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The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo


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Author: Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okumura, edited by Molly Delight Whitehead
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2014, pp 250

This book contains the teachings of three Sōtō Zen masters: Kōdō Sawaki Roshi, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and Shohaku Okumura Roshi. The majority of this book appeared as a series of newspaper articles between January, 1966 and February, 1967 by Uchiyama Roshi. The series was based around short sayings by Kōdō Sawaki Roshi, one of Japan’s most important 20th Century Sōtō Zen masters and commentary on those sayings by Uchiyama. The articles were published in two books in Japan in 1966 and 1967. Various versions have been published, with additions, over the years with the final version published in 2006 by Daihorinkaku press. This current English version is a translation by Okumura of the Daihorinkaku press version. The English version has additional commentary by Okumura so that non-Japanese readers, unfamiliar with Japanese history, culture and society may understand these teachings in a larger context. Okumura hopes “these additions are not superfluous, like putting legs on a painting of a snake.”  They are not. Indeed, I would go on to say that Okumura’s contributions to this book are the best part of the enterprise.

book coverKōdō Sawaki Roshi has a conflicted role in Japanese Zen. He was extremely popular with the general public (hence his sayings published in a prominent Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun) and took time to teach lay people wherever he travelled. He is called ‘Homeless Kōdō’ as he refused to settle in one monastery but travelled around the country, building a sangha of disciples who attended his teachings whenever he came to their area. In 1935 he accepted a position as professor of the Sōtō university, Komazawa. He maintained this position until he retired at age eighty-three in 1963. In 1949, Sawaki and his disciple Uchiyama went to Antaiji to practice zazen. Sawaki became the fifth abbot of Antaiji but continued his wanderings and teaching at Komazawa, returning to the monastery to lead monthly sesshins. He moved there permanently upon retirement in 1963, dying there just two years later.

While Sawaki’s life reads like a well-loved Zen master, the conflict arises with his attitude to war and nation and emperor. As a young twenty-one-year-old Sawaki, after a two-year period of Zen training as a Zen monk, joined the Thirty-third Infantry Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Army, fighting in China in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 at the age of twenty-five. He was severely wounded and after six years in the military, was discharged in 1906 aged twenty-seven when he resumed his Zen training. Brian Daizen Victoria, Sōtō priest and author of Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997) writes extensively on Sawaki’s war record and his attitude towards war in Zen Masters on the Battlefield (Part I). Those interested in a detailed explanation of Sawaki’s war record and subsequent sayings can read Victoria’s article.

Credit must be given to Okumura Roshi, Sawaki’s Dharma descendant, for not ignoring the less pleasant side of Sawaki’s history in the Introduction to this book. He notes Sawaki’s support for the imperial system and the military government, going on to say, “I think whatever I say in defense, apology or criticism could be biased. I don’t think Sawaki Roshi was a warmonger, but it’s true that he didn’t oppose the imperial system, and so to a certain degree we have to accept the fact that he supported the [Second World] war.” Given the unsavoury shenanigans that have been reported in a number of Zen centers around the world, Okumura’s warning that “Sawaki Roshi and other Japanese Buddhist leaders, orders, and teachings must be critically studied and objectively evaluated—as should all teachers, from all times and places” is timely indeed.

The book has seventy-two brief chapters beginning with a saying of Sawaki, often only one or two sentences, followed by a more detailed exposition by Uchiyama and a further commentary by Okumura. In some cases, a further comment by Sawaki is inserted after Uchiyama’s observation, creating a feeling of a conversation we are privileged to overhear. Okumura provides a valuable commentary on the two masters’ sayings. Sawaki comes across as a no-nonsense master with a severe style of teaching based upon Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō teachings. His teachings are nicely summarized by Uchiyama’s notes of his first hearing of Sawaki’s teachings. It was after listening to Sawaki’s lectures that Uchiyama decided to become a Zen Buddhist monk. Uchiyama distilled Sawaki’s teaching to just five points:

    1. The Buddhadharma teaches that this life is our true and final refuge.

    2. To practice zazen is to become the transparent self.

    3. To practice zazen is the self selfing the self by the self.

    4. To practice zazen is to become the self that is connected with the universe.

    5. Zazen is good for nothing.

Uchiyama was attracted to Sawaki’s teachings because “This was the first time I encountered a person who spoke clearly about the self for which I’d been searching.” Sawaki was steeped in Dōgen’s teachings and here we can see the famous quotation from Genjokoan:

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

As Kōdō Sawaki said:  As far as you can see, there’s only you and nothing else. “I feel blah…keep me company,” you might say, “take over my pain.” You wish!

This book is an excellent addition to any Zen library. For those who study Dōgen it can shed light on how to bring Dōgen’s teachings into every day practice. Newcomers to Zen Buddhism may find parts of this difficult to comprehend but perseverance and practice would be rewarded. Here you will find three generations of a Zen lineage expressing the Dharma with clarity and depth. A reader can jump in anywhere in this book and taste the fruits of three lifetimes of Zen practice.

It’s pointless for human being merely to live a life that lasts seventy or eighty years. Kōdō Sawaki

Further Reading

Zen at War (2nd Edition) by Brian Daizen Victoria book reviews here
Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo by Shohaku Okumura book review here


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