Monday, February 4, 2013

Zen Candy

Sitting on a hillside
With a young oak
A leaf falls
On the sleeve of my robe

Incense does not
Become the smoke
Nor do I turn
Into a dragon

Surrounded by
The mountain sangha
I walk to the creek

And wash my face
With the stars

Great poem, huh? It’s by Daiggo Zenji, 6th generation Soto monk after Dogen. Starts out with the usual paraphernalia of a Japanese Zen poem. A monk is sitting on a hillside. A leaf falls on his robe. Yeah, yeah. Then it switches to echoing Dogen’s firewood and ashes and dragons, and then the “mountain sangha.” Oh wow, what a great image, thinking of the mountains as sangha. And then the monk strolls down to the creek. He bends down where the stars lay reflected in the black water and he washes his face. Sweet.

David Chadwick quotes it in Thank you & Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan. He and his fictional but autobiographical buddy Norman translated it for us.

Chadwick (b. 1965) is a few years younger than me. Lee’s age. Zensters in the U.S., especially of our generation, sometimes have a romantic and stylized notion about what Japanese Zen is. We fell in love with Zen minimalist aesthetics, the bells chiming and the beating of the wide-eyed fish, and the chants. Especially the thumping rhythm of men chanting the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese. I remember a documentary in the 70s, a sort of “round-the-world in 60 minutes” of “enlightenment.” Most of it was hokey, but what I remember most was seeing Suzuki lead a column of monks into the zendo to sit zazen. Bells were ringing, the wooden clappers announced the this and the that. High church razzmatazz. Very cool.

“This is the real thing”—that was my thought back then.

Like these guys were angels dressed in black robes. Fairytale stuff. Not ordinary folks. So it’s good to read books that put the kibosh on a lot of that shine. David Chadwick’s memoir Thank You and Okay, which has been my Zen candy for the last few weeks, understands how to shovel up sufficient kibosh. But it didn’t diminish my practice. In fact, it nourished it. Especially home practice.

Chadwick’s book chronicles his time as an itinerant Zen immigrant to Japan—sometimes illegal, other times in a grayish limbo between legality and illegality. For my money, the Chadwick book sits right next to Janwillem van de Wettering’s memoir trilogy (yep, that’s right, the Dutch writer of mysteries) about his journey to Japan in the 1950s to search for the meaning of life on the Zen boat. (1)

Before going to Japan, Chadwick had the advantage of studying with Suzuki, Katigiri and Dick Baker, even learning some Japanese, so he was no innocent. He also had contacts in Japanese Zen and his imaginary friend Norman was waiting for him in Japan at the Hoko-ji Monastery where he spent much of his early stay staring at walls and sweeping the floor.

Van de Wettering had the disadvantages—and advantage—of the purely innocent. He was a dissatisfied young man who had read a little bit about Zen. Enlightenment sounded like a good answer. He was continually troubled by the memory of his kindergarten class in the late 30s. He had seen his Jewish friends led off by the SS. Why didn’t the good men of his community—men like his father—stop such an evil event? As soon as he could, he began traveling the world in search of adventures and answers. Finally, he decided to go search out a real live Zen roshi. Somebody who could give him answers. He landed in Kyoto, the capital of Zen, and told the taxi driver to take him to the nearest Zen monastery. When he first knocked at the temple door, the monks had tried in vain to shoo him away. None of the monks or the Roshi spoke English, and Van de Wettering didn’t speak Japanese. They simply didn’t want him there. He was too much of a bother.

Chadwick’s book documents his several years in Japan. For the reader’s sake, he doesn’t follow a chronological path, but bounced back and forth between his time at the Hoko-ji Monastery and his time spent on the outskirts of another monastery where he sits daily in the mornings. At Hoko-ji the emphasis is of course on practice and his interactions with the other monks, his teacher Katagiri. It’s a beautiful place. He also tries to live in the Japanese culture. He teaches English, lives with his wife-to-be Ellin, studies the koan Mu with Roshi, mixes in with his neighbors and the bureaucracies, and tries to lives a regular life. Toward the end of the book Ellin gives birth to their child.

Chadwick was like a wise-cracking, sophisticated exchange student; Van de Wettering was like a pagan gate-crasher. Both writers make for excellent reading about the life of Zen in Japan. Both are laugh out loud funny in places, wise in other places, and simply interesting in other places, especially if you’ve been practicing for a while. They demystify the process and the people while paying deep homage to the practice. Underlying both memoirs is the sense that there is something deeply profound and immensely worthwhile in Zen practice, but it’s not what you think it is. Afterzen, published 20 years after the first of the trilogy, documents Van de Wettering’s disappointment of, and separation from, Zen practice. That book was like the bell ringing. It reminded me that it’s our own practice we have to deal with. Our own walls to stare at.

Like Daiggo Zenji’s poem says, we walk down to the creek—any creek will do, any stream, ocean, whatever¬—and wash our face in the water. We do this by ourselves.



[1] Thanks to Brad Warner for mentioning van de Wettering in one of his blog posts. Otherwise I doubt I’d ever found him. Oddly, his books don’t come up in conversation. 

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