The Lady and the Monk

An excerpt from a new book on four seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu

Pico Iyer

In 1987, Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu, arrived in Kyoto, Japan, bearing two suitcases and the name of a local Buddhist temple. Determined to learn, from the inside, all that he could of Zen and of Japanese culture, Iyer cultivated friendships with both natives and foreigners: with Mark, an artist from San Francisco who had lived in Japan on and off for fifteen years, learning to paint in the traditional Zen sumi-e (ink) style; with Mark's friend Kazuo, a teacher of animal sciences at Kyoto University who is reluctantly in training for the Tendai Buddhist priesthood so that he can one day take over his family's temple; and most of all, with Sachiko, a young mother striving to break out of the narrow role prescribed for women. The following accounts are excerpted from Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, published this fall by Knopf.

ONE REASON I had always been interested in Zen was my sense that for people like myself, trained in abstraction, Zen could serve as the ideal tonic. For Zen, as I understood it, was about slicing with a clean sword through all the Gordian knots invented by the mind, plunging through all specious dualities—East and West, here and there, coming and going—to get to some core so urgent that its truth could not be doubted. The best lesson Zen could teach—though it was, of course, something of a paradox to say or even think it—was to go beyond a kind of thinking that was nothing more than agonizing, and simply act. In that sense, Zen reminded me of Johnson's famous refutation of Berkeley by kicking a stone. It was unanswerable as pain.

This training had particular appeal for me, perhaps, because I had often thought that the mind was, quite literally, a devil's advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction; an imp that delighted in self-contradiction and yet, though full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. None of the truest things in life-like love or faith was arrived at by thinking; indeed, one could almost define the things that mattered as the ones that came as suddenly as thunder. Too often, I thought, the rational faculty tended only to rationalize, and the intellect served only to put one in two minds, torn apart by second thoughts. In that sense, God could be said to be nothing but the act of faith itself. Religion lay in the leap and not the destination. And Zen was as much as anything a refutation of doubt itself; a transcendence of the whole either/or sensibility that makes up all our temporizing. Instead of temporizing, as Thoreau might have said, why do we not eternize?

IN ALL THESE WAYS, Zen seemed the natural product of a culture that has little time for philosophical speculation but stresses instead the merits of ritual, rigor, and repetition. The directness of Zen appeared to reflect the utilitarian concreteness of modern Japan, where people seemed rarely to dwell on suffering or to give themselves to close self-study. Zen, after all, was about wholeheartedness—or, at least, whole-mindedness. Strictly speaking, I knew, both Shintoism and Jodo Buddhism, the other great faiths of Japan, were equally free of doctrine and scripture, and, moreover, Zen had been invented by an Indian monk in China. The first Zen temples were active in Korea before the teaching had ever come across the Tsushima Strait to Japan. Yet still the finest achievements of the discipline today were associated with Japan, not least because the qualities sought out by Zen—spareness, self-discipline, precision seemed closest to those of Japan. Did Zen help to create the features of Japan, or did Japan help to form the distinctive qualities of Zen—it was a question as old in its way, and unending, as the famous Zen conundrum "What was your face before you were born?" Whatever the answer, I thought, if Zen had not existed, the Japanese would have had to invent it.

Woman with Teacup, 19th-century Japanese print
(Scala/Art Resources, New York

TALKING TO MARK, though, and to Kazuo, had already brought me a little closer to earth. Besides, I knew that coming to Japan hoping to find a world guided by the stern and gentle precepts of Buddhism was as misguided as going to America hoping to find a society graced at every turn by Christianity (but America was shaped and strengthened by Christian writers, one could almost hear a visitor saying—Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot: how could modern America be so forgetful of its inheritance?). I realized, too, that the very qualities that made Zen so attractive to me were also the ones that made it so alien. Most of all, I suspected that if the Japanese really did have a religion, it was very likely one that outsiders like myself would not be able to recognize if we saw it, since it would probably have more to do with rituals than with texts. That religion could have a shifting relation to morality; that religious affiliations could be taken off or put on again as easily as costumes; that the Japanese could partake of what Rexroth had called "a secular mysticism, which sees experience as its own transcendence"—that religion, in short, could be capricious and practical as love, that other celebrated act of nondenominational faith, was something we Santa Barbarians found hard to understand.

I GOT A GLIMPSE of this one day when Mark and I came across a Zen student from New York, who was all marshmallowy Woman with Teacup, 19th-century Japanese print softness. ("And what are you doing in Japan?" she cooed. "A journalist? Oh, how wonderful!") As we walked away, Mark, usually so gentle, could hardly contain his impatience. "Jeez," he began, shaking his head, "that's the kind of stuff the Zen guys can't stand! Because they know what it's really like—how tough and rigid and down-to-earth it is: waking up at three a.m. in the winter and sweeping leaves in the rain and going begging in the snow. Yet these Zen students are always coming over from America and putting on this weird, goody-goody kind of sweetness. And the Zen guys know that has nothing to do with it." As he talked, I could see how right he was, yet also, perhaps, how protective of the Zen he knew. The hardest part of this discipline, like any other, must be to free oneself from a notion of what it was to protect.

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