Practising Zen at war

Practising Zen at war

Around then I also came to study enthusiastically the lives of the historic National Teachers Daito and Muso, and I went all the way to Shogenji at Ibuka in Mino province where Muso used to live, and to the Kazan temple in Kyoto, to pay reverence to the tomb of Gudo, who had been a teacher of Shido Bunan.

In 1940 Master Gyodo retired from being head of the Engakuji sect, and went back to the Tenchian hermitage at Kuboyama in the district of Yokohama. At that time his room was at the back of the temple, and on his desk was a goldfish bowl, which someone had brought him. It was set on a light stand made of bamboo cross-pieces. One day, after the Zen interview, I was talking to the teacher when a bee flew into the room, seemed to dance around happily, and then went into the hollow of one of the bamboo pieces of the goldfish bowl stand. Another time when I was there just the same thing happened: I saw a bee fly in and go into the bamboo tube. I got the impression that the Master—so strict and forbidding to pupils—was to this bee a kindly playmate. In this side of the Roshi’s character I saw an affinity with Master Ikkyu (some four hundred years before), who had a pet sparrow which he called his attendant. When the sparrow died, he gave him a posthumous Buddhist name, Sonrin, and wrote a death poem for him.

The Master had once told me himself how, when he was still in charge of Jochiji, in his forties, he had been lying asleep with almost nothing on and a large venomous centipede had crawled across his chest. He had not brushed it off and killed it but let it go on its way. When I saw how the bee seemed to be playing in the Master’s room, I recalled that story about the centipede.

It is fair to say that up to the time of my call-up into the army in June 1941, I spent almost all the spare time allowed by my professional work in Zen interviews and study. There were times of tension and times of relaxation, but throughout I was treading the path of Zen. In addition to some koans from outside the standard collections, I had in my interviews in the Poisonous Wolf Cave, gone through the whole hundred of the Hekiganshu and got up to number 37 of the Mumonkan classic.

When I received the red-coloured conscription papers, I went at once to see the Roshi at Tenchian hermitage at Kuboyama, and told him the position. Saying “Oh, really?” he got up from his seat and went into an interior room. He soon came back with two sheets of coloured paper about a foot square, on which he had brushed: No life-and-death for this one. Indomitable courage.  The first comes from a phrase of the founder of Myoshinji in Kyoto, the great Kanzan, one of whose names was Egen: “No life-and-death for this Egen.”  These two sheets of paper with their brushed characters were always with me during my army service, and later when we were all imprisoned in Russia.

When I was called up, I was engaged on the 38th koan in the Mumonkan, which is Ho-en’s “Cow Passing the Empty Window.” When I said farewell to Master Gyodo I asked him, “How would it be if I try writing my solution to you?” “Interview by letter?” he said doubtfully, putting his head a little to one side. “Well, you could try it,” he then agreed. I did in fact write from where I was stationed two or three times, to have the Zen interview on paper as it were, but after that I gave it up altogether.

I was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit and we were immediately sent to the barracks at Shimamatsu in Hokkaido. We were engaged in the defence of the air above Otaru City. In May 1943 we were ordered to two of the northernmost islands of the Kurile chain. The small mountains rising in the middle of the islands were covered with snow year round. From one of them, Kabuto-yama, on a fine day I could get a distant view of the snow-white peninsula of Kamchatka, and realized how far north I had come.

On these North Kurile islands there are many days of dense fog in summer, and raging snowstorms in winter. The fog is famous for its peculiar humidity, which sometimes made our clothes as wet as if they had been soaked in water. The snowstorms were so violent that they claimed several victims each winter. When one was raging, it required extraordinary care to traverse even the ten-odd yards which separated one of the barrack buildings from the next one. In addition to all this, the islands are subject to hurricanes, which not seldom attain a wind-speed of over 120 miles an hour.

The islands are quite barren, yielding no grains and hardly any vegetables. Food and other necessities of life had to be supplied to us by sea from Japan proper. Thus there were no actual inhabitants of the islands who lived there all the time.  All these circumstances combined to induce in one a feeling of deep desolation, as of being (like so many characters in Japanese history) exiled to a remote island surrounded by the ocean. Of course the arrival of a supply ship was a tremendous event. But these ships were from time to time sunk by enemy submarines. Raids by the American Air Force were very frequent. Soon after our arrival the barrack of a platoon of the searchlight battalion was hit by a bomb, killing not only its leader but the commander of the battalion and the men of a company who happened to be on the spot.

In this grim situation, however, it was still possible for me to study and meditate, by day and by night, whenever it was that I could get the time off from my duties. As for reading, I spent many days on Shimazaki’s Before Dawn and Goethe’s Faust. I borrowed the Lotus Sutra, translated from the Chinese, from an officer in the Paymaster’s department, and read it over twice with great spiritual benefit. If the Record of Rinzai is comparable to a serene gem, the Lotus Sutra is a magnificent temple decorated with innumerable precious stones. I was also stirred by the proselytizing spirit pervading this sacred book.

After I had read it for the second time, I happened to hear that a man in a certain company had a copy of the Chinese version, and when I next went to that company, following the regimental commander on an inspection tour, I took the opportunity to borrow the book. I copied selections from the twenty-eight chapters of it, in tiny characters in a pocket book; a few of the chapters I copied out in their entirety. I also wrote those passages which impressed me most as the essence of the Lotus Sutra on some small sheets of paper.

Our arrival in the North Kuriles took place immediately after the annihilation of the Yamazaki garrison on Attu in the Aleutian islands in May 1943. After that, the tide of war had been steadily turning against Japan, and it was expected that there might be American landings on our islands any day. We were given preparatory exercises for a final battle in which all were to die in action, with no one surrendering. The exercises in hand-to-hand fighting, officers with swords and men with bayonets, were repeated again and again.

Surrounded by such an atmosphere of grim desperation, I read and meditated as before, but also took up daily sword practice with a wooden practice sword or my real one. Before being called up, I had a little instruction in an ancient tradition called batto-jutsu, the art of drawing a sword and striking with a single rapid movement. This is one of the sources of the developed Japanese art of the sword, and I took up the practice again. Among the books I had brought with me was Miyamoto Musashi’s Five Rings, which I now studied with profit.  After reading the chapter on “How to Use the Feet and How to Walk,” I happened to pass a dried-up riverbed full of boulders. Going down to the bed I drew my sword and struck out in all directions against imaginary opponents, at the same time having to keep my balance and freedom of movement among the stones. This experiment brought home to me the real value of Musashi’s teachings.

In the chapter on “Sight in the Knightly Arts,” it is said:  “Of pure awareness and the physical eye, it is very important in the knightly arts that all-seeing, imperturbable awareness should be the stronger of the two, so that one should be able to see the distant like the near, and the near like the distant. It is most important in the knightly arts to know your opponent’s sword, without looking at it at all. You must try hard to learn how to do so…. It is also important to see either side without moving your pupils to the side at all. If you are taken up with the world, you cannot expect to learn the secret in a short time. Take to heart what I have written here, and always practice fixing the gaze in this way, so that it does not waver. This has to be wrestled with again and again. This is in the Book of Water.”

The last section, called “Emptiness,” has this: “You should diligently cultivate the spirit and the mind, as well as awareness and the physical eye, every day and every hour. When you have made them cloudless and free from all delusions, then you may be sure that you have attained the spiritual state of true ‘Emptiness.’”  From this it is clear how much importance Musashi attached to the point about awareness and the physical eye. This having taken a firm hold of my mind, I exercised myself in it with my sword every day, in a little wood of alders (dwarfed by the cold), and against the background of the mountains clad with perpetual snow. On the 16th of July, 1944, when I was training myself in awareness and physical eye along these lines, with the bare sword before me, I realized the real meaning of the phrase: “Cold stands the sword against the sky, and I saw that I had never really understood it.

At the same time I had a realization of knowing from the inside the first koan of the Hekiganshu (Blue Cliff Record): “Vastness, no holiness!”, and the comment in the Gateless Gate (No. 19): “When you attain the way of no doubts at all, it is an abode of vastness like infinite space,” and Shido Bunan’s state of “Nothing to Defend,” and again the poem which the fencer Yamaoka Tesshu composed on his enlightenment: “One morning the floor and walls were all pulverized and I saw the round dewdrops shining as ever.” (The passage in Bunan’s work The Heart As It Is runs: “Someone asked me about Mahayana, and I said, ‘Keeping oneself upright, to have nothing to defend, that is Mahayana.’ Then he asked about the highest Way, and I said, ‘Doing just as one likes, to have nothing to defend, that is the great thing. And that is why there are very few such in the world.”)

I returned straightaway to my room and went right through the hundred koans of the Blue Cliff and the first thirty-seven of the Gateless Gate, one after another. I had already passed through each of them in the interview room with Master Gyodo, but now I felt that I had penetrated into their very marrow.  I came to see how significant was the “Vastness, no holiness!” koan at the very beginning of the Blue Cliff. Vastness. Great Emptiness. Empty Space. Nothing to Defend, express the ‘Dropping off Body-mind’, ‘Body-mind dropped-off’ state which is the essence of Zen, and the marrow of all the classical koans.

I felt I had realized the state of which it is said “to pass one is to pass alland “cutting through all the old koans.” Since the time of first seeing the nature in November 1936, some eight long years had gone by up to this moment, with great changes in the situation of Japan and of course my own personal situation too. But this day was one of the most unforgettable of my whole life.

Years later, when in a priest’s robe I was practicing the austerity of a mendicant in the streets of Kyoto, I looked in at the museum and chanced upon the admonition of National Master Daito, in which he says, “The Great Teacher Bodhidharma came from India across the turbulent waves, and saw first the Liang lord (the emperor Lang Wutei) to whom he declared ‘Vastness, No Holiness! The thousand miles and ten thousand miles were like one bar of iron. After that he went to Shaolin, and there was the test of his four disciples who grasped skin, flesh, bone, and marrow respectively. All was nothing more than ‘Vastness, No Holiness!. . .”  Reading this closely, I felt it was a confirmation of my experience in the Kuriles in July 1944.

Back in Japan after being a prisoner in Russia, I one day spoke of this realization in the Kuriles to Master Gyodo, who listened in silence. Then he just said: “However good a thing may be, it will not do to get caught up in it.” Gyodo Roshi always admonished us strictly: “Don’t get caught up in anything at all. Go beyond everything!”