“In the United States and also in China, all we can do is conduct this great sesshin [Rohatsu]. This, I believe, is the essential of essentials. Zazen, kinhin, zazen, kinhin. .” (1, p.87)
It snowed the night before Rohatsu but, as seems to so often happen here in Seattle, that weather system moved right through and it became clear and cold for most of next week. The traces of snow that remained by nightfall froze and persisted throughout that week which had the byproduct of causing one to be extra mindful when walking out of doors. Rohatsu was held at a retreat center right on the Puget Sound which this week was calm with only barely audible gentle swells disturbing it’s surface. Across the water and a fair piece of the mainland the Cascade Mountains, pure with fresh snow, provided a broken horizon for the cold rays of the late autumn sun to illuminate. A few days into sesshin, during outdoor kinhin under the icy blue sky, I recalled the following haiku by Sōen Nakagawa:
sky and water
reflecting my heart(1, p.52)
I had brought Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa, with me to Rohatsu to read during spare moments. There weren’t too many of these, but every so often something would strike me and I’d flip through the book for a corresponding passage or poem almost like a capping phrase to that event. The book was fresh in my mind as it was my text for the Autumn Kessei which I had begun reading during Autumn Sesshin. It seemed fitting to return to it during Rohatsu and just as in the previous sesshin moments in my practice and in the life and poems of Sōen Nakagawa would momentarily align.
Endless Vow is a collection of excerpts from Sōen Nakagawa’s journals, letters and published poems and there are quite a few long gaps when either he wasn’t writing or the material had been published elsewhere. The picture it gives is fragmentary and very personal: clearly not something he’d written with publication in mind. The loose strands are threaded together by a long biographical introduction from Eido Shimano, who was a dharma heir of Sōen Roshi. Shimano paints a picture of an introverted loner driven to practice who chaffed against the rigidity of the Japanese monastery system. In his biographical sketch Eido Shimano writes:
Sōen Roshi’s independent spirit, creativity, and aesthetic sensitivity were extremely attractive to me as a young monk, and I fell in love with him, as did his American students. (1, p.21)
In America, we delighted in calling him untamed; in Japan, they called him untrained, and some turned away from him.” (1, p.24)
I connected strongly with Sōen Roshi’s reverence for the poet-monks of Japan, his many solitary retreats, his penchant for travel and his devotion to Bassui. I had just this summer past spent two months bicycling in the mountains of the Cascades and Sierra’s sitting zazen at sunrise and sunset and contemplating the sayings of Bassui presented in Mud & Water(2). Like Sōen Roshi the wandering poet-monks are a profound influence on myself and while we travel in different worlds the nature of my travelling has brought me closer to them and reading them has influenced my travels. I write my own minimal poems on my wanderings, because I find in a few words a way to express things that I can’t otherwise say.
Endless is my vow
under the azure sky
boundless autumn (1, p.70)
But if there really is one aspect of Sōen Roshi’s character that defined his life it was his dedication as manifested through his many vows. In contrast to his unconventional, rebellious and wild nature that seems to reinforce that, if not exclusively American, particularly American emphasis on individuality, vows instead constrain ones actions. “On October 3rd  I made a vow to live on one meal a day, following the Buddhist scripture. This has resulted in a new-day clarity and expansiveness in my life.” (1, p.52) This was an additional restriction to an earlier vow he had made to only eat nuts, seeds and raw vegetables. Placing these sort of constraints upon his life, along with other such vows as walking barefoot around a mountain, chanting a text some large number of times and actively encouraging and praising others in such dramatic life-modifying ways, stands in contrast to romantic notions of the rebellious wanderer. As I took Jukai during Autumn Sesshin, which is a public vow that we Western followers of the way make, I spent much time contemplating vows and how serious of a matter are they. How many of us take these vows in the spirit that Sōen Roshi did?
I enter the disk of the sun
this autumn day (1, p.128)
Another of Sōen Roshi’s great vows was to spread the Dharma around the world and especially to establish an International Zendo, a “place where true Dharma friends can gather from all over the world, a place not limited to just Buddhism or Zen” (1, p.63). By the late 1960s, with related Zendo’s in Hawai’i, Jerusalem, New York City, London, Cairo and International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo- ji in upstate New York he had fulfilled this vow. Much of his later years had been spent in this effort. This great vow of Sōen Roshi’s which he worked so hard planting seeds is truly an endless vow. The seeds must be spread but then they must be nurtured. Sit after sit I pondered this koan, coming to the understanding that while I may not have the missionary zeal of Sōen Roshi, I am compelled to nurture it lest it grow fallow. And at this moment of Zen in the West nurturing is perhaps what is truly needed. In January 1973 one month before I was born he wrote:
together begin the Ox Year (1, p.137)
Sōen Roshi’s later days were marked by a head injury and increasing isolation. His journals became equally terse with some years only containing an entry regarding the years poetic theme and his attempt to realize it. “Sōen Roshi always said he admired “plain, natural and direct behavior,” but he was such as complicated, indirect, and convoluted person.” (1, p.45) This comment from Eido Shimano is perhaps the most vital lesson to be found herein. Sōen Nakagawa was a Zen Master in the contemporary era and his complicated nature was right here for everyone to see; the rough edges hadn’t been smoothed away by time as with the ancient masters. This renders him approachable, his experiences attainable. Their flaws is one of the gifts of the contemporary masters, allowing us to see ourselves, as imperfect, complicated, and multifaceted as we are, in them.
fills the room
On the sixth day of Autumn sesshin I felt strangely joyous and filled with light during the later morning sits. There was a beam of sunlight coming in behind the alter that caught the incense smoke which was swirling in these absolutely mystical eddies. I was completely transfixed by this until the complex edges (where the fascinating bits always are) drifted away and it was just smoke particles dancing in the light.
There is nothing left
to hurl away(1, p.137)
Originally published in Plum Mountain News volume 21.4
- Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa
Presented, with an introduction by Eido T. Shimano
Compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roko Sherry Chayat
Shambhala, Boston and London, 1996
- Mud and Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
Translated by Arthur Braverman
Wisdom Publications, 2013
- Plum Mountain News vol. 21.4 Winter 2014-15
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