Paul F. Schmidt
On the east wall of the next room hang two inkbrush scrolls of the lunatic Zen monk who gazed too long at the moon and became moon struck. A strange smile plays over his face, a mysterious combination of serenity, silliness and profundity. For some time I have gazed at him and only now begin to sense his enlightenment from lunacy.
What might happen to me as I sit in meditation, zazen, each morning from seven till eight in Chotoku-in, one of the Zen Temples making up the complex of temples called Shokoku-ji? Zazen begins with the "ting" "ting" of a small bell calling me to the meditation room, zendo, where are placed square flat firm pillows with a small firm circular pillow on top to sit on. I assume a half-lotus position, flex my neck, bend my back to side and front, letting my spine come to rest in a balanced vertical position. Our teacher enters, we make a small bow, he plays the two gongs and bell, begins to chant a sutra on negating, not-this, not-that, not-A, not-B, etc., etc., end in clapping wood blocks and lighting an incense stick. A long silence ensues of concentration-on-breathing meditation, broken midway by the bell and wooden clappers. At the end of this hour I carefully uncross and unbend my legs, flexing them slowly, rise and go to breakfast.
Sohaku Ogata, Abbot of Chotoku-in, awaits us. He is an old man now, no longer able to walk without help, no longer able to conduct morning zazen. His eldest son Yugi, future abbot, does so. But his mind is still bright and humorous. He delights most in telling and commenting on old Zen stories. If the conversation turns to chit-chat he is likely to doze off in his chair. His life is now wholly devoted to translating into English Ching Tê Ch'uan Têng Lu, The Transmission of the Dharma Lamp (in Japanese Keitoku Dento Roku), a lifelong dream. In August 1972 he is at work on scroll eleven out of thirty scrolls. Ogata-san passed on at the Spring equinox, 1973, a balanced day.
We live in a tatami mat room. Each such rice-straw mat is three by six feet by three inches thick. The size of any room is a multiple of tatami mats which can be arranged in various geometric patterns, an art as seemingly simple, yet as complex as flower arranging, kabuki composition or rock garden design. Great subtlety in utter simplicity is the result, the essence of this Japanese æsthetic. What a joy to slide back any wall of your room and unite into one whole whatever is beyond it. Rice-paper panels slide open walls on gardens, joining outside to inside. Our east and south walls are fusuma, paper on both sides of the light wood frame. Each of the four sliding panels making the wall is the size of a tatami mat, and has a painting in ink-brush of bamboo or grass. Open, they unite the room beyond. The west wall slides open on to a veranda, one mat in width, a rock and moss garden beyond, each stone placed with great care. A bamboo border sets off a few small palms. Half the north wall is a tokonoma, a recessed alcove in which hangs a beautiful calligraphy scroll. On one side are flowers rearranged every few days, on the left a wood carving. These set on a rise six inches above the mats.
Æsthetic simplicity is further expressed in the room furnishings. These are minimal, hardly noticeable, a floor mattress for a bed that is rolled up and put away in the daytime, a low table, some pillows to sit on. I use the low table as a desk sitting lotus posture before it. These are Buddhist rooms, sparsely furnished, serving multiple purposes. Our temple room is a unity of æsthetic sim-plicity and diverse uses that brings nature inside and takes you outside. Here is an architecture of the One.
Kyoto has a thousand temples, each with gardens, gardens such as I've never seen, of raked gravel, rocks and moss, ponds and trees. In the vast Daitoku-ji Zen temple-complex we contemplate our first garden of raked gravel and rock at Daisen-in, a sub-temple. You will not find flowers inthe southeast garden. Instead, there are two conical piles of fine gravel and a single tree on a perfectly flat surface that has been raked into two-inch contours. The cones and tree seem randomly placed while the contours curve past the cones. In such simplicity the Japanese Zen garden manifests the Tao, the indescribable way. Or the garden shows the contingent as absolute, a chance arrangement that must be.
Another garden consists of three groups of rocks and a shrub-tree, the gravel raked in horizontal lines except for concentric circular patterns around each group of rocks. I feel the contrast of concentricity and horizontality combined with the motion and rest of the eye moving from rock to rock. The garden is a resolution of contradictories, a harmony, thoroughly Zen. We pass several hours easily looking upon such a garden.
Across the city at Honen-in you knock three times with the big wooden mallet on a thick square of wood hung by ropes. Soon you hear sandaled feet, and a priest ushers you to the Buddha Hall where Amida Buddha awaits you. The Jodo sect believes that complete salvation can be achieved by one enlightened utterance of his name. Left alone, we see an altar rivalling any Catholic altar. In the center sits a six-foot Buddha, Amida, surrounded by beautifully carved candlesticks, vases of fresh flowers, fruit offerings, carved gold-leafed flowers, painted scrolls. Round and round our eyes travel enchanted by our freedom to inspect each item.
Honen taught people to say
In summer, day after day, the sky may drip with rain but that makes a moss garden all the more beautiful, as a thousand jewel drops glisten on a moss bed. How can each garden seem superlative? Is it because the absolute is harmonious in the contingent as the Buddha-nature is in everything?
Many think the perfect garden creation is at Ryoan-ji Temple. Twice I've sat for several hours in contemplation of its three gardens. The famous one is raked gravel in which are placed five groups of rocks, each group encircled by a small moss border. Passing through the entrance room you view it from a veranda along a long side of its rectangular form. You cannot step into this garden but you may sit in contemplation of its arrangement and forms. Iconographical interpretations vary: the rocks might be mountains or ships or islands; the raked sand the sea. A Zen story tells us that when you first begin to meditate, mountains are mountains, later on, mountains are no longer mountains, finally mountains become just what they are. Just so, this garden. As you turn the corner to your right at the end of the veranda a second garden appears. It is constructed of a thick moss bed backed with slim maple trees whose autumnal colors jewel the moss. Turning the next corner reveals a small stream flowing over a tiny waterfall into a still pond surrounded by shrubs and rock. From the silence of the first garden to the flowing watercourse of the way, we have three movements in a musical composition. Ryoan-ji gives you the history of Zen gardens. The first is not alone.
Gravel, moss or pond
Dry gray, cool green or goldfish
Velvet smooth green moth
Wind tips the maple bow down
I find a penetrating æsthetic integration among aspects of the Japanese garden, Noh play, haiku, scroll painting, flower arranging, tea ceremony and tatami floor mats. Each creates with a very limited medium, each manipulates that medium according to a restricted set of moves, each move clearly accented; each confines itself to a precise boundary; each achieves a powerful simplicity that contains a harmony of contrasts; each moulds the contingent into an expression of the absolute. As I explore each of these arts I sense striking parallels. Does the farmer design the contours of his rice paddies according to the same æsthetic ideal?
Threefold flower arrangement
Temple floors and Japanese homes are covered with tatami mats of rice straw, soft yet firm, nothing more comfortable to walk on, kneel on, sit on. Room sizes progress in regular square and rectangular sizes beginning with a two-mat guard room of six by six, then six by nine, the four and half-mat room of nine by nine, then nine by twelve, twelve by twelve, twelve by fifteen, fifteen by fifteen, and so on, the larger the room the more creative possibilities for arranging mat patterns. The four and a half-mat tea room and the eight-mat chamber are classic forms like the haiku and waka. Plato in the Timeaus displayed a similar geometrical æsthetic in the ultimate forms of the elements using several right triangles, the square and the pentagon. Set a child to arranging mats and you may have an architect.
At five in the morning early dawn light and songs of birds wake me. My eyes open on the moon-struck monk scrolls. I like to lie still in the glory of the new day. Half an hour later bells ring for zazen from the neighboring temple. After three gongs someone begins to beat a rhythm on a tight-skinned drum, shifting to the wooden drum and bass drum. Hardly noticed, the sutra chant begins, swells, replaces the drumming till the tingle of the tiny bell signals the beginning of silent meditation.
Terse Buddhist drum beats
Many voices sutra chanting
Rain begins and ends
In Koryu-ji Temple you will see the most graceful Buddha in Japan, a carving in wood or Miroku Bosotsu. So many Buddha figures are lifeless, others merely representative, but this one shows the most subtle curves, delicate proportions and soft texture. Were it not a Buddha you would agree it is a beautiful woman whose hands, fingers, back and torso are deftly turned.
Most graceful Buddha
Soft Miroku Bosotsu
Tucked in a rice-terraced valley northwest of Kyoto lies Ohara, a quiet farming village with two enchanting temples: Sanzen-in and Jakko-in. In the garden of Sanzen-in you will be blessed on your travels by a sculptured Jizo, protector of children and travelers, of whom there are more images than all other Buddhas combined. Every cemetery, every road, every trail has many Jizos to give help, many dressed in a red cloth bib or apron, unfortunately often covering fine stone carving. Even the butterfly feels safe perched on his head.
Alights to rest on Jiizo
His red bib missing!
My friend Jerry Tecklin arrives from Antai-ji, a Soto Zen temple where he has shared their religious life. We talk about their heavy emphasis on zazen, making it almost the exclusive vehicle for enlightenment in Zen. To do so, I think, distorts the person and the Tao because it singles out one approach, zazen, as the approach. To select one route exclusively divides the undivided. To divide the One misses the Tao. Equally questionable is the immense strain, physical and psychological, of a sesshin, intensive zazen, a strain that desires relaxation afterwards in saké or cigarettes. To strain is to force, to compel, to achieve through domination. Thus the self may be forced into a constained enlightenment but I wonder if such enlightenment is genuine and lasting. When and if it happens is beyond the realm of force; it is effortless, self-sufficient. Strain is not the way. The way is effortless, a joyous balance of aspects of the world-divided-one, a harmony that may reach beyond or create the One. Insofar as any sect selects some aspect to emphasize to the exclusion of others, it cannot be a way to the One. The ascetic and æsthetic blend into unity.
A steady light rain falling on the moss garden. I have slid back the rice-paper screens of my room so I am in the garden but not in the rain. This is the perfection of the Japanese home. You are in nature, the garden enters your room, there is no dividing line, no wall of separation. You participate in the raining, your existing is a rainy living. Your alienation from nature is overcome. I sit reading on the tatami, the rain gently falling next to me. I can reach out and touch it. The softest breeze I feel on my skin yet I am never cold. The rocks glisten in the wet light. Why not build a home like this?
On top of Mount Hiei lived the warrior-monks of Enryaku-ji Temple who sometimes swept down on Kyoto to intercede in political affairs, attacking other monasteries to insure the dominance of their sect. I find this history despicable, not Buddhist in any sense. May they all inherit the bad karma of their deeds. Midway between the eastern and western precincts, where tourists rarely walk, I cam upon the unusual moss and rock garden of Jodo-in where the moss undulates over small mounds, giving motion to the still garden. New monks here practice an austerity called "sweeping hell," six hours of sweeping each day for three months. Even during a late afternoon service, I see in back of the temple a monk sweeping Saicho's tomb built by the priest Ennin in 854.
Sweeping life away
He seeks his liberation
Leaves forever fall
To seek the æsthetic, avoid the spectacular, leave the big-name places to the tourists, let the tour buses park at Tofuku-ji while you walk to the sub-temple of Taiko-in on the west side. Here you will find intimate harmony undisturbed, from the ceiling lamp in the zendo to the mountain profile garden. Look at the screen of painted birds, the small statue of Hyakusai by Komachi, and the tea room built in 1599 by the eleventh abbot, Ankokuju Ekei. The seemingly haphazard tea room, its ceiling of three levels in three different materials, the odd-shaped windows in odd places, one of its four and a half mats replaced by a wooden floor, and a single off-center vertical thin column, illustrates the æsthetic of incongruity. The east garden of rocks and moss beyond the pond mirrors the silhouette of mountain ridges to the east.
Raindrops on stone bridge
White butterfly on green moss
Careless I wander
There is a deep affinity between pigeons and temples whose roof shapes and eaves provide ideal places to roost. Many temples have constructed elaborate chicken-wire screens to keep the faithful pigeons from meditating near Buddha. Where such screens are not in place, beware a pigeon greeting. Perhaps they also deter the uninterested tourist.
Buddhas sit and sit
While tourists gawk and gawk
Pigeons shit and shit
I do not believe in reincarnation as a literal meta- physical event but I do think it guides your reflection to a consideration of the moral value of your actions when combined with the concept of Karma and, further, it lets you connect your present life to the lives of others for whom you feel deep sympathy and identity. Reading Thoreau's Journal and his biographies has always aroused in me a sense of identity that I cannot explain. A similar feeling came to me in the Kyoto Museum when I saw some scroll paintings of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who brought Buddhism to China. I sat and stared at him for more than an hour. Somewhere back before Thoreau I felt an identity with Bodhidharma. I couldn't help noticing his big nose, his bulging hanging eyelids resting on his upper eyelashes, the wrinkles spreading into his cheeks from the corners of his eyes, his hairy chest in his faded red robe:
Faded torn red robe
Eyelids bulging over eyes
Huge nose and ear rings
Smile wrinkles on his cheeks
Bodhidharma stares at me
Katsura Garden, an Emperor's villa, turns the Japanese garden into an extravaganza. Leave its artificial and contrived complexity to those who seek the footsteps of power. Walk through the back streets of Saiho-ji, the moss garden temple, for shadows and sunlight filtered through trees onto undulating moss and carp-rippled pond. Follow the path in both directions because each corner holds its revealing vision. At the tiny outlet from the pond, running clear from cloudy water, ponder why
No carp swimming out
From Saiho-ji garden pond
No trout swimming in
You may hear a strange periodic thud along the path. Look around and you will see a piece of bamboo teetering on a hinged stick, filling with water from a tiny rivulet until the increased weight tips it down, pouring out the water and teetering back with a thud when the end strikes the ground. This thud may awaken you. I stood entranced, filling with water, teetering, making my thud.
Bamboo tube teeters
When water slowly fills it
Falling back it thuds
Suppose you met a tiger who never took his eyes off you! At Sangen-in in Daitoku-ji there is such a tiger painted on the wall screen. You can begin at one side of the room constantly watching the tiger's eyes, walk across to the opposite side; his eyes follow your every step and his head seems to turn as you move. A haunting painting, an unceasing unity of you and tiger.
A tiger whose eyes
Follow you from side to side
Fixed yet turning head
At Obai-in in Daitoku-ji the gravel in the garden conveys a vivid sense of the undulating motion of the sea. The gravel has been raked in a flattened sine curve. As I sit in contemplation the gravel surface begins to move, gentle swells about the rocks. Soon I am the waves, rhythmic diastole of the pulse of this garden. I begin to breathe in unison with it. and what are the temple buildings now but ships that sail on land, the curved-up corners of their tile roofs bows that sail in four directions. This upward curve creates a feeling of lightness, buoyancy; floating arks that may ferry you across.
Soft gentle sea waves
From undulating gravel
Temples sailing free