TWO WORDS

 

 

In the autumn of 1968, I received a letter from a friend inviting me to join him in Japan. A would-be Zen student, there was no question as to what I would do. I arrived in Tokyo a few weeks later. My friend was living with his girlfriend in a Stygian farmhouse in the mountains, so we headed there. Two weeks later we left for Kyoto.

While in the mountains, I had written to the poet Gary Snyder, whom I had met briefly in Berkeley, that I’d like to visit. Having lived in Japan for most of 13 years, undergoing Zen training at a local monastery, Snyder was busy packing for America, planning to make a life for his new family on a plot of wilderness land in northern California. Over tea, we discussed the Hippie Movement, the latest gossip in the poetry world, and the state of Zen in Japan, especially with reference to Westerners.
A few days later, I met a student from Oxford who said he had an invitation to do the winter sesshin at "a real Zen monastery, built in the 18th Century by Hakuin-Zenji." This may be my only chance to stay at a Japanese monastery, I thought. So I asked him if I could tag along. He was apprehensive, saying that, as I didn’t have an invitation, I probably wouldn’t be welcome there. I consulted with Snyder, who told me that this was probably true, but that I should ask another Zen student, Dana Frazier. I did this, and was advised that, although it’s against etiquette, I should go for it.

We took the train to Mishima City, about halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo, then walked up a wide spiral dirt road. It was dusk, raining lightly. I breathed in the fragrant air, while small buddhas peeked from behind bushes, wondering what this uninvited gaijin was doing there. Reaching the gate of Ryutaku-ji in almost total darkness, my companion rang the bell, to which a young shaven-headed monk responded. "Who is this person with you?" he asked. "He’s a poet from America," my companion explained. Maybe because the abbot was a poet too, or maybe because the Japanese expect such an unthinkable breech of etiquette as showing up at a monastery’s gate without an invitation from an American, both of us were admitted, shown into a large room, almost bare but for the tatamied floor, and we were told to wait.


Cross-legged on the floor, we listened to the patter of rain and the complaints of our empty stomachs. Some time later, a telephone rang in an adjoining room. Someone with the deepest voice I’d ever heard answered it. After the conversation was over, a small, ageless-looking monk appeared. I remember thinking, "This must be the abbot," as he had an aura of authority about him. He told us to follow him, walking away briskly, while we limped behind on sleeping limbs.
Soen Nakagawa-Roshi led us to a small room where he whisked up a pot of thick green tea, almost tasteless, which he served with sugar cookies. I told him I was a poet, and he said he’d written some poems too. Thus we amicably chatted until a monk came in to show my companion and I to the zendo, on whose platform we unrolled futons and were soon asleep.

Mornings I explored the monastery, examining the exacting craftsmanship of its buildings, viewed national treasures, including masterpieces by Hakuin, housed there, and climbed into the hills, where I could see the snowy peaks Fujiyama. Afternoons I’d sweep leaves. One windy day, I said to the monk working with me, "Why are we sweeping leaves when they just blow back into place?" He laughed, and replied, "Not sweeping leaves, sweeping mind."

As most of the monks were still on vacation, I did zazen in a usually empty zendo, sitting amidst the hundreds of ghosts, some of them Westerners, who had sat there, legs painfully folded, hour after hour, watching their mind’s endless choreography.

One day I wrote a letter to Snyder, which went something like: "Having found Paradise, what do I do with it?" (When I returned to Tokyo, there was a postcard waiting for me. It was unsigned. Sometime later, back in the States, I asked Snyder if he had written it. "What did it say?" "Beware of the fox inside." "I wrote that," he replied with a rueful grin.)

I only saw Roshi at meals, which, unlike most abbots, he took with the monks. Other than a few greetings exchanged, we didn’t speak. Although Soen Nakagawa was always teaching--by the focus on what he was doing, his grounded walk, the place from where his voice rolled out…I was wondering whether he would teach me directly. Then it happened. One morning before sunrise, Roshi appeared in the zendo. A monk handed him a small bell whose handle had broken. Holding the bell as if it were a bird with a broken wing, he inquired, in Japanese, as to what had happened. Then, looking directly at me, in a voice that seemed weighted with all the burdens of this world, he said, in English, "Everything breaks. Everything breaks." Turning quickly, like a Shakespearean actor making his exit through the battlefield’s gloom, he disappeared into the cavernous room.

Later that morning, Roshi left for Tokyo to perform a wedding, and I left the monastery to continue my journey. More than thirty years later, his two words still guide the way I live my life.


Shambhala Sun 2002