Living and Dying in Zazen:
Five Zen Masters of Modern Japan
New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 2003
176 pp.; $16.95 (paper)
In the late sixties, young, wide-eyed Westerners inspired by the writings of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts began arriving in Japan to study Zen. The conservative Buddhist establishment was largely unprepared to welcome these outsiders, most of whom did not speak the language and were untutored in the nuances of Japanese society. But a few temples with broad-minded roshis bravely opened their doors.
Two of those temples were situated near one another on the northern outskirts of Kyoto. Antaiji, a somewhat dilapidated Soto monastery run by the now-legendary Kosho Uchiyama, perched on top of a steep hill overlooking the city. Ryokoin, a subtemple of the Rinzai bastion Daitokuji, sat at the bottom of the hill. Gentaku, the neighborhood that stretched between, was where the growing expatriate community settled down to practice.
Arthur Braverman arrived in Japan in 1969 and found his way to Antaiji, where he became Uchiyama’s student. Like many of his generation, Braverman brought with him the preconception that enlightenment was the goal, zazen the means to achieve it, and the Zen master a superior being with quasi-mystical powers who would lead the way.
Uchiyama was not what Braverman expected. Known for his adherence to pure, unembellished zazen, Uchiyama offered all who entered his zendo the opportunity to meditate in a traditional setting for extended periods of time—five hours on normal days, and fourteen hours a day during the frequent sesshins (intensive retreats). He kept ceremony and ritual to a minimum, and hardly spoke of enlightenment. Living and Dying in Zazen is Braverman’s account of the sort of Zen he encountered in Japan, and of the gradual demythologization of his relationship with his teacher—a process that continued long after he left Japan.
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