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.

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