An excerpt from a new book on four seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu
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.
MEANWHILE, my occasional dabbling in Zen straggled on. Often, I asked Mark directly about the Zen experience, but more often he gave me glimpses of it when I did not ask. Left to his own devices, he rarely seemed to talk about either his painting or his training. . . . When I asked him about this reticence one day, he said quietly, "That's my teacher. He believes that the first thing you must do is to get yourself together as a person. The painting's really just an act of discovery; it's so direct that it becomes a way of seeing yourself. So, in sumi-e, there's really no difference between the state of your mind and the state of your art. My teacher, for example, has two altars in his house—one devoted to Shibayama and one to Basho: the abbot and the artist. And he has his own temple on Awajishima. But for him, I think, his painting is a form of meditation." He fell silent. "Usually, I wouldn't use that kind of word around foreigners, because they haven't got a very deep sense of meditation. They think it just means mindlessness, emptying out."
"Whereas in fact it means mindfulness?"
Monk Praying to Mount Fuji (Don Farber)
"Yeah. And emptying out, but with awareness. It's hard to understand unless you've done some sitting. Some of these guys, they're just incredible. I remember one group of monks that did zazen for forty-nine straight days after their head monk died. I was amazed, but when I thought about it, it really wasn't so strange. Their teacher just believed that zazen was the only truth and that was the way to go."
In sumi-e, he said, as in haiku or in any Zen training, the aim was to develop a discipline so sure and a spirit so true that one could afford to be utterly spontaneous; to get into such a state of deliberateness that as soon as one put pen to paper, one would produce something powerful and true (like Shakespeare, perhaps, never blotting a line). Thus a sumi-e painting should be quick and direct as an ax cutting wood (akin, I thought, to Shelley's definition of poetry as a "sword of lightning, ever unsheathed"). Instantaneous in its execution, a sumi-e painting should catch the moment before it fled, and let the moment speak, unclouded by hesitations or revisions.
BEFORE I LEFT THE MONASTERY, I went for an audience with the roshi, whose presence I had felt all the time I was in Kyoto, as Mark's longtime friend and Sachiko's steady counselor. Seated in a thick leather chair, a tiny figure in huge orange robes, his windows thrown open to the green and golden quiet of the garden, he looked at me with warm and piercing eyes. He greatly feared for Zen in America, he told me over tea, because everyone there was after instant wisdom. Some people were so intent on satori, or instant revelation, that they actually bought books with answers to koan. The Americans did have one advantage over the Japanese, insofar as they were willing to take one day a week off. But as long as one reminded oneself constantly of how much fun one should be having on a holiday, it was not, in the true sense, a "holy day."
Shuzen-ji Shrine at Dawn
Single strand of a spider's web,
bearer of beams in the morning sun,
swaying like a tightrope between branch and nook.
The breeze moves, and it's touched by light.
The breeze moves, and nothing's there
Izu: August 20, 1990
The "pride" of Americans, he went on, and their openness to challenges were exemplary; but he worried about their ambition, their love of celebration. By coming to Zen with their minds, they were all but ensuring their failure at a discipline whose aim, after all, was to short-circuit the mind. "You should not think about the koan," he said, as any Zen master must. "You should become the koan."
During his own training, he explained, his teacher, Shibayama-roshi, had shouted at him constantly, "Be an idiot! Be a fool!" And in time, it had worked. At first, when he had begun, he had always been thinking of his girlfriend and his college pals. For five years, he had not been free of this. Intense meditation, after all, sharpened the very powers of memory that were the main block to meditation. But then, at last, he had learned to live in the moment.
The roshi ended, in the classic Zen manner, with a story. Once upon a time, an old man was trying to explain to his grandson the belief of Jodo Buddhism that the Pure Land lies in the West. Practical and alert as children are, the little boy had pointed out that if you go west, and farther west, you end up going around the world and back where you first started. Paradise, in short, was all around us, if only we would stop and look.
I GOT MY FINAL TASTE of how the Japanese secede from Time when Etsuko invited me, one late summer day, to a traditional teahouse along the Philosopher's Path. Inside a spotless antechamber, we sipped some piquant apple juice, in tiny tumblers, fresh as mountain water. Then we followed a woman in a kimono out into the exquisite garden, one small stone wrapped in black marking the direction. Again we found ourselves inside a waiting room—all polished black tables, and a single paper lantern, plover-shaped.
Within the tearoom itself, every detail sang the shifting of the seasons. The poem in the tokonoma alcove spoke of hearts resembling the autumn moon. An incense holder reproduced the circle of the harvest moon. The seven autumn grasses poked, haphazardly elegant, out of a long-necked vase. "In tea," said Etsuko softly, "we can get a taste of eternity—if I may use such a term." She giggled self-consciously. . . . "By concentrating on the ritual, on all the forms and details, we can clean ourselves out. And then we can return more strongly to our usual lives."
In the distance, I could hear the faintest implication of a koto. The temple bells were beginning to sound along the eastern hills. . . . Autumn, and departure, were quickly drawing near.
Just as I was packing my final bags, though, Sachiko gave me the finest farewell gift of all: a sense of what the discipline of Zen really meant. For as she readied herself for a new kind of life, living at a tangent to the norm and seeing people turn away from her whenever she told them that she was about to leave her marriage, the only friends who came unfailingly to her assistance, encouraging her to extend herself and disinterestedly offering her all the support she needed, were those she had made through the temple. . . .
Most often, though, when she found herself in need of counsel, she went to see the abbot of Tofukuji. And he calmly told her that he would give her anything she needed to keep herself and her children in good health. Would two thousand dollars a month be enough? If she wanted more, he said, she only had to ask.
Though Sachiko politely declined the offer—she was determined to do things by herself—the incident gave me a glimpse of what all the meditation was about. "The ultimate purpose of Zen," I remembered the roshi telling me, "is not in the going away from the world but in the coming back. Zen is not just a matter of gaining enlightenment; it's a matter of acting in a world of love and compassion."