Friday, March 28, 2008


The practice of Zen and the literature of Zen are packed with unfathomable stories and inscrutable sayings. This raises a question. If Zen is basically so straightforward, why are so many words published about it? Why does Zen generate such superfluous material?

One reason:

Because most people allow their lives to be complicated, most people believe all of existence is complicated. They believe that to be simple is to be missing something, and they go off on a lifelong search to either find or else create obstacles, thinking that when they solve these impediments they are on their way to a simple existence.

In plain terms, for the most part we humans manufacture our own problems, and then we go loopy trying to make sense of these problems and trying to untangle them.

The more miserable some people are, the happier they are.

Some of you may be familiar with the words of an eighteenth-century Shaker song:

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'twill be in the valley of love and delight.

It’s human nature to want to have more. More money, more clothes, more free time, more stuff. If we don’t have such material bits and pieces when we think we should have them, we worry, we become anxious.

We can even become mentally ill.

Modern day Zen teachers and Zen masters lean heavily on the principles of the ancients, such as Dogen, Bodhidharma, Hui-neng. They do that because those old boys knew a thing or two about living intuitively and about living a simple life.

In today’s excess of conveniences there are some individuals who have been able to exist in a material world, and still hold on to their personal integrity, and still live a true life of Zen.

The late Shunryu Suzuki, better known as Suzuki Roshi, head of San Francisco Zen Center, was one. Another was the late Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, of Antaiji Temple, near Kyoto. I’d like to say a few words about Uchiyama because he embodied, to an extreme degree, the simple life.

Basing his life on zazen, and devoted to material minimalism, Uchiyama was a distinguished model to monks and laypersons, to Japanese as well as to foreigners. Although he spent many years in destitution, he never feared or was ashamed of material poverty. He clearly saw how the materialism that energizes so many people is the cause of discontent and frustration.

Uchiyama entered Antaiji in the 1940s. For ten years or so he lived a monk’s life, practicing zazen and takuhatsu.

Takuhatsu is the Japanese term for the daily rounds a monk carries out to support himself and his monastery. It means going out on the streets with a wooden bowl into which laypeople put coins, or else rice or other foods.

Takuhatsu is practiced by Asian monks today.

Loosely translated, the term means ”begging,” But the word “beg” is a misnomer because a monk doesn’t ask for anything, the way a street person might hit you up in New York or Chicago.

“Hey, buddy. Got a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee?”

Instead, a monk silently accepts anything anyone might voluntarily put in his bowl, and he bows in deep gratitude.

Takuhatsu is a sort of donation collection.

It’s an acceptance of charity.

Anyway, Uchiyama eventually became abbot of Antaiji, which kept him off the streets. It also enabled him to lecture and write until his death in 1998. One of his hobbies was origami, the art of folding paper into shapes representing flowers or birds.

In writing about the difficult routine of takuhatsu, Uchiyama said he went around not because he really wanted to, but to supply the temple with food, and to cover the temple’s expenses of sesshin. For himself, he said he was never able to buy any new clothing. His washcloths were so worn they looked like netting, and old newspapers served as toilet paper.

Uchiyama wasn’t overjoyed with performing his tasks, but on the other hand he didn’t allow himself to feel degraded. Humbled, maybe, but not lowered in character. As he made his daily rounds he would try to show a cheerful “Hi, here I am again” look, and the shopkeepers would show an “Oh, oh. Here he comes again” look.

Years later, Uchiyama wrote that it was a fairy tale to think that once you’ve had some great illumination experience your life will be one joyous experience. Instead, there is a settling into your life in which you cope with whatever comes up.

You learn to swim through one wave at a time—waves of laughter or of tears, waves of plenty or of privation.

If we can’t learn, or accept, that whatever happens is all right, we can easily become mentally unhinged. According to Uchiyama, submitting wholly to takuhatsu—and to life itself—is traveling the middle way between becoming neurotic or becoming a simple minded idiot.

Unless you want to be a monk in Asia, you don’t have to roam out on takuhatsu. One key to living the middle way is to keep your life simple. Another key is to temper your desires by your income.