The following article is adapted from Throw Yourself into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi. Harada Roshi did not write this story himself, nor did he speak about his life at great lengths, as Kogen Czarnik notes in the editor’s preface; rather, while giving dharma talks Harada Roshi would occasionally recall snippets of his life to illustrate a teaching point, and, using translations of several talks, Czarnik was able to stitch together this autobiography of sorts.

Daniel Ilan Cohen Thin, managing editor

I came into this world with a great debt—my mother gave her own life in order to give birth to me. She already had three children, and when she was pregnant with me she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The doctor urged her to apologize to the baby and to have the cancer removed from her stomach. Those around her, my father as well, tried to persuade her to do it, but she stood firm, vowing “This baby in my belly is going to be born.”

I was born on August 24, the day we worship Jizo Bodhisattva. After that it was too late for the surgery. Just before she died, she very clearly expressed herself to those close to her: “Even after I die, I will care for and protect this child.” She must have prayed fiercely for my protection. She died before my first birthday, and left me in the care of Jizo Bodhisattva.

When I was still very young, when I came to understand what my mother had done for me, I wrote on a piece of paper “My mother laid down her life for me. What does she mean for me to do with this gift?” I continuously wondered what it was that I should do with this life. What was my mother telling me?

A deep questioning arose in me. Whenever I felt a touch of a wind or looked up at the sky overhead, I would ask myself  “What is there down deep beneath the surface of things? There is something I feel but don’t understand. I sense its presence, but I can’t take hold of it.” My inability to answer those questions was a source of such discontentment that I always felt separated from people and things.

I would ride my bicycle home, past shops with their lights shining brightly. The streets were still bustling with people at that time. There were old people, young people, people in between, and as I rode through the streets, with groups of people passing under the bright lights, I would be asking myself “There is life, and all these people are living it. But what is this life? There is something, there is something . . .”

I kept searching, thinking that I had never really been given the opportunity to understand the reason for living. When I was seventeen, I thought I had found it.

I resolved to become like a chair. A chair doesn’t refuse its services to anybody; it just takes care of the sitter and lets them rest their legs. After it has served its purpose, no one gets up and gives thanks or offers words of kindness to the chair. It will more likely get kicked out of the way. The chair doesn’t grumble or complain or bear a grudge, but just takes whatever is given.

A chair doesn’t plop itself down on top of the sitter, right? When there is a job to be done, it puts forth all its energy without picking and choosing according to its desires. I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to have such a heart?” I wrote on a big sheet of paper “Be like a chair,” and every day I took note of how close I came. If even a little dissatisfaction arose, I would regard that as a disgraceful state of mind for a chair. I considered how thoroughly I was of use to others. If I possibly could, I wanted to put others before myself. The endeavor was not at all forced or unnatural; it arose from life itself and was enjoyable, not painful.

Then the war began. We were told by the government that Japan was in real danger. We had to fight against enemies who were portrayed by military propaganda as if they were devils themselves. My perspective was severely limited. I had the sense that I must give my own life to protect those close to me—my parents, my siblings, my teachers, my friends, my fellow countrymen. I was still bound, tied down by a false sense of place, attached to boundaries, to us versus them. I believed that there was an enemy. I didn’t have a sense of wanting to kill or to save my own life, but I wanted to give it to save others.

I volunteered to fly as a kamikaze pilot. My goal in life was already to be of service to others, so sparing my own life was not a factor for me. I gave myself to the training that was required.

I was only nineteen, the youngest one in my company. The training was very strict; they didn’t give us any leeway at all—the slightest mistake and we were out. They were not worried about the human life involved, but they wanted to protect the airplanes. So to get the license you had to be extremely careful. We had to line up in front of military officers responsible for our training, and I was asked “What is your weak point?” I answered that I was prone to act on my own authority, to decide on my own to do something and do it. “That’s not a shortcoming,” I was told. “When the control stick is in your hand, any number of things can happen, and you have to be able to decide and react immediately. You won’t have any time to consult anyone else. You must act on your own authority. So it is a strength,” they said.

Then they asked me what my strength was. “Acting with resolve,” I said. “When I commit to doing something, I don’t back down or get discouraged midway. I definitely carry through with my goal.” But now I see that this wasn’t much of a strength, because when you don’t know what’s right you can carry through with the wrong aim.

We trained hard, finishing in just one year a course that should have taken much longer. We were up against a large, strong country with powerful weaponry. Our hastily and poorly built planes were no match in combat for their fine ones. So our battalion was moved to Manchuria, where the pilots would wait for their orders to fly from there. One by one, the pilots would board airplanes loaded with explosives, take off and aim for large ships. If just one would hit right, a large aircraft carrier with one hundred or so planes could be sunk in one blow. That was what we were studying to do. We all wrote our last words, which were carefully folded, wrapped, and carried by the commander of our battalion. I wrote that I was ready to die for my country at any time, that even knowing I might die in training, I felt no remorse.

It was only five days after my graduation—August 15, 1945—that I was supposed to take my final flight. Other pilots went before me, giving their lives, and I waited my turn. Since I was the youngest, our commander was keeping me last in line. I had my last ritual sake cup. Just when I was on the verge of setting off, we heard the emperor on the radio announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan and the end of the war.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was devastated, because I was not able to do anything to protect my country. Later we learned that we had been deceived by our leaders and that it was Japan who was the aggressor. I was shocked. All my comrades had given their lives, and here I was, still alive, but to what purpose? Nothing made sense to me.

All my comrades had given their lives, and here I was, still alive, but to what purpose? Nothing made sense to me.

It was then that I tasted the bitter pain of living. I suffered the anguish of being alive when so many were dead.

I was in the 24th Company, which is the number of Jizo. The bodhisattva must have followed me right into the army, because I was saved many times over. If the war had ended even one day later, I would have flown my final flight, and I wouldn’t have been able to meet with the teaching of the buddhadharma in this lifetime.

When the war ended, I was sent to a Russian prisoner of war camp for almost a year. Many of my friends died there. We had to bury the dead, yet the ground was so frozen that we couldn’t. So many soldiers died there, most of them in their twenties, dreaming of their homelands and their families.

One day, one of the Russian soldiers asked me to drink alcohol with him. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had no choice but to join him. Since I was so weak and had almost never drunk alcohol before, I got very sick, and I was left in bed in the hospital. The next morning most of my fellow soldiers were sent to the labor camps in Siberia, where they died. Just on the brink of death, again my life was miraculously spared. I was taken care of.

But I couldn’t rejoice in this. I couldn’t appreciate it, not yet. I felt only anguish and despair. Those who had died, was their death in vain? What is the meaning of life? These questions stayed with me. They took over my mind. I had to find out what I could do, what was in my own power to do, to somehow, in some way, make it up to all those young men who had given their lives.

I returned to Japan on June 9, 1946. I spent the next year in suffering. Just at that time of greatest pain and anguish, a concerned friend arranged for me to see a Buddhist nun: Sozen Nagasawa Roshi, the top female disciple of Sogaku Harada Roshi. When I first met her, I knew nothing about Buddhism and I wasn’t even particularly interested in it. She told me that there was a very wise man to whom I could take my questions, someone who could help me find the answer, to help me understand the meaning of life. She arranged for me to attend the November sesshin at Hosshin-ji, where I would meet him. But in the meantime she invited me to come and sit the October sesshin at her own zendo.

At sesshin, Sozen Roshi showed me the lotus position. “Zazen is sitting full lotus; zazen equals full lotus,” I was told. So I jammed my legs in a full lotus position, and the pain was intense—I was in hell after thirty minutes. The pain ran through my body as if my legs were being sawed off at the knees. One minute was eternity, but what an incredibly good thing it was that I practiced as I was instructed, without trying to sneak away from it.

tangen harada roshi zen 1
Calligraphy by Tangen Harada Roshi: “Making a Vow” | Image courtesy Shambhala Publications

Fortunately, I was told to count my breaths. The practice in her temple was to count out loud during sesshin, and I counted so enthusiastically that the glass of the windows rattled. The children who were out playing near the zendo could hear each count, and they came up to the window and peered through the curtain at me. Then, I was asked to count in a softer voice. The zazen of even a beginner manifests the whole essential nature.

After that October sesshin I went to Hosshin-ji as planned, and I was fortunate to be given an audience with Daiun Sogaku Rodaishi, the great master who was to become my teacher. He was tiny and very thin, but he had an enormous surging power. I openly talked to him about my problem, saying “I just can’t live knowing that there were so many that had to die. What can I do in atonement?”

He told me that he understood my suffering, that I could come to be at peace, that there was a way to solve the problem of life and death at its root:

You yourself, you are still alive, so that you can forever and ever follow the path of giving. You can steadily, evermore, give your life to save others. Even with the death of this body, genuine life continues. There is something that does not die. True nature does not disperse like a mist. Knowing true life, you can be at peace. If you really want to understand the meaning of life, true life, it will take all the determination and effort that you can possibly muster. You will not realize the truth if your aim is unclear and if your practice is weak. Your resolve must be absolute. You must be prepared to persevere with single-minded conviction and effort. If you can really commit yourself to seeking this truth, to this one important thing, then you can stay here. But if you are not earnest and sincere, if your commitment is lukewarm, if you won’t be able to make a complete, whole commitment, then you can go home now.

I vowed then and there to awaken to truth, to come to realize my true nature. I had no doubts. I had already resolved to give my life once in the war, so putting my life on the line wasn’t a problem for me. My answer came from the bottom of my heart: “I will give it my all, to practice just as you show me.”

I will never forget the look in his eyes at that time, when he stared right into me—this kid, still well behind in years, who knew nothing—as I vowed to follow his teaching. His eyes were small and black as coal. How they shone when he said simply “You may stay. The Way is one. You follow this one Way, this one practice. Don’t allow your value judgments to enter into it. Be a pure white sheet of paper. Let go of everything. That is the only way.”

From then on, I did give it my all. Of course, my practice was still greedy, immature, far from perfect—but I practiced just as I was instructed. Doing each one thing, this one thing, I poured my entire being into it. I hurled myself into zazen without knowing anything about ordination, without even considering the possibility of becoming a monk myself. I simply tried to listen to my teacher’s instructions.

Author (right) with Sogaku Harada Roshi (center right), Sozen Nagasawa Roshi (center left), and Tomiko Shiroyama (left) | Photo courtesy Shambhala Publications

On the first day of each sesshin, we were told: “Those who have resolved to break through during this sesshin, make gassho.” We couldn’t get by carelessly making gassho, whether we meant it or not. If you did gassho at that time, it meant you were prepared to give your life in practice. You would break through even if it would cost you your life. You weren’t permitted the luxury of that gassho unless it was life or death.

The zendo was set up to make sure that we didn’t look away from our practice. At any given time, several monitors patrolled ready to strike anyone who was looking away in distraction. The sound of the kyosaku could always be heard, cracking, urging us to stay with it, to remain attentive to our practice. From the first round of the morning till the last round at night, we were given no slack.

Going for dokusan [a private interview between student and master] with Daiun Roshi could be really frightening. He never smiled. With just a phrase, just one word from him, sweat would pour down my back. One day I remember going into dokusan, and I sniffed through my nose. I was intending to be practicing wholeheartedly and that sniff was part of it, but it must have been posturing wholehearted practice. “What’s this? Coming in here to sniffle?” he growled at me and immediately rang me out before I had even finished my prostrations. If I didn’t put myself into it one hundred percent, I was not allowed to come into the room. An instant of carelessness, grasping, or holding, and immediately—clang, clang, clang—I was out. I often thought “He sure can see it like it is, can’t he?”

When Daiun Roshi would come into the zendo, he would walk around hitting everybody with the kyosaku. He would shout “You have all your meals provided for you, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Your futon is ready for you to rest; you can sleep at night. So what are you dawdling over? Get on with it!” And then this long stick would fall on our shoulders. I felt the blows from the tip of my head right down to the tailbone.

At night, after the last round of zazen, I would go to the graveyard or to the forest or mountain and practice. In wintertime if I would grow sleepy during yaza [voluntary meditation time in addition to the sesshin routine], I would break a hole in the ice of the pond and jump in, then go back and continue my sitting. I made efforts in a way that I would not want anyone to try to imitate. I thought that I would concede my very life for the sake of dharma.

I have to mention as a caution that in giving my all to this practice I went overboard and ruined my health. That was not good, so Daiun Roshi told me to leave Hosshin-ji until I had recovered. While I was ill, I was blessed to meet and develop an acquaintance with Tenshu Nakano, an older monk and student of Daiun Roshi who took me under his wing and cared for me in his temple. That monk skillfully led me to become a monk myself. So when I got better, I returned to Hosshin-ji and was ordained.

I continued to give myself to the practice more and more. Daiun Roshi was very strict with me. It was taking me a long time. He continued pushing, refusing to recognize my experience, any experience that was not thoroughgoing. I made my final resolution: I would break through during the next sesshin or die. I was really serious about it; I knew it came down to this last sesshin, practicing with all my might.

I made my final resolution: I would break through during the next sesshin or die.

It must have been the seventh day of sesshin. I can never forget that morning as I sat absorbed in the samadhi of one doing, unaware of my surroundings, unaware that the dokusan bell had been sounded and the zendo was practically empty. The tanto [monk in charge of training] tapped my shoulder very gently, just a light touch—but a touch with a vast resonance. My mind opened. Even a gentle touch of encouragement can be received, can resonate unutterably, as it did for me that morning.

I flew to dokusan boldly and surely, just naturally, differently from any other time before. Up until then, if I went into dokusan and tried to say anything, Roshi would immediately ring his bell. But this time I just glided in, and Daiun Roshi breathed in deeply, swallowing me up. He stared into my eyes fiercely. For the first time a half smile appeared on his face.

That time I didn’t have to hear a bell ringing, instead my teacher said “Let’s check you.”

My responses were spontaneous, uncontrived. 

 “At last, moderate understanding,” he said, “at last.”

That night I was so filled with pure happiness that I couldn’t sleep, but I might have been dozing off and on in a state of wakeful sleep. I didn’t know if I was dreaming or not when my own mother, whom I had never seen, came to me.

From behind she wrapped her arms around me and took my hands in hers. Together, we rose into the sky. Flying through the sky, I could feel the cold air on my cheeks. She was like an angel. As we flew, she communicated this to me, though not in words but through her life: “I’m very glad; I’m so glad.” 

If I had not broken through during that last sesshin, I would not have been alive that night. I had made the final determination. But I believe that to my mother the most important thing was not that I had satori but that I had not lost my life. I believe she was expressing her deep wish that I would be protected: “I’m very glad; I’m so glad.” A mother’s mind is universal.

After that sesshin, my world was transformed. All stingy grasping fell away; all distinctions melted away. I continued to practice as Daiun Roshi instructed me, but now even if I wanted to look away, I could no longer do so. I just continued my practice. I knew true peace, that all is well. There is no inside, no outside. All is one—one all-encompassing one. This truth which I was able to accept and receive holds true, remains steady anytime, anywhere, wherever I walk on this wide, wide planet. This truth is universal. Wherever you find yourself, there is only this one truth.

Now I’ve told you the story of my experience in Zen practice, but there is a danger here. The danger is that you might get the discouraging idea that my story and experience were too dramatic and special and that you yourself could never hope to experience anything like it. This is not true. I just did the one and only thing I was told to do. I did it to the best of my ability. You cannot do what you cannot do, but you can do this one thing to your utmost. Regardless of what I did in my practice, the key remains the same for everyone—complete sincerity. You must give your all. Holding on to nothing, you must become your practice. So from my own experience, I can tell you this: If you set out to do it, it will be done—if you don’t try, it won’t be done. When something isn’t done, it is because you didn’t try to do it.

Adapted from Throw Yourself into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi by Tangen Harada, translated by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa and edited by Kogen Czarnik. Translation © 2012 by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa. Edited and revised translation © by Piotr Czarnik. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .