Giving up family

Giving up family

Ordained a priest at Unganji in Nasu

Having been ordained a priest at Unganji in Nasu, I was still with my family and teaching at Kanagawa University as before, though now in priest’s robes and shaving my head every few days. So I was a member of the class referred to in the old Buddhist saying: “There are four kinds of monks, one of them being those who remain with their families physically, but live away from the world spiritually.” Again, in the section called “Ways and Means” in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, it says: “If you have the aspiration for Supreme Wisdom (anuttara- samyak-sambodhi citta) then you are monks.” In this spirit I tried to think of myself as a monk, though living a layman’s life, but somehow in the depths of my being, I felt uneasy.

Often I thought to myself that I really ought to dedicate myself wholly to Buddhism without regard to my wife and children, and that the suffering which this would bring could be taken as a high sacrifice before the altar of the Way. Sometimes I was on the verge of taking the step of renouncing home to take a monk’s life in the literal as well as spiritual sense; but then I would be watching them in our shared daily life, and particularly when I listened to their peaceful breathing in the silence of the night, a wave of feeling for them would come over me and my half-formed resolve would quickly crumble away.

During these times of spiritual struggle, I used to keep a small notebook with me, to jot down my passing thoughts and feelings, in the hope that somehow it would help to organize my thinking. But from time to time my predicament flared up into inner agonies, and it seemed like the situation in the saying “. . . a sheer cliff-edge behind, and another cliff-edge in front,” or like a mountain climber who suddenly finds that there is no way to go on up, and no way down either.

Early in December of that year, I happened to come across a piece in the paper about two parents, both in their thirties, who had thrown themselves, and their four children, overboard from a cross-channel steamer going between Aomori and Hakodate. Their tragedy had not arisen from economic straits; they had relatively expensive tickets, and in fact the report said they were quite well-to-do Yokohama residents. Perhaps this story affected me so much because the places were familiar: I knew the Tsugaru Strait where the suicide had taken place, and I had myself lived for years in Yokohama. Such family suicides were often reported in the press, and more and more I found myself asking what our Buddhist priests were doing to alleviate the spiritual misery that must have occasioned them. And that led immediately to the thought, What am I myself doing? Am I myself leading the life proper to a Buddhist priest?’ The repeated self-examination and subsequent self-reproach were reinforcing my wavering determination to renounce my family ties altogether.

About now I got a letter from Daisetsu Suzuki in America saying that there was a certain American in New York who was running a Zen meditation hall there, and was intending to come to Japan soon; he had mentioned my name to him, and he now asked if I would see this man. As it happened, I was not able to meet him when he came briefly to Kamakura; he went on to stay in Kyoto, and I corresponded with him. Finally I did meet him in Kyoto, and we had several days of talks there.  One day he suggested to me that I should go to New York at some future date, when he would provide the basic necessities of living for me, and also for my family if I decided to live there as a monk without them. I felt my heart jump at this proposal, and made up my mind there and then to give up my worldly occupation of teaching, and also to live in isolation.

In 1950, on the eighth of April, which as it happens is the anniversary of the birth of the Buddha, I left my home dressed in my priest’s robes, and got on the train for Kyoto. On the way, I composed this haiku poem:

Leaving behind wife and children,
I seek to live as a monk without home,
Passing through the green of barley fields.

But I could not banish from my inner eye the pathetic figures of my wife, with her poor health, and of my youngest daughter of seventeen. At the same time, I had some feeling of relief that the long inner struggle was over, and that I was now confronting my own destiny.

In Kyoto I was first given lodgings in a small temple near the Ryoanji, which is so famous for its austere rock garden, and later in a hermitage in the precincts of Daitokuji. In this last, I had the responsibility for cleaning the interior of the building and the gardens. The old monk living in the hermitage gave me instruction in chanting sutras, and the rules and ways of life of a priest, while I also undertook some studies of the doctrines of Buddhism on my own.

I had intended to attend regular classes at one of the Buddhist universities in Kyoto, but I did not manage to carry out this part of my plan. However, I used to visit Dr. Shinichi Hisamatsu and Dr. Keiji Nishitani, professors at Kyoto University, and Abbot Daiko Yamazaki of Shokokuji, Abbot Shinken ofTofukuji, and Roshi Bunken who was in charge of the Myoshinji Meditation Hall, and some others. It was a joy to come into personal touch with such distinguished scholars and Zen masters. I also attended some sessions for study of the Yuima Sutra and the Record of Rinzai, held at the Institute for Research into the Science of Culture at Kyoto University.

I used to think in those days of the priest’s robe and the stole as symbols of a life of renunciation, and moreover as outward expressions of inner joy at being at last able to fulfil my aspirations after so many difficulties. I walked through the streets of the old capital as it were proudly displaying myself as a priest in priest’s robes. I invariably wore the stole round my neck, and the traditional wickerwork hat of the priest.

One day I was invited to attend a meeting of the study group of students belonging to Hanazono Gakuin University, which is maintained by the Rinzai Zen sect. There was a professor of the university presiding over the discussions. I was surprised at the scepticism about Zen, and the whole of the present-day priestly life. This was not long after July 1950, when the famous Kinkakuji (Golden Temple) had been deliberately set on fire and burned down by one of the disciples of the abbot there. It had been built in 1397 by Yoshimitsu, one of the Ashikaga shoguns, and was one of the cultural treasures of Japan. What surprised me still more was that some of the students seemed to be expressing some fellow-feeling with the criminal. Then some others began to talk about the irregular private life of the chief priest of a Zen temple, who was known to have trained for many years in Zen. A number of the students openly expressed doubts about the virtues of Buddhist meditation, and a priest’s role in general.

I was asked to speak to these young men, and I told them about my past life and what I was doing now, out of veneration for the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, as Master Dogen says.  It was out of supreme devotion for Zen that I had given up my university professorship and my home life, and given myself up to religion at the relatively advanced age of forty-seven. I told them also that I took a great delight in wearing priest’s robes, because like the red flag for the Marxists, they were symbols of Buddhism, and I would never appear in public without them. Whether my words had any lasting effect on them I do not know.


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