Holding the Lotus
To the Rock
The Autobiography of Sokei-an,
America's First Zen Master
Michael Hotz, Editor
(Four Walls Eight Windows)Sokei-an studied carving, Buddhism, and Western philosophy in early 20th Century Japan. Then he came to the United States, where he worked as a janitor in a roller-rink, at a tavern --- and as wood-cutter, sculptor, student, and farmer. He walked throughout the northwest, and, after returning briefly to Japan, came to live permanently in New York City.In the early days, it was difficult getting students. The reason? Because a Zen master does not advertise. "Many Zen masters wait for a longer time. Usually they will not start any teaching until someone finds them out, so they hide themselves in obscurity."
The more he is hidden, the more effort people must make to discover him. Precious things are always hidden; they are never exposed on a street corner. If you have a diamond, you will not leave it on the corner of your desk. You will certainly keep it somewhere so that a stranger cannot find it. True things try to hide themselves. It is only natural.Holding the Lotus to the Rock is Sokei-an's autobiography, but it also is a primer on his school of Zen --- Rinzai --- as opposed to the Soto school. As he says, "To use an analogy, the Soto school is something like a musical instrument, the strings of which are loose, so you cannot play a tune, though the sound is deep. The Rinzai school is like an instrument in which the strings are all tight. Just touch the strings, and they make a sound." In other words, "Reality is to be grasped in its most active moment."It's part autobiography, part instructions on Zen, and part dumpster. I don't mean that in a bad way: this master has chosen to dump everything in it. As long as we are willing to stick our heads in it, we can pick and choose as we like, and may end up with a diamond or two.
There are long sections on Japanese vs. American Buddhism, ordaining Zen masters, errors of students of Zen, madness, koans, and attitude. There are long and short poems he has written, strange and wonderful dialogues he has with Americans --- especially with the ladies --- letters back and forth between him and his fans and acolytes, and a fine cat story, his cat being named Chaka.
"It rains cats and dogs," he writes. Chaka sleeps with him, around his neck: "I use him as my muffler." The day they arrive in the mountains from the city, Chaka leaps from his crate and hides for three days. "He broke my heart! Perhaps he did not know this was the Catskill Mountains. Perhaps he realized it --- that cats will be killed in this mountain." Then Sokei-an continues,
Miss X said, "It rains cats, doesn't it?" I have given Chaka some liver --- delicious food prohibited for a long time. I am making staring contests with the trees around the house. Of course, I have nothing else to do.
It is raining in the Catskills.
It has been raining for a month.
It rained yesterday.
It rains today. The cold clouds wash out the color of summer weeds.
The mistress of the house --- Miss X Number Two ---
Though she rouges her lips
Her words are colorless
In the bungalow enwrapped by deep green leaves,
A pink blanket enwraps her slender waist
And softly warms her maiden heart
The begonias bloom in the window.
The summer we are awaiting has never come
To the balcony where the rain falls every day.
Typical Sokei-an! Little puns. Sly reference to a sexy lady, obviously shy, interested in him. Affection for the cat. Rain and flowers. And a whimsical poem stuck in at the end.
There is whimsy here, but no nonsense. Sokei-an tells of his nervous breakdowns, his fights with his master, ("You're a failure!"), losing everything to be a Zen monk (wife and child and work), his touches of madness, having to deal with Americans, and --- amidst all this self-revelation --- we get his wonderfully crabby asides.
For the first twenty years, he tells us, he "greatly benefited from Buddhism." In the second twenty years, he says, "I have been ungaining everything I have learned."
In conclusion, I should say I have gained nothing ... I went through such terrific agony studying this Zen. I lost everything I had, and I gained nothing. I am satisfied.
These last three words, piled atop everything that goes before, the tail on the donkey. It all goes to make Sokei-an a boot; what he gets down on the page encompasses the very essence of crazy wisdom, the wisdom that sets him above many of the other foreign-born masters, giving us the secure knowledge ... of the absurdity of it all.
We come to expect, demand, and enjoy the asides in Holding the Lotus to the Rock. Here's a man who obviously loves his religion but, too, loves all the people (and all the foolishness around him). He knows these Americans are Buddhas, every one of them, but there are the usual misunderstandings:
Living here alone, in the morning, while sweeping the floor, sometimes there is a knock on the door. Sometimes the visitors take off their hats, sometimes they have cigars in their mouths --- "Hi! I want to know something about Buddhism!" With my broom in hand, I am ready to strike. But of course I do not. Once some crazy minister came to my door and asked, "Is war good or bad?" I was sweeping the floor, and I said, "Tell me, is this broom good or bad?"
He gives a little Buddha figure to the cousin of the janitress on the corner. Her husband then gets a job, and they "now have an automobile, and their children go to high school ... Now even Mrs. Meyer, my landlady, asked for one."
Holding the Lotus does not have a happy ending, the kind we would want from a Zen Master Autobiography. Because of his practices, his teacher denounced him, never spoke to him again after their break. There was vehement disagreement between his followers in New York, which created embittered disciples and much backbiting.
Most appalling, after World War II began, FBI agents followed Sokei-an twenty-four hours of the day, and sent him to an internment camp in the summer of 1942. There he suffered from high blood pressure and a series of strokes. Perhaps the saddest part of the book is the letters that the master sent to his friends during this period. They have a touch of raving, suggesting that the cruel treatment from his adapted country had driven him out of his mind.
One letter reports, "My belt has nine holes. I was using the third hole from the end. These days, I am using the seventh hole. I received a postcard from Henry. He wrote on the stone in the picture of Frenchman's Bay: 'You must be like this.' He thinks that I am a stone while I try not to be. I am going up to the garden." And,
Miss Alice in Wonderland is visiting me, but I don't know what to do with the other Alice. I am the Hatter taking nominalistic tea with her here in the house through the looking glass. You have sent to me the picnic paraphernalia. I am going to use them with Alice ... I am playing up my ficticious Karma as a fiction writer. I am hoping it will come to an end soon as a fiction, without producing any fact from it, like the Wonderland of Mr. Carroll.
However, his sense of prophecy stayed with him. Towards the end of his life, he wrote:
I came too soon to this country. These two civilizations will meet in the future. Now they are fighting, but the fighting is a sign that there will be some contact later .... War is always introducing Buddhism to the other country ... Those who will be converted to Zen in the future are our enemies. We are fighting against them to capture them ... I am grateful to them. I love this country. I shall die here, clearing up detritus to sow seed. It is not the time for Zen yet, but I am the first of the Zen school to come to New York and bring the teaching. I will not see the end. I am very grateful to you, these friends sitting down here with me, and also to those who are wounded and tired.--- L. W. Milam