State University of New York Press: Albany, 1993.
212 pp. $14.95 (paper).
To be a Buddhist in the United States can sometimes mean struggling with a sense of cultural inadequacy. What would it be like to be a Buddhist in a Buddhist world, to have come to Buddhism as a child, surrounded by other practicing Buddhists? Journey in Search of the Way, the autobiography of a Japanese peasant woman named Satomi Myodo, dispels and fuels this feeling in turn. Satomi-san had the deep courage of the true spiritual seeker, and she grew up in a spiritually lively world, much of it Buddhist in flavor. Her story, written in 1956 when she was a sixty-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, is full of wonders and anguish, wonders that seem almost ordinary in her cultural context, and anguish that is in no way lessened by the multiplicity of spiritual seekers around her.
Satomi-san lived in a particularly turbulent time, from 1896 to 1978, the period of transition from feudal to modern Japan. But she also lived in a timeless world of poverty and farming, a world where spirits hover, families stay in one place for generations, and the constricted roles of gender and class define the boundaries of each person’s life. Satomi-san’s narrative often has the strange flavor of the supernatural invading ordinary life, but unsurprisingly so. Throughout Journey in Search of the way (which was first issued by Shambhala in 1987 under the title Passionate Journey) the reader senses the compelling pressures in the life of a woman driven by spiritual hunger to escape many of the most restrictive boundaries within which she was raised—a woman who nevertheless wasn’t able to find peace until she found zazen.
The short manuscript by Satomi-san is coupled with a helpful commentary by Sallie B. King, a professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia. King elucidates the more obscure aspects of Satomi-san’s experience, which Satomi-san herself takes for granted.
Satomi-san’s first ripened spiritual practice was that of Shinto spiritualism, specifically that of working as a miko. Mikosare female shamans who have been a fixture in rural Japan since ancient times and, according to King, still found in small numbers today. Mikos are “employed” by poor farming people to answer questions, interpret dreams, find lost objects, and make predictions, something they can do when possessed by one or more of the Japanese gods known as kami. Here King’s accompanying commentary is very useful, because kami are especially out of the ordinary for the American reader, even one with a basic familiarity with Japanese history.
Satomi-san hungered from a young age for spiritual truth, and even when her first teacher led her into kami possession, she felt herself to be a spiritual sham. But after her first successful possession she could call up a trance state at will. “In this manner,” she writes, “I wandered from the True Way and fell to the level of a mystery monger, chasing vainly after marvels.”
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