Srajan recollects his travels and life in Japan during the early seventies, and the impact meeting Harada Tangen Roshi had on his life.
In December 1972 I arrived on an early Monday morning in cold and smoggy Tokyo. I had come to Japan after a friend had shown me a photo book of Japan’s gardens but I was not planning to stay long before venturing further across Asia. Towering above the black and white-clad hordes pushing and shoving as they stuffed the subways, I fumbled along looking for a Bank of America. My chest-length hair and large green Kelty backpack elicited some strange looks. I could almost hear people thinking: “These gaijin, foreigners, are very strange people.” I inwardly concurred.
Finally finding the bank I was shocked to learn that the $2,000 check I had arrived with and with which I planned to finance my trip across Russia and beyond, would take weeks to be processed. Fortunately, I found refuge within the Japanese youth hostel system as I had very little cash with me. Being just young enough at 24 years old to qualify for a youth hostel card opened the entire country to me. The card allowed for up to three-day stays in numerous locations throughout the country and included ryokans, Zen temples, Shinto shrines, hostels, and private homes all for just a few dollars a night.
I stayed in Tokyo and nearby tourist locations for three weeks, moving from hostel to hostel awaiting funds. Meanwhile the trip through Russia via the Trans-Siberian Express was being finalized. My itinerary would take me through Siberia to Lake Baikal, then southwest to Tashkent and on to Baku on the Black Sea. Beyond that I hadn’t planned further. Finally, all paid for and set to go, I received word that one of my reservations in a hotel in Baku had fallen through. Intourist, the Russian government travel agency, had cancelled my visa and all reservations.
Stranded in still-frigid Tokyo I was suddenly thrust into a gap. What to do? Why was I here? I decided to do what any freak gaijin with $2,000 and a six-month visa would do – I headed towards warmer weather. For the next month I traveled alone by train, car and boat throughout western Honchu, and the two most southern islands, Shikoku and Kyushu. Along the way, a Canadian merlin-like man who had invited me to his home in Kyoto suggested that I visit the Banyan Dream Tribe Ashram far to the southernmost region of Japan. That sounded about right.
Suwanose, an active stratovolcano inhabited by 50 Japanese islanders who survive on fishing, agriculture and seasonal tourism, was a world apart from anything I had ever known. Isolated halfway between Kyushu and Okinawa it is the 2nd largest in the Tokara group of islands. The local climate is sub-tropical with a May-September rainy season.
I immediately took to the ashram experiment and the Banyam Dream Tribe ashram (also called Buzoku) became home for the next two months. There were a dozen ashramites with the numbers fluctuating as the twice-monthly ferries came to the island. Except for one other American everyone was young and Japanese.
The ashram was originally founded in the 1960’s by Sansei Yamao, Nano Sakaki, and the American poet and scholar Gary Snyder. This place provided Gary with the spiritual and ecological lessons he would apply to his eventual place of settlement in the Sierra Foothills on the North American continent. For me it was my first experience in communal or tribal living. We lived very simply, pooling resources and sharing duties, such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, and building. Our homes were bamboo huts and our beds on bamboo cots with sleeping bags.
It was whilst on a one-week fast that something important happened. About a half mile from the ashram camp was an immense banyan tree from where you could see the smoke arising from the active volcano on Suwanosejima. A platform hut was built deep within the tree. Periodically, when the impulse was appropriate, ashram participants could use the hut for fasting and private meditation.
It was on the sixth day of my fast that I napped and had the following dream:
I lived in a deep canyon with immense vertical walls. Yet I could see the strip of blue sky above. More than anything I wanted to go up and explore what lived above. I climbed up and found myself at the rim of the canyon cleft looking out upon a vast flat lifeless plain, golden brown, with a bright blue cloudless sky overhead. I began walking along the rim and eventually saw in the distance a tiny speck. As I continued forward I could make out a shape, the shape of a tall tree. Approaching closer I saw something – no it was someone – sitting beneath the tree. Finally arriving I found an obviously wise man (guess who?), bald of head, dressed in a simple white robe sitting quietly. He looked up and began speaking, telling me that I must take the axe and chop the tree down. He said that only then could I cross the abyss to reach the other side. Yes, I now did notice a shiny sharp axe leaning on the tree next to the wise man. When I looked back, he was gone.
Picking up the axe I proceeded to chop the tree down with a crash. It landed on the other side of the abyss. Climbing across this makeshift bridge I reached the other side.
What appeared, though much to my surprise, was now a lush garden. I began to walk, and as I did a voice, the same voice as the man under the tree, said, “You will continue to chop trees and cross into new gardens endlessly.”
It was then that I knew it was time to leave the ashram. So along with my Japanese buddy, Apache (who dressed the part perfectly), we headed north, he to his ancestral home on Shikoku and me to Shodoshima island.
I arrived there to stay for the summer of 1973 and got a job caretaking a former Buddhist temple that had been turned into a youth hostel some years previous to my stay. The reason for my position was that the building had endured a fire virtually gutting the kitchen area and other parts of the building. While much of the former temple remained (including a large dojo and a stage with a Yamaha grand piano!), the youth hostel was now closed down. My ‘job’ was to answer the telephone and let people know of the closed status of the hostel.
Around this time I somehow learned that there was a Buddhist monk living along the north coast of Japan who would allow short visits to his temple, Bukkokuji, in Obama, Japan. After contacting the temple by letter, I was invited for a week’s visit. Soon thereafter I took the ferry to Osaka and then continued by train along the shores of Lake Biwa to Obama, on the coast of the Sea of Japan.
Because I had a beginner’s interest in meditation and Buddhism this was a remarkable opportunity. The monk, Harada Tangen, was finishing his studies with his Zen master Daiun Sogaku Harada Roshi. Tangen would, in later years after his ordination as roshi, gather around him many western Zen students. My time there was extremely memorable as Tangen was the most delightful, that being ‘full of the light’, person I had ever encountered. He had a zest, a sense of humor, and a depth of being that truly moved me. A newspaper clipping that I found at the temple shed some light on Tangen’s history. During WW2 he had volunteered to be a Kamikaze pilot wanting to serve his country. All set to go on his one and only suicide mission the war ended, and so too his fateful mission. This left him in a huge gap and led to his study of Zen Buddhism.
I remember an interview with him wherein I had organized the questions I would ask of him, what I felt were important Buddhist dharma questions. In the dim candlelight of the room, as we gazed at each other, all these questions fell away as he beamed at me while searching for his words. His English was basic, my Japanese less than so, and the only words I remember were, “Outside nothing, inside nothing,” followed by a warm smile and a deep silence.
I learned recently that Tangen said that in reality there is no birth and death, that life does not give and then take away. He would remind his students that although his body may die, he was “not going anywhere” and that we are all “eternally young.”
In a teisho (Buddhist term meaning a presentation by a Zen master during a sesshin) he gave some years ago, he said:
“It seems no time ago at all that I met my teacher Daiun Roshi for the first time. I could only judge the world by my own hard-held beliefs. We have to break through this, to see the beauty. And here, some fifty-five years have flashed by.
Now, here. All the universe is embraced in the One. I can assure you that all is well. All eternity is now, here. Bold, clear, dignified. Now, here, so vivid, so alive, filled with joy, waiting for you to see it. ‘I will do whatever I can to benefit another.’ This is just life as it is, naturally.
Please, please see it: everything is alive. Great, great Alive. This is the happiness of all happiness. And this “now here” can never be destroyed. The light of your eternal life is shining brightly, now. What joy there is in this radiance. Please, take care of yourself, your shining Buddha-self. Become ever more able to appreciate your Buddha-self. That is not to say be arrogant. There is nowhere anyone to feel small, no one to be made small, no one to feel superior, no one toward whom you could feel superior. So who are you to feel vain and proud when your very source is all being? You are supported, you are nurtured, you are guarded by all being. Thanks to all being, together, one, is all the universe. This breath is breathed, so close, always one, always together.
Please never forsake the limitless treasure which is you yourself. Be in touch, simply do not look away. Grasp nothing, hold nothing. There is just now, here, fresh, new, alive. Now. Just do your practice with all good grace.”
Thank you, Harada Tangen Roshi for showing the way forward for me and so many others.
Srajan is a regular contributor
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