconsciously. I feel now that what I received through the voices of our grandmother and mother were the Japanese traditional virtues of "honesty" and "sincerity." Therefore, I cannot help but feel the necessity of cultivating religious sensibility in children from an early age.
2, My Encounter with Western Philosophy
As I was maturing during my young adult years, my self-consciousness grew. However, for me, as with many other people, it was still a period of "Sturm und Drang." In other words, I was still in an unstable state of mind. My egocentric tendencies increased, and I began to recognize the crisis in myself. I was trapped in my own small world.
In the beginning, in order to find a way out of this situation, I studied German philosophy, focusing especially on Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. The reason was that the Japanese students of the previous generation had in particular studied German philosophy when considering the problems of life.
Actually, modern Western philosophy is a philosophy which establishes the self. Because I had studied Kant's famous "A Critique of Pure Reason", I knew that his so-called "Self-Foundation of the Ego" was an experimental method conceived from the standpoint of the ego.
For example, through a human-centered point of view, space and time are first considered as "representation," and it is concluded that these things are "pure intuition." However, the ultimate reason that we should take the ego-centric standpoint is not shown. I thought if we were only to ask Kant himself, he would have no other answer than to start from the ego-centric standpoint.
Thus, naturally, my MA thesis "The Problem of Transcendental Philosophy" tried to make clear the lack of reason for Kant's basic human-centric and ego-centric standpoints.
I thought that Kant's philosophy had based itself on a nihilism that subsequently led Nietzsche to say, "God is dead" and "The highest values have become no values."
Studying philosophy was for me at that time not merely a logical interest, but an extremely serious thing for my entire existence and my desire for inner peace. When I began to suspect that true inner peace was not possible as long as I continued to study Western philosophy, I encountered a turning point in my life.
That was the time when I stayed with a friend of mine who was also studying philosophy in a bungalow owned by his relatives. That bungalow had no gas or electricity, and it was the only building on the mountain.
We got off the bus, walked along a pitch black road, and finally we reached the bungalow. I cannot forget my feeling of uneasiness from not being able to see anything in the total darkness.
At that time, influenced by Socrates and Plato, I thought that inquiring into problems through dialogue in particular was the original form of philosophical inquiry. So, I engaged in this sort of dialogue with my friends very seriously; it was a matter of life and death for me. I think that my mental state was filled with urgency at the feeling of wanting to obtain inner peace through philosophical dialogue.
The night that we stayed in the bungalow, we became drawn into dialogue without realizing it. For me, my concern was none other than resolving the turmoil of my heart through dialogue. I continued to question him with an almost insane intensity.
In the Japanese universities of that time, student activities were flourishing, and Marxism had spread all over the campuses, but I couldn't take the essential position that that could somehow solve the fundamental problems of the heart. My friend was a typical follower of Marxism. Through the study of Kant, I felt that taking a particular standpoint and insist on it's legitimate grounds was an extremely difficult and dangerous thing.
I questioned him thoroughly about the grounds of the Marxism that he insisted on. In response to this, he continued to reply from the same Marxist position whose legitimacy was being questioned. This is one type of circular logic.
How much time elapsed during this discussion, I didn't know! Suddenly and unexpectedly, the foundation of everything, "Mu (Nothingness)", emerged. Our hearts were captured by this overwhelming force, and we remained silent for a long time.
What on earth was this event all about? I now understand clearly why this happened. By replying again and again from the same standpoint of the grounds in question, "Nothingness" emerged: as the saying goes, "Nihil est sine ratione"(Nothingness is without grounds).
This Mu was not only the Mu of his assertion but also the Mu that is the foundation of all things. Because of this, we felt that this Mu was the Mu that is the foundation of all beings.
After I had completed my Zen training and become a Zen master, this experience gave me many ideas concerning the methods to guide Zen practitioners.
In the Koan training of the Rinzai sect, after Zen practitioners receive a Koan, they are, every time they visit the master, discouraged from trying to understand the Koan; their intellectual understanding cannot help them. But, if they leave their thought-processes, their self will be opened up to them and, without even attempting to do so, they will encounter the "True Formless Self of Mu."
I combined that experience with Socrates' "method of raising a child", and came up with my own unique method of direction. In the usual Koan training, the Zen practitioner is assigned some Koan by the master. And the master waits for the disciple's state of mind to ripen. The practitioner should concentrate his mind to Koan for himself. This is the reason why nowadays few practitioner can attain to enlightenment.
My particular method is to continue questioning by the master until the practitioner will come to annihilate the ego and encounter his own "Formless Self." Because the strict master never stops his questioning, the practitioner will naturally be forced into a state where he has exhausted his intellectual thinking. This method is the same as that of a midwife helping another to give birth!
Someone might possibly think that this sort of method by the master is too artificial. Using Koan is artificial anyhow. If we do it at all, we had better carry out this artificial way until the practitioner will able to encounter his "True Form." This is the conclusion I gained from the experience of the serious dialogue with my friend.
In order to pursue this method, however, the master and the practitioner must proceed seriously; an impatient practitioner cannot profit it. I think that there is no other road to revitalize Koan Zen, which, right now, is almost nothing but form without substance.
3, My Encounter with Zen and Becoming a Zen Monk
I was influenced by my graduate school philosophy professor, a disciple of Heidegger, and also an earnest Zen practitioner, who advocated reflection based on Zen experience. From early on I had been interested in Zen, and from my bungalow experience on, I became increasingly absorbed in it.
The reason was that Zen in particular is none other than the way of actually experiencing "the state of Mu." Just through Zen, my premonition that I would be able to obtain the true peace of the heart I earnestly desired turned into a conviction.
This is easy to misunderstand, but even though it's called "Mu (Nothingness)" it's not passive nihilism. To the contrary, by not being attached to anything, Zen is a fulfillment that encompasses all beings.
I turned in my MA thesis and continued toward my doctorate, and at the same time entered the Nagaoka Zen Training Center for university students on the outskirts of Kyoto under the direction of Master Shonen Morimoto. I spent three years there.
Master Morimoto studied Western philosophy at Kyoto University under the direction of Dr. Kitaro Nishida, who had his own unique philosophy of "Absolute Nothingness." But Master Morimoto was dissatisfied with logical investigations and entered the path of Zen.
However, because of unusual circumstances, he became a monk around the age of 45.
He continued his Zen training while taking care of his mother, and finally he was a very virtuous Zen master.
Dr. Nishida's close friend Daisetsu Suzuki also valued Master Morimoto highly. I saw for myself and heard from others that some chief abbots of the Rinzai sect felt ashamed before Master Morimoto, who distanced himself from personal profit and position.
Unfortunately, Master Morimoto at that time was elderly at 85 years old and had already retired. I was 25, so he was just about 60 years older than I.
However, I never saw Master Morimoto show a proud or arrogant attitude. On the contrary, when I fulfilled his requests, he thanked me very politely, saying, "I'm much obliged," but in fact I was the one who was much obliged. He showed a humble attitude toward even me, a simple student, so my respect for him deepened even more.
Master Morimoto respected the personality of Confucius very much. While Confucius was an incomparably great figure, he was an extremely humble person. If we think about it, we can say that this humility indeed is the fulfillment of the sincerity that comes naturally from the state of selflessness that exhausts the egoistic self.
At that time, I felt that in every one of Master Morimoto's sincere actions, I saw a person who realized the essence of Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. From that point on, I firmly believed that "A person who is not humble is not a real person."
At Master Morimoto's suggestion, my younger brother, who had enrolled late in the Zen school, and I received personal instruction in the Chinese Zen classics.
Master Morimoto's instruction was aimed at students, but he didn't speak down to them. In spite of his age, we had no choice but to be inspired by the true power that poured out of his presentation of the essence of Zen and his Zen experience. Kyoto University's Professor Shizuteru Ueda also attended the lessons. From that point on, I heard lectures from many masters, but no master moved me more than Master Morimoto.
At the time when I received instruction from him, this virtuous master had already retired. But later on when I encountered prayer in my daily life and was supported by his heartfelt teachings, I couldn't stop feeling thankful and respect towards his benevolence at training the next generation.
I had finished my MA thesis, advanced to a doctoral program, and entered the Nagaoka Zen school, but I felt like the Zen lifestyle itself had become for me the writing of a "true dissertation." I only went to college for the minimum amount necessary and began training focusing on Zazen sitting. After a few months, I strengthened my resolve to become a Zen monk, and I shaved my own head.
After three months, I returned home, and when I met my mother, she said to me "Honey, you have a very gentle look in your eyes," and this made a strong impression on me. Before I encountered Zen, I was closed off in my own world, and I hadn't even been able to open my heart to my own family. Through the strict discipline of the Zen lifestyle which didn't let in my selfishness, the hardness of my ego unexpectedly and gradually melted away.
In fact, before beginning Zen training at the Nagaoka Zen school, I took part in a big retreat at a Zen monastery at the age of 25. That monastery was Shofuku-ji Monastery in Kobe, directed by Master Mumon Yamda. This Master Mumon was so well-known, that when the French president Mitterrand visited Japan, he went out of his way to take the time to meet with him.
I assumed that a retreat was nothing but Zen meditation, so even when the monks took a break, I continued Zazen sitting, counting my breaths. In this retreat, more experienced monks stood up and went to a separate place to express their experience to the Zen master. In the beginning, I tried to sit in the full lotus position, but because I was a beginner and never stood up, I had no choice but to change to the half lotus position; I could not endure the pain.
I had an extraordinary experience in the middle of this serious concentration when there was a tea break in the afternoon and bread and drinks were distributed. I was so absorbed in counting my own breaths that I forgot that it was tea break and continued to concentrate without eating or drinking. The monk sitting next to me said, "What's the matter? Did you go ahead and take the food so you can eat it later?" and I was very surprised because everyone had finished the tea break without my noticing it.
This experience probably means that through my concentration on counting my own breaths, I had entered samadhi and that time and that the events around me had turned into nothing. In training, the beginning is important. If you proceed in the correct direction in the beginning by the illumination of good masters and advanced practitioners, then your training will proceed as expected.
Unfortunately, at that time, in spite of the fact that I had developed a good samadhi, I saw one layman being scolded and beaten with a stick, and I began to doubt myself, thinking "Enlightenment is also impossible for me." Thus, my meditation was broken, and I stopped it halfway and left the monastery.
However, when I arrived in the last station of my trip in Osaka on my way home, I realized that my own state of mind had completely changed. I felt the noise of the crowd from a faraway distance, and I was surprised that my own heart was not disturbed at all but instead was immobile as a large rock.
I suppose that through concentrating on counting my own breath for five days, a little bit of my own egoistic self had left while I was unaware. We say, "Practicing samadhi without knowing one is in samadhi", because when samadhi has developed, it's something that that person himself doesn't realize.
Before I became a monk, I sometimes walked at night in the neighborhood around my family's house in Osaka concentrating on the samadhi koan "Mu, Mu, Mu"(Nothing, Nothing, Nothing). At other times, when in Kyoto, I walked all the way to my university without riding on streetcars, staring at the ground and concentrating on "Mu, Mu, Mu."
In this way, my concentration on complete "Mu" became frantic and at times the wonderful mature state of samadhi emerged in my dreams. I dreamed of a monk who worshipped Buddha's statue, and I admired his solemn attitude.
I had entered the Nagaoka Zen Training Center adoring Master Morimoto through the process above, and whenever I had free time, I would devote myself to Zazen, both while sitting inside and outside the Zazen hall, and I also did my best at all of my other work.
True Zazen sitting is not just folding our legs and sitting. Rather, it is the practice of selflessness and being completely sincere wherever we are, whether in sitting or at work.
Of course, acquiring the strength of Zen meditation through Zazen sitting is a necessary condition to enter samadhi, so I worked hard at Zazen sitting, doing not just the routine morning and evening sitting but also sitting spontaneously at any hour day or night.
Although I was receiving instruction from an eminent master, I was doing Zazen sitting along with studying at a Zen Training Center only with students and, because I was then concentrating on Zazen sitting and had stopped my studies, I wasn't satisfied with just several retreats per year.
I appealed directly to my master for permission to go on a retreat every month, and finally I got his permission, but there were also students who were disturbed because of this. However, I was earnest, so I didn't pay attention to their complaints.
I remembered an episode involving one of the famous laymen of Master Hakuin who keenly felt his own mortality, was inspired by this feeling, and obtained a great enlightenment after a few days, and so I wanted to open the eyes of my heart quickly and desperately devoted myself to Zazen sitting in the full lotus position. I also tied myself to a pine tree in the middle of the night and did Zazen sitting.
However, while I was at this Zen Training Center, I could not really enter into a deep Zen meditation superior to the samadhi that I had experienced at the first big retreat at the monastery. But when I look back on that time, I suppose that my power of Zen meditation certainly increased without my knowing it. At that time, I was truly in high spirits.
4, My Training at the Monastery
Thus, after three years of doctoral studies, I entered a certain monastery in Kyoto at the suggestion of Master Morimoto. The reason was that this monastery was said to have the strictest training and discipline in Japan.
The idea that a master who urges disciples to train strictly in this way is truly a kind master is an Eastern tradition of training, not just in Zen but in general.
I even now clearly remember the morning scene, bathed in sunlight of my asking permission to enter the monastery in the old-fashioned way, carrying my luggage and straw sandals. Of course, there isn't a paper examination to enter a Zen monastery.
There's only bowing over one's luggage from early morning until evening with meals and bathroom breaks and enduring until one is granted permission to enter. We call this Niwa-zume (Asking Permission to Enter).
I certainly knew of this stern ordeal, but I also knew of an episode where a one of the Zen masters became enlightened during his Niwa-zume, so I chanted "Mu, Mu, Mu", desperately trying to forget the pain and my whole being. As a result, though I couldn't obtain enlightenment, I was able to overcome this trial without thinking it comparatively painful.
During my Niwa-zune, I felt miserable and began to cry when I heard the small talk of the monks inside and thought "What kind of place have I come to train? " However, this didn't mean that all of the monks were like that. It was just that, by accident, I happened to hear some monks who didn't have any desire to train.
When I think back on that incident, the fact that I noticed the voices of the monks while I was training my samadhi of Mu during my Niwa-zune, shows that I myself wasn't focused at all on simple Mu but that I was distracted by the outside world.
Next, the length of the Niwa-zume period depends on the monastery, but after three days of Niwa-zume, I was confined in a room and had to do Zazen sitting all day long. This period of several days is called "Tanga-zume" (Staying Overnight as a Guest).
The following episode from the Chinese Song period is written on a wooden tablet on the wall in that monastery's tanga room.
"There were two monks who came to ask permission to enter the monastery of an eminent master who was famous for being extremely strict. In spite of the fact that it was severe winter, that master threw water on them and said 'Get out quickly!' One of the monks replied, 'We have come a long way because we want to train under you. Why would we flinch and go home just because you threw water on us?' They finally received permission to enter, and later on they both completed their training and became eminent monks."
The Tanga-zume incoming monks look at the noble way that the ancients trained, and try their best, all the while coping with the harsh words and actions of the advanced monks.
I became a new monk without hindrance. The discipline at this monastery, however, was just as strict as the outside world said, and I was under such extreme pressure and tension that my eyes looked only at external things. To be honest, I could not obtain samadhi concentration in this monastery. But when I reflect on it now, I think it was my own fault.
Originally, all manners of verbal reproach and beating with a stick at the monasteries took place out of a feeling of kindness to make the beginners concentrate somehow, but to someone like me who hoped only for samadhi concentration, this kindness became all the more a hindrance.
There may be people suited to this method of training, but in my case I could only feel discomfort.
At the big retreats which were held seven times a year, successive beating with a hard oak stick happened so much that it demonstrated "the heart falling down." Among the seven who entered at the same time as I, there was a monk whose backbone was hurt. I remained until the end, but later I also got my backbone injured and finally left the monastery.
Because of the beating that I received then, my backbone hurts all of the time, even now. However, I don't regret or carry a grudge at all. Rather, I am thankful for the person I became through that experience.
5, Transfer to a Different Monastery
Thus, I had left that monastery because of an injury, and after six months I entered a second monastery. Up until then was the time when I returned to my family's home in Osaka from Kyoto. I rode on the regular express train instead of the special express train. The so-called "Romance Seat" for couples on the special express train had a support for the back. It was easier to concentrate on the regular express train, because there was no support for the back before my eyes. At that time, for me, "concentration" meant "Mu concentration."
At the first monastery, I was permitted to pass the first koan, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping", by Master Hakuin. However, I thought that I didn't truly pass it because I didn't thoroughly experience my true nature, and I asked the Master to withdraw my passage. He said, "You should do Joshu's Mu koan later on."
In this case, it's not thinking about "Mu", but by concentrating on "Mu, Mu, Mu", entering a state of samadhi without thinking or realizing it. Concentrating on Zen koans is always like this. What's more, if you don't continue this concentration all the time without gaps, you can't completely kill your selfish ego and awaken to your innate true "Self of Mu"(formless self emptied of mind and body).
As soon as I sat down in the seat, I began to chant, "Mu, Mu, Mu" like a crazy man. Doing Zazen sitting in the same way as in the Zen hall, I opened my eyes wide and focused on the shoes of the people sitting across from me, not even making the smallest movement.
The young girl sitting next to me saw my abnormal behavior and laughed along with the boy she was with, but I was so serious at the time that I didn't care what other people thought.
Koan meditation is focusing one's entire body and spirit on only just merely attaining samadhi, without paying attention to other people. My meditation at that time was so serious that there wasn't even a small gap, so I immediately entered into a deep state of meditation.
In the 40 minute ride between Kyoto and Osaka, I was able to achieve such a state of mind that I even surprised myself. When I'm asked what kind of state of mind it was, I say that by concentrating on the one point of "Mu", my ego and distinct mind suddenly became completely empty, and at the same time, the environment around me became transparent in all directions.
The refreshing feeling of the emptying of one's self is something that only people who have experienced it can understand. I emptied myself more and more, and I was able to concentrate without even the smallest interruption. When I reached my final destination, I felt like I had become Mu and I, who was now Mu, was walking inside a cloud.
That night it was raining extremely hard, but unfortunately I had not brought an umbrella. But that didn't matter to me at all, and I walked for about twenty minutes home, concentrating intensely on "Mu, Mu, Mu" in the middle of the rain. Later on I thought, "If I had walked two more hours, my concentration would have increased even more."
When I returned home, my mother and younger brother were dumbfounded when they saw me soaking wet. My mother said, "Why do you look so horrible, honey?", and my younger brother angrily said, "If you had called, I would have gone to pick you up in my car." But I didn't listen to them, and only said "Today was wonderful, really, really wonderful", and finally my mother just made small talk and replied "Oh really? Well, that's good."
Summer came, and I decided to borrow an uninhabited house of someone I knew in the south part of Wakayama Prefecture (south of Kyoto) and do an independent retreat for a month.
Long before that, Master Hakuin had followed in the footsteps of National Master Muso and done an independent retreat, and, I used Hakuin as a model and ate only a small amount of food, spending my days simply in Zazen sitting.
Although I tried to do Zazen sitting on a big rock as these eminent monks had done, I couldn't find a suitable rock. It became midsummer, and I tried to sit as much as I could in the shade.
Once, in the middle of the night, while I was sitting in the middle of one of the rooms with the lights dimmed, something that seemed alive unexpectedly dropped down from above. I thought that it might be a poisonous snake that I had seen during the day, but when I turned on the lights, I saw that it was a big centipede. When you live in the mountains, thoughts like this often occur.
One month passed just like this in the blink of an eye. The autumn training period for monks started in November, but the monks who asked permission to enter the monastery had to go sometime in between September and the beginning of October.
I had no choice but to retire from the monastery that I had entered first because of an injury, but after all, for me as a Zen monk, training at a monastery was the most suitable path. I heard from an advanced monk at the monastery that I had been at before, that Master Sodo Minato at Kencho-ji Monastery in Kamakura did not easily let monks pass koans, so I decided to enter Kencho-ji Monastery. The day that I entered was the feast day of the Bodhi Dharma (the first patriarch of Zen), an October 5 that I will never forget.
Kamakura is a city with a lot of historical tradition. It had been the center of government in a past shogunate. The two important temples Kencho-ji and Enkaku-ji were both foudned by eminent Chinese masters.
Six months after I entered that monastery, Master Sodo moved to Kyoto as the Master of Kennin-ji Monastery, so I also changed monasteries with him. Thus, my training period at Kencho-ji wasn't that long, but my memories of my training there were always with me.
The customs of the monks at this Kencho-ji monastery were completely different from the monasteries I had been to before. I had entered the monastery determined to achieve enlightenment there, so I literally devoted myself to Zazen sitting along with concentrating on a koan.
But the work at this monastery wasn't just odd jobs. We worked hard all day, and then we did Zazen sitting, so it wasn't unusual for us to fall asleep unconsciously because we were completely exhausted.
I tried to concentrate hard on Mu samadhi even while I was working. For example, while I was working with a big saw for two people, I chanted "Mu, Mu, Mu" along with the rhythm of the saw, and without noticing it I was able to enter into a deeper state of samadhi than even during my Zazen sitting.
At this monastery, I was a newcomer, so I was supposed to take a break from work and go to prepare tea. One day when I did this, I happened to meet Master Sodo. At that time, the Master felt something special when he saw me.
At tea, together with thirty monks who had gathered together, suddenly the name of just one monk was called, and one of the tangerines was thrown at me. I felt like it was a reward for my good samadhi.
It's difficult to forget the first time I entered Master Sodo's room for consultation (sanzen). After I completed sanzen and bowed at the exit, the master said in a very calm and humble voice, "I am someone who entered this Zen world following the same path as you. I would like to be reincarnated and to once again do Zen training."
The moment I heard those words, I felt shocked like I had been hit with a baseball bat, and felt acutely, "This master, just this master, is the person that I have been seeking." The reason was that this master had also studied Indian philosophy at Tokyo University, but wasn't satisfied and so became a monk.
At another sanzen, I used the following famous Chinese poem as my answer:
"A hundred battles on the desert sands have worn my armor through, But I'll not go home until I've destroyed 'Lou-lan'."
Master replied, "I also felt the same way when I first became a monk. That state of mind is ok, but has 'Lou-lan' been destroyed?" He meant, "Have you finished destroyed the den of your ego?"
Life at the monastery was interesting. If you devoted yourself to samadhi meditation, then there was a great dharma joy corresponding to your effort."Dharma joy" is the joy of emptying your self. On the other hand, if you turned your eyes away from yourself, looking at the attitude of the other monks, missing the world, life in the monastery became very painful.
Like an eminent master of old, I tried to enter true "Mu samadhi", writing "Mu" on my sandals and bamboo hat, in order to not forget "Mu" even for an instant. At the Kencho-ji Monastery, after the formal Zazen sitting in the Zen hall, the monks retire for a while, and then must do sitting Zazen until midnight in a graveyard on a mountain behind the temple.
I couldn't do Zazen very well in this compulsory nighttime Zen meditation. But, after midnight it was free time for individual meditation.
I entered the venerable mausoleum of the temple's founders that had been built five hundred years before. I saw the twenty-four hour security lights in front of me, and this time I didn't hestitate, chanting "Mu, Mu, Mu" and trying to become one with "Mu."
I suddenly noticed that a monk who was one year ahead of me was sitting next to me and chanting "Mu, Mu" together with me. The wakeup bell is at 3:30 in the morning, so at 3, I returned to the Zen hall, and I did Zazen sitting on a floor cushion.
I spent many fulfilling days like this, and around that time, there was a "Josaku." A "Josaku" is a special holiday, and for that day we could spend our day doing whatever we wanted without doing Zazen sitting in the Zen hall.
My fellow monks enjoyed playing cards, but I wasn't interested in that, so I sat on the porch of the founder's mausoleum facing the stone statues of Bodhisattva Jizo with no thoughts other than "Mu, Mu, Mu" in Mu samadhi.
Night came, and while I was voluntarily bringing and folding the dry laundry of the monks, I reached an indescribable state of mind. Even though it was a "Josaku" day, there was some time for Zazen sitting before retiring at 9 PM. I had attained a state of samadhi, and so I tried desperately to attain enlightenment in this short time.
Suppose there is a log bridge in between two cliffs. It's a certain fact that if you take even one careless slep, then you will fall and die in the valley below. I felt like every time I chanted "Mu"I advanced one step, and so I tried earnestly to concentrate on the koan.
What an unusual experience! In the blink of an eye I was able to enter into a truly deep Zen mediation. I was filled with dharma joy of everything being emptied just as it was. However, not satisfied with even that, I continued to chant "Mu, Mu" without stopping.
On the "Josaku" holiday, there wasn't night Zazen sitting after bedtime, but I climbed the 148 stone steps to the graves of the founder of Kencho-ji, Master Daikaku, and the founder of Enkaku-ji, Master Mugaku, and in front of the graves I continued my Zen meditaion until the following morning.
There was a week-long retreat at the beginning of December that coincided with the day of Buddha's great enlightenment on December 8th where everyone did Zazen sitting without laying down. I, however, meditated in this way even before the retreat, so during the retreat, I was extremely exhausted. Still, I sat without blinking during the Zazen sitting, and, so I wasn't hit even once with the stick.
Thus my training at Kencho-ji Monastery was exceedingly fulfilling. At that time, Master Sodo Minato was master of the monastery, and at the same time, chief abbot of Kencho-ji, and he ended up returning to Kennin-ji in Kyoto where he had trained as a monk before. Thus, I returned with him to Kyoto, and my training in Kyoto began.
During my training in Kennin-ji, I gave all of my time and worked hard at Zazen sitting.
The monks in the monastery are divided into two groups. One group is in charge of "life in the Zen hall," the other is in charge of "everyday life," and the groups switch jobs every six months."Life in the Zen hall" is sleeping and sitting inside the Zen hall while concentrating on Zazen sitting, and this life is supported by the "everyday life" group.
I concentrated on Zazen sitting certainly when I was in the "life in the Zen hall" group but also when I had a job as part of the "everyday life" group.
For example, when I became a servant who took care of everything for the master, whenever I brought the master meals, I did Zazen sitting in front of a garden while I waited on him to eat. I almost completely cut off my nightly sleep, so I was extremely exhausted, and I felt drowsy. Sometimes, my drowsiness unexpectedly evaporated like mist when I concentrated on "Mu, Mu."
One day while I was training and exhausted every day, I was called to the room of the most advanced monk. He said to me, "I have already passed through almost all of the koans, but I haven't reached a peaceful state of mind yet. It looks like you are training very intensely, so could you do Zazen sitting at night with me for one 90-day training period?"
I immediately agreed and worked hard with him at Zazen sitting at night, and even now I fondly recall that experience.
In Zen training, the master is especially strict towards serious monks, and it is commonly recognized in the Zen world that this fact itself is true kindness. I too received many punishing trials from Master Sodo. Of course, I don't hold a grudge against Master Sodo, but I certainly thought, "I have to overcome these trials somehow."
It occurred to me to secretly iron and dry the underwear that the Master had washed and dried himself, and on top of that I went ahead and folded it and laid it out.
After I had done this several times, the Master humbly begged me, "Yo-san (my monk name), even though I'm a very lazy person, I feel like somehow I can't continue dirtying this laundry that has been cleanly folded like it's brand new. Could you stop it?"
At that time, I shouted in my heart, "I've done it! I've finally gotten revenge for those punishing trials." From that time on, my bond with Master Sodo became closer and closer, and he didn't tease me anymore.
It's easy to misunderstand "teasing", but just like the Japanese expression "The sumo master who has been thrown by his disciple is happy." This is the benevolent desire of the master to be surpassed by his own disciple.
One time, when I went to take his dinner tray, Master took me to the window, and cautioned me, "Yo-san, look at the sun setting over that mountain. You must look at that mountain and achieve enlightenment."
Afterwards even after I retired from Kenninn-ji Monastery to take care of a sick priest at the temple where I was a disciple, I heard from an advanced monk that Master said "Yo-san and I have a relationship of looking at the setting sun together," and I truly felt his benevolence.
Another time when we were talking together, the Master said, "I will be reincarnated and become a monk again", and when I said without thinking, "Master, so will I," he called me "Kotan-san." (The place for the tatami mats where the monks do Zazen sitting is called "tan", and "kotan" means a high-ranking advanced monk.)
It's natural that I was perplexed that I was called such a name by the Master, and just then the Master continued speaking and smiled as he said "Next time when I am reincarnated, I will come as a new monk, so please treat me favorably." Moments like these were moments when I felt the Master's benevolence.
Another time, as the "Kotan"of the Zen hall, I announced the time by beating a board, and after that "Sanzen" began. After I was done giving my answer at Sanzen, the Master said "The one who just announced the time, was it you?", and when I said yes, he replied, "When I heard it, I thought it was a good sound. Now I know why." In reality, when I hit the board, I had put my heart into it, and what's more, I had been able to hit it with a lot of feeling.
Another time at Sanzen, I was begged by the Master, "Yo-san, get to the point where you can say, 'Master Sodo usually talks big, but why does he have so few possessions?'" He wanted to say, "Achieve enlightenment as quickly as you are able, and complete all of Koan Zen, so that you can become my dharma successor."
I'm not describing my memories of my relationship with the Master in order to claim that I was favored by him. I just wish to convey the fact that the relationship was different from an academic one and that in Zen you receive holistic training from a strict master that extends to all aspects of your life, so there is a warm, deep feeling that outsiders cannot understand.
So we can say, "The one who understands the disciple best is the master, and the one who understands the master best is the disciple."
In this way, I tried diligently and devoted every spare moment to Zazen sitting and koans, but the priest of the small temple, to which I had formal obligations, was hit by a cerebral hemorrhage and was paralyzed on one side of his body. I had no choice but to retire from the monastery to take care of him.
Even though I called him "head master," I was his disciple in name only because I had never lived in that temple. In the tradition of Japanese Rinzai sect monasteries, if you request to be a monk and to be admitted into a certain monastery, you must be a disciple who lives at the temple where you received your training as an apprentice.
I did my real preparatory training at the Zen Training Center when I was only a student. With the intention of the master of the Center, I became nominally a disciple of that temple, and I entered the monastery.
Now, I regret it. I should have been ordained as a Buddhist priest and become a real disciple of some temple, and received the traditional apprenticeship education there.
What's more, I wanted to decide to become a disciple by my own volition and not by someone else's suggestion.
It was at that time when I reached the summit of my training and spent all of my free time at Zazen sitting, and I spent every day satisfied in the midst of concentration.
Master Myozen was the master of Master Dogen (1200-1253, a representative Japanese eminent Zen master). Master Myozen left his old, sick, virtuous master in Japan, and finally went overseas to Song dynasty China, thinking "Buddha's dharma is the most important thing." I thought of many examples like this one and was greatly worried, but I finally resolved, "If I escape now, I won't be qualified as a monk but just as a man," and I decided to take care of the sick headmaster.
I heard later that my mother was glad to hear that I could experience trials like this because I was a firstborn child who hadn't known suffering. I think that she really meant it.
At first I only took a vacation and helped the headmaster's wife who was taking care of him, but after that his wife was also became serious disease from worries and overwork, so I finally ended up having no choice but to leave my monk's practice indefinitely. There were many difficulties taking care of two people, but just the same even now I think that facing difficulties without escaping was good.
At that time, a young French woman who said that she wanted to do Zen training came to visit me from Paris through the invitation of an acquaintance who was a Japanese professor. When I asked her, "Do I look unhappy?", she replied, "No, you don't look that way at all," I smiled and said, "I guess so. Every day is a good day."
Around this time, my everyday life changed. The nominal "headmaster" had been able to leave the temple and stop living there because of his illness, so my monk registration was still up in the air. Master Sonin Kajitani, who was the master of Shokoku-ji Monastery, where my younger brother was training at that time, worried about my situation, and said to me "Won't you become a apprentice of Rinko-in, a sub-temple of the headquarters, Shokoku-ji?"
I was isolated and without support while I was taking care of the headmaster and his wife, so I was delighted to accept his proposal. I decided to ask to do Sanzen with Master Sonin because Rinko-in was right next to Shokoku-ji Monastery.
So this meant that I would cut my ties with Kennin-ji Monastery. The reason was that less advanced monks came to visit me, and they said to me that Master Sodo had decided that he couldn't instruct any more monks because he was 80 years old, so he was planning to pass his job on to someone else.
Originally, monks could come and go freely like clouds and water; it was a principle that they could go to whatever monastery they wanted. Leaving Master Sodo, with whom I had had a good relationship, was truly a difficult to consider doing, but I thought that this too was destiny, and from then on I decided to regard Master Sonin as my sanzen master.
At that time, Master Sonin of Shokoku-ji didn't even weigh 30 kg (65 lb), and even though he did his best to treat my younger brother and me strictly, to tell the truth, I couldn't stop feeling thankful for his severity.
Master Sonin had also at first entered Kennin-ji Monastery, and because he had trained so hard, almost without any sleep or any rest, he harmed his body. After this training, he spent about ten years at Nagaoka Zen Traing Center. Kennin-ji Monastery's Master Sodo once told us monks these things about Master Sonin respectfully.
Master Sonin himself suffered a lot in order to finish his training, so there is no doubt he naturally became strict towards his disciples as well.
I have done sanzen with many masters, but there is no one as severe as Master Sonin. His reproach was none other than his great benevolence to somehow force out the ego and prudence of his disciples.
In the beginning, I bowed my head to the floor with both hands in the corridor towards the Master when he had finished his meal, and I expressed my true feelings, saying "From now on, I will be honored to do sanzen with you, so I humbly ask for your guidance." The Master also lowered his head to the floor in the same way, placed himself on the same level as me, and said respectfully, "It's my pleasure. I am looking forward to guiding you."
I was deeply moved by his humble reaction, by the fact that he didn't show even the smallest bit of pride or "I'm the chief abbot."
Master Sonin eventually became my dharma master, but when I remember him even now, I continue to be thankful for my dharma connection with him. If you do sanzen with many masters, if you don't accept those masters' many different strong points gratefully without criticizing them, then you won't get much out of life in the monastery.
While I was doing sanzen at Shokoku-ji Monastery, I went and took care of the headmaster and his wife, but after the headmaster died, I immediately felt I should enter the monastery and train again from the beginning.
At this time, I was almost finished with my koan inquiry, but I couldn't get rid of the hope that I would increase my Zen concentration, drastically advancing in the samadhi of Zazen sitting.
In order to do that, I decided to train as a new monk from the very beginning at another monastery, and this experience was better than anything else. I dared to obtain Master Sonin's permission, and entered a famous temple of Sogen-ji in Okayama Prefecture.
Around the time of the end of the Edo era 140 years ago, Sogen-ji was the best temple in Japan, but today it's not a formal monastery any more. The reason why I picked that place was that there were 13 big retreats every year, and also I had heard that there was an eminent master there.
At a normal Rinzai sect monastery there are 7 big retreats every year. There were even less at Soto sect monasteries. In order to achieve true "samadhi of Zazen sitting", needless to say, it's better to have a large number of big retreats.
At Sogen-ji, I was determined to sit continuously. I asked the Master for the "Mu koan", the first and most fundamental koan that new monks receive, one that I already passed through. Two younger monks from when I was in Kennin-ji had already come, but I didn't pay attention to anyone else, and focused my heart only on the perfection of my concentration. I concentrated continuously on "Mu, Mu, Mu" 24 hours per day.
At that time, I had no free time to worry about the incompleteness of my own concentration. As a result of my singleminded striving towards only simple "Mu", I completely and unexpectedly forgot about resting after lunch or lying down at night.
Thus, at almost every big retreat, I was able to enter a state of profound concentration that surpassed the previous one. That was truly sublime fulfillment. The master also admired greatly my state of mind and my concentration when I met him for sanzen question and answer.
Around three months after I entered the monastery, I caught a throat cough, and I didn't get better. My coughs didn't stop, and at that time I enjoyed the fulfillment of samadhi every day without any worries. Of course I coughed during my Zazen sitting, but my concentration was not interrupted at all by the coughs.
However, of course, I thought that my continuing coughs would annoy the other Zen practitioners (Many of them were laypeople who had come from abroad), so I decided to treat my cough quickly and sleep two hours at night. But in the end, my coughs continued and I couldn't get any sleep.
Among my fellow monks, there was an American monk who was afraid that I would die. It was a extremely marvelous thing, but I didn't feel any of the hardships or tiredness, the world around me became transparent, and it was none other than that I was living in dharma joy every day. That was certainly not something you would refer to as "penance."
One day when I had been spending the days and months focusing my mind on the one point of "Mu", I was surprised when I coughed as usual."The self that is coughing is nothing."No matter where and how much I searched, I couldn't find myself. I took the opportunity of the cough to "cast off my body and mind" and encounter the "self of Mu."
Up until this, I thought many times that I could enter Zen concentration and taste the state of mind of "selflessness", but, to tell the truth, only this time I had an experience that incredibly surprised and astonished me. I understood that it wasn't a lie that the Zen masters in the past had achieved enlightenment taking advantage of every single opportunity.
For the first time, I realized that "I had emptied myself this much without knowing and become the selfless self." They say that "Samadhi is not knowing samadhi." The shell of the ego is truly cast away "without thinking or knowing," and true samadhi does not develop while you are still aware of casting it away.
Anyway, after I had this experience, it became my unshakable belief that "Thinking that we have an ego is the mistake of discretion, and selflessness and formlessness themselves are our true forms."
As I obtained a great joy, I wanted to meet Professor Hitoshi Kataoka, whom my brother and I respected highly at that time, so I received permission from my master and returned home to Kyoto.
A follower of the unique philosopher Kitaro Nishida, Professor Kataoka was a professor emeritus of the Kyoto University Department of Education. He lived a celibate life as a layman, and at the age of 20 he attained great enlightenment while continuously doing Zazen sitting on top of a hospital bed. After that, he suceeded the dharma of Master Taiko Yamazaki at Shokoku Monastery as a layman.
Professor Kataoka was such a great individual that Master Sonin's master , Master Rekido Otsu, respected him like an older brother. He was a typical example of the "real thing" that can be obtained through Zen training.
I am truly grateful for the providence of Buddha that I had a close relationship with this teacher, who is known as "the teacher of teachers", or alternately, a "present-day layman Vimalakirti" by "everyone in the know."
I called that teacher on the phone, and humbly told him of the state of mind that I had attained, and when I said, "so thus I would be honored to meet you", he laughed with joy, saying, "Oh really? Is that right?", and suggested that I visit his house immediately.
I humbly went to his house, and told him that I realized the "selfless self" through the opportunity of a cough. I said "The self that is coughing is nothing. I can't say anything but 'nothing. '"The professor nodded vigorously, saying "I understand. I understand that well."
Once you realize the selfless self, everything becomes as familiar to you as your self. Everything becomes one with you. The worries of others immediately become your own worries.
Even if you've seen completely the formlessness of the self, that is still nothing but an starting point. You must come to be able to work without restraint or hindrance by training this selfless state of mind in the middle of the activities of everyday life.
This is called "growing the seed of Buddha" or "training even after reaching enlightenment", and all of the eminent Zen masters of old took great pains to do this. I have heard of and seen many monks who have gone back to the state that they were before, to the form of egoistic pride. You must pay great attention to training after enlightenment.
The founder of Myoshin-ji, Master Kanzan Egen, was a Japanese eminent monk who died 650 years ago. He became a monk at the age of 21, and after he trained at several monasteries, at the age of 56, he was instructed by the founder of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, who was younger than him, the National Master Daito (Shuho Myocho). He attained a great enlightenment at the age of 60. Following this, he did post-enlightenment training at a temple in the countryside for eight years while helping the farmers there.
If the Japanese Emperor of that time had not heard Master Kanzan's name and invited him to become his personal sanzen master, then Master Kanzan would certainly have continued post-enlightenment training. All genuine Zen masters pass their days studying excellent actions like these of past masters.
As for me, following the good example of virtuous past masters, I twice declined invitations to be the master of a monastery and continued to focus on my post-enlightenment training for over fifteen years.
I think that my selfless state of mind has deepened so much since then that it can't be compared to the time when I first attained enlightenment. I spend my days with the feeling that even though I haven't been blessed by the position and honor of the world, every day is a fullfilling, profitable good day.
For us Zen monks, no, for ordinarily lay people as well, do we have the joy that exceeds "dharma joy?"We should not only pay attention to our own peaceful state of mind, but also we should strive to the best of our ability to save the "innumerable sentient beings."
Taking away the worries of others and making them truly happy must become our own supreme joy. If that's not the case for someone, then we can't say that that person has put into practice selflessness.
It's been a blessing to me that I have had a dharma connection with many enthusiastic monks, laypeople, and people with troubled hearts, and I am incredibly overjoyed that the number of people is increasing by the day. Needless to say, there are also a lot of visitors from abroad.
Finally, I want to give some advise to foreigners who come to Japan in order to practice Zen.
First, find a genuine master who has the desire to reach perfect enlightenment, and train naively like a baby, following that person's guidance without stating your own opinion.
However, in the Rinzai sect, we use the well-known "koan" method, and you should stop receiving instruction from a master who easily allows his disciples to pass through koans even though they haven't achieved enlightenment.
Genuine patriarchs never permitted passage easily, and, if a master has entered Zen meditation and achieved true selflessness, then, we would expect him to not be able to respond unkindly in this way and let his disciples pass through koans quickly.
Also, a genuine master must never be caught in the cage of fame and fortune. Zen has warned strongly against "the feeling of fame and fortune" from ancient times. The reason is that there is already a great joy called "the incomparable dharma joy of selflessness and unattachment."
Compared to this, the fame and fortune of the world is not enough. We most certainly can't call people who desire the fame and fortune of the world people who have exhausted their self. This is also the standard by which we judge Zen masters.
Next, there are many people who desire fast results and who are disappointed with the progress of their own training. You must concentrate without any other thoughts so much that other people think that you are stupid. We call this "simple, dull concentration."
The reason that you look at the faults of other practitioners and worry about the lack of advancement in your own concentration is that there are gaps in your own concentration and that your mind, which should be looking inward, is looking outward. Thus, we can't call it a "retreat" or "recollection."
For example, in the case of the "Mu"koan, you try to become Mu itself all the time and in all situations, chanting "Mu, Mu, Mu." In my instructions in my Zazen meetings, I emphasize not just this but also "withdrawing and reflecting on one's original nature" by questioning"What is the thing that is chanting Mu itself?" Through this introspection, unescapable doubts arise, these doubts themselves bring about a state of samadhi, and thus it becomes easy to empty the self.
Even if you spend many days and months training and concentrating this way, it's typical to not easily attain the state of mind that we refer to above. The Song dynasty Chinese Master Daie Soko said, "If a man trains hard with the firm resolution that even if he doesn't obtain enlightenment in this life, he will continue his training in the next life, we can call him truly patient." So, if you are disappointed with yourself in your free time, you should chant "Mu, Mu, Mu" even once or twice.
In addition, there are many Zen practioners from abroad who, despite the fact that they are still in halfway through their training , want to return to their own countries, found Zen Centers, and begin instructing disciples. I have heard and seen the fact that there are a great many people like this.
As I've explained completely above, it's extremely dangerous to instruct other people when you don't have suitable experience and lack post-enlightenment training. In the East, we describe this situation with this proverb, "The blind leader leads the blind crowd together with him to hell."
An young acquaintance who trained for three years at a monastery a long time ago said to me "I don't understand why you don't want to instruct other people in Zazen sitting." On the other hand, I couldn't comprehend why he wanted to instruct people with his insufficent training and state of mind.
I want people who do Zen training to keep this fact in particular in mind.
I would like to add one more advice for Zen training Westerners.
There are so many English translations of Zen texts.
A lot of Westerners usually try to read books during Zen training.
They should recognize that in traditional Japanese monasterys we are fundamentally prohibited reading books and writing letters.
Because through reading books we will certainly not be able to attain to genuine selflessness.
So, for example, in the middle of concentration, you should forget the knowledge which you have gained from this website and concentrate your mind simply to "Mu" or another koan.
Up until now, I have honestly described my life. My desire now is to create a monastery as soon as possible in Kyoto where anyone can stay for several days to do Zazen training no matter their nationality, sex, or whether they are a monk or layperson. Unfortunately, right now I'm temporarily using space at one of the subtemples of Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto.
The core of Zen, "selflessness", exceeds individual sects and religions, so as I explained in the website, I hope that I can expound it as the core of the Eastern spirit, which has as its foundation the "state of mind of Nothingness (Mu)" of Shinto, Confucianism, etc.
From this point on, I myself want to focus on improving my own state of mind, while striving even more to respond to visitors, to instruct disciples, to do Zazen sitting, and to do manual labor. In particular, I earnestly want to persevere at Zazen sitting and once more attain the summit of samadhi to my heart's content.
Finally, the one who suggested that I write this humble autobiography for Westerners was Dr. Richard Carter. Dr. Carter is an eminent 75-years old American philosopher who came to my temple for Sanzen, and after he returned to America, he continued to do Sanzen with me via email.
He had an experience of a marvelous, great dharma joy thanks to the "Mu koan", and he exhaustedly saw the "true self of Mu," but, not stopping there, he is spending his days in samadhi concentration. If it had not been for his repeated recommendation, then this autobiography would not have come about. I want to express my deep and sincere thanks to him.
I pray that we and all sentient beings realize the path of Buddha together.
Peace and prayers,
[An Additional Note]
Thankfully, I’ve been appointed as the chief priest at Kouunji-Temple, which is located just 15 minutes from Nanzenji-Temple. There is a large Main Hall（meditation hall）, built 340 years ago, which is used for services and as a Zazen Hall. At former temple we were only able to sit 20 or so students. Now, we can sit more than 50 people. Please come and see us whenever you visit Kyoto.
( Translated by Stephen Pitts )
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