'Novice to Master' by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa and Soko Morinaga Roshi

John Kain

Novice to Master:
An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity
By Soko Morinaga Roshi; Translated by Belenda Attaway Yamakawa
Wisdom Publications: Massachusetts. 2002 144 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

Novice to Master is a posthumous offering of Soko Morinaga Roshi's humble, unadorned, yet powerful insights into Zen practice, monastic training, and the subtle machinations underlying the teacher/student relationship. The book is at once a refreshingly direct account of the tribulations and joys of the Zen path—tracing Soko Roshi's own progression from bumbling beginner to wise master—and an honorific look at the grand tradition of the Japanese Rinzai School of Zen.

From the first page of the text, Soko Roshi (1925-1995) shows us a Zen practice that is raw, intimate, and difficult. This book offers no quick fixes, no abstract philosophy or fanciful New Age nosttums. Its eloquence is in its unabashed directness. "Pissing is something that no one else can do for you. Only you can piss for yourself," he lectures a university audience. When the audience laughs, Soko Roshi clarifies his point. "But you must realize that to say 'You have to piss for yourself; nobody else can piss for you' is to make an utterly serious statement."

Soko Roshi continually directs the reader to abandon all preconceived notions of Zen and religious practice in general.

'Meeting with a broom, become that broom; meeting with a bowl of rice, become that bowl of rice.' Such expressions are standard fare in Zen, but the question is: How do you put it into practice in daily life?

Much of the wisdom in Novice to Master is held in the container of traditional monastic practice: Soko Roshi trained in the monastery at Daitokuji from 1949 through 1963, studying with Zuigan Goto Roshi and eventually receiving dharma transmission from Sesso Ota Roshi. The cornerstone of Soko Roshi's training was his relationship with his teachers, as is the case in most Buddhist traditions. Nearly the entire first half of the book is dedicated to exploring the vital student/teacher dynamic. It is here that we find the true heart of Novice to Master, and some statements expose a practice that Westerners might find hard to swallow.

I understood that true belief is to accept without objections. I must agree to undertake every task, no matter how impossible it may seem. Even if I am told to do three things at once, even if I am told to do something I have never before attempted, I must never, under any circumstances, say 'I can't do that. That's impossible.'

The student realizes that the teacher in whom they believe would never instruct them to do something unethical.

In light of Brian Victoria's recent book, Zen at War, which details the collusion of prominent Zen teachers in the Japanese war efforts of World War II, and the scandals at American Buddhist centers in the 1980s, Western readers might perceive Soko Roshi's words as misguided or naive; but they are unquestionably sincere, and we must not forget that they arise from a particular cultural and monastic context. Still, Western Buddhist practitioners now stand in a place a few years removed and a few scandals shy of innocence; blind faith in a teacher is considered, for the most part, something to be avoided. Much of Soko Roshi's wisdom, however, can still be heard while we—Westerners—hold our necessary grain of salt.

This is not to say that Soko Roshi was constrained by a myopic view of Zen practice; on the contrary, he was considerably worldly. He served as head of Hanazono University in Kyoto (university of the Rinzai sect), was well read in Western literature and, through his many visits to the Buddhist Society of London, knowledgeable and appreciative of Western Buddhist students. He was also greatly affected by the war and very aware of the power of culture to pervert moral attitudes:

The war, which everyone had been led to believe was so right, the war for which we might gladly lay down our one life, was instead revealed, overnight, as a war of aggression, a war of evil. . .

Although Novice to Master pulls no punches—underscoring the dedication, sacrifice, and determination needed to break free from the narrow constraints of our conditioned minds—it is also filled with humor and compassion. Soko Roshi, never afraid to use his own mistakes as teaching lessons, leads the reader on a very human journey of starts, stops, and misdirection along the path to liberation. Though we here in the West must ultimately create our own Buddhist practice, Novice to Master is a very fine guidebook to help us on our way. ▼

John Kain is a poet and freelance writer living in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

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