"The months and days are the travelers of eternity"
During my last summer in Hokkaido I decided to take my month long vacation with two companions, one a long dead poet and the other a recently departed soul mate. To make that proposed trip south which Gregg, whose life had tragically been cut short the previous year, and I had planned on our last evening together in Kyoto. The poet friend was Matsuo Bashô, who had lived in the 17th century and I packed his travel-journal ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ [奥の細道 ] in my knapsack as a rough guide for the places to be visited.
I had vowed to leisurely pass each day as if it were complete, and wherein the only future plan consisted of my next footstep, subsequent train or bus station, or inn by the roadside. I meant to become, at least for a month, a ‘henro’ or wandering pilgrim [ 遍路 ], whose destination might easily change from moment to moment.
Some months before my friend Shimizu-rôshi [清水老師 ], the abbot at a Zen temple in Hokkaido which I visited regularly, had suggested that I read Bashô’s record of his travels "Oku no Hosomichi", The Narrow Road to the North. The journal of a special traveler and composed of delicate prose as well as some of the most evocative haiku poems ever penned. With his help we read it together in Japanese, I made copious notes, and in the process came to realize that I had encountered one of those precious jewels of literature.
‘The Narrow Road to the North’ is not just an ordinary travel diary interspersed with poems. The poetry is as integral a part of the book as is the sparse, hauntingly beautiful prose with each complimenting the other. An incredible and delicate balance rarely achieved in literature. It has the unity of a sublime musical composition. Like melodies introduced and expanded, coming and going, thought patterns and images introduced in one part later recur. For example, the last haiku in his journal, with its sadness for departing autumn echoes the theme of departing spring in the haiku with which the journey begins.
Japanese literature has a special term for the type of sparse, lyrical prose employed by Bashô in his journal, and is known as ‘haibun’ [ 俳文 ]. Haibun can be said to be haiku prose, or prose written in the spirit of haiku. Short prose pieces involving the same set of topics and viewpoints as haiku. And now the poet Bashô was in a sense journeying with me so that I might see the rugged beauty of this sparsely populated northern part of Honshu through his unique vision. It was also a journey back in time.
The train trip from Sapporo, in the middle of the northernmost island of Hokkaido, to the ferry crossing at the busy seaport of Hakodate, on the southern tip of the island was relaxing and uneventful, as was the actual ferry crossing itself. The usual number of quizzical glances at this solitary ‘gaijin’, foreigner, since the people were used to seeing Americans in small groups and rarely alone. Now landed on the major island of Honshu, and in the city of Aomori I could actually begin the first part of my journey.
The general plan was to go south to Hiraizumi and Sendai on the eastern side of the Honshu, pick up Bashô’s 250 year old trail, then cross the central mountain range, often referred to as the Japanese Alps, to the western side, and follow his ancient path south. Several weeks before I had phoned friends Alex and Tatsuo telling them that I would be visiting with them in Tokyo sometime during my last week of vacation before flying back to Hokkaido.
Until the late 18th century the northern area known as Tohoku had been relatively unsettled by the Japanese, although there were several exceptions. The main city on the northern tip of Honshu was the busy port town of Aomori, which had almost been destroyed during WWII. From what I could see the reconstruction had been primarily utilitarian. And it was for me little more than a boarding spot on a train heading in the direction of Sendai, about 300 kilometers south.
As the click-clack of the train’s wheels marked the passing kilometers I began rereading Bashô’s tale of his journey. Shortly before leaving I had acquired an English translation, so I could now easily switch between the two since my knowledge of Japanese was certainly not adequate for the many archaic Japanese words and numerous phrases that were unknown or just quite incomprehensible. This book had several photos of the now yellowed pages of a ancient copy of his original work. Yellowed with age, but still alive with poetic images by this master wordsman. Bashô had been an errant monk-poet, and in the fall of 1689, set off on foot from Edo, later to become Tokyo, on a journey north. He had heard wondrous tales about the rugged beauty of the mountains and valleys, had read reports of the fabled Bay of Matsushima, near the town of Sendai, as well as other stories about this land to the north and wanted to experience it for himself. So he and his faithful friend Sado, began their walking journey, which would, with the passing of the years, become one of the classics of Japanese literature.
As the train continued along its way south, passing through vast plains and rugged mountains the scenery was some of the most spectacular I had ever witnessed. Expanses of virgin forest and the occasional solitary house with characteristic stiffly peaked roof in order to protect against the heavy winter snowfall. People, as well as structures, that had changed little in the vast sweep of the centuries.
Friend Bashô had written in his cursive, flowing script:
"The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on boats or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind, to ceaseless thoughts of roaming."
His journal contains lyrically smooth prose, and is perhaps most renown for the number of haiku composed during his travels. Haiku, that most Japanese of poetic forms of a mere seventeen syllables, in which experience is reduced to its most simple, basic statement. In short, it becomes a distillation of the very essence; a Zen experience, one made manifest without the necessity of superfluous words.
Knowing that I would undoubtedly be visiting temples along the way I had carefully packed my ‘shuin book’ [朱印 ], now filled with memories and replete with calligraphic flourishes of the temples I had previously encountered. In Japan when a temple is visited, the pilgrim, or visitor, presents the presiding Buddhist priest with a special bound book of blank pages. The priest then signs the book in calligraphy which has been raised to the level of sublime art, and stamps in vermilion ink the seals (shuin) of the temple.
I briefly thought back to that pre-dawn Kyoto morning of the previous year when Hiroshi-san, our thoughtful young guide, had presented both Gregg and me with our ‘shuin’ books and explained that they were a necessary part of every pilgrim’s knapsack. A profound moment when we had suddenly been awarded the title of pilgrim. A gift which had, over time, become a treasure trove of memories. It was in the spirit of someone on a pilgrimage that I carried little more than the basic necessities on this special trip in honor of two special friends; the spirit of Gregg who would be with me to experience it through my being, and the recently discovered Bashô, an adopted friend from a time long past.
Arriving at the small country town of Hiraizumi in mid afternoon I was suddenly propelled into the past. Buildings and homes that seemed to have been standing in place for countless years, patiently waiting for this very moment of recognition. They were comfortably nestled in a valley surrounded by densely forested hills and mountains that radiated peace, tranquility and timelessness. And the feeling of Bashô was in the air, since he had stepped on the very stones my feet would soon be trodding. I could actually sense his bent, robed body, pilgrim's cane and simple straw hat, appearing and disappearing in the mist between the towering trees. And long before Bashô had ventured by, Hiraizumi had been the proud capital of the Northern Fujiwara, a clan that had ruled and grown rich on the gold found in the area. This outpost in northern Tohoku had evidently been a city producing art and architecture to rival even the capital of Kyoto far to the south.
I soon found myself in a local Ryokan, a traditional inn, and a central location for exploration. After settling in my room, I went out in search of, and had soon entered the Chusonji temple [中尊寺 ], dating back to 850 AD, a marvelous complex of exquisite buildings and for the first time my feet were treading the same ground where Bashô had walked. The long approach to the temple had passed through an ancient stand of cryptomeria, the indigenous Japanese cedar, cool and dark towering overhead. And now I was in the Benkei-do, a thatched house where Bashô spent time resting and in this very spot had composed one of his many haiku.
夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡
natsugusa ya tsuwamono-domo ga yume no ato
The summer grass
‘Tis all that’s left
Of ancient warrior’s dreams.
It was in reference to those who had futilely resisted the advance of the southern army’s conquest of the area. An area rife with the 12th century history of feudal Japan, battles won and battles lost in bitter defeat, as well as nights of viewing the passing moon and dreaming never to be realized dreams. The fragments of those dreams still lingered in the air, settling as soft swirling mist on the fragrant earth.
Returning to the ryokan at dusk I was greeting by the now smiling proprietress, with a bow even lower than was necessary. Unlike when I had arrived earlier in the day, she now seemed to accept my presence amicably. Our initial encounter had suffered a few strained moments. When I first enquired as to whether they had any rooms available she had replied that she was very sorry but they served only Japanese food. I assured her that I was used to eating, and particularly enjoyed, Japanese food. Then she continued by adding that they only had chopsticks and no western utensils. I hastily made a chopstick gripping motion with my fingers and assured her that I was a pro with ‘ohashi’ . Next I had to assure her that I did indeed know how to use a Japanese benjo type toilet. Hardly pausing in her litany, she retorted that she was so very, very sorry but they only spoke Japanese.
Undaunted, and now fully armed, I suggested that since we had been speaking Japanese for the last few minutes, that we might just as well continue since I felt rather competent to do so. Then it was time for me to deliver the coup de grâce as I mentioned that I still encountered a few linguistic problems and in point of fact, much of the vocabulary in Lady Murasaki’s ‘Gengi Monogotari’ was a bit perplexing.
And with that reference to Japanese literature’s most famous novel, the gaijin’s admittance was secured. I knew that her concerns were in some ways valid, in that many foreigners were indeed not familiar with Japanese customs and it could cause possible problems, or misunderstandings, and a loss of face on both sides. It certainly wasn’t the first time I had encountered this resistance, but had learned to combat this bit of reluctance with glowing smiles, any available tool such as Lady Murasaki, and an ample number of honorific bows. In point of fact it was more than presumptuous on my part to claim that I could easily read ‘Tale of the Genji’, but it served its purpose.
The simple, yet elegant room, might well have seemed sparse by western standards. It was approximately 9’ by 12’, the floor was covered with fragrant rice straw mats (tatami), natural wood throughout, and the light was gently softened as the passed though the paper-covered shoji windows. An exquisite lacquered table with cushions on two sides. On one side of the room was the traditional ‘tokonoma’, an alcove with a lovely hanging scroll of calligraphy and vase filled with a single flower.
The sliding doors on the opposite wall opened onto a narrow veranda and a charming inner courtyard with the most manicured of gardens and a ancient, lichen covered stone lantern. Suffused with 'wabi', that sublime Japanese concept of something which is elegant, simple and carries the patina of age. There by the sliding door where I had entered was a folded blue and white yukata robe. After a leisurely soak in the large hot tub, and properly attired in the yukata I retired to my room.
Soon the door slid back and I was served a delicious dinner in the room. All based on tradition and rituals as old as the land itself. Later, this sitting, dining room became the bedroom. The charming maid placed the table to one side and from a closet extracted the futon, or bedding. The shiki-buton, or quilted mattress is covered with a down-light cover, the kake-buton. I had long since learned to replace the buckwheat chaff filled device which served as a pillow, and was not very comfortable, with one of the softer zabuton cushions used for sitting on the tatami.
Comfy and cozy in the warm futon, I realized that on this day of my journey, which I had come to refer to as the 'Bashô trail', had been a complete success. I wished my two unseen traveling companions ‘oyasuminasai’, good night, briefly considered what joys and discoveries tomorrow's footsteps might bring, and was soon fast asleep.
Sendai, 松島, on the eastern seacoast, and the largest town in the Tohoku region had been almost completely demolished during the war by repeated Allied bombing. Within the intervening years it was once again becoming a vital, growing center of trade and commerce. It was now a bustling city filled with construction, but this was not my destination and I quickly boarded a bus for the trip to the nearby, and celebrated, Matsushima Bay. I had read, and heard, that it was an enormous bay with countless pine-covered islets. When Basho, who had spent his life capturing the exquisite beauty of Japan with consummate skill, and turning that beauty into poetry, had seen this area, for the first time in his life he was nearly without words but had managed to write,
"O great creator of the Universe, what man could presume to describe this place in words?"
As the bay came into view, I immediately knew why this master of verbal images had never put brush to paper about Matsushima. Hundreds of pine covered islands dotted the bay. It was an experience that rendered all possible words inadequate. I innately knew that not even my expensive and trusty camera could not do justice to the experience itself and was aware of why, in a land brimming with natural beauty, it had been named one of the country's Natural Treasures. At that moment I silently thanked Basho for having led me to this spot of earthly magnificence. I also knew deep within, like my poet friend, that this was a unique experience that transcended all words.
After two days at a charming ryokan in the small town of Matsushima, where I had been immediately received as an honored guest with no questions raised about my chopstick ability, I retraced my steps to Sendai and then headed west by train into the mountainous center of Honshu. This dividing mountain range known as the Japanese Alps would lead my journey first to the town of Yamagata, deep in the high mountains, and from there by bus to the quaint town of Yamadera [ 山寺 ]. Basho had written:
“There was a temple called Ryushakuji [ 立石寺 ]in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. . . I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. … I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss.”
Ryūshaku-ji Temple was founded in 860 AD by the priest Ennin, and the monks here have spent the thousand years since digging holes into the mountain, and erecting precarious appearing shrines. It was a steep 1110 steps from the entrance of the complex all the way to the magnificent Oku-no-in sanctuary at the top. With each step I realized that Bashô, though unseen, was by my side as we climbed those well worn steps of granite on a mountain of granite.
And it was here that Basho plucked those now famous seventeen syllables from the forested mountain air:
静けさや 岩にしみ入る 蝉の聲
shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe
The silence –
The voice of the cicada
Penetrates the rocks.
This ancient town, looking like a perfectly preserved piece of the past, seemed to be enveloped in a soft air of stillness and mystery. The monastery was perched on the side of a steep, forested mountain side and reached by an ascending rock path. The main temple itself was composed of the most beautifully weathered wood structures that I had ever encountered, and many of the outbuildings were perched precariously on rock outcroppings. I couldn't help but look down at my feet, knowing that Basho had also tread these very same steps and now we were ascending them together. Inside the temple was a sacred flame, which according tradition, has been burning continuously for a thousand years. And being late summer the numerous shrill, yet musical, cicada's calls did indeed seem to penetrate the very mountain granite. An apparent contradiction and yet the cicadas near constant cry seemed to be an integral part of the stillness. And not only were they penetrating the granite, but they bored deep within my being.
Since I first arrived in Japan some four years ago, I had often become aware of a pervading sense of 'déjà vu'. It was often as if I were not seeing and experiencing this land for the first time, but rather that I was rediscovering it. Deep within my being, inside my 'gaijin' [foreigner] exterior there lurked a ghost of the past. A part which was slowly awakening and joyously proclaiming its affinity to these cherished islands of The Rising Sun. The vibratory humming of the 'semi', or cicada, had once again touched a spark that appeared to awaken long forgotten memories. And yet, much like the experience in Matsushima, it could never be adequately be described in words. Any attempt at words, with a conveniently packaged logical explanation, came up short of the actuality.
a number of days I came to realize how liberating it was to travel with no
specific plan, no need to arrive. As Basho mentioned on the first page of his
travel narrative, "the
spirits of the road beckoned....". I
too was learning to heed that inner voice, the voice of the spirit. When
comfortable I stayed, when the time to move on arrived, I inherently knew. And indeed, though separated by centuries, we were journeying together. I had passed through vast areas of towering mountains, rugged beauty which was sparsely settled and punctuated by gentle green valleys. There were small towns that had changed little with the passing of the years and it was not unlike stepping into the shadowy world of the past.
Eventually I found myself far west and south from my starting point, in the town of Niigata, facing the Sea of Japan and looking across to the unseen continental land mass of Asia. A major port, gateway to nearby Sado Island with its ancient gold mines, but there seemed to be little else to merit a prolonged stay. My small travel guide, prone to effusive descriptions of sightseeing tips, listed it only as 'an industrial town and important seaport.' Like Basho before me, I didn't linger long and continued south along the coast. In fact Basho may not have lingered here at all since this particular town was not mentioned. But in Niigata's meager defense, it may not have even existed in the 17th century when my long dead traveling companion passed this way.
I arrived in the small coastal town of Kashiwazaki. It was so small that it didn't merit mention in my guide book. Completely ignored. As was my custom I was staying at a quaint, but small ryokan, the only one in town. It was also quite charming and proprietress exceedingly friendly. I immediately had the impression that I didn't have to be adept at using chopsticks, and could probably have used my fingers, since she seemed to feel that anything I did was worthy of a titter and a fleeting glimpse of her shiny gold teeth. It appeared that there were actually two of us staying at the inn.
That evening, in conversing with Mr. Ueda, an Osaka businessman, heading north to Niigata, he suggested that in my travels I should make a special point of visiting the Eiheiji monastery. He quickly drew a map of where it was located, and the transfer point in the town of Fukui, some 300 km. to the south. In fact he drew the map several times in order to approximate the distances and various towns along the way. When I had mentioned to Ueda-san that I was following Basho's footsteps he beamed and offered that Basho had made Eiheiji one of his rest stops and had spent several days there. Then slyly added, with his dark, intense eyes narrowing, that he was sure I would enjoy doing the same.
Later that evening in my room I consulted the map for the next day's possible destination and discovered that a visit to the monastery at Eiheiji, though it sounded interesting, didn't appear to be a possibility. What I hadn't admitted to Ueda-san was that my main reason for stopping in Kashiwazaki was that there was a train from this terminal which went inland into the mountains and with several connections I could arrive at Nagano. There was a large and important temple in Nagano which housed a contested copy of Basho's original travel journal. Evidently in literary circles it was continually debated as to the authenticity of the document. But no matter, I would enjoy seeing it.
And from Nagano I could head south and east eventually arriving in Tokyo. It was all rather curious in that Basho had never actually visited Nagano deep in this central mountain range. Somehow I kept returning to the conversation with Ueda-san. In a fashion uncharacteristic of the Japanese, he was almost insistent that I should go to Eiheiji. I had appreciated his enthusiasm and thanked him for the suggestion all the while knowing that I had other plans and would no doubt be heading inland.
An alternate possibility would be that I could go to Nagano, check out the Basho document, then return to the western coast in order to go south to Fukui. However that would mean traveling even further south before I could cross to the eastern coast and would entail a considerable journey up the eastern coast to Tokyo. The cool evening breeze carried the scent of the sea and seemed to fill the room. The number of possible routes now began rattling around in my head as I drifted off to sleep. Perhaps my last conscious thought was that I should just let the journey unfold.
Arriving at the train station the next morning I was informed that the train to Nagaoka, the first transfer point on my proposed journey to Nagano, would not be leaving due to a severe mountain rock slide. It might in fact, be several days before service was restored. The alternate possibility was to take a train south for about 40 km., then take a bus inland for about 25 km., then I could get a train going to Nagano. My head was suddenly swimming with the names of towns and trains and busses and summer rockslides. So I opted for the easiest and headed south along the coast in the direction of Fukui. Although my ticket was only for as far as Kanazawa, which the train clerk insisted was worth visiting. It seemed strange that I had spent the first week with no travel suggestions whatsoever, and suddenly everyone was volunteering possible places to visit. So it appeared I would be in Kanazawa by mid afternoon, do a bit of sightseeing, stay the night and then go on to Fukui and Eiheji the next day. More unfolding.
As it turned out, I spent two days and two nights at a lovely menshuku in Kanazawa. Menshuku are homes that accommodate visitors in a spare bedroom and provide delicious home cooked food which is eaten with the family. My hosts were a professor at the local university and his charming wife and two teenaged children. Their suggestions for visiting in the town of Kanazawa were a nice diversion from my pilgrim’s journey. Perhaps one of the most interesting was the old Samurai district of town still appearing exactly as it has for hundreds of years. When I left two days later, it was with the knowledge that I was leaving a wealth of subsequent adventures for another time. From Kanazawa it was a short trip to Fukui, my next stop.
Leaving the picturesque, old fashioned town of Fukui, the small train chugged and snaked its way up through the towering forests of evergreen pine and cryptomeria, in addition to the many species of deciduous trees, and it became evident we were entering another world. A most charming one it would appear. There were two young monks seated in front of me and I surmised that they too might be heading for Eiheiji. They seemed somewhat surprised when, at the small train station, I also boarded the bus for the short ride to Eiheiji.
There were several Japanese pilgrims, or perhaps just vacationing visitors, who were also part our small group. One of the monks decided to throw caution, and the time honored tradition of reserve, to the wind and greeted me in halting English. Then, reverting to a Japanese tinged with a thick Kyushu accent, he asked if I had come to visit the monastery. When I responded in the affirmative he and his companion offered to show me the way.
We passed through the small village, which seemed to be composed almost completely of souvenir shops and eating establishments. Winding our way up the hill we reached the entry to the monastery. At the train station in Fukui I picked up a small pamphlet with information about Eiheiji and it mentioned that there were two entrances, one of which was reserved for only for visits from the Emperor.
When questioned the two monks volunteered to show me the Imperial entrance since it was but a short walk down the road. The worn and weathered granite steps were lined with tall cryptomeria, a Japanese type of aromatic cedar, and their broad trunks gave evidence of their great age, undoubtedly older than the monastery itself which had been established over seven hundred years ago. There was an elaborately roofed structure at the top, the 'mon' or gate.
Returning to the regular entrance gate, connected to a building where visitors received information about the monastery, the monks asked me to please wait there, and they disappeared into the maze of buildings beyond. The tourists, contemporary pilgrims, began to wander off in order to inspect the grounds. For whatever reason I had been left alone waiting.
Not only that, but instructed to wait there. Though mid-summer, there was a refreshing coolness to the mountain air and a pervasive, wafting fragrance of the aromatic cedar needles. The area seemed to embody absolute, perfect tranquility. Of course when translated into English, Eiheiji means ‘Temple of Eternal Peace’. While waiting I began thinking about the terminology, and implied difference, between a casual visitor and pilgrim. Though in a sense were they not the same? In English 'pilgrim' did of course suggest a specific goal, the fulfilling of a spiritual need by visiting a location singled out as being unique. And yet the visitor was also fulfilling a need to experience perhaps the same need, though not necessarily couched in those terms. And were we not all pilgrims on our personal journey of life?
My cogitation was put aside for another occasion at the appearance of one of the monks, the talkative one, and an elderly man of dignified appearance in his priestly robes. It would appear that I was to be welcomed in a rather grand manner. Certainly something I hadn't expected. Nor was I prepared for the abbot's first question after he had bowed and greeted me.
"So you have arrived to ask permission to join our Zen community?", he asked in a very formal Japanese. I replied with a hesitant question of my own, and asked him if he would be so kind as to repeat what he had just said. Now, aware that I had indeed understood his original question, I replied it would be an honor to 'join' them, but I was merely 'visiting'. There was that 'visit' word again, though this time in a verbal form. He replied that I was welcome to stay as a short term visitor, and there was also a meditation training program which consisted of a week long stay. In either case, there was a small daily fee and I would be expected to observe certain rules of etiquette, eating the same simple vegetarian fare as the monks, and sleeping in a small room on a futon. I could join in the daily zazen, meditation practice, if I wished, and was free to come or go as I desired, though I would be expected to be back on the premises by 8:30 in the evening since all lights were turned off at 9:00. If I wasn't keen on vegetarian food I could find other food in any of the several restaurants along the entry road. He smiled, rather impishly, and added that life was filled with near limitless possibilities.
At that moment there were the deep reverberations of a bronze bell which almost seemed to be a personal message. Since arriving in Japan I had responded to this sound as to no other. So, once again a relaxed change of plans, for at that moment I realized that I had just decided to extend my stay at Eiheiji, and spend three of days here. There was an intuitive internal chattering in my head which seemed to be in agreement with my conscious decision.
I also smiled inwardly realizing that I must have misunderstood the young monk's first question back on the train platform. He obviously had asked if I had arrived to 'stay' at the monastery, and thinking that I was a new 'recruit' he had proceed to enlist the aid of the abbot for my admittance as proscribed by tradition. How curious that he had thought that a 'gaijin', a foreigner, would want to become a monk, especially in light of the fact that I seemed to be the only foreigner presently in the temple. No, I wasn't ready to have my head shaved yet. In fact it was something I'd never really considered. Somehow in my four years in Japan, I'd never given much thought to the fact that Buddhist monks here might be anything other than Japanese.
On learning I would be staying for three days the abbot asked Todashi-san, the ever smiling extrovert, to show me to the small room where I could leave my carry all and backpack. It was located on a wing of the second floor of the 'daikuin' or kitchen building. Then my new found acquaintance offered to show me around the compound, and at the same time engaged in a running commentary on its history in a combination of Japanese laced with a few words in English. A grinning, effervescent chatter box. He paused frequently to ask, "wakari masu ka?", in an attempt to make sure that I understood what he was talking about. I enjoyed the softness of his southern cadence.
He had explained that Eiheiji was one of the two main temples of Soto Zen Buddhism. The modifier 'Soto' indicated that their main practice was that of meditation. The founder, Dogen Zenji, was born in 1200 AD and at the age of 24 went to China to study Zen practice at the Mt. Tendo monastery. Returning to Japan after an profound ‘satori’ experience he founded a temple, Kosho Horinji near Kyoto. In 1244 AD he traveled to this very mountain hillside and established 'the Temple (ji) of Eternal (hei) Peace (ei)' - Eiheiji. His remaining years were spent at Eiheiji instructing monks in the practice of 'Shikan-taza', 'just sitting', meditation as well as the other aspects of learning to live a life devoted to zen practice. His doctrine could be summed up by his insistence that intellectual speculation was of little use in attempting to understand that which could not be verbalized. Words were a necessary and marvelous tool, but they were just that, and not the experience, the 'knowingness' itself. He believed that ultimately it had to be approached by the direct means of 'shikan taza', the meditation practice which continues to this day. Of course Todashi-san hadn't offered all this information at one time. It had been slowly presented as we visited the various buildings, most of which were connected by covered walkways, necessary because of the heavy winter snows in this mountainous area. Each revelation carried with it a smile and charming eyes that narrowed to thin slits.
That evening in the small cell-like room I began to reflect on the extraordinary set of circumstances which had brought me here. At Kashiwazaki, some 200 km. up the coast, I met the friendly salesman from Osaka who was insistent that I visit Eiheiji. Then a rockslide on a rail line had confirmed that I would indeed be heading south.
Had the entire detour to Eiheiji, which began several days ago, been orchestrated by some unknown force?
I turned off the light and crawled under the warm futon blanket. My mind continued to play with the seeming jigsaw-like puzzle of my arrival here. Then too, there was that momentary confusion when Todashi surmised that I had arrived in order to become a novice Zen monk. Had I unwittingly touched upon a previously unknown, unconsidered possibility? My wandering thoughts were a pleasant means of drifting off to sleep under the comfortable, warm futon blanket. The pale moonlight made a soft pattern, as it passed through the bamboo grillwork overhead and down onto the floor, as I finally floated to that other world, the one of rest and dreams.
A year after my first visit to the Eiheiji Temple I entered its venerable gate once again. However, this time it was for a longer visit. I had requested and received permission from the abbot to begin the process of becoming a Zen monk. Kneeling at a low table, the abbot produced an official form which would contain my personal information. First he asked for me to ‘sign’ a designated box with my ‘hanko’ or name stamp. Unlike in the west personal signatures are never used, rather one’s family identity rests in the small, oval name stamp, made of wood or stone normally about three inches long and which are produced by artisans who hand carve these miniature calligraphic masterpieces. Each hanko is uniquely different and registered at a government office.
I recalled the day my friend and mentor in Hokkaido, the Rev. Shimizu, had decided it was time for me to have a Japanese name. Thinking about the various possibilities inherent in my occidental family name he mentally began looking for a Japanese phonetic equivalent of the many kanji characters available, and one which would be poetic in sound and carry a symbolic meaning beyond it mere literal transliteration. Finally he smilingly decided that “kiru – su – tei” would do just fine. I was about to become 栗 巣 帝 “a bird nest in a chestnut tree along the Imperial Way”. References to nature were always a favorite theme of Japanese names. After discussing it, I agreed to my new identity and he suggested a hanko maker in Sapporo where I could choose the style, square, oblong, or circular, and type of calligraphy. And then on to the government office to officially register it.
My momentary reverie was interrupted by the abbot asking for my first name. Well, he could turn Gordon into ‘Go-ru-dan’, ゴルダン, in the blocky katakana letters often used for transliterating foreign words. Then he smilingly suggested that I might like to adopt a different first name, a more Japanese sounding one. I agreed and he proposed that Go-do might be a possibility. He went on to explain that it meant ‘nostalgic crossing or voyage’, and had been the name of a notable Meiji era writer and poet. And so it was that on that tranquil day that I became a Zen monk known by the name of:
栗巣帝 郷渡 Kirusutei Gôdo
There was a soft knock on the door and it was Todashi-san, the monk whom I had met on the way here to Eiheiji nearly a year ago, and had mistakenly thought I had arrived to become a monk like himself. He was correct of course, just a year out of sync. The abbot explained that since Todashi spoke some English, he would be my personal companion for the next few weeks as I settled into my new life and that there would many things to learn and countless rules to observe.
The way to Eiheiji had indeed been a wandering one, and it had been orchestrated by many people and events, seen and unseen, known and unknown and I silently thanked my two traveling companions who had assisted in my journey by their spiritual presence and silent nudges.