One Bird, One Stone
108 CONTEMPORARY ZEN STORIES
By Sean Murphy
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Sean Murphy
All rights reserved.
THE LAND OF THE WHITE BARBARIANS
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.
—Henry David Thoreau
I was pleased to rediscover in the course of my research that there is a lineage of sorts in American Zen practice that extends all the way back to the Transcendentalist writers and poets of the 1800s. Ralph Waldo Emerson printed extracts of Buddhist texts in his magazine, The Dial, in the 1840s, while Henry David Thoreau published segments of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's translation of the Lotus Sutra, finding encouragement there for the contemplative life he would later adopt at Walden pond. Indeed, as Thoreau lay upon his deathbed in 1862, a friend asked whether he had made his peace with God. The poet responded, in Zen-like fashion: "I was not aware we had quarreled."
The earliest known Zen master to arrive in America was Soyen Shaku, abbot of a prominent Rinzai temple in Japan. Ignoring warnings from his peers that "the land of the white barbarians is beneath the dignity of a Zen master," Shaku first traveled to the U.S. in 1893 to speak at the historic World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Shaku felt privately that the formalized Zen of Japan had largely hardened into stylistic ritual; but his personal vision, as presented at the World Parliament, was of a Buddhism still capable of evolution, "an idealistic universal religion based on the law of cause and effect (the law of nature), and appropriate for the twentieth century." Afterward, Shaku spent a week at the home of Paul Carus, a noted author and publisher in the fields of religion and science, who agreed that Buddhism was uniquely suited to close the gap that had opened between these two areas, as it did not "depend on miracles or faith." Influenced by these encounters, Shaku returned to Japan with the resolve to introduce modern Buddhism to America.
Twelve years later, Soyen Shaku revisited the U.S. as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Russell of San Francisco. In 1906, he again addressed an American audience—this time in a more cryptic vein: "I have studied Buddhism for more than forty years ... but only very recently have I begun to understand that ... after all, I do not understand anything."
Shaku's enigmatic presentation of the absolute basis of reality went unappreciated by most of the audience members, whose reactions ranged from disappointment to outright laughter. But the master spent nine months at the Russell home, instructing their family in Zen, during which time Mrs. Russell became the first American to undertake koan study (the examination of seemingly paradoxical Zen questions or stories such as "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" as part of meditation practice). Afterward, he set off on a lecture tour of the States. Thus was the first seed of Zen planted in America.
Two of Soyen Shaku's disciples, D.T. Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki, as well as Shaku's dharma "grandson"—Shigetsu Sasaki, better known as Sokei-an—would later take up residence, at Shaku's urging, in the United States. While the contribution of D.T. Suzuki to Zen in America is widely recognized and will be addressed later, that of Nyogen Senzaki and Sokei-an is not so well-known.
Nyogen Senzaki arrived in San Francisco in 1905 as attendant monk to Soyen Shaku; but after the Russells' housekeeper decided he was "too green" for his proposed position as houseboy, Shaku sent him off on his own. "Just face this great city and see whether it conquers you or you conquer it," Shaku instructed his disciple, adding that Senzaki should wait twenty years before attempting to teach Zen. True to his teacher's instruction, Senzaki spent the next twenty-three years working as a farm hand, houseboy, waiter, and language tutor, before founding the Western world's first successful Zen practice centers in San Francisco and, later, Los Angeles.
Never formally sanctioned as a Zen master, Senzaki always referred to himself as a simple monk. "I have never made any demarcation of my learning," he said, "and so do not consider myself finished at any point." Nevertheless his influence was enormous. He was the co-compiler of the teaching stories collected in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, as well as a number of other texts which brought the dynamic and idiosyncratic teachings of Zen to a popular American audience for the first time. Many early American Zen students began their study with him; best known among these was Robert Aitken, the pioneering American who discovered Zen in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the 1940s and went on to become one of the first U.S. teachers. Aitken reports:
(Senzaki) studied English and Western philosophy diligently, particularly the works of Immanuel Kant. "I like Kant," he once said to me. "All he needed was a good kick in the pants!"
Senzaki wrote the following on his hopes for establishing an authentic practice of Zen in America:
Americans in general are lovers of freedom and equality; for this reason, they make natural Zen students. There are eight aspects of American life and character that make America fertile ground for Zen:
American philosophy is practical.
American life does not cling to formality.
The majority of Americans are optimists.
Americans love nature.
They are capable of simple living, being both practical and efficient.
Americans consider true happiness to lie in universal brotherhood.
The American conception of ethics is rooted in individual morality. Americans are rational thinkers.
"Zen is not a puzzle," said Senzaki. "It cannot be solved by wit. It is spiritual food for those who want to learn what life is and what our mission is."
The Most Beautiful Vow (1)
In 1929, Nyogen Sensaki left San Francisco to come to Los Angeles. During this time, he was extremely poor and often went hungry. For a time, he cared for the severely retarded and physically handicapped son of a neighbor, Shubin Tanahashi, so that she would be free to work. Although her son, Jimmy, was considered unable to speak, Sensaki somehow managed to teach him to repeat the first of the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows of Zen: "Shujo muhen seigando" ("Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them"). Mrs. Tanahashi became Sensaki's close student and friend, and saw to it that he always had enough to eat for the rest of his life.
Many years later, Eido Shimano, dharma heir to Sensaki's friend Soen Nakagawa, visited Jimmy in the hospital. Jimmy was nearly forty years old at the time, but on seeing Shimano's shaved head, he immediately put his hands together in prayer position and repeated "Shujo muhen seigando."
Eido Shimano said it was the most beautiful vow he had ever heard.
The True Meaning of Cleanliness (2)
For a time, Nyogen Sensaki was a manager for an apartment house. Whenever a tenant moved out, Senzaki would clean the vacant apartment thoroughly—but once the new tenants arrived, he reported, they would inevitably clean it all over again. The newcomer would then often take him aside and say that the former tenant must have been a poor housekeeper as the place had been left in such bad condition.
Sensaki spoke about these incidents in this way: "Such actions are piling dust in the room instead of cleaning to make it pleasant to live in. No matter how carefully and repeatedly you have cleaned a room, when the sun's rays flood into it, you will see millions of dust particles flying in the air. Of course, I approve of cleanliness, but if there is no harmony in your mind, you will never see the true meaning of cleanliness."
It is also reported that Sensaki worked for a time at a motel, but could never understand why a man and woman would rent a room and then only stay for two hours.
Nyogen Senzaki's dharma "nephew," the young layman Sokeian Sasaki, who studied with a disciple of Soyen Shaku named Sokatsu Shaku, arrived in San Francisco in 1906 at Soyen Shaku's urging, along with his teacher and six other disciples. The group made several abortive attempts to establish themselves in the U.S.—most notably, a failed zendo/strawberry farm on a tract of barren land sold to them in a swindle. The "farm" brought forth such poor produce that local farmers laughed at them. Sokei-an's teacher, along with the other disciples, soon sailed back to Japan. Sokei-an, however, who remained behind, was to play a key role in years to come in the establishment of Zen in the United States.
Sokei-an spent most of the following twenty years wandering America. He lived for a time in New York City, where he frequented Greenwich Village, and became known as a writer and artist. As Alan Watts described him, he was during this period "very much the bohemian, with long swirling hair, the original Dharma Bum of America." Sokei-an's American writings, published back in Japan, made him something of a literary figure in Tokyo, and provided him with some income. But after seeing a dead horse on the street one day in New York and suddenly being reminded of life's impermanence, he realized it was time to complete his Zen training. Sokei-an went back to Japan, where he was sanctioned as a teacher by Sokatsu Shaku in 1928. He returned to New York to found, in 1931, what was to become the First Zen Institute of America. Here he proceeded to lead the first groups of Americans in koan study. "I had a house and one chair," reported Sokei-an, "and an altar and a pebble stone. I just came in here and took off my hat and sat down in the chair and began to speak Buddhism. That is all."
Carve Me a Buddha (3)
Before Sokei-an came to America, when he was just beginning his study of Zen, his teacher arranged a meeting for him with Soyen Shaku. The master, having heard he was a wood carver, asked, "How long have you been studying art?"
"Six years," replied Sokei-an.
"Carve me a Buddha," said Soyen Shaku.
Sokei-an returned a couple of weeks later with a wooden statue of the Buddha.
"What's this?" exclaimed Shaku, and threw it out the window into a pond.
It seemed unkind, Sokei-an would later explain, but it was not: "He'd meant for me to carve the Buddha in myself."
Long Time Dead (4)
In the late 1920s, while searching for a place to establish a Zen practice center, Sokei-an visited Dr. Dwight Goddard, editor of one of the earliest English-language Buddhist compilations, The Buddhist Bible. Sokei-an arrived in Vermont however, to find that Dr. Goddard was looking for a hired hand for his 300-acre potato farm, not a Zen teacher—much less a Zen master.
In the center of the property was a big dry area of woodland which had been dead for a long time. The doctor, while showing Sokei-an around, told him: "I always come beneath this tree to meditate."
Sokei-an said: "Then you must know this tree? This woods [sic]?" Sokei-an struck the tree with a stick and exclaimed again: "Then you must know this tree!"
Sokei-an's question did not penetrate the doctor's mind. The doctor looked at the sky and replied. "Yes, this has been dead a long time." Sokeian observed that the doctor would never understand.
The next morning Goddard took Sokei-an to the potato field. Another man was working for four dollars a day. The doctor said: "If you can plow, you can stay as long as you like."
Sokei-an replied: "This ground has no trees. Where there are no trees Zen will not grow. I will return to the city."
A dynamic and dramatic teacher, Sokei-an "was utterly transported out of himself when he sat in the roshi's chair," wrote Ruth Fuller Everett, who was later to become Ruth Fuller Sasaki. "You had the feeling ... this was not a man, this was an absolute principle that you were up against." Fellow Institute member Mary Farkas added: "His way of transmitting the Dharma was on a completely different level ... it was his silence that brought us into it with him. It was as if, by creating a vacuum, he drew all into the One after him."
Sokei-an once told Alan Watts, who was married for a time to Everett's daughter Eleanor, that it had been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" that triggered his first experience of satori, or kensho—insight into his true nature—a fitting repayment for what the Transcendentalists owed the East.
According to Watts, however, Sokei-an's unconventionality was still apt to surface occasionally, in sometimes startling ways. One evening, Watts reported, Sokei-an, dressed in his formal brown and gold brocade robes, was delivering a lecture on the Sutra of Perfect Awakening before a distinguished New York audience, when he made the statement: "In Buddhism purposelessness is fundamental. No purpose anywhere in life itself. When you drop fart you do not say, 'At nine o'clock I drop fart.' It just happen."
The response of his listeners has gone unrecorded.
After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Sokei-an and his students were placed under round-the-clock surveillance by the FBI. The following year, Sokei-an was sent to an internment camp. Although he was eventually released through the efforts of First Zen Institute, the experience ruined his health. He married Ruth Fuller Everett in 1944, but died the following year, having asked her to carry on his work.
"I have always taken nature's orders," said Sokei-an, "and I take them now."
He had been, in the words of Mary Farkas, "the first master to carry Zen to America, to speak his mind in English, and to bury his bones here."
I Am from Missouri (5)
Sokei-an went to Boston three times in an attempt to explain Zen to Dr. Tupper, President of the Japan Society of Boston.
Feeling he had failed on the first two attempts, Sokei-an finally framed his explanation in the simplest words he could muster:
"Zen is: 'I am from Missouri'."
Nyogen Senzaki was also interred for the duration of the war, at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. There he established a zendo called "The Meditation Hall of the Eastbound Teaching" for the benefit of the 10,000 or so dispossessed Japanese-Americans detained there. Re-dubbing Heart Mountain "The Mountain of Compassion," Senzaki went so far as to speculate that the massive relocation of so many Buddhists might even have some positive outcome in supporting "the eastbound tendency of the teachings." Beat Poet Albert Saijo, who was interned in the camp as a teenager, remembers Senzaki from those years: "Even as a kid seeing him in camp I could see he walked different & stood different—I did not have to talk to him to know he was in some other space from us others—he was living out of a different place than average & conventional—obviously there was an aura of quiet around him at all times—I'm just beginning now to fully appreciate him."
Thus have I heard: The army ordered All Japanese faces to be evacuated From the city of Los Angeles This homeless monk has nothing but a Japanese face. He stayed here thirteen springs Meditating with all faces From all parts of the world, And studied the teaching of Buddha with them. Wherever he goes, he may form other groups Inviting friends of all faces, Beckoning them with the empty hands of Zen.
—Nyogen Senzaki, May 7, 1942
Over the years Senzaki sent a number of his American students, including Robert Aitken, to study in Japan with his friend, Soen Nakagawa, Abbot of Ryutakuji Monastery. In 1949 he hosted the first visit to the U.S. by Soen Roshi, who was later to become a key figure in the development of Zen in America. A few years later Senzaki returned as Soen Roshi's guest to revisit his homeland for the first—and last—time in fifty years.
One evening in 1957, Senzaki announced that he would be with his students for just one year longer; and as he predicted, it came to pass. Nyogen Senzaki died the following year at the age of 83. In what was perhaps the first use of modern technology to preserve a Zen teacher's parting words, Senzaki tape-recorded his final message, so that his students were able to hear his voice one last time:
Friends in Dharma, be satisfied with your own heads. Do not put any false heads above your own. Then minute after minute, watch your steps closely. Always keep your head cold and your feet warm. These are my last words to you.
Then, says Aitken: "He added, 'Thank you very much, everybody, for taking such good care of me for so long. Bye bye.' And the tape ended with his little laugh."
In his will, Senzaki wrote:
Do not erect a tombstone! The California poppy is tombstone enough ... friends of the Dharma, please accept my selfish request. Forget about me as quickly as possible. (Continues...)
Excerpted from One Bird, One Stone by Sean Murphy. Copyright © 2013 Sean Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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