Notes on Crooked Cucumber - Ch. 4
One falling leaf is not just one leaf; it means the whole autumn.
Shunryu Suzuki had thought that after Komazawa his training would be over and the world would be ready for him. He was, after all, an abbot with his own temple and had received transmission and recognition by the Soto organization. But So-on, the man of many growls and few words, hadn't mentioned that there was more training to look forward to--at *Eiheiji in *Fukui Prefecture, one of two daihozan, "great root monasteries" of the Soto school (along with *Sojiji).
To Shunryu, the giant cryptomeria trees outside the open shoji were shrinking and swaying. Sweat was running down his face. His crossed legs cramped as another wave of pain came over him in the *tangaryo, the waiting room, the initiation, the place where he and the other fledgling Eiheiji students had to sit for a week or more from early morning till late at night to prove themselves worthy to enter the temple. The others were younger than he, but they would have the same Eiheiji age, determined by the day they entered the temple. He had arrived in early September 1930, at the age of twenty-six. At the end of the endless tangaryo initiation, Shunryu walked, bowing, past all the monks in his brief entering ceremony.
Tangaryo was uninterrupted sitting in the *full-lotus posture--sitting for meals, sitting to listen to the near-constant chastisement of senior monks, sitting to receive the *kyosaku, the long flat stick whacked against sleepy monks' shoulders, and sitting waiting for the next wave of pain to grip muscles and mind. He would have looked at his watch to time the intervals of pain, but they had taken his watch away. In the midst of the pain, the cryptomeria would shrink and sway--but no, it was his mind playing dizzying tricks. Those big trees don't move. It's the mind that moves.
Eiheiji, Temple of Eternal Peace, the treasure of the Soto school, the destination of pilgrims, spoken of in hushed tones, revered by the nation and generations of emperors, was founded by Dogen in the thirteenth century. Eiheiji with its spacious, artful buildings, endless tatami halls, massive pillars, covered walkways, and curved, tiled roofs--this living museum and priest's finishing school of a thousand rules was his new home. His father and mother could take care of Zoun-in indefinitely while Shunryu walked on Dogen's path in the deep forest monastery.
Over a hundred monks and more than thirty senior priests, some of the most venerable of the Soto school, walked the corridors in the early, early morning to zazen and services. The resplendent rooms were a feast for the senses--the sounds of the bells, gongs, clackers, and drums, the deep, the mid, the high, with the clearest and richest peals and booms; the overlapping echoes, the voices and overtones of so many devotees rhythmically reciting the teachings of the ancestors; the paintings on ceilings and scrolls, massive brass chandeliers, curtains, cords, and brocades. The old monks could recite even the longest ancient Chinese chants by heart, and most of them could make it up the ninety-five steps to Dogen's tomb.
Cleaning is first, they said, then zazen. We must take care of our surroundings before we use them: polish the wood, polish your mind, wipe down the floors, cover the cosmos. He had to learn the steps, the Eiheiji way to do everything--how to sweep, how to walk, how to enter a room, how to use the study, how to greet a senior and later a junior. He learned precisely how to put on and put away his robes, how to roll up the futon on his tatami in the zendo, how to brush his teeth, how to clean the pots in the kitchen, how to eat in the zendo with oryoki, the wrapped bowls that were the forerunner of the tea ceremony. You had to walk and work slowly and silently; you shouldn't speak much and then it must be softly. In zazen, you didn't move, not for pain, not for the mosquito on your face. And when something was not done in the right way, there was always a senior to scold the offender. Shunryu felt their eyes on him when he walked in a room, checking him out from foot to head. It was not entirely new--he'd gotten the same from So-on--but it was no longer coming from one source. He was part of a larger team in a wider theater, getting the physical practice down with the precision of *Noh or *Kabuki performers. It was overwhelming, and after the initial nervousness and bungling, gradually it became harmonious and invigorating.
Upon waking Shunryu folded his *futon and slid it under the cabinet at the end of his tatami. Then he put on his *kimono and *koromo and went quickly to take his place in a line of monks at the wooden sink and washed his face over an individual basin filled seventy percent with water. When finished he emptied the remainder toward his body, not away from it. All monks followed this practice Dogen had established at the *Hanshaku-kyo, the Half-Dipper Bridge beyond the entrance gate, where he drew his water in a pail and returned what was left to the creek.
You may think it doesn't make sense to return the water to the river. This kind of practice is beyond our thinking. When we feel the beauty of the river we intuitively do it this way. That is our nature.
Morning began with zazen. The outer okesa robe was not worn but was kept in its case on the tatami. Zazen ended with a four-line verse proclaiming what a wondrous opportunity it was to wear the okesa, which was placed on the head for this chant. At the end of the chant the monks bowed and, still seated, donned the robe, which dates back to Buddha's day. Then they swung from side to side, turned around on their cushions, and stood in the aisle waiting for the final high bells to signal them to bow. Then, with hands clasped at the solar plexus, they walked slowly off to morning service and the recitation of sutras in magnificent, ancient rooms.
Life at Eiheiji was simple, with attention to minutiae. As the months passed, it became monotonous yet liberating--so far from the struggles and complexity of Zoun-in, Komazawa, and Tokyo. Once Shunryu and his new mates became accomplished at doing everything the same way, day after day, they'd look for a way to enjoy something new and get into mischief. For instance, they could go over the wall into the town below for *soba noodles and sake. One night when almost everyone was asleep, Shunryu and a few friends considered sneaking some food from the kitchen. They weighed the risk of detection and decided to go for it. They went into the storeroom in the dark and selected a box. It was full of radishes. Eager for anything different, they scraped the dirt off with their fingernails and ate a few. Unable to eat many raw, they decided to cook them. They put the radishes in a bucket, took them outside, and built a fire. They tasted even more horrible after cooking, and they muffled their laughter as they gobbled them anyway. Soon the whole area was filled with the strong odor of cooked radishes, and they were caught and chastised. But even a scolding by groggy senior monks (who didn't find it funny) was something interesting to experience, and they savored the bitter taste.
Winter at Eiheiji was as cold as the summer was hot. It was deep snow country, and the buildings were closed up, dark, and candlelit. The only heat available was from the calories exerted shoveling snow off the paths and roofs, from heavier robes covering their chilled bodies, and from crowding round a hibachi in a common room. The thick cigarette smoke in the closed rooms was hard on Shunryu's weakened lungs, but he enjoyed the discussions. In dharma talks they had been told to practice with no purpose in mind--just sit, just sweep. But what was the goal of the practice? To attain buddhahood, to save all beings, or just to be yourself as you are?
The idea cannot be the reality, but is practice the bridge from idea to reality? We had this kind of discussion. But according to Dogen, practice is just practice-buddha, a bridge is just bridge-buddha, reality is just reality-buddha, an idea is just idea-buddha. There is no problem. When you say, "I am a human being," that is just another name for buddha--human being--buddha.
The abbot of Eiheiji and archbishop of the Soto school was an old priest named Gempo Kitano-roshi. Shunryu regarded Kitano with great respect, for his sense of decorum and because he'd been abroad. Kitano had been the head of Soto Zen in Korea for a number of years and had been a founder of Zenshuji, the Zen temple in Los Angeles. One day in a dharma talk, Kitano spoke to the monks about smoking, which most of them did. He didn't tell them not to smoke, but described his own experience with tobacco. In his youth he had loved smoking. Once when he was out alone on *takuhatsu, a begging trip, he was walking over the Hakone pass. At the top he stopped in the mist to sit on a rock. He lit a cigarette and found it immensely enjoyable to smoke and look down at the town below through the mist and the wisps of smoke. He particularly liked to smoke in damp weather and was so struck by the taste of the tobacco at that moment that he examined his desire directly and decided that it was a perfect moment for his last cigarette. And it was.
Though Kitano-*zenji gave up smoking, he had the desire as long as he was alive, but he knew how to treat his desires. It is very foolish of you not to notice this point. I know it is difficult to quit smoking. I don't say you should give it up, but if you know this point, you will know how to treat yourself, even though it is difficult.
Kitano was older than Shunryu's father, but Sogaku said they'd been in school in Nagoya together and had trained together at one time. There was more than a hint of rivalry in Sogaku's tone when he spoke of the old man. Shunryu remembered how his father had complained about Kitano's becoming such an important priest while he, Sogaku, remained insignificant. Sogaku said it was because of Kitano's superior background and connections. In Kitano's presence, however, Shunryu knew there was much more to it than that.
As abbot of Eiheiji, Kitano was grandfather to all Soto Zen priests. He conducted himself with impeccable humility and grace. He was thin and not in good health, but Shunryu was mesmerized by the way he would lay out his bowing cloth and lower himself to place his forehead on it, and above all by the way he would rise up again. He was so frail that every time he bowed, Shunryu thought he wouldn't be able to get up, but he did, time after time. Eventually Shunryu realized that it was harder for him to watch Kitano bow than it was for Kitano to do so.
He looked almost like a sick person on the verge of dying. He stood up with joy, but actually it was a terrible effort for him. It was such very strong, fresh activity. It was not just formality; he was full of spirit.
He was the supreme example of heart and will. Some of the old priests were just strict and formal, and when they led a ceremony Shunryu would find himself getting bored, but when Kitano came out, there would be a special feeling in the room. He combined strictness with a deep gentleness.
Wherever you go, you will find your teacher.
"Don't open that side!" Shunryu stopped. He thought for a second, then slid the shoji door a few inches back to the center. He knew it was correct to open the right side. The elders were exacting about these things. But the command from inside was unmistakable, so Shunryu slid the left shoji open, stood up with the tray, entered, and served tea and snacks to the old priest and his guest. The next evening he returned to the same place, kneeled, and placed his fingers in the indentation on the frame of the left shoji and slid it open a bit to announce his presence. "Don't open that side!" came the voice from within. Shunryu was confused, but he obeyed and opened the right side.
It went on like this for some days, with Shunryu not knowing which side to open. He thought about it over and over. Such a tiny thing to agonize about, but it was through just this sort of detail that the mentor priests at Eiheiji regularly put pressure on their underlings. Shunryu couldn't just ask for an explanation; he had to figure it out for himself. Then one morning as he approached the door he stopped for a moment to listen to the conversation. One voice, the guest's, was coming from the right. Then he realized. Of course! He should open the right shoji unless there was a guest sitting there. How simple and obvious. Confidently he slid open the left side. From then on he knew which shoji to open by looking at the placement of slippers outside, listening to the voices within, and watching for shadows.
You may think our teaching is very strict. But our teaching is always near at hand--not easy, but not difficult to observe. At the same time, however, it is very strict and very delicate. Our mind should always be subtle enough to adjust our conduct to our surroundings.
The priest whom Shunryu had been chosen to serve was *Ian Kishizawa-roshi, considered to be one of the greatest Soto masters of the day. So-on had arranged this connection. A disciple of the great root teacher Nishiari Bokusan, he had also studied under Nishiari's disciple, Oka Sotan, and had known So-on at Komazawa and at Shuzenji. He had also known Sogaku back in their younger days. He was sixty-five years old, thirty-nine years older than Shunryu and twelve years So-on's senior. He was strict and particular, but not mean like So-on. A highly respected Buddhist scholar, he had a cultured air about him. Like Oka he had continued the work Nishiari had started in Dogen scholarship and in 1919 had succeeded Oka and Kitano as the official Eiheiji lecturer on Dogen's Shobogenzo. Kishizawa saw great promise in Shunryu and kept a close eye on him. With Kishizawa, Shunryu found he had to be alert at all times--nothing was to be taken for granted.
Kishizawa had two rooms separated by shoji and Shunryu was to clean them during the morning break. There wasn't much time, so he worked as fast as he could. Kishizawa would come in and search for places Shunryu had missed, walking around with his hands behind his back. He inspected the corners, the frames of the shoji, and below the table for dust. "No good," he'd say. "Rather than clean two rooms, do one room well. Light one corner of the world."
Tasks at Eiheiji were done with great vigor, like wiping down the floors in the morning or bracing the temple for a storm. One day after a rain Shunryu enlisted the assistance of two other monks to help him return the rain doors to their cabinet at the end of the walkway. The heavy wooden doors protect the paper shoji from the rain and wind. The two monks were energetically pushing five of them at a time down to Shunryu, and he was stacking them in the box. They were opening the building back up to the light as quickly as they could and making a racket. Kishizawa came out and stopped them. He told Shunryu to do it by himself: one by one, don't hurry, show respect.
On Shunryu's first day with Kishizawa he had served him green tea, pouring his cup three-fourths full and preparing it as he had learned to do. "Fill it up!" Kishizawa had told him. So Shunryu filled his cup to the top. When Kishizawa drank it he complained it was too weak and not hot enough. His every desire was out of the ordinary. So Shunryu made him very hot, bitter tea filled to the top, and Kishizawa was satisfied. Then Kishizawa had guests and Shunryu set out cups for them on the tray and poured exceedingly hot, bitter tea in each cup right up to the top as Kishizawa preferred. Kishizawa stopped him saying, "What are you doing? You can't serve tea like this." He should have known that when there were guests he was to revert to the usual style. A mechanical approach would not do; he had to constantly be alert.
Shunryu had to set out Kishizawa's robes for early morning zazen and have his tea ready. "You're late!" he was told. So he got up twenty minutes before the bell, got everything done ahead of time, and was scolded again. "Don't get up so early, you disturbed my sleep! That is selfish practice, you should get up when everyone else does."
I felt like I'd swallowed a straight stick. I couldn't even try to be a good student. I had no answer and couldn't move. "Umph!" was all I could say. I had to understand things better, without any rules or prejudice. That is what selflessness means.
Of all that Shunryu learned from Kishizawa during this time, nothing impressed him more than Kishizawa's continual practice of bowing. During morning service the names of the ancestors from Shakyamuni to the famous fourteenth-century master *Keizan-zenji were recited by the monks as they spread their bowing cloths and bowed to the floor over and over. Afterward Kishizawa would go to his room and continue the service, reciting the names of the succession of teachers right up to his own. He would bow over and over as he chanted. Sometimes when Shunryu would come to Kishizawa's room he would just be bowing. His bowing cloth was frayed and darkened by skin oil where his forehead would touch it. Kishizawa said that Nishiari Bokusan had given him the practice of doing many prostrations to wear down his stubbornness, and he continued doing it daily out of respect for his master.
To bow is very important, one of the most important practices. By bowing we can eliminate our self-centered ideas. My teacher had hard skin on his forehead because he knew that he was a very obstinate, stubborn fellow, so he bowed and bowed and bowed. And bowed because he always heard his master's scolding voice. He joined the order when he was thirty-two. His master always called him "You-lately-joined-fellow." If we join the order when we are young it is easier to get rid of our selfishness. But when we have a very stubborn, selfish idea, it is rather hard to get rid of it. So he was always scolded because he joined the order so late. Actually his master was not scolding him: he loved him very much, because of his stubborn character.
We should be very careful of half-baked enlightenment,
and especially of taking pride in our enlightenment.
*Sesshin, literally a mind-gathering, is one or more days of continuous zazen. It is an essential part of Zen training, and some monks continue the practice of sesshin one or more times a year in addition to daily sitting.
Starting December 1 Shunryu sat a seven-day sesshin, which concluded on the morning of the eighth with a ceremony observing Buddha's enlightenment. According to tradition, this occurred when Shakyamuni saw the morning star after having undergone a similar concentrated period of cross-legged sitting and absorption. It was in such undistracted sitting in China that Dogen had dropped body and mind and later received the mind-seal from his teacher, Nyojo. During that week at Eiheiji the operation of the temple was reduced to a minimum, and most monks and a number of older priests sat zazen from morning till night. It wasn't an ordeal like tangaryo. There were the brief walking kinhin periods, bare-bones services, and the customary ceremonial oryoki meals.
Shunryu had participated in other sesshins, but never one like this, so fully attended and orchestrated. On the third day he felt terrible pain in his legs, but by the fifth it was bearable. When it ended on the seventh he felt he could have continued the sesshin forever. Shortly afterward his first training period at Eiheiji was over, but Shunryu's time there had only begun.
In the spring Miss Ransom arrived to follow a modified program for lay practitioners. After initial resistance to her presence had subsided, she was accepted by the monks, who were impressed with her stamina and decorum. Shunryu was naturally put in charge of her, since no one else could speak English, and once again everyone was struck by the figures of the diminutive monk and his tall foreign lady friend. She brought photos from her visits to Korea, where she had stayed at temples with Shunryu's monk friend Sugioka, who had become her houseboy after Shunryu left. Shunryu showed her the trees he'd trimmed around the grounds and the gardens he'd worked in and brought her to tea with Kishizawa-roshi. In the summer Shunryu took off from Eiheiji and spent a month at Zoun-in. Miss Ransom joined him, staying mostly at a large nearby temple named Kasuisai. As always, wherever she went with Shunryu, it was usually everyone's first experience with a Westerner. And she made quite an impression.
"Don't do that! You shouldn't do that!" Miss Ransom said to Shunryu's sister Aiko as she brought in bowls and platters of food stacked precariously upon one another. They wouldn't carry dishes that way in England or at Eiheiji. She disapproved of serving sake at the dinner table, and she chided Sogaku for smoking, saying that good Christian ministers neither smoked nor drank. Aiko did not know what to make of this domineering woman, but she had gotten used to her visits. She wondered if all foreign women were as bold as this. Shunryu respected Miss Ransom's opinions on these matters but not her righteousness. He didn't get into an argument with her, however, for she would soon return to China, and this was no time for tempers to flare up.
When they parted, Shunryu gave Miss Ransom a scroll, and she gave him the old mah-jongg set with big tiles that they had so often played with in his college days. She said she would always keep what she had learned from him of Buddhism, and she admonished him to continue his study of English. He said that her bed with the long white silk futon and her rattan sofa would remain at his temple waiting for her return. He would miss her greatly.
After she went back to Tientsin she sent me a picture of the same Buddha who had caused trouble between us. She had enshrined the Buddha in the wall where there was an alcove, and she said she was offering incense every day.
Having completed two practice periods, each concluding with a seven-day sesshin, Shunryu told So-on he wished to continue at Eiheiji. Being there and attending to Kishizawa had opened his eyes wider. He realized he had a long way to go, and it seemed best to follow Dogen's way at the great temple he had founded. He told So-on that he would like to continue there, where he had found out what monk's practice is really all about. In particular he felt that his zazen had deepened. Though zazen had always been part of his practice, it hadn't been emphasized as at Eiheiji, where he sat first thing in the morning and last at night.
So-on let Shunryu have his say and then responded from an unexpected point of view. "Crooked Cucumber, you better be careful or you'll be a rotten crooked cucumber. One year is enough! I will not let you become a stinky Eiheiji student! Soon you should go to Sojiji," he said, referring to the other major Soto training temple. Once again Shunryu was crushed by So-on.
On the train back to Eiheiji, Shunryu replayed his master's words. He would have only two more months there, and those months would be on the relaxed summer schedule. Wistfully he remembered the year gone by as the train rolled toward mountainous Fukui. Being away had magnified how wonderful it was. There was something of the stink of pride at Eiheiji, but there was also something of incalculable value. Yet when he was there, Eiheiji wasn't special at all.
For us, monastic life was our usual life. People who came from the city were unusual people. We felt, "Oh, some unusual people have come." It is the people outside the monastery who have a deep feeling about it. Those who are practicing actually do not feel anything. I think that is true for everything.
Reaching the temple, Shunryu walked back up the steps through the giant two-tiered entrance gate. From a distance he heard the sound of monks chanting, the colossal mokugyo being thumped, and a deep resonating gong. He smelled the cryptomeria and was overcome with feeling. It was not just Eiheiji, it was himself he had come back to--with all beings, everything, beyond description. He broke down, and "tears flowed from my mouth, eyes, and nose."
Your real practice is something that you cannot compare to something else. It is greater than that, deeper than that. It is so great that you cannot compare it to your ordinary experience.
On September 17, 1931, Shunryu took the train from Eiheiji to Sojiji in Yokohama, where So-on had arranged for him to continue his training. He entered tangaryo the next day. Located near the hub of Japan's growing commercialism, the atmosphere at Sojiji was softer, less lofty and medieval than at Eiheiji. Whereas Dogen was said to be the father of all Soto monks, Sojiji had been founded by Keizan, who was considered their mother. It was he who had brought Soto Zen to the farmers and peasants. As a result, Soto Zen had gradually become one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.
While at Sojiji, Shunryu kept an eye on his temple. Commuting to Zoun-in, he oversaw the construction of two additions: the Kannon-do, or Kannon hall, in which Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, was enshrined; and the seppin, a meeting room for guests and practitioners. There was a dedication ceremony for the additions in March of 1932. Shunryu's close attention to the well-being of his temple contrasted with his lack of desire to be tied down to the duties of a temple priest.
Soon after that So-on showed up at Sojiji. Shunryu told him that he was content with the practice and thought he could continue living there much more easily than at Eiheiji because of the proximity to Zoun-in. He'd been there half a year and was hoping to stay for a few more years. There was no thought of going abroad. He had a fully engaging life among likewise well-educated monks, some of whom shared his sincere devotion to realizing the heart of Buddhism.
After they'd been talking for ten minutes So-on said, "Maybe it is time for you to leave Sojiji."
Next: Chapter Five
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