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.
Mrs. Sasaki’s temple (Ryosen-an), which became the home of the First Zen Institute in Japan, was part of the complex of buildings making up the temples of Daitoku-ji. She had beautifully rebuilt and refurbished it. There was a small zendo in which foreigners could practice meditation, a library building where Zen translation projects went on, and her own comfortable Japanese-style home. This is where I practiced meditation for the next two years: two forty-minute sitting periods in the evening, run in strict monastery zendo style. An American student sitting next to me didn’t want to take his socks off because it was too cold. “Leave them on,” I whispered. When the jikijitsu (meditation monitor) came by, a monk trained in monastery tradition, he thundered, “Take off your socks!” “Fuck you!” said the American. Afterwards we had a meeting. “That monk had the perfect right to haul you off your mat and out the door,” said Mrs. Sasaki. “He’s the boss.”
Western students coming over to study Zen were always thrown off by the language problem. They got disappointed and depressed by realizing how much work it would take before they could do any real Zen with a teacher: learning Japanese, then learning to read Chinese in the Japanese manner so that koans could be translated. So there was a paradox between getting away from books and the intellect, and the necessity of learning enough to get the teachings in the orthodox way it was taught to the Japanese. No adjustments for foreigners.
Spontaneity was to occur between strict walls. I was told I must know my restraints before I could experience “real” freedom. I was encouraged not to read anything “about” Zen (not that there were more than a handful of books available in English), but just to practice sitting, counting breaths. The experience of meditation was an end in itself. Flower arranging was also a good focus. Loving bright flowers, I thought to satisfy some domestic urges for decoration. But taking lessons through the Ikenobo school, I ran into disciplined procedures. “Almost went out of my mind today with frustration [I wrote in my diary]—the branches kept slipping and falling over and all the cherry blossom petals fell off.”
So living and breathing in Japan, acquiring the practice of paying attention to the details of daily life became part of what I perceived as “Zen.” The independent, Western attitudes that I carried were not helpful, especially in Japan where women were expected to play a subservient and supportive role in relationship to men. Ego was something I had tried very hard to acquire and perfect. Loss of same seemed akin to insanity. Ego seemed necessary in order to find and practice my own “poetic voice.” There wasn’t a place for me in the brotherhood of Beat writers. Although no one discouraged me from writing, I was on my own.
A Protestant background led me to perceive some of the trappings of the Buddhist temples – the buddhas and bodhisattvas themselves—as dark, somber, serious. Clearly idols. The Bodhisattva Kannon-san’s compassionate beauty however, especially that of the Kudara Kannon at Horyuki, seven feet tall and standing like a New York model, gave me a sense at least of feminine kinship. But practicing meditation seemed to preclude any confrontation with whether I was a “Buddhist” or not, and the iconography gradually became identifiable as belonging to different states or “energies.” The fiercely horrific guardians outside many temples simply scared away the chicken-shit souls and spirits, and I became happy that they were doing just that.
It was in the grandiose setting of the Main Buddha Hall of Daitoku-ji during rohatsu week (the first week in December, when Buddha became enlightened) that perception shifted for me. “Oh, is this what it’s all about: the bell sounds different, space is different, am I ‘high’?” Thus a small crack in my mind opened while the monks of Daitoku-ji zendo next door sat with almost nonstop intensity for a week. In sanzen (private meeting with the roshi), if the roshi threw them out of the room, there was the head monk with his stick to sometimes drag them kicking and screaming back to the end of the line. This was serious and tough.
This traditional practice of Zen had its very human side too: monks got drunk on get-drunk occasions, cried, sang, danced, flirted, had mistresses, looked down the front of my dress, and went back to their practice. Many of them would return home to run an inherited temple, and were going through traditional monastery practice just to have a “schooling period,” while others were lifelong practicers on the path of “enlightenment” and would stay within the monastery system to become teachers and abbots.
“The mind that reads back will know more truth than I do now.” Reading back through these journals of more than thirty years ago, I try to remember what my expectations were in terms of the practice of Zen. I had no teacher to help make enlightenment—the much spoken-about outcome of Zen—accessible. I was somewhat disillusioned by the bickering and in-fighting that went on in Ryosen-an, and within other Zen factions. But the practice of sitting meditation brought a clarity and focus, a calmness I had never experienced before.
When I left Japan I took that practice with me. You don’t need much for that. The rigorous discipline of traditional monastic Zen of Japan sometimes seemed like what I had heard about U.S. Marine training. I certainly wasn’t up to that. I had a friend whose husband was going through monastery training at Myoshin-ji, a very harsh place for Westerners. He could never get enough to eat from the simple vegetarian food, he couldn’t eat his noodles fast enough. She would bring him homemade doughnuts and he would wolf them down squatting over the privacy of the toilet. “But,” she told me, “it’s worth it, he’s finding a better reality. This here now isn’t reality. Reality is better than this.” It was a depressing thought.
When I returned to California in 1964, I experienced the near-exhilaration of freedom. To me, a foreigner used to West Coast ease, the proscribed manners of living in Japanese culture seemed, for all its gracious attention to the details of living, inhibited and restrictive. However, within these boundaries I discovered how to sweep a floor with proper attention and gained a sturdier but more translucent sense of “self.” The “Square Zen” Alan Watts spoke of, the Zen of the established tradition, was not an accessible practice for me. But the sheer caprice of “Beat Zen” with its “digging of the universe” seemed out of hand too. Sitting with the sangha at Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center when I returned, I was struck with the simplicity of zazen, nothing to prove, nothing to gain. But I was also grateful for the established traditional rules of the zendo, unquestioned, that allowed one’s mind freedom within the form.
Difficulty Along the Way
Seeking Perfect Total Enlightenment
is looking for a flashlight
when all you need the flashlight for
is to find your flashlight
from Ring of Bone, 1973
Reprinted by permission of Grey Fox Press.
A Vision of the Bodhisattvas
They pass before me one by one riding on animals
“What are you waiting for,” they want to know
Z—, young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me
“Some day you’ll drop everything & become a“rishi,”you know.”
The forest is there, I’ve lived in it
more certainly than this town? Irrelevant—
What am I waiting for?
A change in customs that will take 1000 years to come about?
Who’s to make the change but me?
“Returning again and again,” Amida says
Why’s that dream so necessary? walking out of whatever house
Nothing but the clothes on my back, money or no
Down the road to the next place the highway leading to the
From which I absolutely must come back
What business have I to do that?
I know the world and I love it too much and it
Is not the one I’d find outside this door.
from On Bear’s Head, 1969
Harcourt, Brace, World & Coyote.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.