Memoir as Teisho

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. Continue reading

Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen

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!

  Continue reading

Zazen & Happiness

Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.

I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?

One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.

Rosanne Cash, Bodhisattva

Master Dogen Zenji writes, in the Genjokoan, that many fully actualized Buddhas have no idea that they are Buddhas:

When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

Rosanne Cash says she is not a Buddhist because she “kills ants and eats meat,” but what does she know? (Some of the most rigorous Buddhists I know eat meat from time to time.)