In 1987, Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu, arrived in Kyoto, Japan, bearing two suitcases and the name of a local Buddhist temple. Determined to learn, from the inside, all that he could of Zen and of Japanese culture, Iyer cultivated friendships with both natives and foreigners: with Mark, an artist from San Francisco who had lived in Japan on and off for fifteen years, learning to paint in the traditional Zensumi-e (ink) style; with Mark’s friend Kazuo, a teacher of animal sciences at Kyoto University who is reluctantly in training for the Tendai Buddhist priesthood so that he can one day take over his family’s temple; and most of all, with Sachiko, a young mother striving to break out of the narrow role prescribed for women. The following accounts are excerpted from Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, published this fall by Knopf.
One reason I had always been interested in Zen was my sense that for people like myself, trained in abstraction, Zen could serve as the ideal tonic. For Zen, as I understood it, was about slicing with a clean sword through all the Gordian knots invented by the mind, plunging through all specious dualities—East and West, here and there, coming and going—to get to some core so urgent that its truth could not be doubted. The best lesson Zen could teach—though it was, of course, something of a paradox to say or even think it—was to go beyond a kind of thinking that was nothing more than agonizing, and simply act. In that sense, Zen reminded me of Johnson’s famous refutation of Berkeley by kicking a stone. It was unanswerable as pain.
This training had particular appeal for me, perhaps, because I had often thought that the mind was, quite literally, a devil’s advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction; an imp that delighted in self-contradiction and yet, though full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. None of the truest things in life-like love or faith was arrived at by thinking; indeed, one could almost define the things that mattered as the ones that came as suddenly as thunder. Too often, I thought, the rational faculty tended only to rationalize, and the intellect served only to put one in two minds, torn apart by second thoughts. In that sense, God could be said to be nothing but the act of faith itself. Religion lay in the leap and not the destination. And Zen was as much as anything a refutation of doubt itself; a transcendence of the whole either/or sensibility that makes up all our temporizing. Instead of temporizing, as Thoreau might have said, why do we not eternize?
In all these ways, Zen seemed the natural product of a culture that has little time for philosophical speculation but stresses instead the merits of ritual, rigor, and repetition. The directness of Zen appeared to reflect the utilitarian concreteness of modern Japan, where people seemed rarely to dwell on suffering or to give themselves to close self-study. Zen, after all, was about wholeheartedness—or, at least, whole-mindedness. Strictly speaking, I knew, both Shintoism and Jodo Buddhism, the other great faiths of Japan, were equally free of doctrine and scripture, and, moreover, Zen had been invented by an Indian monk in China. The first Zen temples were active in Korea before the teaching had ever come across the Tsushima Strait to Japan. Yet still the finest achievements of the discipline today were associated with Japan, not least because the qualities sought out by Zen—spareness, self-discipline, precision seemed closest to those of Japan. Did Zen help to create the features of Japan, or did Japan help to form the distinctive qualities of Zen—it was a question as old in its way, and unending, as the famous Zen conundrum “What was your face before you were born?” Whatever the answer, I thought, if Zen had not existed, the Japanese would have had to invent it.
Talking to Mark, though, and to Kazuo, had already brought me a little closer to earth. Besides, I knew that coming to Japan hoping to find a world guided by the stern and gentle precepts of Buddhism was as misguided as going to America hoping to find a society graced at every turn by Christianity (but America was shaped and strengthened by Christian writers, one could almost hear a visitor saying—Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot: how could modern America be so forgetful of its inheritance?). I realized, too, that the very qualities that made Zen so attractive to me were also the ones that made it so alien. Most of all, I suspected that if the Japanese really did have a religion, it was very likely one that outsiders like myself would not be able to recognize if we saw it, since it would probably have more to do with rituals than with texts. That religion could have a shifting relation to morality; that religious affiliations could be taken off or put on again as easily as costumes; that the Japanese could partake of what Rexroth had called “a secular mysticism, which sees experience as its own transcendence”—that religion, in short, could be capricious and practical as love, that other celebrated act of nondenominational faith, was something we Santa Barbarians found hard to understand.
I got a glimpse of this one day when Mark and I came across a Zen student from New York, who was all marshmallowy Woman with Teacup, 19th-century Japanese print softness. (“And what are you doing in Japan?” she cooed. “A journalist? Oh, how wonderful!“) As we walked away, Mark, usually so gentle, could hardly contain his impatience. “Jeez,” he began, shaking his head, “that’s the kind of stuff the Zen guys can’t stand! Because they know what it’s really like—how tough and rigid and down-to-earth it is: waking up at three a.m. in the winter and sweeping leaves in the rain and going begging in the snow. Yet these Zen students are always coming over from America and putting on this weird, goody-goody kind of sweetness. And the Zen guys know that has nothing to do with it.” As he talked, I could see how right he was, yet also, perhaps, how protective of the Zen he knew. The hardest part of this discipline, like any other, must be to free oneself from a notion of what it was to protect.
Meanwhile, my occasional dabbling in Zen straggled on. Often, I asked Mark directly about the Zen experience, but more often he gave me glimpses of it when I did not ask. Left to his own devices, he rarely seemed to talk about either his painting or his training. . . . When I asked him about this reticence one day, he said quietly, “That’s my teacher. He believes that the first thing you must do is to get yourself together as a person. The painting’s really just an act of discovery; it’s so direct that it becomes a way of seeing yourself. So, in sumi-e, there’s really no difference between the state of your mind and the state of your art. My teacher, for example, has two altars in his house—one devoted to Shibayama and one to Basho: the abbot and the artist. And he has his own temple on Awajishima. But for him, I think, his painting is a form of meditation.” He fell silent. “Usually, I wouldn’t use that kind of word around foreigners, because they haven’t got a very deep sense of meditation. They think it just means mindlessness, emptying out.”
“Whereas in fact it means mindfulness?”
“Yeah. And emptying out, but with awareness. It’s hard to understand unless you’ve done some sitting. Some of these guys, they’re just incredible. I remember one group of monks that did zazen for forty-nine straight days after their head monk died. I was amazed, but when I thought about it, it really wasn’t so strange. Their teacher just believed that zazen was the only truth and that was the way to go.”
In sumi-e, he said, as in haiku or in any Zen training, the aim was to develop a discipline so sure and a spirit so true that one could afford to be utterly spontaneous; to get into such a state of deliberateness that as soon as one put pen to paper, one would produce something powerful and true (like Shakespeare, perhaps, never blotting a line). Thus a sumi-e painting should be quick and direct as an ax cutting wood (akin, I thought, to Shelley’s definition of poetry as a “sword of lightning, ever unsheathed”). Instantaneous in its execution, a sumi-e painting should catch the moment before it fled, and let the moment speak, unclouded by hesitations or revisions.
Before I left the monastery, I went for an audience with the roshi, whose presence I had felt all the time I was in Kyoto, as Mark’s longtime friend and Sachiko’s steady counselor. Seated in a thick leather chair, a tiny figure in huge orange robes, his windows thrown open to the green and golden quiet of the garden, he looked at me with warm and piercing eyes. He greatly feared for Zen in America, he told me over tea, because everyone there was after instant wisdom. Some people were so intent on satori, or instant revelation, that they actually bought books with answers to koan. The Americans did have one advantage over the Japanese, insofar as they were willing to take one day a week off. But as long as one reminded oneself constantly of how much fun one should be having on a holiday, it was not, in the true sense, a “holy day.”
Shuzen-ji Shrine at Dawn
Single strand of a spider’s web,
bearer of beams in the morning sun,
swaying like a tightrope between branch and nook.
The breeze moves, and it’s touched by light.
The breeze moves, and nothing’s there.
Izu: August 20, 1990
The “pride” of Americans, he went on, and their openness to challenges were exemplary; but he worried about their ambition, their love of celebration. By coming to Zen with their minds, they were all but ensuring their failure at a discipline whose aim, after all, was to short-circuit the mind. “You should not think about the koan,” he said, as any Zen master must. “You should become the koan.”
During his own training, he explained, his teacher, Shibayama-roshi, had shouted at him constantly, “Be an idiot! Be a fool!” And in time, it had worked. At first, when he had begun, he had always been thinking of his girlfriend and his college pals. For five years, he had not been free of this. Intense meditation, after all, sharpened the very powers of memory that were the main block to meditation. But then, at last, he had learned to live in the moment.
The roshi ended, in the classic Zen manner, with a story. Once upon a time, an old man was trying to explain to his grandson the belief of Jodo Buddhism that the Pure Land lies in the West. Practical and alert as children are, the little boy had pointed out that if you go west, and farther west, you end up going around the world and back where you first started. Paradise, in short, was all around us, if only we would stop and look.
I got my final taste of how the Japanese secede from Time when Etsuko invited me, one late summer day, to a traditional teahouse along the Philosopher’s Path. Inside a spotless antechamber, we sipped some piquant apple juice, in tiny tumblers, fresh as mountain water. Then we followed a woman in a kimono out into the exquisite garden, one small stone wrapped in black marking the direction. Again we found ourselves inside a waiting room—all polished black tables, and a single paper lantern, plover-shaped.
Within the tearoom itself, every detail sang the shifting of the seasons. The poem in the tokonoma alcove spoke of hearts resembling the autumn moon. An incense holder reproduced the circle of the harvest moon. The seven autumn grasses poked, haphazardly elegant, out of a long-necked vase. “In tea,” said Etsuko softly, “we can get a taste of eternity—if I may use such a term.” She giggled self-consciously. . . . “By concentrating on the ritual, on all the forms and details, we can clean ourselves out. And then we can return more strongly to our usual lives.”
In the distance, I could hear the faintest implication of a koto. The temple bells were beginning to sound along the eastern hills. . . . Autumn, and departure, were quickly drawing near.
Just as I was packing my final bags, though, Sachiko gave me the finest farewell gift of all: a sense of what the discipline of Zen really meant. For as she readied herself for a new kind of life, living at a tangent to the norm and seeing people turn away from her whenever she told them that she was about to leave her marriage, the only friends who came unfailingly to her assistance, encouraging her to extend herself and disinterestedly offering her all the support she needed, were those she had made through the temple. . . .
Most often, though, when she found herself in need of counsel, she went to see the abbot of Tofukuji. And he calmly told her that he would give her anything she needed to keep herself and her children in good health. Would two thousand dollars a month be enough? If she wanted more, he said, she only had to ask.
Though Sachiko politely declined the offer—she was determined to do things by herself—the incident gave me a glimpse of what all the meditation was about. “The ultimate purpose of Zen,” I remembered the roshitelling me, “is not in the going away from the world but in the coming back. Zen is not just a matter of gaining enlightenment; it’s a matter of acting in a world of love and compassion.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.