Unlikely Hero

Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom: Three Fascicles from Shobogenzo with Commentaries by Kosho Uchiyama.  Translated by Daitsu Tom Wright and Shohaku Okumura.  Wisdom Publications.  318 pp.

Last week at our temple a priest gave a talk about Kodo Sawaki’s famous remark “Zazen is good for nothing,” which is startling the first time you hear it.  We know it doesn’t do much[1], but do we have to go that far?  She also told the anecdote about the time Kosho Uchiyama asked if zazen would transform him.  His teacher Kodo Sawaki was famously fierce and brave and charismatic—his foster father had been a gangster, and Sawaki fought in the war as well—and Uchiyama asked if, if he continued his practice for years, he would become more like Sawaki.  Uchiyama was apparently a timid and quiet man.  No, was Sawaki’s reply.  I’ve always been like this.  Zazen didn’t make me this way.  And it won’t transform you.

We’ve all seen the famous photo of Uchiyama caring for the old man.  Sawaki still looks fierce, and Uchiyama anything but.

And yet I would argue that, despite the fact that his life as a priest was curtailed by illness, despite the fact that Sawaki is so quotable and in many ways so original, Uchiyama may be the more influential teacher.  His books—though not all his books have been translated—have been extremely influential in the West.  At the end of the Sweeping Zen interviews, the interviewer always asks what book the teacher would recommend, and Opening the Hand of Thought is mentioned more than any other book.  Probably even more influential, early on, was How to Cook Your Life, Uchiyama’s commentary on Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook, and now various shorter commentaries are coming out, this one translated by Tom Wright and Shohaku Okumura, and Uchiyama’s commentary on Dogen’s Bendowa.  And of course there’s the brilliant piece Dogen Zen as Religion, which was published in the tiny book Heart of Zen.

Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom includes a charming but maddeningly brief memoir of Uchiyama by Tom Wright, talking about the relationship those two men had.  The usual schedule of zazen at Antaiji was five hours per day, three in the morning and two in the evening (think about that, those of you who can’t find twenty minutes per day), and there was a sesshin every month (I assume that’s the famous fourteen periods a day the continues to this day in that lineage).  Uchiyama asks his American students if they’ve brought their Bibles (probably they were traveling to Japan to get away from their Bibles), and says, “While you’re at Antaiji, it would be good for you to reread your Bible while practicing zazen and find out the wonderful things that Jesus had to say.”

And there is a startling anecdote about studying.  Wright goes to ask Uchiyama about something in Shobogenzo Zuimonki and notices that his teacher’s copy looks extremely old, beaten up and filled with notes in the margins.  Wright said it looked like time to buy a new copy, and Uchiyama gestured to his bookshelf.  He had fourteen copies of the book, each one as ragged as the last.  Wright asked why he had read the book so many times, and Uchiyama said that “the lines you underline change.”  That’s the common experience that probably all of us have had: every time we read a Zen book it’s new.  We’re not all so conscientious about marking it.

I had never considered Uchiyama a scholar.  I think of him as one of the great religious minds of the twentieth century, but I thought he had learned from zazen, not studying texts.  He obviously spent a great deal of time in zazen, and his books seem so matter of fact and relaxed.  It’s an interesting contrast: Dogen is one of the most difficult writers I’ve ever read, Uchiyama one of the simplest and most direct.  Yet they’re both writing about the same thing, and Uchiyama is often commenting on what Dogen said.  Uchiyama’s work is so simple it’s possible to overlook it.  Its simplicity conceals a great depth.

I was aware that Uchiyama suffered from tuberculosis for much of his life, and that he shortened his career because of it, but wasn’t aware he was so ill that he often had to spend three months of the year in bed.  Like many invalids who take good care of themselves, he actually wound up living a long life.  The frail spindly man lived slightly longer than Sawaki, and continued to be active; he took a walk on the last day of his life.

No doubt I’ll be writing more about this book and Uchiyama himself, but I was inspired by Tom Wright’s brief sketch of the man.  The more I hear about him, the more interesting he seems.

[1] Actually, I would say it’s completely changed my life.