Book Review: Grass Flute Master Yokoyama & the fragrance that spread a thousand ri

I saw zazen as a posture bestowed upon me by the Buddha
Sodo Yokoyama

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama is a long-awaited work by American author and translator, Arthur Braverman. Epitomizing the essentialist philosophy of Zen, Yokoyama is known for his ascetic life, living in a bamboo grove of Kaikoen Park in Komoro City, Japan, writing calligraphic teachings for any passerby who wanted to receive them. Braverman wrote of his connection to Yokoyama in 2005 and the undertones of his longing to pass on the ineffable beauty of Yokoyama’s life are compelling.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.” (Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2005)

Later Braverman’s interview with Yokoyama’s only student Jôkô Shibata offered further insight into his diligent if austere practice.

Antaiji, a small temple in the northeast corner of Kyoto, was under the charge of Uchiyama Kôshô Roshi, a long time disciple and dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, when Jôkô joined the practice there. He had read Uchiyama’s first book and decided to become a monk and study under the master. Yokoyama Roshi had lived together with his younger brother disciple Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji for eight years and then in 1957 moved to Komoro. He visited Antaiji once a year from then on for the memorial celebration for Sawaki Roshi. It was during one of these visits that Jôkô met his future teacher for the first time. ‘I saw my teacher in zazen posture,’ he said, ‘and made up my mind immediately to study under him.’ (from: Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change)

Yokoyama appears to have this effect as both Braverman and Shibata feel drawn to him because of the utter simplicity of his life. I wrote about this attraction in a review of The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications).

Yokoyama and (his teacher) Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies. (108 Zen Books, June 17, 2015)

Braverman’s book begins his arranged meeting with Shibata in Komoro City and in good zen style, he begins with the waiting. Waiting for his order of noodles as he waits for Jôkô. Waiting for the memories to flow in their typical unordered way, waiting for pockets of sensibility to fall into. Waiting for a teacher is the underlying theme, running parallel with the searching and the longing. In Braverman’s words there is a longing to understand – how was Yokoyama influenced by his own teachers, by artists and poets of his time – and to understand only that the wanting is neither sufficient nor satisfactory. However, the side trips to the poet Toson and the various people who populate the surroundings of Kaikoen Park give life to the container in which Yokoyama lived his practice, literally outside in the park and outside of the institutions of Zen. In that, Yokoyama is not different from his teacher, “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki and other lineage teachers Hakuin and Bankei. For them, the marrow of practice is the only requirement for living. Braverman writes:

Truly creative teachers can do nothing else. So it was with other great teachers like Hakuin and Bankei, to name two from the other major Zen sect in Japan. What eventually happens, once institutions are formed to follow the ways of these masters, is a slow decline of the original spirit and a dependence on forms and dogmas that water down the true teaching of the founders (p. 39).

The Grass Flute Zen Master is a slowly winding journey through Braverman’s connections and memories of Yokoyama, interspersed with his views of Zen. However, the heart of the book is in his reproductions and exploration of Yokoyama’s waka.

Years ago
meditating in the mountains
a pheasant appeared
and stared
at my zazen.
p. 83

Braverman notes that “my”, being assumed in the Japanese version, is an insertion for (Western) clarity. I wondered if that is the subtle cause of the myriad problems Western Buddhism has.

Yokoyama also brushed poems for his dharma brother, Kosho Uchiyama, a poignant humbling of what he may have felt were his shortcomings

Mother and Father
Brothers and Sisters 
Forgive me
A child without a home

More than mother
More than father
More than brothers and sisters
I love the mountains and rivers
How pitiful!
p. 85-86

Still, the question Braverman takes us to, the question that hangs over all our heads as we sit zazen in all our postures, is perhaps the heart of practice: Why bother? What does a homeless monk, an itinerant teacher in a park, a wandering mendicant contribute? It is reassuring to see the answer is no different from Bodhidharma’s to the Emperor: No merit.

And yet… there is a fragrance that spreads a thousand ri – everywhere.

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.
Sodo Yokoyama

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