Novice to

An Ongoing Lesson
In the Extent of
My Own Stupidity

Soke Morinaga Roshi
Belenda Attaway Yakakawa,

Soko Morinaga stayed at a Zen temple in Kyoto shortly after WWII and after a year or so, was sent off by his roshi --- his teacher --- to study at Daitokuji monastery. He arrived and presented his papers to one of the monks. The monk returned to say that his request to join the monastery was refused. The novice, says Morinaga, then

    retires into a corner, out of the way of passersby. He takes up his post on the step, doubled over, forehead down on the ground in earnest supplication.

He remained there until another monk came out with an oak stick to pummel him. Then he pushed him out on the street. Morinaga returned to his place on the steps of the monastery. It was early March --- yet he persisted, bowed there for three days, cold, wet, hungry --- until another monk appeared, and delivered the message that he could enter the monastery, but would have to "stand on your guard."

Starting then, he became a student of Zen Buddhism at Daitokuji. A novice monk sleeps on a tatami mat, with one thin cover. He is allowed one robe, and is permitted to bathe six times a month. There is no private space --- all the monks eat, sleep, and meditate together. All arise at 3 AM, are allowed three scoops of water to wash their faces and rinse their mouths. Then they chant for an hour, then begin zazen --- sitting in meditation, which lasts until breakfast.

All meals consist of gruel: unprocessed (hard) barley in salt water, along with "two smelly, brackish slices of what were called 'perpetual pickles.'" No sound is allowed --- no talking, no rattling of dishes or chopsticks.

After breakfast, the monks clean the compound then go out on the streets to beg. Lunch consists of barley. All food left over from one meal is mixed together for the next.

In the afternoon, they work in the monastery garden, set supper, return to zazen, meet with the master, listen to lessons (sutras) and retire to their tatami mat to sleep. This is their routine, and it goes on for years.

Many of us who have heard of Zen and who want to achieve enlightenment (who doesn't?) have probably toyed with the notion of going off to Japan and joining a monastery. Those who entertain such notions should read Novice to Master not once but several times. This religion is not for kicks. The theory and practice of it is not unlike that of a Marine on Parris Island, or one being admitted to a federal or state prison. The marines want to teach recruits to kill. Prison authorities want it so none will ever return. For a Zen monk, the discipline makes it possible to see the Truth. Morinaga makes it clear that in the pursuit of this truth, one must suffer --- not only with the cold, bare deprivation of the life of a Zen monk, but the continual battle to yield up the ego, and finally get the koan --- the riddle which has no answer, but is used as a gateway to final enlightenment.

§     §     §

If Novice to Master were just the story of being a monk at Daitokuji, it would be worth reading. But it is far more. It is the story of a man's devotion to getting it --- whatever it may be. It is a codex on the worth of such a pursuit. Most of all, a picture of a profoundly devoted master.

The last part of the book lets us watch Morinaga finally getting it, and it is definitely not the Buddha Middle Way.

After meditating in the cold, twenty to twenty-fours hours of the day, not sleeping, giving up food (because he thought it made him sleepy), doing nothing but pursuing his goal, for weeks and months ... when, suddenly,

    I lost all sense of wanting enlightenment; to continue seeking satori was inconceivable...My whole body was a mass of sheer pain. It was not "I" sitting on that cushions; it was sheer fatigue. As if consciousness were lost in a fog, all was hazy.

And then,

    Suddenly, under some impetus unknown to me, the fog lifted and vanished. And it is not that the pain in my own body disappeared, but rather that the body that is supposed to feel the pain disappeared. Everything was utterly clear. Even in the dimly lit darkness, things could be seen in a fine clarity. The faintest sound could be heard distinctly, but the hearing self was not there. This was, I believe, to die while alive.

Most importantly,

    It never crossed my mind that this was a satori experience or that "I had kensho." Without any theorizing, I felt only the brimming joy of having had a heavy burden suddenly swept away.

In other words --- the only way to get it is to not get it. Got it? Good.

§     §     §

Morinaga comes across as a humane and humble man of the divine. As he gets closer to his own death --- he died in 1995 --- he is asked by more and more people to explain what it all means, the variation on, "It seems rather stupid that they sent us here only to have us die."

The last part of Novice to Master thus becomes a meditation on death. For this reader, the most moving story has to do with Miss Okamoto. She had worked selflessly at a monastery for more than forty years, living simply, cleaning up, caring for the roshi, bringing him meals. But when she develops cancer, she comes to Morinaga and tells him that she is --- like so many of us --- scared to death of dying.

He reports that for all the time he had known her, "she went about her endeavors to 'do better,' but always with her teeth clenched fast."

He tells her, "You come out from your mother's womb and go into your coffin. That time in between, you call life, and perhaps you think of going into your coffin as death. But true existence is birth and death, repeating itself, instant by instant."

    As I told Miss Okamoto, when you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, be born in the kitchen. When you finish there, die. Then be born at the dining table as you eat your dinner and, when you finish eating, die there. Be born in the garden, and sweep with your broom. When you get into bed at night, die there. And when daylight comes, and you awaken in your bed, be born anew. If you have cancer, be born with cancer.

Miss Okamoto dies when he is away, but when he returns, the monk who tended her at the last says that the very last thing she said was

    Looking back, I have led a pretty stuffy life all these years. So I think I'll just take a ball and go out and play in the woods now.

--- A. W. Allworthy

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