Arthur Braverman gathers all of Kodo Sawaki’s teachings together in his impressive new book on the Zen Master.
BY VANESSA ABLE
Kodo Sawaki was one of the most respected Zen teachers of the last century, and endures as a great-grandfatherly figure, propped up by the strength of his own legend as passed on by his students.
Sawaki came of age and heard his spiritual calling as an orphan in the salubrious slums of Tsu City in Japan. At the age of 16, he left his town for the monastery and was ordained as a monk one year later. Called to train with the Japanese Imperial Army for three years, then conscripted to fight for another two, Sawaki returned to Japan and his Buddhist studies in 1906.
When he eventually became a teacher, Kodo Sawaki eschewed the traditional model the monastic institution and instead traveled the country to speak and teach. Nicknamed ‘Homeless Kodo’, Sawaki insisted on always traveling alone and laid great importance on teaching his students on a one-on-one basis, since, he asserted, each individual is unique.
Kodo Sawaki was not a teacher of much written output. A lot of what he wanted to transmit as a Zen master comes to us today from the quick pens of his students who put on paper what their teacher taught them face to face or spoke about in lectures.
As such, Sawaki’s teachings, along with details of his biography, have until now been thinly scattered. Arthur Braverman’s work in compiling the dispersed elements of the Homeless Kodo’s life and teachings represent a significant convergence of his legacy.
Discovering the True Self is divided into three sections: Kodo Sawaki’s biography (based in large part on Sawaki Kodo Kikigaki – Sawaki’s own autobiography), his sayings and memories and reflections on him by other Zen figures.
Arthur Braverman himself was a student of Kosho Uchiyama, who was Kodo Sawaki’s student and dharma heir, and he trained under him for several years at Antaiji in Japan, the Temple Uchiyama inherited from Kodo Sawaki after his death in 1965.
Braverman also authored a book about Sodo Yokoyama – the famous Grass Flute Zen Master and student of Kodo Sawaki’s – who spent the last twenty years of his life teaching and playing a grass flute in the corner of a public park, a ‘Temple Under the Sky’.
In his preface to his new book, Braverman pays homage to Sawaki and Uchiyama’s primary legacy, namely their ‘talent for clarity and simplicity’ by upholding their aptitude for translating complex Buddhist terms into language ordinary people would understand.
The central section of the book is filled with aphorisms simply construed that give an idea of Sawaki’s teaching style that was direct and intelligible. For example:
“Start each day as if you were born that day. Always make every day your first.”
“Zazen is not something a person will become better at as they get older. While you are practicing, that is zazen. So whether your practice is going well or poorly, you must always return to practice.”
Likewise, Braverman’s eloquent biography of Sawaki is interspersed with quotes in the first person taken from the Kikigaki text that really bring the story to life as Sawaki’s voice pops up at various moments. One vivid and humorous section features Sawaki’s description of the trepidation felt by Zen students when facing a master by the name of Oka-Roshi in a one-on-one encounter known as dokusan:
“First the monk sitting outside the dokusan room takes out his zagu [a mat for sitting] and spreads it in front of him, bows three times and then enters the dokusan room. Soon his lips become dry and he feels choked up and words won’t easily come. If it were someone easygoing like me [conducting the dokusan] it wouldn’t be a problem. But with Oka Roshi and that frightening face of his, and on top of that, the way he stares with those deep-set eyes, most people would be scared out of their wits. “Well, what do you want?” Just hearing that in Oka’s voice, there’s not a person who wouldn’t shrink submissively. A monk seeking Oka for dokusan would shrink that much more and his voice would be so faint one could barely hear it.”
He went on to give an example of such an exchange with Oka-Roshi that ruffled him and stayed with him for a long time:
“‘Tell me what the Great Matter is.’ Roshi, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Hmm, whose Great Matter?’ Oka’s response is blunt. ‘Well, mine…’ ‘Yours? If it’s yours alone, does it really matter? Ha, ha, ha.’ I can still hear that laughter. Like the devil spewing his poison.
“I suffered many difficulties in my life since then. Many times I felt sad. Those times I always hear, ‘Yours? If it’s yours alone, does it really matter?’ And that eerie laughter penetrates to the bottom of my ears.”
Sawaki was fond of stressing the directness of practice, that the main aspect of Zen was zazen and that all one needed was the clothes or robes one was sitting in and the cushion under one’s backside. In an interview with Shunpei Ueyama, a professor of natural sciences from Kyoto University, he laughed about his nickname of the Okesa sect and stressed where the real importance of practice lay.
UEYAMA: You say that Zen is “things as they are. But there are many complicated things too, like the Shobogenzo and [studying] Buddhist okesa [robe worn by preists], which you, Roshi, are involved in. And then there is the posture, which can be severe. Wouldn’t it be better just to be?
SAWAKI: It’s not really that difficult—things like zazen and okesa. What’s important is how one feels. How you feel when you fold your okesa or when you practice zazen—like that cook’s helper when she saw the zazen form when I was a child, and she bowed to it—that is the important thing. That’s the meaning of saying “Manner is the Buddha Dharma.” It is the form in which Dogen Zenji strongly believed, the importance of the form. That is the meaning of this form. When I put on this okesa and practice zazen, I don’t need anything else.
UEYAMA. I see.
SAWAKI. So, when I put on this okesa and practice zazen, it is anjin ryumei (settling one’s body and life). Then I don’t need anything. It doesn’t matter whether or not I have book learning. I don’t have to throw away what I have, nor do I have to attain anything I don’t have. They call my practice the Okesa sect.
SAWAKI. I am referred to as the Okesa sect priest, because we put on okesa and practice zazen. That is the essence.
The book ends with testimonies by Kozan Kato, Sodo Yokoyama, Kosho Uchiyama and Gudo Nishijima about the experience of being Kodo Sawaki’s student. The following is a tribute from Nishijima:
“I think the most excellent point of Master Kodo Sawaki’s Buddhism was his absolute pure attitude as he pursued the truth.”
Similarly, Kosho Uchiyama remembered him as a stalwart of discipline, though not without his softer edges:
“Sawaki Roshi practiced more conscientiously than anyone. I became his disciple at Daichuji Temple in Tochigi Prefecture on December 8, 1941. At the time he was in his sixties, and during sesshin at Daichuji the wake-up bell rang at 2:50 a.m. But Roshi started to sit at 1:30. We sat until 10:00 p.m. He slept only a few hours at night. He practiced this way for five days a month as well as a week during Rohatsu, the celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
“When he saw practitioners slack off, even a little, he scolded and goaded us with his thunderous voice as if a huge temple bell were shaking. Drawn by his power, practitioners were able to just sit the zazen that has nothing to do with satori…”
Discovering the True Self by Arthur Braverman is published by Counterpoint Press and released on October 20th 2020.