I kept a journal when I went to Japan in January of 1960 to join my husband-to-be, a Beat poet and student of Rinzai Zen living in Kyoto. I continued keeping a journal during the four years I spent there—an account of housewifely copings with an unfamiliar culture, social doings of the foreign community, experiences of practicing meditation, voices of the lineage of writing I wanted to become familiar with, and the exhausting question “Who is this self?” plus a few jokes. Reading back some thirty years later is to acquaint myself again with this somewhat brash but unsure person and to recall the beauty and severity of the practice of Rinzai Zen at Daitoku-ji, one of the greatest historical centers of Japanese Buddhism, in Kyoto.
Zen Buddhism was very much “in the air” during the Beat culture of the late 1950s. D. T. Suzuki’s excellent writing in English and R. H. Blyth’s four volumes of haiku, with its many references to Zen, were available. My own personal fascination with Buddhism came about as a student of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Western philosophy seemed to have come to a dead end, fiddling with such questions as “If you have a headache and take an aspirin, is the pain still there, but just obscured by the aspirin?”
I learned to sit cross-legged Zen-style meditation in San Francisco at a nearby Soto Zen Buddhist Temple, Sokiji, in 1959. Shunryu Suzuki was the new priest there, direct from Japan, and a genuine teacher. Although his English was not very intelligible, his sweet and active pantomime showed us what to do—at 5:30 in the morning. At that hour it took sincere dedication. There was never any possibility of “beyond thinking,” more like “beyond legs falling asleep.” It was during this time that I made plans to go to Japan.
I had met Gary Snyder in 1958 in North Beach when he was visiting the United States, back from his first trip to Japan. I was a part of a group of young writers clustered around the poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. Gary came to our Sunday poetry group and read from Myths and Texts sitting cross-legged on a table with Jack Spicer sitting cross-legged under the table. “Do you like this Boy Scout poetry?” Spicer challenged me. I did indeed, very much.
Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who was Gary’s sponsor in Japan and ran the First Zen Institute in Kyoto, which hired him part-time, made it clear that I could not come and “live” with Gary. We would have to marry. She wrote to him, “If you and Joanne want to marry at any time, and then live in your little house in the mountains, fine. But living together in the little house before marriage won’t do. There are certain fixed social customs that the Institute expects its members to respect.” I bought a wool dress with a scooped neckline, basic black, so I could wear it a lot, starting with the wedding, which happened a few days after I arrived.
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