How Long, Baby How Long, Has That Evenin’ Train Been Gone?

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama by Arthur Braverman.  Counterpoint.  148 pp.  $16.95.

How much time should we give to spiritual practice?  It’s a question I often ask myself.  Twenty minutes twice a day, as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi suggested?  A forty minute sitting, ten minutes of walking, and a thirty minute sitting, as we do at our Zen Center?  An hour in the morning and a short sitting later in the day if the time is available?  Does the question even matter, except to someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (like me)?

My teacher Larry Rosenberg used to do ninety minutes of yoga and sit for ninety minutes in the morning, then spend another long period—sometimes two hours—sitting in the afternoon, and sit with the classes he taught in the evening.  I’ve read that the Dalai Lama meditates four hours every day.  Zen teacher Myoan Grace Schireson said in an interview that she sits one period per day, either twenty or thirty minutes.  I guess she thinks that’ll do it.

The Japanese grandmother of one my students at Duke practiced Nichiren Buddhism, and chanted every morning from 4:00 to 6:00 AM.  I’ve read that Fred Rogers had a similar daily period of prayer, as did the President of a Korean university where my wife lectured some years ago: the woman went to a Presbyterian church every morning and prayed from 4:00 to 6:00 AM.  (She wouldn’t find a Presbyterian church open at that hour in this country.)  In First You Shave Your Head Geri Larkin spoke of a Korean woman who spent the entire day chanting, and thereby acquired healing powers.  It’s hard to get ahead of those Koreans: Zen Master Seung Sahn not only had his students do 108 floor bows every morning; he got up at 3:00 AM so he could do 300 on his own, before bowing with his students.

Jetsunna Tenzin Palmo spent twelve years in a cave, meditating in retreat.  Joko Shibata, the sole disciple of Soto Yokoyama—the subject of Arthur Braverman’s new book—did ten fifty minute sittings every day for years.  And Soto Yokoyama himself gave many years to his practice of daily sitting in a public park, playing the grass flute, and doing calligraphy for passers-by.

The grass flute, for those of you who don’t know, involves putting a piece of grass, or a leaf, between your fingers and blowing in such a way that it produces a sound.  My friend Stan Hahn showed me this phenomenon when we were nine years old, though I could never get the hang of it.  Sodo Yokoyama had a slightly different technique, putting a moist leaf on his lip and holding it down with two fingers, and could play whole songs on the grass flute.  He once played a Brahms violin concerto.  (Actually, he didn’t do that.  Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)  He did play “Old Folks at Home” the first time Arthur Braverman ever saw him.  How someone in Japan ever heard of the man we used to call the immortal Stephen Collins Foster I’ll never know, but that’s a karmic connection that he and I have.  Foster was born in my own home town, Pittsburgh, Pa.  He may have been singing about the Swanee River, but he was picturing the Monongahela.

Braverman describes his rendition of “Old Folks at Home” as funky.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around the concept of Japanese funk.

When Braverman first heard about this man who spent his days meditating in public parks, he thought he might be a Japanese version of Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage who fell into samadhi at an early age (how’d I get in here?) and pretty much spent the rest of his life in a cave in a state of meditation.  (I guess we’ll declare him the winner of our spiritual sweepstakes.  Can anyone beat that?  A constant state of meditation?)  If some folks around him hadn’t discovered and taken care of him, he would apparently have died of starvation, because he wasn’t interested in taking care of himself.  Maharshi is the anorexic looking man who smiles at you from advertisements in spiritual magazines, his head lolling to one side, looking as if he’s about to keel over.  Actually, he keeled over some time ago.  But a group of disciples carry on his tradition.

I’m not making fun of these folks, not any of them.  (I am having fun.  There’s a difference.)  I just find the whole thing mind boggling.  Is Ramana Maharshi more advanced than Jetsunna Tenzin Palmo?  Did they just have a thing for caves?  Didn’t they ever feel like getting the hell out of there?  How do they compare with Grace “Twenty Minutes Is Enough” Schireson.

When Braverman heard about Sodo Yokoyama, he equated him with Maharshi, and went to the park to find him.  He was somewhat taken aback to find out that Sodo-san actually lived in a boarding house, and didn’t get to the park until around 10:00.  (He did, however, get up at 5:00 and sit a period with his disciple Joko-san, then discuss Buddhism for a while).  In those days he walked to the park, but when he got older and slightly infirm he sometimes took a cab.  The idea of this spiritual adept actually taking a cab to the park where he would then sit all day seemed incongruous to Braverman.  The Japanese Maharshi he wasn’t.

Actually, Sodo Yokoyama was more like an earlier Japanese monk, Ryokan, who lived by himself in a hut, did a lot of sitting, wrote poetry and did calligraphy, played with children, and drank wine sometimes with farmers.  (I once read a contemporary account of a guy who watched Ryokan play with children for a while, then wander off and sit zazen in a field for three hours.)  Sodo-san definitely devoted his life to zazen, but he also liked people, liked playing the grass flute for them, and enjoyed doing calligraphy.  His calligraphy and some poetry survive him.  There is even a monument to him in the park where you can push a button (or as we say in the South, mash a button) and hear him play the grass flute.

Braverman was interested in the man’s music and his calligraphy, but I was more interested in what he had to say about zazen, and was glad that Braverman included a substantial chapter about that at the end.  Sodo-san seems to have been a man who didn’t care for the regimented life in a monastery, but did want to devote his life to practice.  He was a kind of ambassador for zazen, sitting publicly in the park, hanging out with children, encountering adults.  He had the one disciple, who has helped preserve his memory.  That seems to have been the life that suited him.

I once asked Larry Rosenberg what he thought about this whole question, people becoming monks, people staying as lay people, people going off and being hermits.  I more or less asked what he thought was the best spiritual path.  Larry said how about this (but before I mention that, I should say that he once traveled around the country with a yoga teacher—this was before Larry had a practice of meditation—and in the middle of the night, after sleeping just a few hours, this guy would get into the lotus position right there in bed and sit for what Larry reported at “two or three hours.”  Then he would come out of it, go in and wash his face, be ready for his day): how about if everybody does what they want to do?  We all just do what we want to do, and see where that takes us.

So I’ll assume that Jetsunna Tenzo Palma really wanted to stay in that cave for twelve years, and found that fulfilling; she wasn’t doing it to achieve anything.  Ramana Maharshi, by all reports, was happy to the point of being ecstatic.  Soto-san’s disciple spent ten hours a day in zazen because that’s what he wanted to do.  And Sodo Yokoyama, at least according to this account, had a life that he loved.  He definitely had plenty to say about zazen, both here and in Braverman’s earlier book, Living and Dying in Zazen.  And he may have been the founder of Japanese funk.

He wasn’t staking out a path for others to follow.  He was walking his own path.