I was asked for a Zen-calligrapher’s comment on the Paris massacre.
In a brush-stroke you may see yourself. Bear with it, don’t kill!
Today I had a look how many people subscribed for this blog. After deducting some obvious spam, I counted 108 subscriptions … really?
Recently somebody (with whom I had just a brief virtual exchange) called me a “blogger”. I was baffled … isn’t a blogger a young, maybe nerdy late-teen being occupied with writing about, say, street-fashion or the latest technical gadgets? Or someone for whom independent online-publishing is an important part of every day life? Someone with a message …?
Calling me a “blogger” is a bit as if my university students would call me a “hand-outer”, because occasionally they receive a hand-out accompanying my lectures. Though, producing and handing out short snippets of text is not anyhow significant for my academic research or teaching, it’s nothing more than here or there providing some additional information, pointing to this or that. In a similar way I understand my blog in relation to my teaching activities in Zen and Zen-Arts.
I began this blog as a kind of travel diary when I went to Japan and the Tohoku region a few weeks after the disastrous earthquake and Tsunami (known as the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake). At the time I wasn’t sure what will become out of it, I also wasn’t quite sure if I will return in good health since the fatally destroyed reactors in Fukushima were still boiling, in addition to a typhoon warning issued for that very day I passed close by Fukushima on my way to Sendai.
I simply thought it might be a good idea to provide some bits of information about my journey, mixed with some views on my way of practising Zen. Some nice feed-back encouraged me to continue writing, in spite of serious doubts every now and then if this wasn’t a considerable waste of time.
Consequently, this blog is not (like some other blogs might well be) written for it’s own sake, or anyhow considered to be a consistent and self-sufficient source of information. It’s just a hand-out, snippets, or (as it is said in the title) “incidental remarks on Zen”. Nothing too serious … my 108 subscribers (and accidental passer-by), I hope you enjoyed reading!
Last week I visited the highly recommended exhibition “Vom Japonismus zum Zen. Paul Klee und der Ferne Osten” at the Cologne Museum dür Ostasiatische Kunst. In case you want to study which way Asian Zen Art influenced Western Art, this is an excellent opportunity to follow a less known trace!
Besides a group of four to five elderly ladies, to my surprise I was the only visitor on this Saturday afternoon. Maybe the lack of other people or maybe the communicative nature of the Rheinland folks made the semi-private guide of the ladies group speak out loud and without hesitation what she knew about the artwork on display. It was entertaining to listen and gave me some good hints where to start and when to end with an explanation, when next time guests at my Dojo and gallery produce a puzzled expression on their face while looking at my calligraphy.
The vociferous tour-guide was just about commenting on a Daruma ink painting, when one of the group members asked “And how does one become enlightened?”. Without a moment of hesitation the guide replied “You have to live a very strict life, follow many rules, diet, lots of meditation, no pleasure, no music, no sex … and worst of all, no alcohol! Then, after many years, you will become enlightened!”. Silence. Deep breaths from the impressed audience … and she continued “Though, after you achieved enlightenment, you may eat and drink and enjoy your life as before. When you are enlightened, you are allowed to live the same life as we do!”.
After a dramatic pause the wise guide concluded “Basically, we are all enlightened!”. The whole group seemed much satisfied with her answer and left, so I could enjoy some silent private time with the masterpieces of Zen Art and Paul Klee’s re-interpretation.
If you come to Cologne, make sure not to miss the exhibition, and the cheerful temper of the unquestionably enlightened locals!
I have never in my life heard anyone playing the shakuhachi like this. A tune the master produced on his bamboo flute came from far away and long ago. He never said a word too much, and the tea-time before our lessons often was a silent, speech-less distress during which I desperately tried to find the one or other topic for conversation.
“So, bitte spielen Sie!” (so, please play) and “Ja, noch einmal!” (yes, once more) were probably the two phrases I heard most from him. Some lessons passed without much more than “So, bitte spielen Sie!” followed by two or three “Ja, noch einmal!”. He played a tune, I copied to the best of my limited abilities.
For ten years month after month I visited him, either for a private lesson at his home in northern Germany or during his regular class near the Bavarian Alps, each a day-trip away from my home. Learning the shakuhachi required lots of commuting to these locations, one with its low sky, rough winds and the nearby salty sea in the air, one with the sight of majestic snow covered mountains. Playing a tune from his hand-written music scores on the flute he once made for me always evokes images in my mind of the surrounding nature where I once studied with him. And though it should imitate the sound of a bell ringing in the empty sky, I can hear the sea and the wind in the snowy mountains as well.
The way my former teacher expressed himself was mainly through his shakuhachi, which in ancient Japan was exclusively played by the Komuso Monks while begging for alms, and sometimes used as a weapon to defend themselves. For him, it never became a musical instrument amongst others, the way we nowadays usually listen to the shakuhachi. His Kyotaku is a tool for meditation, for practising Suizen (吹禅), or “blwoing Zen”.
Ikkei Handa passed away on 1. October 2014.
Writing with brush and ink is my passion. I was drawn into this art about three decades ago, and the fascination never ever ceased. The very moment my ink loaded brush touches the paper I feel beyond time and space. Something occurs, but it is not me. Not me drawing a line, not me trying to produce a pleasant calligraphy.
Sometimes I feel all those artists whose work I had studied standing behind me, guiding my brush. Their breath, their hand, their vision is leaving it’s trace on the paper. After the calligraphy is completed, usually in one breath, I feel happy and exhausted … and looking at it, I hardly ever think it is “my work”.
I have always been lacking an appropriate expression to describe in a word or two what it feels for me to write calligraphy. Until a few days ago, when I read in my favourite book (1) about the artist Atsuko Watanabe. She is quoted therein to motivate her students in a workshop saying “書いてもらう” (kaite morau) … which can only approximately be translated by “let’s receive the painting/writing”.
Yes, 書いてもらいます! I receive the writing I then transfer to the paper with brush and ink. Only when the results looks awkwardly clumsy, I am to be blamed. That regularly happens when I want to write nicely.
If it comes out really well, it wasn’t me!
(1) A. Couturier, “A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance”. If I had to name just one book illustrating how to live a happy and fulfilled life, it would be this one.
Autumn came with grey sky, and this early morning when I left for Zazen it was only seven degrees. I decided to switch on the Dojo’s central heating system for an hour, since some visitors recently complained about sitting in the cold.
Thinking of my winter Zazen experience in an unheated Temple in Japan, I remember it was a bit hard in the beginning to get adjusted. With some warm cloth and realising the ability of our human body to produce all warmth that is necessary I eventually really enjoyed it. Facing a beautiful Zen garden we even had the sliding doors open for sitting closer with nature, the gently falling snow almost touching our skin.
When I lead Sesshin at a huge luxurious seminar place in Bavaria we practise in a nicely heated room, the thick walls of the former medieval monastery perfectly insulate us from the surrounding nature. It is a real challenge not to fall asleep in the warm stuffy air, and the sound-scape produced by the heating and all the other technical systems operating the house evoke a spaceship-like atmosphere at times.
Switching on my Dojo’s heating this morning felt like switching off the opportunity to experience Zazen with nature: hot in summer, cold in winter.
Yet, this pampered way is often our Western Zen, custom-made for us saturated middle class consumers. If not the quest to further improve and optimise our performance, some vague feeling of dissatisfaction, some wish to change our life drives us to the door of a Zen Dojo. Though instead of searching and finding a place to truly experience ourselves, we end up in just another comfortably heated room wasting our time.
I get the impression some more industrious Zen entertainers are well aware of that problem and fill the comfortable boredom with many kinds of entertaining nonsense: a catwalk of fashionable Japanese style Zen-clothing, talks and performances functioning like some kind of emotional central heating, or an overshoot of ceremonies are on display.
More than ever I feel the humble Zen experience I have to offer does not meet the expectations of the people frequenting my Dojo. These autumn days I decided to relocate to a more secluded place, unheated, in the midst of nature.
Occasionally I follow discussions on the world wide web concerning the one or other well known Zen teacher. Brian Daizen Victoria for example performs a tremendous, widely and controversial discussed research work on the role Japanese Buddhists played during World War II (1). What I find interesting in such discussion is not in the first place the evaluation of the detailed amount of shame and guilt outstanding Buddhist representatives loaded on their shoulders. I wonder more which motivation drive such a person’s defenders, seasoned Zen practitioners and scholars who often see themselves in the lineage of the teacher in question.
My former teacher, as well as the Zen Master by whom I was ordained, were both direct students of Omori Sogen Roshi. I follow Sogen’s way of Zen by practising and teaching Zazen together with Hitsuzendo (Zen Calligraphy) and Martial Arts, namely Aikiken (Aikido practise with the wooden sword). I consider myself very lucky for having had the chance to learn from disciples of a great Master who integrated three of my major passions into his teaching.
Yet I have all evidence to believe Brian Victoria is simply right when he concludes “I submit that Sogen was nothing short of a “Zen-enabled terrorist” dedicated to establishing a fascist state in Japan (…)” (2).
This severe conflict is fuelling my work and inspiration, it leaves no doubt for me that I have to investigate and question and possibly re-interpret if not re-model each and every detail of what I have learned. No way I simply quote “The Master” or refer to “Japanese Tradition” in order to underpin my thinking and doing. In my own modest day to day Zen work, which I perform in the lineage of Omori Sogen, I am for sure quite the opposite of a fascist Zen-enabled terrorist, or apologist of such a person’s way of thinking.
Do we need to believe our teacher(‘s teacher) was perfect? Should we even wish for it? I don’t think so. My former teacher often said “better not so perfect teacher, so the student can excel his teacher one day”, and “closely study advantage and disadvantage of your teacher”. Such a point of view keeps a healthy distance to the idealised image of a perfect and flawless Master, and it also might prevent us from entering exhausting discussions in defence of the indefensible.
By and by in the course of our limited life span we have to grow up and become independent of those who once guided our steps. It is not necessary we carry on their heavy loads on our own back, until the end of our days. It is not appropriate we refer to their heavy load each and every time we are questioned for our ways and proof of whereabouts. Is it not our duty to keep the rucksack light, by carefully examining each and every heirloom our spiritual ancestors left behind?
Re-iterating the faults and de-tours of our teachers is not following the way they taught us. After I learned my lesson from their good and bad example, it is my obligation to neither re-do nor defend their mistakes and crimes! In this life, I have to go My Way … and happily admit it adds a new twist to the lineage I do my best to continue.
(1) See, e.g., Brian Victoria, Zen at War, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2nd edition, 2006) or recent articles published on-line in the Asia-Pacific Journal.
(2) Brian Victoria on Sep. 8th, 2014 in a reply to the discussion of his article “The Non-Self as a Killer” on Sweeping Zen.
Very different people come to my Sesshin and Dojo, and a few of them have studied much more things, met many more teachers than I ever will. Often the exchange concerning their experience is really interesting. Some have worked with great teachers I only know from the one or other book I read during my student times. Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, Nagaya Tetsuo, Tanahshi Kazuaki … these masters once laid out the map for my own spiritual journey, and I feel touched now working with students who have actually met them.
Some other visitors introduce themselves with “I practise Yoga and Tai-Chi, and I am green belt in XYZ-Do”, “I was a Tibetan Buddhist but now I do Soto-Zen, but actually I am more a Daoist”, “I am Reiki-Master and traditional healer and my inspiration is a lot from North American Indians”, “My Master is the famous … you haven’t heard of him? Btw., last year I met the Dalai Lama and Thich Nath Hanh”.
A maze of Ways, so many prominent names … a spiritual bag so over-full. I feel dizzy, after just a few minutes casual introduction.
Compared to these guests, my own focus is pretty narrow. I worked with just one Aikido teacher, and with his students. Only occasionally I attended seminars with other disciples of Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido: Tamura Nobuyoshi, Yamaguchi Seigo, Asai Katsuaki were great inspirations … though all I really wanted to practice was the Aikido of Kobayashi Hirokazu. The same with Zen and Hitsuzendo: after some initial random-walk, I worked for 13 years with just one teacher. Now I exchange occasionally with another Master, who was my former teacher’s senior at Sogen Omori‘s temple.
I believe there is nothing one can really learn in a few week-end seminars, during a year or two visiting some teacher maybe once or twice a week, or from seeing a spiritual celebrity once in your life. Maybe one can pick up a few ideas, names, phrases … but isn’t all that superficial study nowadays anyway much easier with google and youtube?
When Thich Nath Hanh once came to the city where I lived as a student, I preferred to go to the daily Aikido class instead of joining a “walking meditation” organised with the prominent visitor. I was sure to benefit more from the day to day encounter with my own local teacher. Actually, I would have felt guilty not attending his class and spend time with someone else instead.
Very much I enjoy the experience of studying more than just one Way, one art. In this point a disagree with my former Shakuhachi teacher, who condemned any practise besides playing the bamboo flute (and even working to earn money for paying his lessons seemed not o.k.). I don’t believe in a too narrow focus, in the one thing. Yet, studying a Way or several Ways is a life-long journey asking for a dedicated daily practice. Nothing worthwhile which can be picked up on the go. The first ten years, the first 3650 hours you are a beginner, regardless what you do. After this initial period, the time of serious study begins …
When my former teacher occasionally was entitled “Zen Master” by visitors, he usually replied, “I am not a Zen Master, not even a janitor” (“Hausmeister” in German, which literally translates “house master”). Sometimes people inviting him to teach a Sesshin wrote “Roshi” on the advertisement poster, which he cheekily translated for us 浪師 into Japanese, taking the first character 浪 from the word “Ronin“, known as the master-less or unemployed samurai roaming feudal period Japan. Roshi, the “travelling teacher”.
I closely studied and worked with him for thirteen years and never ever considered to quit because he was not an “officially certified Roshi” … all the years I was sure he is the best teacher I could find.
I don’t have much confidence in titles or ranks handed down from one person to another. If there was only one of them in the past going wrong, an ever growing avalanche of “wrong heirs” inevitably follows. Just imagine passing on a driving license would be allowed to everyone holding one …
In an ideal world, all titles and ranks (if required at all in an ideal world) should be issued exclusively through institutions governed by a group of peers, in order to provide a minimum of control. In the real world for example, I cannot “transmit” my PhD (the highest academic rank one can acquire) to anyone, even when I am fully convinced my best and most dedicated student deserves it. It is the faculty alone who can do so, following certain well defined rules. And the whole process is transparent and public.
What then is handed down or transmitted in a Zen-Buddhist context from teacher to student? It is the Dharma, of course. Though, quite opposite to a contemporary reading of so called tradition, I understand the “Dharma transmission” as an ongoing process, beginning the day the novice decides to study with a certain teacher. A process, which continues even after one’s teacher passed away (physically or emotionally in the student’s heart) and which doesn’t end with one’s own death, in case there is a next generation of students one accompanies.
For the individual, Dharma transmission is a life-long exchange with our spiritual ancestors. It never occurs “just once”, and it is never completed … what a nonsense idea is it to certify such thing! What would you say if I’d consider to certify the river behind my Dojo is ever flowing?
I don’t believe the image of a “light transmitted from candle to candle” is very appropriate to illustrate “Dharma transmission”. The transmission is maybe much better understood as a thick long rope, made up of uncountable interwoven short thin strings. The longer the overlap between the individual strings, the stronger the rope is. And never ever an individual string supports the rope as a whole.
It might be assuring for the novice student to learn the teacher’s teacher had enough confidence into his or her insight and abilities to issue some kind of teaching license. Though, what does that really proof? In the worst case nothing more than that my old teacher misjudged me? That he maybe had gone a bit senile in his old days? Or that he hoped to strengthen ties between us, possibly for his own benefit? What does my own teaching license proof, beyond the fact that my teacher, at a certain moment in our life, believed it was a good idea to certify that in his eyes I am qualified to teach?
My former Aikido teacher, Kobayashi Hirokazu, never performed any examination or gave any ranks or titles to his students (1). He used to say “what I give you are the pearls, it is your task to make a necklace out of it!”. That was all we got from him, and it was plenty enough!
If there was not such a hype concerning “Zen Master” or “Roshi” titles in the community – titles, sometimes supporting old abusive men or half-baked part-time Zen-teachers (2) who would have most likely been out of business before long if they did not “hold” (and potentially one day “hand down”, of course…) such titles – I wouldn’t even care to write these few lines. I never trusted or mistrusted a spiritual companion because of being a certified “Master” or “Roshi” or not, it plays absolutely no role. Thinking about it any longer I feel is a waste of time … time, better spent transmitting the Dharma.
(1) I witnessed several discussions on the graduation topic and the associated issue of forming an organisation with Kobayashi Sensei. Clearly I do remember he always strictly refused to support such plans. Instead, he provided official Dan certificates issued from Aikikai upon his recommendation to everyone who asked him for such favour (including people he did neither know by name nor face). Said that, also with Kobayshi Sensei there is a story about graduation and mandate to form an organisation issued on his death bed. I don’t know, I was not on his side when he passed away.
(2) This is even more obvious considering how significantly the meaning behind “Dharma transmission” differs between Soto- and Rinzai-Zen:
In Soto-Zen “Dharma transmission” (shiho) is about equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in academia. It is a prerequisite for acquiring the lowest rank within the Soto-Shu‘s system and does not even qualify one to teach. Nevertheless, in the West Soto-Zen students with “Dharma transmission” occasionally sell themselves as “Zen Master”, boldly ignoring the meaning of shiho in the context of the Japanese system they received it.
In Rinzai-Zen, a “Dharma transmission” (inka shomei) is equivalent to being awarded a Nobel Prize. Only 50 to 80 properly certified Rinzai Zen Masters with inka shomei do exist in Japan, it is a process which requires decades of dedicated studies within the system (notably, to successfully complete working through a huge collection of Koan).
The house of my Dojo used to be a shop long time ago, so I have the chance to put some decoration in the “shopping window”. People passing by often stop and look, and sometimes share their opinions with each other, or with me if I’m near the door.
Often men explain to the wife or girlfriend at their side the “Meaning of Zen” while both are looking at the window. It’s interesting to hear what “the man on the street” all knows about that subject! Once a Chinese lady came in and asked in surprise how comes that I am writing “ancient Chinese”, but she assured me she can read it all. What a relief!
I am happy many like to watch my Dojo’s window, maybe they feel touched by the simple beauty of a single flower next to some calligraphy? Some passers-by even promise to come to the Zen class and ask for the schedule. Alas, most of them never came back …
Though, not everyone seems equally pleased. Every now and then someone wonders why this “Chinese Restaurant” has no menu on display. An international group of scientists, maybe on their way back from a conference dinner to the hotel, let me know (without being asked) they really have something better to do than “sitting around doing nothing”. Last week a man came to my door, just to tell me that he is not interested in “esoteric and such” … glad to know!
I really love the children’s comments. They are often attracted by the huge calligraphy brush hanging in the window. A few weeks ago a little girl watched the flower vase for almost two minutes, and then, all in her thoughts, said “I love that little flower!”. A young boy was so disappointed his father could not read what was written on the calligraphy “I really want to know!”. This morning when I practised Hitsuzendo after Zazen class, mother and child hand in hand passed by, maybe on the way to kindergarten. The kid pulled back “I also want to paint, please, mummy!”.
It is my fantasy maybe, but I imagine the children’s’ open eyes can see much clearer what I am doing at my Dojo. A glimpse into another world, on the way from the playground to the ice-cream shop, a promise of exciting adventures and yet-to-discover mystery and beauty. We adults, of course, already know: “In there, they shut up and sit on a pillow and just breathe, for hours, because they want to get enlightened or such. I don’t need that!”. What a pity, too late …