Friday, March 25, 2011

Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest

Book Review: Zen Seeds: Reflections of a Female Priest  by Shundo Aoyama
transl. by Patricia Daien Bennage  (Kosei Publishing 1983, 1st English Ed. 1990)

This is a very pithy book but also very accessible and easy to read. The author became a novice in a Japanese mountain temple at the age of five and has spent her life learning, practicing, and teaching Zen Buddhism. This book will make you think, cry, and ponder the meaning of your own life. One gets the very distinct impression of a genuine spiritual practitioner. Spiritual people that I have met seem to have certain qualities of acceptance, mindfulness, calm, and sincerity that radiate about them. They tend to do things carefully. Having personally studied and practiced with the translator of this book I can say that she is certainly such a person and reading the book I can see that she had an authentic teacher here.

This book is a series of personal stories and anecdotes, observations about life and human nature, and traditional Buddhist teachings. Many of the stories are deep observations of ordinary things, the flow of water, the change of the seasons, and savoring each moment. There is one on the importance of offering a smile and developing warmth. She notes the smile as one of Buddha’s seven offerings that are without cost. I have yet to find what the others are.

There are some word-gems of wisdom in this book. It is much a reminder of how to live mindfully and with good habits of contemplation and introspection. The author lays her own life bare in order to be a positive example for others. Concerning the ever elusive idea of happiness she writes:

“Happiness that depends on what you acquire or become is only conditional happiness, not true happiness. No matter what happens, it is all right. If you become ill, then just be ill; if you are poor, then just be poor. Unless you accept your present circumstances, happiness cannot be attained. To face any situation and accept it with open arms if it cannot be avoided molds the attitude enabling you to see that such a wonderful way of living is possible. This is indeed something of consequence. As soon as this attitude is achieved, you have reached paradise, anytime, anywhere, and in any circumstances.”

Shundo Aoyama gives many quotes and poems and teachings from Zen Masters, artists, children, and regular everyday people to illustrate – how to think and how to live. She suggest that we ask ourselves the question – “What am I doing right now?”

“Hardly more than specks of dust on this earth, we get angry and quarrel over trifles. We are carried away by our emotions. If we could see ourselves with complete detachment, we would feel as if we were sitting alone like a great mountain, because we would be seeing ourselves with the Buddha’s eyes.”

She tells the story of a 30-something woman who came to a meditation retreat (sesshin) and at first was sitting zazen beautifully. Then for one evening session she did not show up and apparently tried to commit suicide making much blood to be cleaned up. Being rescued by a nurse nun and the police she was taken to hospital. The author was sad but said that even though the agony of the young woman’s life was taking a toll on her, the hearing and practicing of the Buddha’s teachings would still be beneficial as seeds planted for the future. Specifically she said that, “... a connection with the Buddha’s teachings is never lost.”

She tells stories of zen practitioners and regular folk that managed to deal with difficult circumstances and still live meaningfully. She tells the story of Junkyo Oishi, a former geisha that had her hands severed and later became a nun and a famous painter, holding the brush with her mouth. Seeing canaries in a cage she realized that birds do much of their life activities with their mouths and this inspired her to do likewise.

Aoyama’s lineage is that of Soto Zen, which refers to a reformed sect strongly influenced by the teachings of Zen Master Dogen in the 12th century, thus it is often called Dogen Zen. She gives many teachings and stories from Dogen including the following:

“ In Shobo-genzo Zuimonki, Zen Master Dogen says that we should live each day, each hour, in the same frame of mind as that of a man falling from a horse. In that brief moment before he hits the ground, all his ability and learning is useless, and there is no time to think, no time for daydreams or self-reproach. When we face a matter of life and death, there is no time to look around or fantasize. All depends on our readiness. Zen Master Dogen said that we should live our whole lives in a state of readiness.”

Dogen wrote many things, often specifically for monastic folk – sort of extensions of the vinaya. Some were about suggested behavior and attitudes when working in the kitchen or in the bathroom. The idea, of course, was to engender mindfulness in every part of life.

She tells of her experiences of young women becoming mothers and the changes she sees in them. She tells the Buddhist tale of the ghost-demon Hariti who would devour children but had many children of her own and so the Buddha hid one of her children under his robe and when she became distraught he asked her how she thinks the mothers of the children she had devoured felt. After this she became remorseful and a follower and protector of Buddha’s teachings. Aoyama notes that the fierce competition among mothers in modern Japan for the advancement (particularly educational) of their children at the expense of others may actually reflect this mythic story.

Referring to self-honesty and authenticity she offers the following:  

“Worrying about how clever we are, looking around to see if there is someone somewhere who could do something for us, and stating our terms – all this is proof of not being serious. If we spoil ourselves, depend on others, and are generally passive, even a path that had been open to us will in the end be closed. If we face problems squarely, our resolution and endeavor can cause even a tightly locked door to open wide. If we do not, a door that had been open wide could slam shut. The problem lies not with others, but with ourselves.”

She says later that endeavor (an ideal to be practiced) is the opposite of self-indulgence. She gives these lines by the previously mentioned Junkyo Oishi:

“Everything can be accomplished if I try.
I have lived my life thus far by these words.
The birds are my true teachers,
Leading me to write by using my mouth.”

Such is the Mahayana perfection of perseverance. Slow, steady, and continuous effort does yield results even though they may be barely perceptible at times.

Here is another wonderful poem she gives by the poet and scholar of children’s literature Michio Mado (b.1909):

When I came back home on a rainy day,
A cleaning rag was waiting for me
   in the entrance hall.
“I’m a cleaning rag,” it said
   with a friendly look,
Though it hadn’t wanted to become one.
Until quite recently it had been a shirt.
It was as soft as my skin.
Maybe in America or somewhere
It had been a cotton flower,
Smiling in the sun and the wind.

There are humorous stories as well. When  the Zen Master Yuen-men (d.949) was asked,
“What is Buddha?” He replied, “A dried shit-stick.” This is a famous story and may serve to remind us of the value of the convenience of toilet paper (the shit-stick was used as toilet paper in many areas of the east.) She relates being told by a doctor in India that when in Southeast Asia some Japanese soldiers in WW2 mistook the cleaned ones for chopsticks (a rarity for them there)!

She tells a story of walking in the mountains with a group of women, and enjoying every moment, while another woman was complaining vigorously wanting to reach the destination. Although there could be other factors, this was likely mainly a difference in attitude. She says:

“The secret of traveling lies in savoring the things along the way. If you are in a hurry to reach your goal, you miss seeing the forests and the streams and the momentary, unblemished twinkling of the stars.”

“What does it mean to enjoy ourselves along the way in life’s journey? There are times when we fail at work we had seriously grappled with, are misunderstood, or feel surrounded by enemies. Then again, there are other times when we are so ecstatic we could be riding a rainbow to paradise. There are times when we stand at the edge of a precipice of losing a husband, wife, or a child. There is the downhill plunge of a terminal illness, or of not having enough to eat. The journey with the constant changes of scenery is the most interesting. It is the same with life’s journey. It is important not to be swayed by fortune; instead, we must learn to look at the scenery and enjoy it each step of the way.”

She says that we should view good fortune and bad fortune as temporary conditions, like the changing of the seasons. She says we should throw off the – petty self – and accept whatever fortunes befall us. She tells the story of a young Christian woman during WW2 named Satoko Kitahara, who lived in a bombed out shanty town with very poor folk, ragpickers. Every day she would see them off with a smile and wecome them back with a smile. She got tuberculosis and as she was dwindling towards death she would still remind herself to smile – as a notebook found under her bed had just one sentence: “Aren’t you forgetting to smile right now?” What a wonderful offering to all of us and to the ideal of cherishing others. She tells another story of a man who visits his old, sick, and unconscious mother – but when she wakes up with him beside her she only says that his shoulder is sticking out and he should cover it up to keep warm. This taught him the value of habitually thinking of others and displays success in the training of compassionate activity.

She tells the story of Ullambana, which became the Bon, or Obon  festival in Japan. The Buddha’s disciple Moggallana, who was very psychic, came to see the fate of his parents after there deaths. He saw with great sadness that his mother was in un unpleasant hell so he asked the Buddha what he could do to help her. He said that he should give alms to monks and transfer the merit from that to his parents. Here there are two principles of the Mahayana – repaying the kindness of one’s parents; and transferring meritorious energy.
Although the Obon festival in Japan is much like Halloween and has much festivity and is mixed with the Shinto nature religion – these are the two basic tenets.

She tells of the rigours of her monastic education and practices where she entered the monastery at age five under the care of an old nun who was her aunt. 365 days a year they would be up before dawn to do the morning chants, often in a very cold meditation hall. Even while still in the womb, she was destined for the priesthood. She realtes how when she got older she was annoyed and despaired by the corruption she saw in the Japanese Buddhist organizations and clergy but she was encouraged by her mentors to focus on the parts that were still good. She later returned to the mountain temple and did many zazen retreats. Later, in order to repay the kindness of her teachers, now deceased, she spent some retreats as the kitchen cook just as her mentors had done while she taught zazen. This proved to be hard-working and challenging for her.

There is so much to savor in this book about attitude toward one’s conditions and situations. Acceptance becomes a change in perspective that turns misfortune into fortune. She teaches this through everyday stories and stories from the Buddha’s life. There are many other stories recounted of great spiritual and psychological interest as well. Some are personal stories and some of Zen Masters and their students. Truly this is a wonderful and valuable book for anyone who really wants to understand life and how to live.

Here is a final poetical quote from Zen Master Dogen:

Life and death are to be loved,
Changing like the fleeting clouds.
walking either the path of delusion
   or enlightenment
Is only walking in a dream

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