A teisho1 is a dharma talk given by a Zen teacher, usually during sesshin. In Soko Morinaga’s memoir Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity, each chapter, though far more autobiographical than is typical of the form, has the style & feel of a teisho, a teaching. The book relates in a very straightforward manner the author’s journey from Rinzai novice immediately after World War II to dharma holder & highly regarded Rinzai teacher. He was an important figure in bringing Zen from Japan to the US, so his story has historical significance; but he is also a graceful writer whose story — in the way of the best memoirs — transcends the particulars of time & place to say something important or at least interesting about what it means to live a human life. In the case of a memoir by a Zen master, genre & subject matter reinforce each other.
In Belinda Attaway Yamakawa’s translation, the roshi writes gracefully. With genuine humility & insight, he describes the period immediately following the war, when much of Japan lay in ruins physically & even more so morally. Morinaga had been a high school student when the war began & when things got desperate for Japan he was drafted to train as a kamikaze pilot, though the war ended before he was called upon to fly a suicide mission. The early chapters of Novice to Master describe his profound disillusionment on discovering that the war he had believed just was a war of imperial aggression. He movingly describes his & his friends’ descent into nihilism & despair & how, upon graduating he had no prospects, no family, & no desire at all to go to university, even if he could have afforded it.In an act half cynical & half driven by his ferocious need to get a grip on the meaning of his life, the young Soko Morinaga decides to become a Buddhist monk. The third chapter of the memoir begins, “so it was, through these mysterious causes and conditions, but I was led to knock at the gates of the Zen temples. I still feel very grateful that, after calling at two or three temples, I was brought to Daishuin in Kyoto, where I still reside, to train under Zuigan Goto Roshi.” The roshi asks the disheveled young man why he has come to the monastery. “In reply,” Morinaga writes, “I rambled on for about an hour and a half, covering the particulars of my situation up to and including my present state. . . . When I had finished my exposition, he spoke, ‘this think you now, I can see that you’ve reached a point where there is nothing you can believe in. But there is no such thing as practice without believing in your teacher. Can you believe in me?’”
Of course at that point he can believe in anything but, he is also desperate — both physically and spiritually. He tells the teacher that, yes, he can believe in him even while telling himself that he doesn’t believe in anything — if he could believe in anything, he wouldn’t be here, what he? The old man accepts him as a student even knowing, as he must have known, the shallowness of the boy’s belief:
‘Follow me’, directed the roshi, and he assigned me my first task: to clean the garden. together with this 70-year-old master, I went out to the garden and started sweeping with a bamboo broom. . . . The human being( or, my own mind, I should say) is really quite mean. Here I was, inside my heart denouncing this “old fool” and balking at the very idea of trusting so easily; yet, at the same time I wanted this old man to notice me, and so I took up that broom and swept with a vengeance. Quite soon I had amassed a mountain of dead leaves. Eager to show off my diligence, I asked, “Roshi, where should I throw this trash?” the words were barely out of my mouth when he thundered back at me, “There is no trash!”
The novice is told to go get an old charcoal sack from the shed and to put the leads in it: they will be used to start fires in the bathhouse. Even the small stones that have been swept up with the leads have a use: the old man shows the boy how to place them under the eaves where the rain disturbs the ground. This is his first lesson and as the author points out it would have been nice if he had immediately had some sort of revelation, if not enlightenment. Of course this does not happen and he only slowly comes to appreciate the honesty and sincerity of his teacher’s practice. after a couple of years with Zuigan Goto Roshi, it is decided that he is ready to go to a larger training monastery. The episode describing the process by which a novice entered a Japanese Rinzai monastery in the late 1940s reveals a great deal about the culture of the Zen in postwar Japan and also a great deal about the character of Soko Morinaga.
Zen monasteries in China & Japan have for centuries put up barriers to entrance. Otherwise, in hard times they would have been filled to the rafters with monks whose devotion to practice was less sincere than their devotion to their bellies. And send as practiced in China and Japan was and to some extent remains physically very rigorous. The Rinzai sect in which Morinaga practiced is particularly macho in this regard, but even Soto monasteries are not interested in you unless you are serious:
Inside the main gate of Eiheiji, the temple founded by Master D?gen in 1244 . . . are two wooden plaques inscribed with Chinese characters to inform all who seek entry that “Only those concerned with the question of life and death need enter here” and “Those not completely concerned with this question have no reason to enter this gate.”2
Early in Zen practice one will be told that the three qualities necessary for the student are great doubt, great determination, and great faith . The early part of Morinaga’s memoir powerfully describes the nature of great doubt — doubt in one’s fitness for practice, doubt in the practice itself, doubt that there is such a thing as enlightenment. (How presumptuous, after all, to imagine that one might aspire to such a sublime spiritual state!) Without a hint of spiritual pride, Moriniga then goes on to describe his determination, which, as his subtitle humorously hints, often feels to him more like stupidity than determination or courage.
Perhaps it speaks to my lack of long or deep practice, but the second half of Novice to Master, which deals more with faith, seems somewhat less energetic to me. The tone throughout is unfailingly gentle, somehow combining self-deprecation and great spiritual authority. The book offers the personal interest of the memoir genre, with its insider’s view of a very rigorous practice, and a view of the world shaped by the author’s genuine commitment to a form of non-duality that has real existential depth.