Long Walk around Hanoi

Walked out to West Lake yesterday morning & visited two famous temples, one Taoist & one Buddhist. I’ve been to both before & in fact Tran Quoc–the Buddhist one–figures in my poem “What I Like about God,” which came out in the Georgia Review a couple of years ago. It is located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into West Lake. The present buildings are from the 19th century & are in fact getting some restoration now, but there has been a temple on the site for three-hundred years & a predecessor temple in another part of the city. In the pictures below it is the one with the tall brick stupa. Quán Thánh has one of the most architecturally perfect courtyards I’ve ever seen anywhere, though it is quite modest in size & the actual temple building at the end opposite the entrance gate is small, though beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the courtyard is so inviting because after going through the ornate gate, you descent several steps below the entrance level. Even though there are busy main thoroughfares on two sides, the traffic noise seems to fade as you go down the steps into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, you can stop to light incense before going up several steps to enter the temple with its initial alter & then, behind a screen, the sanctuary of the Protector of the North, who is represented by a three-ton bronze statue. The God of the North would have been very important, for China, Vietnam’s perpetual antagonist, has applied economic, cultural, political, military, & imperial pressure from that direction for 2500 years. The huge black figure sits with one finger raised in a sort of mudra, but to me it looks like he is saying to potential invaders, “Don’t even think about it.”

To get up to West Lake and the temples, I walked through the old French administrative quarter north of the oldest part of Hanoi and the Citadel, guarded by the Bac Mon (Northern) Gate, which the French breached with cannon fire in 1882, pretty much completing France’s colonial project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the Citadel hung himself in the guard tower of the gate, using his mandarin’s turban. The gate, as well as other parts of the old citadel, have recently been restored and archaeological efforts continue. A large hole made by a French cannonball has been left in the restored gate. The French were essentially bandits in Southeast Asia (to say nothing of Africa), but they lived well. Their broad tree-lined avenues contrast sharply with the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.

One does not need to romanticize the old Imperial system of the Vietnamese emperors–some were better & some worse in following the Confucian mandate to care for their people–to feel the rapacity of the French. The French of course are long gone and the Vietnamese military now inhabits their old administrative buildings and much of the Citadel. The country prospers & when the country prospers the leaders retain the Mandate of Heaven, though the mandate is held, the old Confucian scholars would say, only as long as the virtues are upheld. Vietnamese modernity is an astonishing hybrid of  old & new that continues to surprise me every time I return. It is a modernity quite distinct, I think, from that of the West & no one should expect that it will conform to Western forms & expectations.



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 “Memoir as Teisho”

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  1. A presentation by a Zen master during a sesshin. Rather than an explanation or exposition in the traditional sense, it is intended as a demonstration of Zen realization.

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 “Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen”

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.)