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

the way that is the thread

 

enso-threadThe Way It Is

William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

..

It’s been a fearfully hot summer approaching drought conditions and in many places surpassing them. We’ve been reeling back our garden work, planting only what we tend to harvest and not planting what ends up in the compost heap after harvesting is a delusion. There have been visits from the Grandestbaby and her entourage with threads of her genetic heritage gathering beautifully, emerging in what is the making of a dangerous woman. I am pleased.

At a recent family gathering, I noted there are four generations present. Complex threads of family stories interweaving cousins, converging in one place. Were this in 14th century Britain it would have all the makings of the War of the Roses, though here it would be the War of the Tastebuds.

Threads.

On Tricycle, I stumbled across this lovely film by Yoko Okumura (produced by Chris Ruiz): SIT. Okumura is the daughter of that other Okumura, Shohaku, author of my favourite book Zen teachings of Homeless Kodo which you can purchase through Wisdom Publications. Look at all these threads to take you into and hopefully back out delicious labyrinths. SIT is a poignant film exploring parenthood and its intended and unintended consequences. We want for our children what we believe we failed to get ourselves in our childhood. What they want we fail to see because the thread we follow is so tightly in our grasp, leading through one path. What Okumura the Zen priest sees as the core of parenting, Masaki, his son, sees as a vacuum. And yet, something emerges. Okumura, the writer/director, captures the chasm between father and son and adroitly flips it to show the tender, painful connections – the longing for form and the unease with emptiness. And this is the path of practice too – teachers and students, Buddha and Dharma, Dharma and Sangha, Buddha and Sangha. The tipitaka of all threads.

Speaking of books.

Somewhere between the topic of moral psychology and the War of the Roses, I fell into Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. The Table of Contents is itself a winding thread, ending where it started – or more correctly ending where we entered because all our threads start back before the faces of our fathers and mothers were born.

She begins with her mother. Doesn’t everything. Her mother, strong. Her mother, deteriorating. Her mother, like the ripe smell of apricots entangled throughout the stories that bind them together. Solnit doesn’t stop there as she escapes to Iceland, explores what it means to feel and try to lift others from pain. Like Wu Daozi who painted such bold landscapes that one could fall into them, we do that – fall into the stories of what/who/where/how we came to be. Solnit evokes the pain we feel in our stories and, as did Okumura, flips them to feel their embrace. Pain serves a purpose as our protector; its “cousin touch” sets the boundary of form and self. Our practice like that of the Buddha is to “stay cool” in its presence, chilling out with Mara, not giving the thread of reactivity any fabric to sew.

The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return from the pilgrimage, the adventure. p. 188

Along the bottom of Solnit’s book is the actual thread that binds it together. A kind of horizontal sewing to keep the pages from drifting to and fro, leaving us with literary vertigo. It begins with “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds” and ends “Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?”

And then Zen.

James Ford recently posted Thinking of Books That Helped Me on My Spiritual Path. He tells a story of a robber who in trying to flee ironically becomes captive to the projected stories of the people he tried to fleece.

Captive, as he was, gradually, his own heart turned, and he became wise.

This was a new way to think about spirituality. And, I just loved, loved that a thief could trap himself into becoming a saint.

I too love, love this. Not because I think I’ve trapped myself into becoming a saint. There are and could be tomes written to refute that particular conceit of mine! But I do believe we are trapped by our fears and often fail to see how that place of stuckedness holds the opportunity to let go of what has nailed us to the ground.

There’s a family story told by my mother about a time during the Japanese occupation of Burma. She was alone at home with my infant brother; my father was away finding work, such as he could in a war zone. A Japanese soldier walked into the house. Looking far more European than Asian, she was terrified because the stories told of European women being preferred target for rape were rife and likely real. The soldier sat down on her sofa (uninvited) and asked if he could spend time talking with her. Of course, she said yes but that her husband was returning soon with his cousins (them again!). He asked about the infant, did they have enough to eat, were they suffering in any way? Soon he left only to return the next day with bananas and milk; it was all he could find. They talked (I don’t know if my father was there). She asked him his name. “Monkey,” he laughed pointing to the bananas. He liked bananas so that made him “Monkey”, he explained. He never came back.

My parents, unlike others who were brutalized in worse ways during the war and understandably didn’t, held a respect for Japanese culture. I often wonder if that was the reason I fell into the stories of Zen rather than the Therigata. Or perhaps, the Therigata, by virtue of my grandmother’s Buddhism, is so deeply sewn into my stories that they are the signatures¹ and not the script of the book, the ground and not the weather that flows over. Or perhaps the horrid truth is that we rarely pay attention to the thread as we enter our labyrinth, seeing its use only when we need a quick exit. Thankfully, there is no single response to Ford’s post. I used to keep my Buddhism books segregated carefully as if the very contact of the Zen and Theravada texts would cause the universe to warp. Now they just fall where I’ve let go.

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¹In the context of book-binding, a signature refers to a section of paper. All the paper of a book are divided into several signatures and then sewn together. The number of paper in a signature varies, there might be one or more than one, depending on the thickness and size of the paper and the content of the book. From Joy Chen.