The Spiritual Autobiography of Satomi Myodo
State University of New York Press: Albany, 1993.
212 pp. $14.95 (paper).
To be a Buddhist in the United States can sometimes mean struggling with a sense of cultural inadequacy. What would it be like to be a Buddhist in a Buddhist world, to have come to Buddhism as a child, surrounded by other practicing Buddhists? Journey in Search of the Way, the autobiography of a Japanese peasant woman named Satomi Myodo, dispels and fuels this feeling in turn. Satomi-san had the deep courage of the true spiritual seeker, and she grew up in a spiritually lively world, much of it Buddhist in flavor. Her story, written in 1956 when she was a sixty-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, is full of wonders and anguish, wonders that seem almost ordinary in her cultural context, and anguish that is in no way lessened by the multiplicity of spiritual seekers around her.
Satomi-san lived in a particularly turbulent time, from 1896 to 1978, the period of transition from feudal to modern Japan. But she also lived in a timeless world of poverty and farming, a world where spirits hover, families stay in one place for generations, and the constricted roles of gender and class define the boundaries of each person's life. Satomi-san's narrative often has the strange flavor of the supernatural invading ordinary life, but unsurprisingly so. Throughout Journey in Search of the way (which was first issued by Shambhala in 1987 under the title Passionate Journey) the reader senses the compelling pressures in the life of a woman driven by spiritual hunger to escape many of the most restrictive boundaries within which she was raised—a woman who nevertheless wasn't able to find peace until she found zazen.
The short manuscript by Satomi-san is coupled with a helpful commentary by Sallie B. King, a professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia. King elucidates the more obscure aspects of Satomi-san's experience, which Satomi-san herself takes for granted.
Satomi-san's first ripened spiritual practice was that of Shinto spiritualism, specifically that of working as a miko. Mikos are female shamans who have been a fixture in rural Japan since ancient times and, according to King, still found in small numbers today. Mikos are "employed" by poor farming people to answer questions, interpret dreams, find lost objects, and make predictions, something they can do when possessed by one or more of the Japanese gods known as kami. Here King's accompanying commentary is very useful, because kami are especially out of the ordinary for the American reader, even one with a basic familiarity with Japanese history.
Satomi-san hungered from a young age for spiritual truth, and even when her first teacher led her into kami possession, she felt herself to be a spiritual sham. But after her first successful possession she could call up a trance state at will. "In this manner," she writes, "I wandered from the True Way and fell to the level of a mystery monger, chasing vainly after marvels."
The remainder of her life is also a chronicle of extremes: she is broken down by her own sense of spiritual inadequacy at one point, and at another, is thrown off course by her impatient need to have the truth all at once. Her position as mother, wife, student, daughter, old woman, and—always—peasant, during a period of enormous upheaval and war, again and again prevents her from following the path she means to choose. The persistent itch of the seeking Mind will not be still. Of one period of despair, she writes, "No matter what I did, all my projects smacked of temporary insanity. "
When Satomi-san "fails"—and failure is her interpretation of each attempt to discover enlightened truth through breathing, chanting, austerity, trances, and charitable work—she believes her failure lies only in a lack of effort, of makoto, or "sincerity," as defined in Shintoism. "To be sincere is to be true to the total situation in which one finds oneself," explains King in the commentary. "That is, to be true to oneself." So Satomi-san increases her breathing, chanting, austerity practices, leading herself at times into ill health. Only late in life does she come to Buddhism, and only later still does she embrace it.
The narrative of Satomi-san's life is simple, straightforward, and often lucid, but I found it maddeningly slim at times, and usually on just the kind of extra detail of motivation or experience that I wanted. Her life often reads as a tragedy, not only because of the unceasing circumstances of poverty and cultural oppression, but because of the smothering drive for understanding itself, which seems to have propelled every decision Satomi-san made. The reader longs to know more of the day-to-day struggles involved. After her experiences with Shinto, she studied Amida and, again restless for result, joined several newer cults, coming to Buddhism only in fits and starts. In her first effort at zazen, during a sesshin, she writes, "I thought I could surely awaken within the one week." It is here, in the middle of her life, that I could see the similarities between the Satomi of early-twentieth-century Hokkaido and American Buddhist students today; I was reminded of the universal nature of the spiritual path. In her search she experienced confusions, isolation, illusions, and dreams all of which seem abruptly familiar, as do the digressions and small moments of understanding.
When Satomi-san finally "gives up," as it were, and simply sits in meditation, it's not long before the kensho that has always been hovering behind her arrives. In a marvelously succinct description, she writes, "I felt as if I had finally gulped down some big thing that had been stuck in my throat a long time."
Sallie Tisdale is a Consulting Editor to Tricycle. Her newest book, Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex, will be published by Doubleday in November.
Image 1: Satomi Myodo with Yasutani Roshi, 1967. Photo by Anne Aitken.