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

what’s on your zafu? practicing the great matter

Winter 2014-15 has been one of the most challenging we’ve had here in the NE corner of North America. Atlantic Canada and US have been pummelled by snow, blizzardly snow and by March even the most-hardened of optimists had stopped regaling us with their memories of winters past. And, to really bend the mind, it’s also been the warmest winter on record globally. Too bad we don’t live life in the averages or the picture my dear friend sent from California of an 82°F sunny day in San Francisco would have cheered me up.

A plow makes its way through heavy snow on Route 20 near Park Corner, PEI, 16 March 2015 (Facebook)

I wish I could also say this winter has been a call to deepen my practice by turning towards that Great Matter that hangs around like an optimistic stray which thinks you’ve only forgotten to feed it this time. In one way, I have actually committed to a more consistent practice by sitting everyday. But I must confess, it’s only by virtue of greed and clinging that I’ve managed that. You see, the Insight Timer gives its users a little yellow star – one for every 10 days with a session – and you even get a green star after a bunch of these sessions. I don’t know how the “50 days with a session” star system works. It’s cheesy, I know, I know! But it gets my butt to zafu and that’s really all that matters in the matters of the Great Matter.

Or not really. A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by the glossy magazine Mindful quoting ABC anchor Dan Harris (him of his book 10% Happier – which I thought was quite funny except that he never really copped to his drug addiction). Harris’ comment was excerpted from an interview with Charlie Rose: “I think meditation can be anything you pay attention to. I just think you need a couple of minutes a day of formal practice in order to really get it.”

Just think. Well, I could be paying attention to my Miss Vickie’s potato chips which I munch each day with the same dedication as my butt-to-zafu commitment. It takes less time – only a couple of minutes because they’re the mini packs – and I’m likely to get it! Of course, I do want to be fair because Harris doesn’t say what kind of attention or what the “it” is we would get, really. Would it be much different from the “sudden enlightenment” proponents of Zen, for example. Nah. For me, I do believe all I’ll get from my addiction to crispy, oily snacks would be another cardiac “event” or a different outcome to that couple of minutes of vertigo last night.

That Great Matter again, dammit.

Harris’ comments on practice are not unusual and quite apparent both in his book, subsequent interviews and co-hostings with his new-found pals who are meditation teachers. They are much like the aphorisms we throw out in the heart of winter when our brain freezes over and we regress to magical thinking. In our Zen group last evening, I asked why we practice. The answers were the typical round of “being,” “the present moment,” “here and now” and all the other catchy phrases we think great teachers are pointing to. It’s rare to push past that mind-muffling stage into the real question: What is it in the present moment that we are practicing?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant offers a piercing metaphor of what happens when we fall into a fog of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of the mythic land of post-Arthurian Britain live without awareness of their history or their relationships to each other except in the most rudimentary ways. They function quite well and feel safe in those wrappings of unremembered purpose. It serves to silence the competitiveness, the hatreds, the need for revenge and recompense. It also stops all process of forgiveness and growth. Our practice gets this way. And we fall prey to the quick sound bytes of shiny objects, characters and promises.

We think this is practice. And that’s the poison – we think. And we go no further.

What are the great teachers pointing to then with their commentaries of being, present moment, here and now? The same thing climate change, societal upheaval and our anxiety are pointing to: You don’t have the time you think; you only have the time you practice. And it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes paying attention to make a real practice of the Great Matter.

waltzing with the mind-body chatter

I’ve been contemplating the positive correlation between hiding one’s light under a bushel and wimpiness.  When I was a child, my father said, “Work hard.  Excel.  And you will be chosen.”  So I did.  And it has been a never-ending source of confusion to me that no one has yet anointed me the Chosen One.  I’m sure you are just as surprised.  About your own absence of anointment, I mean; because I’m quite sure you too have worked hard, excelled, and waited to be chosen.

Or perhaps, it’s not so much about being chosen but about being seen.  Perhaps it’s about being valued.  Appreciated? Or is it about being acknowledged, that briefest of nods our way that says: Well done.

Now, I’m not whining.  Truly.  I’m wondering about those moments when I’m caught between stepping out and showing my talents or stepping back and avoiding opportunity denied.  I always thought it would be terribly self-centered to do the former and yet could not bear the thought of the latter.  So I suspect over the years I’ve done this silly awkward dance, hauling that little light of mine out with one hand and having the bushel poised over it in the other.

End result: A wimpish waltz with fate.

What to do?  I’ve started reading a rather captivating book on Zen practice sent along for review* which has a few nuggets about this and that.  What caught me however, though the author himself doesn’t write of this relationship between busheled lights and the wimp factor, is the issue of self-centeredness.  He notes that zazen is the slowing down of this self-centered mind-body chattering we live out.


Yes, you read it right.  It is the chattering that is self-centered.  Not the stepping out or the appropriate proclamation of one’s expertise, goodness, rightness, capability, and power.

The mind is self-centered.  Autogenic: it creates itself in the world it creates.  And, if we lack awareness, of the mind-body link, the body follows close at its heels.

That’s quite the revelation for me.  Now the real problem: what shall I do with all these bushels?


*The review will be published sometime in June.

groping the elephant

Eminent students [of the Dharma], long accustomed to groping for the elephant, pray do not doubt the true dragon.*

I like my misconceptions.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say I don’t dislike them enough.  In fact, they are so weakly challenged for their right of passage through my inner world that they tend to leave quite a mess behind.  None of this genteel “guests” in the Guesthouse à la Rumi.  And yet, strangely, I like them for the momentary respite they give me from reality.

Then on Monday, Barry at Ox Herding wrote a lovely post on reality to which I commented that “if reality is not optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  So there you have it.  Grope on that elephant all you want; reality will win out when you sit atop it and the tree trunks start moving.

*Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting: Essential writings on the zen practice of shikantaza.

PS: Barry has graciously offered his new book The Path of Zen to everyone.  It’s simply beautiful… and very real!  Please click here to obtain a copy.  A deep bow of gratitude for all your teachings, Barry!

Edit: “if reality is optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  Not surprising I’m always confused!

buddha, ltd

Do not try to become a buddha.  How could being a buddha be limited to sitting or not sitting?*

It’s difficult not to feel the pressure of time multiplied by dreams of what was to be.  These days I hear a little voice, more frequently than is comfortable, whispering, “It’s too late.”  Too late for this dream to be realized, too late for that wish to be fulfilled.  It’s not the frantic rabbity sense of “too late” but more a slothful, sluggish drag-my-butt sense of a compressed future.  I can be quite rational about this urgency (or lack thereof) when it relates to the to-do list of career or social eddies.  However, in matters of practice, it is a turbo-charged driveness that isn’t always useful.

And then I’m reminded that buddha or buddha-limited, sitting up-straight is the only option.  In fact, not just sitting up-straight but being upright is non-negotiable.

I think I’ll start a new organization: buddha, limited.  Anyone want to join as CEO?

*Dogen, Recommending Zazen to All People.  In Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.), Enlightenment Unfolds: The essential teachings of Zen Master Dogen.

an opportunity provided by a finger

Practice, apparently, is not about recognizing esoteric signs.  Fingers (flipped or no), banners, needles or mallets don’t count.  Nor do Rorschach leavings in the bottom of my ink pots.  Realization of our true nature doesn’t come carefully packaged and delivered by Fed-Ex.  And, listen carefully, it definitely doesn’t arise out of being whacked by a kyosaku, pummelled by a fist, a staff or a shout*.

This is the place we get stuck.  We try to understand enlightenment by our discriminative mind; yet, our discriminative, our discursive thought, is the very thing that binds us.  The question really is how to go beyond, how to transcend that dichotomy.  But we all have to start with that discriminative mind. 

At this point, I am beginning to get the inkling that I’ve wasted precious practice time diving into shallow waters.  But the discriminative mind, the mind that wants to have evidence, steps, and stories, is what we have as the start point.  Perhaps that first tentative step (or sometimes ego-inflated step) is simply to want this because my own suffering is too much and I am willing to take, buy, trade, barter time on the cushion for the promise of relief.

That’s ok.  Unless it stops there.

*Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed), The Art of Just Sitting, 2nd Edition

like the dragon gaining water

Happy New Year!  It’s been a lovely week of connections which reminded me of the value of sinking into time and space intimately.  It’s also been a very reflective period and I’ve been thinking about how the path through 2012 is going to begin for me.    And, without even trying, here it is: a keystroke, a letter, a sequence of symbols that make a word and then a sentence.  I make no claims that 2012 will have any more clarity or less pretense to comprehension than did 2011.  However, I do find myself  exploring what it means to connect with the intimate truth of my life.

Ok, so I’m not even sure what that means but I have been diving deep into conversations about my tendency to speak to the truth of whatever I am connected with – be it a relationship, a situation, a mess unfolding.  And yes, I do understand that “truth” can be relative but “the intimate truth” of our experience is not.  It is that undeniable moment when we are aligned with our values and fired by the passion of our commitment to live fully.  

Well, it should be undeniable, shouldn’t it?  But that moment of knowing who I am often shape-shifts around who I think I am in the minds of others.  It becomes infused with a fog of fear I then need to step through, asking of me a depth of courage and clarity of realization that to stay lost in the projections of others is a dangerous thing in word and deed.

If all of that is too confusing, simply remember this: it is the year of the water dragon.  Nagas (dragons) are intimate with water; it is their truth, what makes them realized.   So too, I hope we will gain the water like a dragon diving deep into its true home.

As Dogen taught in Recommending Zazen to All People*, there is no learning this.

It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease.  It is the practice-realization of complete enlightenment.  Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets.  Once you experience it, you are like a dragon swimming in the water or a tiger reposing in the mountains.  Know that the true dharma emerges of itself, clearing away hindrances and distractions.

*Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.), Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen.