9. The overflowing cup - A Zen Experience

At the geisha parties I attended from time to time, there usually came a moment when conversation came to a standstill and boredom threatened to take over. This was when the geisha's talents were brought into full play, with a dance or a song or a round of games of the kind I thought I had left behind long before my voice changed.

One of these games involved adding sake, a drop at a time, to a cup already filled to the brim. The assembled captains of industry and a geisha or two would take turns in gingerly lowering yet another drop onto the swollen surface. The suspense consisted in the surprising extent to which the convex meniscus could be stretched far beyond what one would have thought possible. The one delivering the proverbial last drop had to empty the cup in one gulp for 'punishment'.

The game reminded me of a story related in Paul Reps' marvelous book 'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones', now a collector's item, about a Zen master who was visited by a university professor. The master served him tea but kept on pouring even after the cup was full. The professor watched it overflow and finally cried out: "Stop it! It's overfull. Nothing more will go in!'. 'Like this cup', the master replied, 'your head is full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'

Sitting down for my first zazen meditation in the Soujiji Temple near Yokohama at 3.30 one morning in 1963 I was acutely aware of my own full cup, filled to capacity with trivial thoughts and useless ideas. I had been told that any benefit from zazen could only come after prolonged and arduous meditation, but the force with which my chaotic, entangled brain activity assailed me amid the stoic calm of the assembled monks nevertheless astounded and alarmed me. Why was it only here that I became aware of the whirlpool raging inside my head? By what clever, unconscious technique did we tame and order our thoughts in daily life, and why did that trick not seem to work here, in the serenity of this zendo, this meditation hall, where one would expect it to?

It occurred to me that some Zen masters of the past, such as those depicted on the scrolls of Sengai, might actually have gone mad, trading the attainment of satori enlightenment for the loss of reason. I knew then that I would never be good satori material. I loved my humdrum powers of reasoning and commonplace comforts far too much to exchange them for anything as uncertain as momentary clarity of mind.

Soujiji, Yokohama, April 13, 1963.

Today is jukai-e, a kind of confession, which takes place once a year. 520 girl students, the whole high school graduation class of Soujiji Gakuin College, are spending two days at the temple. Also present are more than 100 lay members of the sect from all over the country. They will stay for 3 to 7 days. Ideally this should be repeated for a total of 7 times during one's lifetime, but most people manage only once.

Confession: in the past the proceedings were held in secret, with red curtains hung inside the ceremonial hall. Now such curtains are used only around a small space behind the main altar through which the girls must pass in single file to hand their confessions (slips of paper on which they've written their 'small sins and vices') to the Kansho, the Chief Abbot. After that the confessors take their places before the altar. When they are all assembled, the Kansho appears in full regalia to oversee the burning of the confession papers in a huge brass urn set in front of the altar.

I recorded the ceremony on film.

I've been invited to stay the night in the monks' sleeping quarters, and join the morning activities.

3am: wake-up gong - get up immediately - use tousu (toilet) and splash water on face - rush to Zendo to find place (there are a few places short, to encourage prompt arrival; when the hall is full you sit on the veranda, a point against you) - I arrive seconds late, end up on veranda with 2 or 3 others - Zazen for 45 minutes sitting stock still in tailor's squat, concentrating mind on one subject for no longer than 18 minutes (considered maximum attention span)

3.18: I shifted - sadistic monk (kyosaku) with flat stick notices and slowly shuffles over to me to hit me hard on the shoulder - ouch! - I'm supposed to bow in gratitude - I do

3.45: end of meditation - legs horribly painful

5.15: to Hokodo hall for morning service, 45 min, followed by 30 minutes' sermon

6.30: 3 special ceremonies

7.00: mondo (Zen questioning, for monks only)

7.30: breakfast in Zendo (rice gruel, umeboshi pickled plum, hot water)

8.30 to 11.00: special ceremonies attended by all the school girls and lay members (who have spent the night in other parts of the temple complex)

My wife arrives to join the ceremonies that follow. While I take photographs, she makes little line drawings to help illustrate a book on Zen practice I am writing.

11.00 - 12.00: muneage-shiki ('roof completion ceremony') for the new Hondo, the temple's main temple building - very colourful affair with senior clergy in sumptuous robes and head gear and banners fluttering all round. Head priest (Kansho) enters and leaves to accompaniment of live ancient music (gagaku).

12.00: monks withdraw for their own lunch in Zendo, followed by rest and work such as sweeping and cutting wood

Interview with my good friend Bishop Sumi Togen, the Rōshi in charge of novices:

'We have about 135 monks here, down from the 200 in the past. Most novices come from branch temples and quickly go back there. In most of these temples rules for zazen etc. are not observed and priests have wives and children. About 20% of our monks came of their own choice, from lay families. They have chosen the monastic life.

When a novice (called shinto, 'new entrant') has completed a 100-day ango schedule and accepted the '10 precepts' he becomes an unsui (cloud & water, the Zen term for a monk). Zen monks always are referred to as unsui, even those who have solved the 108 koan riddles and become a Rōshi (master).

We pray before meals and don't talk while eating. We eat fast and clean our dishes with hot water passed around in a kettle. We then drink the 'dishwater'. Nothing is wasted. We eat simple vegetarian food, which gets cold because of the long prayer, and because we shouldn't eat before the chief priest has arrived.

Sample of a recent sekkyo (sermon) to a lay group: 'Country people (the audience) often neglect their personal hygiene. You must wash yourself: your body is your temple. Also, never delay anything. When you think: I should write a letter to so-and-so, write it instantly. Don't talk about it, do it. Waste no time. When your bath is ready, take it without delay.'

In May I had a chance to interview Mr. Nozomi, the Nagoya company president I had met at my mother-in-law's Nagoya house, about his views of Zen from the layman's perspective.

Nagoya, May 14, 1963

Mr. Nozomi said his habit of sending each year's crop of new employees to the very strict Shogenji Zen temple in Gifu for a week of 'character building' met with increasing resistance. Faced with having to follow the monks' frugal life day after day, most objected. 'Why do we have to do such foolish things?' A few said they liked it but Nozomi didn't believe them. However, he hopes that some will come to realise the value of this experience later in life. Meanwhile, the effort wasn't entirely wasted. 'If the boys complain that we make them work too hard in the office, we remind them how much harder the monks' life is.' Nozomi said many other companies have similar training programs. Shogenji became famous when baseball star Kawakami spent a few months there about 7 years ago to overcome a slump. He went there on the advice of Mr. Shoriki, the legendary newspaper and television tycoon and owner of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team. Kawakami emerged reborn.

Asked if Zen was exportable, Nozomi answered: 'The Zen spirit can be taken anywhere with benefit, but the quality of present-day Zen life in temples, and the monks' attitude, has declined, mostly because of financial difficulties. In the past temples owned fields for crops - all taken away after the war. Some have some forest land left, but most lack property. Private donations are also much less than in more religious times. Hence temples have gone into business to survive: funerals, tourism, tea and flower classes, kindergartens, training spells for company employees. And they are still struggling. Unsui must provide for themselves through takuhatsu (going round with the begging bowl) but the yield is meagre. Through all this, the atmosphere in the Zen temples has become impure (nigotte-iru). Even so, Zen is better than most other sects.

Later that month I visited Kyoto to interview my friend at the Toufukuji, the unsui Nagayasu Sotai. Toufukuji is a major temple of the Rinzai branch of Zen, which in contrast to Soto lacks a central headquarters. There are a large number of Rinzai 'sects', each comprising a main temple and a number of branch temples. In that sense Rinzai is a little like Protestantism against Soto's Roman Catholicism.

Toufukuji, Kyoto, 22 May 1963

The Rinzai Zen year consists of 2 parts: 1 February to 31 July known as Ame-ango, and 1 August to 31 January Yuki-ango. Each part is divided into two periods of 3 months, seikan and seichu. The latter is most important for Zazen, no leave. Seikan is a 'kind of vacation'. Many go home, others stay, collecting firewood, sleeping, enjoying their relative freedom. Seichu consists of a succession of week-long stretches of intensive meditation, known as sesshin, separated by a few days' rest. During sesshin unsui are not allowed to leave the Zendo at all except to go to the toilet. They eat and sleep in the Zendo.

The Toufukuji complex comprises 25 temple buildings, and the sect has 370 branch temples throughout the country, only 38 of which boast a Zendo. Asked about the difference between Rinzai and Soto, Sotai answered: 'Rinzai's manner of expression is more robust. In Rinzai, religious awakening comes from one's own actions and conduct. Soto relies on verbal teaching. Example: when a certain sound is heard, a Soto adept will say: 'That sounds like wood', or metal, or whatever. In Rinzai we merely say 'this is sound'. In Rinzai we say: kill your mother, or burn the Buddha image. This is used by our detractors to attack us. But the true meaning is: grow up, don't rely on idols.'

The Chief Abbott of Toufukuji is Hayashi Ekyo, the 88th abbott since the Gautama Buddha.

As in Soto, the Rinzai monks are called unsui, even the roshi, masters who have solved the 108 koan riddles.

Takuhatsu: ritual begging by the monks. Purpose: to learn modesty and accept even insults with a bow. In former days the monks went from house to house, now they just walk chanting 'Hatsu!' (sounding like hooo!), which is the iron bowl Gautama used. But they receive little.

In June I returned to Soujiji for another overnight stay to participate in some of the monks' activities and meditation sessions. I learned that the takuhatsu of the Soujiji monks took place twice a month for 3 hours, except for 30 days prior to Setsubun (the beginning of spring) when they went every day for an hour and a half. They usually walked in lines of 30 to 40 monks. Offerings received were mostly 10 to 100 yen, sometimes 500 or even 1000 yen. Poor-looking people often paid more. 'But we feel equally grateful'. When it rained, begging was difficult and insects were easily stepped on. Therefore meditation was preferred during the rainy season.

Soujiji, Yokohama, 18 & 19 June 1963

Sesshin. For 5 days all monks stay in the Zendo (meditation hall), leaving it only to use the toilet. Four or 5 laymen join the sesshin, but they have to sit outside the Zendo. The monks sleep, eat, meditate and listen to lectures all in the Zendo. The other quarters are empty except for a night guard here and there. In Bishop Sumi's room we have to speak in whispers after 9pm. At 9 a monk carrying a lampion came to wish us good night. In the bath tub I met the Head of Preaching who invited me to come and talk with him.

The whole night long there was a nest of kittens meowing under my window. Roshi's comment: we never kill cats in this temple.

Next morning. 6.30. Meeting with Rev. Muramine, Chief Director (kan-in or kantoku) of Soujiji, and Supervisor of social activities incl. school, pawnshop, orphanage, hospital.

Hirai-san is assigned to help me with the camera etc. in place of Horie-san who is in hospital with a bleeding stomach. He once broke a shoulder bone from a beating by kyosaku in the Zendo, which caused quite a stir, because kyosaku is supposed to strike muscle, not bone. Horie-san has been here 7 years. Is an expert photographer. Cause of Horie's illness: overwork.

Zenjisama (Head Priest) always attends early morning meditation when he is in the temple.

I was allowed to use my camera during early morning Zazen and breakfast attended by Zenjisama.

After a few months' work I had collected enough material to start writing the book. I sent a few sample chapters and photographs to Holland. The publishers were not pleased. What they wanted, they said, was a book about 'pure Zen' - zazen meditation and koan, the irrational riddles given to Zen practitioners by their masters to help them gain satori, enlightenment. Yes, above all they wanted to know about satori and how to achieve it.

I pointed out that by its very nature, Zen could not be 'explained' - and no one could tell you - in writing or otherwise - how to achieve satori. The project was abandoned.