Sodō Yokoyama (1907 - 1980)

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Sodō Yokoyama (1907 - 1980)

Post by [james] » Wed Apr 24, 2019 9:09 pm

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Distracting Thoughts

All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is. Once you start comparing one place to another, there’s no end to it.

My teacher, the late Sawaki Roshi, often made the following self-evaluation: ‘I am an eternally deluded person. No one is as deluded as I am. I am deluded with gold trimmings. How clear it is to me when I do Zazen!’

What a strange thing this Zazen is. When we practice it, distracting ideas, irrelevant thoughts — in short, delusions, which ordinary people are made of, suddenly seem to feel an irresistible temptation to arise and appear on the surface. Then there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, in irresistible desire to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do Zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice, deluded thoughts continue to surface one after the other? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. The attempt to drive these deluded thoughts away — delusion being so much nonsense (interfering with the happiness of oneself and others) — is also something brought home to us through Zazen. We tentatively call this Zazen that guides us in this way, ‘Buddha’.

According to this teaching, simply the awareness that you are deluded, which comes from practising Zazen, makes you, in reality, a Buddha. It’s Zazen that teaches us that we too are deluded, and hence delivers us from this delusion. When we actually practice Zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about; nothing to do other than quietly hide away. This is, after all, what we truly are.

Satori is being enlightened to the fact that we are deluded. There is then the desire, however small, to stop these deluded acts. That is how ordinary people are saved by Zazen. So we realize, beyond a doubt, our ordinariness through our Zazen practice, and any departure from Zazen (Buddha) will give rise to the inability to deal with these delusions and hence we will lose our way. We can say that the world has gone astray because it can’t deal with its delusions…All the troubles in this world, political, economic and so forth, are created from situations in which the awareness of one’s ordinariness is absent.

Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Those who are unaware of their ordinariness are from a religious point of view shallow and comical.

The devil — that is, illusion — when seen as the devil, can no longer exhibit its powers, and disappears of its own accord.

Shakyamuni was enlightened beyond all doubt to the fact that he was an ordinary person and became a Buddha. Then he began to live the life of a Buddha. When you realize your ordinariness, you are a Buddha, and when you are a Buddha, no matter how many distracting ideas and irrelevant thoughts appear they are no match for a Buddha and hence no longer remain obstacles. Delusions that no longer obstruct us are called fantasies. The Buddha way — the way of peace — is turning of delusion into fantasies.”

— Sodo Yokoyama


Songs of the Universe: Sodo Yokoyama, The Grass Flute Zen Master
Arthur Braverman, 2017

Ko ka sen ri
Fragrant mist a thousand ri

The words expedient means (houben ほうべん in Japanese) was something I always resisted. It seemed to give spiritual teachers a license to do outrageous things under the guise of expedience. Sodo-san’s leaf playing drew people to him and perhaps encouraged some to practice zazen, which he considered his mission while sitting in the park. If he did think of his leaf music as a draw to get people to do zazen, he never said as much. He loved playing music, creating it and brushing it along with his poems, and that’s all I can surmise from his writing. He loved being outdoors and entertaining people. Selling calligraphy brushed over the poet Toson’s songs seems to have come out of a need to make some kind of a living to pay the rent for his room at the boarding house, which makes it an expedient in the secular sense of the word, but not what one would call houben, in the Buddhist sense.

Spreading zazen, on the other hand, was something he considered his duty as a monk and as a lover of the practice. He knew he was not made to take charge over monks, so he chose to live the latter part of his life in as natural a way as he could. He believed, as he brushed his thank you calligraphy to those who gave him a donation after he played a tune for them, that the fragrant mist of zazen would spread a thousand ri, a faith in the practice that he carried to his dying days.

Zen is considered the religion of the samurai. Like the warriors who sponsored it over the years, Zen has a reputation for its severity of practice. The Pure Land sects, whose entrance into the Way of the Buddha is through faith, express a gentle side of Buddhism. The simplistic way these two religious sects are compared, even by many scholars, is calling Zen the ‘self power’ sect and Pure Land the ‘other power’ sect. Another way of looking at these two religious tendencies is as a feminine and masculine side, or as the Taoists describe as yin and yang. The Taoists see these sides as working together in both men and woman, which I believe is a more realistic way of looking at it.

Sodo-san, like Ryokan, appears to have a more prominent feminine side than most Zen monks. His strong expression of faith in the practice he wrote about shows his tendency to be in touch with his feminine nature. One can see it in his delicate calligraphy as well.

Though Sodo-san loved Kodo Sawaki and described zazen in ways he believed were echoing Kodo Sawaki’s zazen, he has brought something to the practice that came from him, maybe even from his DNA. And, I believe, Sawaki recognised that uniqueness in his disciple and fortunately didn’t try to purge him of it. I don’t think Sodo-san felt that kind of acceptance in the temples where he studied; not even at Antaiji, the temple for which he had such fond memories.

It is interesting to realise that Kodo Sawaki had many disciples who had difficulty being in the same room with each other for too long a time. Once Sodo-san went on his own, beginning his truly unique life, he and Uchiyama appeared to get along, and I believe they did. But when they lived together at Antaiji, even the glue that was their teacher Kodo Sawaki couldn’t keep them together under the same roof.

Sodo-san had a very powerful experience I referred to before of watching the sun set over the mountain in his hometown. He was in his early twenties at the time. The rest of his life at least until he found his home under the sky in Kaikoen Park was the struggle to understand that experience. It was a struggle to understand who he was and to accept himself as that person. As he more deeply understood who he was with the help of zazen, the comfort he felt in his own body resonated with those who came in contact with him. He expressed it as the profound realisation that he was a deluded person. He’d heard Sawaki express the realisation of his own deluded nature when Sodo-san first heard him lecture at Sojiji in the late 1930s. Sodo-san feeling desperate having lost his father, his first true teacher, went to a zen meeting at this major Zen monastery outside of Tokyo. Hearing Sawaki’s pronouncement of his ordinariness was for him a great relief, but it took many years for it to sink into his person.

The question for many is what does a man spending his days sitting in a corner of a public park meditating or playing tunes on leaf contribute to waking people up and making our world a better place in which to live? Another way of asking that question is where is the merit in this kind of life? The answer Bodhi Dharma is supposed to have given when the Chinese Emperor Wu told of all the good works he’d done and wanted to know what merit he had gained, was, “No merit at all.”

I will answer my question for Sodo-san. “It contributes nothing at all.” And yet that is not completely true. Because this man sat in the park maintaining a certain posture and expecting nothing, there was a fragrance that spread a thousand ri, a thousand ri meaning everywhere. Though not everyone can sniff it.

According to Joko, as Sodo-san neared the end of his life he found it difficult to walk to the park, so he would take a cab. The modern day yogi taking a cab to work . . . He knew on some level that the power of his ‘no merit’ zazen would spread the fragrance to places he’d never see. He breathed it and loved it. And as he was dying, it gave him the splice which allowed him to truly die in peace.

Three days before his death Sodo-san said, “I am grateful to have been able to study Buddhism, I am grateful to have been able to obtain great peace. I was saved by the sunset.

The sunset / unaware of the sunset / is still the sunset.

“If people come to visit me,” he said on his deathbed, “tell them I said ‘thank you.”

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Re: Sodō Yokoyama (1907 - 1980)

Post by desert_woodworker » Thu Apr 25, 2019 2:53 am

Lovely post, James. Thanks.


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Re: Sodō Yokoyama (1907 - 1980)

Post by Larry » Thu Apr 25, 2019 9:20 am

"All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is"

"I was saved by the sunset"

There are some wonderful lines in there. Thanks.

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