Zen Seeds: Relfections of a Female Priest
By Shundo Aoyama. Translated by Patricia Daien Bennage.
Kosei Publishing Company: Tokyo, 1990.
162 pp. $5.95 (paperback).

The short chapters of Shundo Aoyama’s Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest resound in the mind like a temple bell. Modest and unassuming, she cuts through concepts and theories about Zen, bringing the reader back to ordinary experience as the source of spiritual wakening. Zen Seeds is less a manual of Zen practice than a guide for living a fully realized life. It reminds us of what we already know.

Drawing from Buddhist scripture, the writings of Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), talks by contemporary Zen masters, the work of haiku poets, and incidents in her own life, Aoyama addresses the dilemmas of daily life in and outside the monastery. She writes of a lay trainee’s bloody suicide attempt during a three-day zazenretreat; of a taxi driver’s despair at the seeming worthlessness of his profession; of her tea-ceremony students who have become mothers; of the death of her father; and of the master-disciple relationship.

We learn that Aoyama, now abbess of Muryo-ji and Aichi Semmon Niso-do, a Soto Zen training temple for women, was brought to Muryo-ji more than fifty years ago, at the age of five. Her aunt, Shuzan, who was chief priest there at the time, made no exceptions for the child. In the chapter entitled “My Two Teachers,” Aoyama describes those early years: “Shuzan, while she was really a warm person, was also strict. For 365 days of the year, she never permitted me to sleep late. We got up while it was still pitch dark outside to hold morning service.” On holidays she was allowed exactly one hour after lunch for play. “One time when I was out playing, I lost track of time and returned an hour late,” she recalls. “Shuzan poured a bucket of well water over my head and scolded me severely.” Even during high school, no deviation from the temple schedule was permitted.

Although the essential matter of this book transcends cultural categories, many of the references may strike American readers as quite foreign: the unquestioning adherence to strict discipline; the belief in oracles, demons, and hungry ghosts; and the language of devotion. Indeed, Aoyama seems to deify Shakyamuni Buddha, perhaps in an effort to reach readers accustomed to a Christian or Pure Land Buddhist approach. Still, the underlying message of Zen Seeds is that it is up to each of us to lead our lives in accordance with our inherently enlightened minds. “However well we understand that we manifest the life of the Buddha, we cannot realize our full potential unless we practice the Buddha’s teachings.”

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