The Compassionate Kitchen: Book Review

Disclosure: I was asked to review the book by its publicist.

The Compassionate Kitchen: Buddhist practices for eating with mindfulness and gratitude by Thubten Chodron (Shambhala Publications) is a gentle, paced exploration of how to approach a very central aspect of our lives. It’s not the typical book on mindful eating, crammed with cheery ways of looking at food and upbeat approaches to savouring every morsel. I was relieved.

The truth about food is that it can be a tormenting dance at least six times a day with a lover we can’t be rid of or negotiate piece treaties. Having been on a few – many – a lot! – of diets and deprivations, I can absolutely attest to the reality that food and I cannot live with or without each other. 

Reading Thubten Chodron’s very disciplined yet gentle approach to exploring the intricacies of nourishing ourselves, I think I’ve had it all wrong. It’s not about the food. Well, it’s not ONLY about the food. It’s about the intimacy with which we approach the whole relationship of being with each other. While she opens with a generous portion of life at Sravasti Abbey and the title of the first chapter can seem daunting (Eating as Spiritual Practice), the theme is clear. See and know the net that gathers for you what you need to live. And that’s not just food.

 The motivation we bring to each action impacts its results, and eating is no exception.

Attachment makes our mind very narrow and self-centered: a mind filled with craving has no room for generosity.

Chapter 2: The Taste of Altruism: Our motivation for eating

Throughout the book, Thubten Chodron offers this refrain, which I have always held as the core of practice. In this age of quick-fix mindfulness, it’s an important foundation for practice. Our intention sets the tone for our path, yet it is a fragile vow given to being swept off in the torrent of negative emotions. The value of the teachings in this book is the constant reminders to return and refresh our motivations of awareness and kindness.

Most cultures treasure eating not only for its sensual pleasure but also because people bond by sharing food together. By nourishing each other with food and human connection, life continues.

Chapter 5: Mindful Eating

 The chants offered in the book are an interesting part of practice. In every Zen center I’ve practiced, it was my favourite time – perhaps only because it meant good stuff was about to happen! The chants in this book are more elaborate and expansive, yet they have a soothing quality that opens the heart and relaxes the craving mind. I admit, after trying a few chants, it seemed to require more dedication than I have at the moment. Still, I do believe that recitation together at a meal can have a positive impact. The sharing of our lives is more than happenstance and we quickly forget why we came together. Communal recitations of any kind can remind and refresh our intention for being together.

Chapter 10 is likely the most powerful and I sense a wisdom in walking us through the principles and practices of food as a relational process before bringing it home in this poignant and powerful way. In the chapter,  community members write about their relationship to food and their words are both painful and reassuring. 

Overall, I enjoyed having the chance to shift my vision of food and the roots of my relationship to it. What came as a surprise though was the realization of the “kitchen” as this flesh body, this world, these relationships we have with each other. For that I am most grateful.

Book Review: Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach

Disclosure: I received the book for a fair, unbiased review. However, I actually bought it for myself because I was too impatient to read it.

I met Gary Gach (I think) a few years ago (I think). Or maybe he and I met on Facebook after I met someone he knew who knew someone I didn’t know… All of which to say, I appreciated the chance to read this book.


Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS) sets a high bar for itself. “Awakening mindfulness when meditation is not enough” throws the gantlet down at the feet of the infatuation with meditation. This an important understanding: meditation is not many things we want it to be and it is not enough. When that becomes apparent, most practitioners give up and find another escape or addiction. Gach is not afraid to confront this head on. If you want to experience changes in your life, you have to be willing to take the show on the road. And Gach offers a terrific framework for getting traction on the path to liberation: Intentionality (pausing), Introspection (breathing), and Insight/clarity (smiling).

It may take a moment’s breath to pause and stop chafing against the seemingly random connections between the words and definitions. But hang in; it does make sense. Gach, ordained in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, makes a quick deep dive into the heart of mindfulness practice: discipline leads to mastery. Using the fundamental practices taught by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, he outlines the daily, continuous practices of attending in the life we live: mindfulness bells, mindfulness blessings, mindfulness trainings, and the triad of study, observe, practice. This is no sweet-talking, do-what-feels-good approach (well, maybe there’s a sweetness in the invitational tone which is irresistible).

Rarely found in today’s deluge of mindfulness books, however, is the courage to address the core of mindfulness practice: cultivating a moral life or what is called “living by vow”. Gach doesn’t shy away from this. In “A moral perspective” he lays out the arc of mindfulness as a relational process.

Being a good person…can be one of the most valuable gifts we can offer ourselves and others.

Gach weaves the threads of continuous practice into a fabric of compassion. When we pay attention to the consequences of our actions, we become aware of how we hurt ourselves and others. Often unintentional – but that’s the whole point. Can we become more intentional in our lives by pausing to see the hurtful impact of our actions, speech, and thoughts? (Of course, if you just want to intentionally hurt others, keep reading anyway because you may learn how to repair what you’ve done.)

The proof is in the practice.

Studying our lives, observing the consequences of our actions, and iterating through practices makes our aim more true in becoming human, more compassionate. Gach offers the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the lay vows taken by Buddhist practitioners and reframed by Thich Nhat Hanh to be more prescriptive than proscriptive, as a means of setting the frame for practice accessible to anyone regardless of religious or personal beliefs.

Gach moves smoothly into Breathe with a detailed examination of the awareness of breath practice – a powerful meditation in many schools of meditation. He follows the interpretation by Thich Nhat Hanh which is a simple (though not always easy) and welcoming process to train meditation habits. He’s emphatic that meditation is not self-hypnosis. I particularly loved Gach’s teaching of the impact of slowing down and going deep:

It’s like gazing down at a clear stream bed, when, unexpectedly, a little leaf falls upon the surface and then whoosh! whoosh zooms away. The leaf surprises us by showing how swiftly a current has been flowing invisibly. So too can our mind race like the wind, without our realizing it.

Through Smile, he explores the practice of equanimity and patience. I’ll admit I had trouble with the suggestion to “smile (as acceptance) when it’s 100 degrees! (I always chuckle when someone says “It is what it is.” One of my teachers used to retort: It is not IT!) Wisdom practices are the most challenging because they require perspective-taking and relinquishing “truths” we hold dear. Using the ideogram of wisdom that contains the scripts of heart/mind and a hand holding a broom, he explores how practice is the process of sweeping clean, purifying our hearts.

Gach’s writing is full of amazing passages that both surprise and affirm what we already understand and feel. Yet, he takes us deeper: placing hands over the heart region during a meditation is like massaging compassion into our hearts. Never insistent in one way, he offers “a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground (Rumi)”. Formal and informal practices are held in a realistic partnership with the latter as the “mortar that holds the bricks of formal practice together.” And he is clear that “mindfulness holds a single truth with multiple meanings.”

The power of this book is the absence of saccharine mindfulness or what a colleague calls “pink bubble-gum mindfulness”. It is determined to awaken the reader and offers a simple, clear guide along the path. Still, Gach is emphatic that practice requires awareness of the ultimate challenges we face, individually and collectively, in setting our compass to the three realities of impermanence, self-making, and interbeing. In his closing words:

The rest is up to you.

Before Buddha was Buddha by Rafe Martin: bedtime stories to wake up by

Disclosure: I was provided the book for an honest review.
Connection: Rafe Martin is in my social media circle and I’ve likely known him in some Jataka Tale or the other.
Previous reviews: Endless Path – Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen practice, and daily life

Rafe Martin adds Before Buddha was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka tales to already prodigious library of mythic tales drawn from the Buddha’s past lives. The morality themes in the stories resonate with other morality tales from the same period such as Aesop’s fables. The primary – and crucial – difference, however, is the portrayal of human frailties: animals typically carry the tone of moral decrepitude in the Greek and later Renaissance fables whereas, in the Jataka Tales, the moral lack is equally possible in humans as in animals. Perhaps this is the deep appeal of the Buddha’s past lives and its potential for discomfort; we are not spared painful lessons by being at the top of this food chain.

In the introduction, Martin offers one of the least addressed challenges to Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s sudden realization that aging, illness, and death occur. Not only quietly challenging this hole in the plot of the Buddha’s coming to be, he also offers the insight missed by many others: it’s the felt sense, that deep embodied realization of the reality of aging, illness, and death that wakes us up. It’s the beginner’s mind of all beginnings. The familiar, the taken-for-granted, the obvious is inescapably real.

And the rest, as is often said, is commentary.

The heart of the Jataka teachings is that this human birth is precious. And the rhythmically pounding message is that it’s not the final destination. The animals in the Jataka tales are by turns blind and aware of this message. Their actions move them in the direction of becoming human; whether we choose to see it as rebirth or realizing their own-form compassionate nature depends on our own landscape. The naga king who chooses to become the silver snake, the monkey king who sees through the delusions of humans and their self-making, the two cousins reborn over and over as fawns and osprey – they begin to understand that the path to liberation is through the human birth and.

Yet, I wonder if that idea has a risky edge of elevating our human capacity above the others. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because the human lives lived by the future Buddha in the Jataka stories are equally challenged and, after many, many failed attempts at liberation, seem to finally arrive at the base of the bodhi tree.

Because I’ve felt too many dharma talks rely on students having already cultivated clear comprehension and too many teachers presume vicarious learning suffices, Martin’s commentaries for each Jataka tale are important to read because they offer a clear perspective of the intent of the tales. As we learned from the Zen story of Gutei’s finger, much can be lost in translation. Martin skillfully draws from the teachings of Zen masters and threads together the sometimes elusive morals in the tales. As he emphasizes in the tale of the Bodhisattva Robber, it helps to know what is really being taught.

I read each chapter as a bedtime story, letting the echoes carry through me the next day and the days after. It’s not about savouring – although there is that too – rather, it is about letting the nuances fill out the spaces between sleeping and waking up. I hear in Martin’s writings, always, the urgency to wake up, “like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. (Dogen)”

Canada Reads but does it understand? A memoir that was a tragedy in three parts.

I love literary lists. Each year I pick up one book authored by the Noble Prize in Literature; this year was the ever-confounding Kazuo Ishiguro. I sit anxiously waiting for the Man Booker Prize shortlist (though the long list actually has better writing sometimes); this year the weirdly contemplative Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won. I become feverish and irrational as the Scotia Giller Prize lists are published; 2017winner was Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I read and rooted for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson and had a brief disappointing affair with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter.

Canada Reads, however, has never quite been my cup of tea, being too much a survivalist themed-show with a time range of books that brought back memories of English Lit in university. Unlike the other literary prizes, Canada Reads is made up of debators who trash out their support of the book they have been chosen to read, eventually voting a book a week off the stacks until the surviving one goes on to fame and glory. When this year’s list was announced, I was attracted to Cheri Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves and, tentatively, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness. Perhaps it was the influence of the Giller’s shortlisted Eden Robinson’s amazing, searing Young Adult story of an Indigenous youth and his peripatetic spirit quest, all the while managing a family drama that is too real to shut out. I chose Demaline’s book, putting Forgiveness on the shelf. (Yes, there is irony in that.)

As with Robinson’s book, the Marrow Thieves is riveting and gut-wrenching YA, tearing open into full view the psychological survival of Indigenous Peoples in a dystopic future. There, survivors of a climate catastrophe, hunt the Indigenous Peoples for the key they hold to survival. It’s worth the read.

But it’s not what I want to write about today.

A reluctant reader of Sakamoto’s memoir, Forgiveness: A gift from my grandparents, I confess I feared the theme of Asian oppression that occurred in Canada as a reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. I’d also read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep Northa powerful story of Australian POWs forced into building the Thai-Burma Death Railway; the book effectively ruined my summer – or was it winter? But then, fear is a seductive creature, drawing us ever closer to the very thing we seek to avoid.

Sakamoto’s book is a tragedy in three parts: his Japanese grandparents, born in Canada and the target of Canadian bigotry; his East Coast grandfather, escaping a brutal home life only to become a POW in Japanese-held Hong Kong and later sent to a shipbuilding factory in Osaka, Japan; and, Sakamoto’s writing, filled with grammatical and historical errors, that almost derails the early history of his two lineages.

The richness of the two sets of grandparents, their own parents and children (Sakamoto’s parents) is mostly lost as is the opportunity to capitalize on an important theme of hope and belonging, betrayal and resilience. Sakamoto’s Japanese great-grandparents came to Canada’s West Coast and became a fishing family among many other Japanese. As we so well know from centuries of history, nothing turns one part of a community against another faster than the success of one and not both. Colour of skin, accents, and other external features become the target of ridicule and bullying. Eventually, governments step in with shoddily clad legislation that sanctions prejudice. In 1941, after Japan’s entry into WW II, the government claimed “military necessity” and Japanese Canadians were shipped to the interior of British Columbia, Ontario, and the beet farms of Alberta¹. In all, 21, 000 were displaced and never compensated for lost homes, businesses, and emotional wounds of disbanding families. The timeline here shows redress occurred in 1988 but did not include compensation for loss of property and hardship.

Sakamoto’s grandparents survived by agreeing to go to a beet farm in Alberta so that they could stay together as a family, only to discover that life on the open prairie during the fierce winter in an un-insulated animal shed will challenge them in ways they could not have imagined. For his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, caring for her parents and children becomes the source of her resilience. Her son, whose woundedness is not made clear, is Sakamoto’s father (the book could use a genealogy!).

Across the country on the East Coast, Sakamoto’s Canadian grandfather, Ralph MacLean, lives on The Magadelan Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As Sakamoto narrates it, his grandfather’s story edges on cliché despite the very real likelihood of his unforgiving, brutal parental environment in an unforgiving land. So much could have been done with this, however, it distils down to a physically and emotionally abused child with a heart of gold who eventually survives his own internment by the Japanese military in Asia. His daughter, wounded as well, is Sakamoto’s mother. The painful irony of his parents bringing together two victims of oppression is unexplored other than a nod to a mysterious process of forgiveness.

Against a painful and powerful background such as this, Sakamoto had ample material to weave a rich narrative. However, the rushed sketches of these characters, who were so critical to the later narrative that intertwines to shape the author’s own life are frustratingly sparse and staccato. I want to know more about Sakamoto’s father beyond his self-involved tendency to move from dream to dream. Then again, is it self-involvement or a desperate need to repossess what was lost? How did his mother become who she became, besides the usual “falling in with the wrong crowd”? Ironically, the chapters about his parents are read better, yet the characters all stand unavailable, still caught in their psychological internment.

The final tragedy of Forgiveness is captured by Goodreads reviewer, Edward Fenner‘s whose comments save me writing out the frustrations of reading a book that is poorly edited and sloppy in its fact-checking. It doesn’t take much to validate geographical locations – there is only one ferry from the Magdalen Islands and it goes to PEI. It crosses a “strait”, not a”straight”.  The first sections of the book had a sense of notes taken in conversation with his grandparents. The latter sections about his parents and his own life were better written and, I am guessing, might have been the manuscript he was to send to the Globe and Mail for publication, from whence someone thought it would make a great book (it would have). Certainly, the language and style of the early years describing his family seem akin to parents or grandparents telling grandchildren about their life experiences. How Forgiveness won the Canada Reads debate is perplexing. However, one can hope Sakamoto will use this revival of his book to consider his family’s stories again because we only die when we are forgotten. Somehow, I think that would be the gift from his grandparents.

As an immigrant generation, we are losing our history. When my parents passed away, they left a gaping historical hole in our family, much like the missing photographs in their albums. In my mother’s later confused years, she had taken out the photos of my brother and placed them in a separate album – supposedly because I would not be interested in seeing his life in grainy black and white snapshots. So, I have albums comprised in part of grainy snapshots of my life in Burma and in part of blank spaces of black. My lineage skips across these spaces and my now-troublingly poor memory tries to backfill the emptiness. I suppose I should be happy because the memories that fill the spaces are likely less triggering than the ones in the lost photos!

It’s a shame Sakamoto didn’t do a greater justice by taking the time to produce the powerful story it would have been if only to show that his grandparents’ ability to forgive was not about the individual. It was a clarity that the world is good, evil, neither, and both. It was a realization that we can encourage our stories to blind and bind us or shed light on another way to honour our narrative – ones that are already hidden in the folds of the stories we tell ourselves.

 

  1. http://japanesecanadianhistory.net/historical-overview/general-overview/

 

faded images: where we go when we’re gone

IMG_2961

Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.

Book Review: Why Buddhism is True – the art of being Wright

Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.

Is Wright right?

Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?

By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.

Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.

Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.

Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.

After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).

But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.

When Wright writes:

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.

The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.

If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there. 

Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read

Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.

 

Other Reviews

Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017

What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)

A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017

Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017

 

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