Can we be present to each moment of our lives? Soko Morinaga Roshi teaches us a liberating presence in play.
I would like to tell you a story which has moved me very deeply. It is the story of a woman, Miss Okamoto, who stayed by my teacher’s side for forty years, up until his death.
Miss Okamoto was a very talented woman who graduated in the Taisho Era from Ochanomizu Girls’ College. She was active in the field of young women’s education in both Tokyo and Kyushu until, at the age of forty, she entered the temple as a disciple of Master Zuigan. She trained as a layperson, never shaving her head and taking the vows of a nun, but also never wearing makeup as an ordinary laywoman. She carried out all her affairs tidily attired in baggy work pants.
It was not her intention to become a great monk, so rather than focus on the training itself, she worked hard to make life smooth for the master whom she so respected. By washing clothes, cooking, and raising fresh vegetables Miss Okamoto ensured that he would always be available to teach the dharma to others. Anyone who looked at Miss Okamoto would see a thoroughly self-sacrificing person.
Master Zuigan died at the age of eighty-seven, when Miss Okamoto was sixty years old. When the final ceremony of the forty-nine-day bereavement period was concluded, she packed up her belongings and, declaring that she did not wish to be a burden to me, left the temple. She moved into the rented cottage of a different temple, where she continued the live out her years of retirement, under no one’s supervision, just as she had lived when Master Zuigan was alive.
Miss Okamoto rose every morning at 4:15 and, although she had made no formal commitment to do so, cleaned the temple gardens surrounding her rented room. She cultivated vacant land and planted vegetables which she would pickle to offer the novice monks in training under me, to share with visitors, and to offer at the Buddha altar.
When she was already into her seventies, feeling that she wanted to improve herself in whatever way she could, Miss Okamoto began to come inside after a day of sweeping, pulling weeds, and gardening. At other times, remembering the lectures she had heard Roshi give on various Zen works, she would open koan collections like the Blue Cliff Record and The Gateless Gate. Such was the life Miss Okamoto led.
She was a little old lady, short, with a round boyish face, but her exceptionally strict, upright lifestyle had given rise to something forbidding in Miss Okamoto, and the young novice monks were never pleased when they were sent to her place on an errand.
I visited Miss Okamoto monthly, and she always seemed eager for these visits. But one day, she sent a message to the effect that she wanted me to call on her right away as she had something urgent to talk to me about.
“Here for the past half year, I’ve been suffering intense physical weariness,” she began when I visited her. “Thinking that I had reached the age when I was growing dull, I tried to whip myself along, to keep going, but I just wasn’t getting any better.
“Finally,” she explained, “there seemed to be nothing to do but ask someone to take me to see a doctor. Although the doctor didn’t say it in so many words, it seems that I have cancer. Since I found this out, I have been afraid of dying.”
Her words were an echo of those of my old schoolteacher. But not only was Miss Okamoto afraid of dying, she was also ashamed of that fear. She felt it disgraceful to fear death after having been allowed to train for so long under her teacher. She felt tremendous gratitude toward the Zen sect and toward the Roshi, and it was unbearable for her to think that those around her might feel Zen practice is useless since it apparently does not even help one to overcome apprehension in the face of death.
“What in the world is the problem with the way I have practiced up until now - that death could be this frightening? Please tell me how I have been wrong in my practice,” she beseeched, opening up to me as if I were her own son.
Although Miss Okamoto was twenty-four years my elder, her earnest confession prompted me, despite her years, to bluntly call to her attention something in her manner which had already been weighing on my mind.
This woman had led a flawless, commendable life, but she had always stoically gritted her teeth in an effort “to do good, to avoid doing evil.” Sharply distinguishing between “good” and “bad,” forever sizing up and passing judgment on the situation, she went about her endeavors to “do better,” but always with her teeth clenched fast. But let me be very clear about this: The kind of effort in which one bisects good and bad, and then chooses one over the other with the intent to stack up causes for positive results does not in itself produce peace of mind.
As I explained to Miss Okamoto, you come out from your mother’s womb and go into your coffin. That time in between, you call life, and perhaps you think of going into your coffin as death. But true existence is birth and death, repeating itself, instant by instant. If you look at a flame, it seems to burn continuously and give off constant light. In actuality, the wax is burning down bit by bit, and the wick which blazes in this instant exhausts itself, passing the flame further along.
Our lives appear to be unbroken blocks of seventy or eighty continuous years, but, actually, . . . when you maintain the straightforward frankness of your own mind as it comes to life each instant, even without effort, even without training, you are beautifully born each instant. You die with each instant, and go on to be born again, instant by instant.
As I told Miss Okamoto, when you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, be born in the kitchen. When you finish there, die. Then be born again at the dining table as you eat your dinner and, when you finish eating, die there. Be born in the garden, and sweep with your broom. When you get into bed at night, die there. And when daylight comes, and you awaken in your bed, be born anew. If you have cancer, be born with cancer.
Always now—just now—come into being. Always now - just now - give yourself to death. Practicing this truth is Zen practice.
I have seen many people practice. But I do not know of anyone who so splendidly, so thoroughly put my instructions into practice as did Miss Okamoto. She complied as docilely as a lamb. It wasn’t even ten days before her rigid countenance had softened into a baby face, into the face of a sweet old lady. She had left behind the lifestyle in which she had to grit her teeth and try to live right.
Miss Okamoto’s disease grew progressively worse, and she finally had to be hospitalized. I remember that when I called on her, the doctors and nurses all remarked that thought they had worked in the hospital for many years, they had never encountered a patient like this one. By the time Miss Okamoto entered the hospital, she was greeting everybody, everything, every scene in the spirit of “one chance, one encounter.”
Most people interpret this “one chance, one encounter” as applying to some very special occurrence, a once-in-a-lifetime magnificent encounter. The phrase calls to mind, for example, a tea ceremony, which happens as it happens only one time. It is generally reasoned that something which happens only once in a lifetime, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, has to be an exceedingly special occasion, and the expression is commonly limited to this usage.
In its true sense, however, “one chance, one encounter” may occur whenever one encounters a stone, when one comes upon a weed, when one is cleaning the toilet or cooking rice. It refers to a favorability or adversity, in which there is absolutely no notion of escape. “One chance, one encounter” is to wholly melt within each one occurrence, and this is just the way Miss Okamoto saw her life out.
Unfortunately, I had agreed to journey to England and the United States again at that particular time, and I left feeling uneasy. I instructed my disciples to care for Miss Okamoto during my absence, but she passed away without waiting for my return. When I came back, I heard from my oldest disciple, the monk who had last attended her, about the final moments before her death. Although this was a man who seldom allowed any expression to cross his face, tears streamed from his eyes as he told the story.
Before Miss Okamoto died, she said to him, “Looking back, I have led a pretty stuffy life all these years. So I think I’ll just take a ball and go out and play in the woods now.” These were her last words.
We placed a pretty ball, made of colored threads, inside her grave.
I hope that you will not merely take Miss Okamoto’s final words for their emotional or their literary appeal. When I heard what she had said at the last, I felt joy from the bottom of my heart. Joy, because I was confident that in her living and in her dying, Miss Okamoto had literally reached a state was can call the “samadhi of play.”
If a person is working for wages, shoveling sand onto the bed of a truck with a shovel, they may get tired. Should someone happen along and offer to help out, they will most likely be glad to hand over their shovel. But suppose a child is playing in a sand pile, scooping sand into a bucket. Should someone walk up and offer to take over for a while, that child would balk at such foolishness. “Why should I want you to take over when I’m having so much fun?”
Even the most fleeting of activities, such as the business of preparing a meal, can be the samadhi of play. When you throw your heart into preparing a fine meal, which you artistically arrange on the plates and serve up, that food is swiftly devoured and you are left with dirty dishes. To carry on the samadhi of play does not only refer to creating a work of art which might grace a museum for a few hundred years, but to the most everyday of everyday affairs one performs. The duties of housekeeping serve as a good example. In a never-ending cycle, we clean, and the house gets dirty again. We sweep, and the dust comes back. We wash clothes, and they get soiled again.
This is not only the case with housekeeping. Look closely and you see that these are the cirumstances of every human being on earth.
The samadhi of play is the state of mind in which one performs an activity without appraising its relative value, just as the child who plays in the sand would never dream of letting someone else take their place. It was with this mind that Miss Okamoto went out to the woods to play ball.
The samadhi of play is a state in which the heart transcends both the exhaustible dharmas and the inexhaustable dharmas. This is the dharma gate of liberation, the state of mind which is liberation from both the exhaustible and the inexhaustible.
There is within you eternal Buddha life. That Buddha life appears in form, being born and dying, instant by instant, emerging in constant succession in the samadhi of play. We can clearly say that the practice of this mind state is the satori state of Zen.
Within you there is eternal life. This life arises as form and continues, instant by instant, appearing and disappearing. Moreover, this flickering, appearing and disappearing, is not the flickering of a solidified individual self; it is the sparkling appearance and disappearance of a fusion of the self and its surroundings, in union.
This is what the founder of the Soto Zen school, Dogen Zenji, meant when he said that birth and death is the life of Buddha. Birth and death is the pulse of Buddha life.
Where there are one thousand human beings, within one thousand ways of living, one thousand buddhas are revealed. Buddha is revealed through mountains, valleys, trees, and grasses, through a multitude of phenomena. The heart that can be revered in whatever form we see, in whatever direction we look, this is the true heart of Buddhism, this is Buddha life.
Soko Morinaga Roshi was one of Japan’s foremost Rinzai Zen masters. He served as the abbot of Daitokuji Monastery and the head of Hanazono University, one of the chief training universities for Buddhist monks in Japan. Morinaga Roshi died in 1995.
“The Samadhi of Play” is excerpted from Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga Roshi, translated by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa. © 2001 by Wisdom Publications. Reprinted by arrangement.
Image: "My Nanny Dudu" by Jacques Henri Lartigue. © Ministere de la Culture-France/Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue (AAJHL)