I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.
In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
In the Soto journals from Japan that conclude the book there is extensive discussion of the 13th century master D?gen Zengi, including detailed descriptions of the places he lived & taught. At their best these passages combine exquisite description of place with insightful exegesis of religious teachings:
Kosho-Horin-ji, a lovely white-walled monastery across the river from Byodo-in . . . sits on a hillside just north of the bend where the Uji River flows down out of the mountains. The majestic location doubtless inspired the Sansuikyo, or Mountains and Rivers Sutra, which celebrates the manifestation of the Buddha-body in the mountains, rivers, and great earth, an ancient synonym for all things, fleeting and eternal, that are included in the emptiness, the void, the One. “I have come to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” This pharase, from an early Chinese collection (Zenrin) used in k?an study and often cited in Shobogenzo [D?gen's master-work], precipitated the enlightenment experience of Yamada-roshi quoted earlier (176).
The Mountains and Rivers Sutra is a fearsomly difficult piece of mysticiam by D?gen and these few sentences provide not only a reasonably summary, but an opening by which a student (such as myself) can enter the text. Matthiessen knows his Zen. These are the parts of the book I found most satisfying — it seems to me that most other readers, whether they are students of Zen or not, would feel the same way. The places in the book in which Matthiessen explicates a particular religious point & ties it to a particular place or person engage the reader in a way that the passages of travelogue — sometimes, alas, in prose purpler than necessary — fail to do.
Nine-Headed Dragon River is also of interest as a document in the history of religions. This is particularly true of the first section, in which Matthiessen is introduced to Renzai Zen practice & participates in the founding of the first Zen Monastery in the US, in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY. The monastery, Dai Bosatsu, is still there, though recently its Japanese leader of four decades, Eido Roshi, was forced into retirement as a result of a sex scandal. An American woman is now the abbot & head of the Zen Studies Society. Matthiessen paints a fascinating picture of Eido, who even in the early days seems to have been a deeply troubled figure & a terrible choice to head the first Zen monastery in the US. The the account here of the founding of Dai Bosatsu opens a window on the first generation of American Zen, imported to the US by Japanese teachers after World War II. [Note: A good deal of what Matthiessen discusses about the early days of Zen is easier to follow if you have a copy of James Ishmael Ford's Zen Master Who? handy. Ford's book is a little superficial & would benefit from some lineage charts, but it covers the necessary territory for those interested in the personalities that drove the early history of American Zen.] In any case, the fact that an American is now the abbot of Dai Bosatsu marks a kind of tipping point in the history of Zen in the US; American Zen is pretty much all American now, two or three generations after it began, depending on how you count generations.
Those early days are fascinating to a Zen newbie like me — there was a lot more drinking & smoking in first-generation American Zen than one might have thought — it is quite abstemious, if not puritan, these days. A couple of those Japanese masters had problems with alcohol & not everyone kept the precept against adultery. I have an odd reaction to these facts. As someone who has at times led a fairly irregular life, I understand the pull of desire & the power of addictions; at the same time, I would prefer it if those who dispense moral instruction (which is a part of Buddhism, after all) were themselves example of the sort of behavior they exhort in others. But then again, at least one of those imperfect roshis (Taizan Maezumi) was in the eyes of many a fully realized master. Many geniuses — artistic, spiritual, scientific — have led irregular lived, left pain in their wakes, & not fully exemplified in their private lives the values & perspectives they advance in their work. It’s a conundrum, perhaps a koan.