A friend died the other day; struck by a deadly disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. ALS is popularly known in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the great Yankee first baseman struck down by it at the age of thirty-eight. ALS is an illness that involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and has no known cause and no known cure. It is a death sentence like the one that accompanies every birth; only this one is squeezed into a two to five year time frame.
Koshi Ichida was diagnosed with ALS last summer. He was dead by February 5th , less than five months later. He was fifty-eight years old. Koshi was a Buddhist priest, ordained by Kosho Uchiyama in 1970. Tom Wright, a mutual friend, and I visited Koshi in the hospital shortly after he was diagnosed with the disease. He was stoically cheerful, as I’ve always known him, explaining the disease to us, as he understood it from the doctor’s explanation. The next news I received was a letter from Tom, `When I saw him in November,’ he wrote, `we talked for about two hours. He looked content and said that he was ready to go.’
I met Koshi in 1970 at Antaiji Temple. He had previously spent four years at a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto and concluded that koan Zen was not suitable to his temperament. He felt Uchiyama to be the right teacher and he appeared the ideal disciple. He worked well with the other monks, had sensed what was needed around the temple and attended to things before most others knew they needed attending. And he truly believed in the practice.
Koshi was accomplished in kendo, the Japanese way of the sword, a fourth level black belt, and he was a skilful craftsman. These skills won him the respect of monks and lay students alike. When Uchiyama was looking for a monk to help support a small Zen group in Western Massachusetts, Koshi seemed the likely choice.
In 1969, a lady by the name of Ms Sharp who had been to Antaiji, asked Uchiyama to come to her home in North Hampton to teach Zen. Uchiyama didn’t feel he could go, so he sent a monk named Shojo to go in his stead. Shojo and a small group of about five students eventually rented their own place and sat together. In 1972 Shojo came back to Japan and Koshi was asked to take over. Koshi, whose mild manners and careful restraint typified to me the ideal in Japanese sensibility, set out to learn the language and culture of a pioneer society quite different from his.
The international community around Antaiji was a unique group of people living somewhat on the fringes of society. Many worked hard to keep up with the Antaiji zazen schedule and played hard with wild parties when the time and excuse were found. There were drinking, grass smoking, amateur plays on subjects from cowboys and Indians to the life of Jesus Christ, and a lot of singing and dancing. The Antaiji monks rarely ventured out to attend these parties though they were always welcome. Their own schedules, group pressure from the other monks and the questionable morality of it all kept them from entering this new and I’m sure tempting world. When I saw this gentle monk, Koshi, practising the twist at an international party in Kyoto I appreciated how far he would go to prepare for the work ahead. As with most things Koshi set out to do, he was quite good at the twist.
I’m not sure that Koshi was the right choice to send to America, but I know that Uchiyama could depend on him to follow through on whatever mission he agreed to take on. When he was due to leave Japan, the head monk of Antaiji, Koho Watanabe, took him on a trip around the country. Koho was visiting my house one morning before the trip and we were drinking tea around my wood stove. When the subject came to Koshi, Koho, who liked to give the impression he was quite sophisticated, said, `I don’t understand how he stays that way.’ By ‘that way’ he meant innocent or pure. `That’s why I’m taking him around Japan,’ he continued, `To show him some “bad” things.’ I didn’t push him for specifics about what ‘bad things’ meant.
In 1974, Koshi set out with an American named Steve Yenik to do what was needed to support the American group in Massachusetts. Steve had studied with Uchiyama at Antaiji for over four years and had been a primary interpreter when Roshi spoke with western students. They received a generous donation from Bob Mazer, one of the American students who had sat with Shojo, and they purchased some land near Charlemont, Massachusetts, a town of about 150 people. Though the Pioneer Valley Zendo had been incorporated when the group met in North Hampton, a town in the Pioneer Valley, the newly purchased land became its permanent home and the only sister temple to Antaiji in America. Like the Antaiji Uchiyama created, it was a place with no frills—no elaborate zendo; no zendo at all at first.
With the help of friends, the two of them set out to build a modest temple, while living in a tent on the property. They worked hard to get a roof over their heads before the winter set in. Steve relates: `We tore down an old building and salvaged the lumber and used it to build platforms for our tents and a main, central platform which served as a sort of living room and dining room. The main platform and the fireplace and kitchen area had simple roofs made with clear plastic sheets and ropes so that you could stay outside in the rain unless it turned into a really heavy storm.’ Koshi was always building little knickknacks to make the place a little homey. Steve described some of them to me: `He used the scissors on his Swiss army knife to cut empty aluminium beer cans (of which we had an enormous supply). He made ashtrays with nice little notches for your cigarette and candleholders shaped so that the shiny inside of the can worked as a reflection. He set up an apparatus to make sure the footing for the foundation would be level. It was a bucket of water with a hole near the bottom. A clear plastic hose ran out from the hole and you could carry the hose around and see and measure from the water level in the hose, which was always the same as the bucket. He also made a really sturdy sawhorse.
The temple was off the beaten path and the winters were rough. A few people came regularly to sit, and two more monks from Antaiji eventually joined them. The group of regular practitioners remained small but they were steady in their practice. Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, a priest who was making a name for himself in California, once visited the zendo as a side trip when he was in Massachusetts. He saw the sparse quarters and the little land and looked a bit surprised. When Koshi explained, `My teacher liked to keep things small,’ Maezumi, who was in the process of building a Zen dynasty stretching from the west to the east coast, shrugged his shoulders and said, `I guess there are many ways to look at things.’ But I’m not sure he understood the spirit of Koshi’s words. The Pioneer Valley Zendo still exists today, and the practice, like Uchiyama’s vision for Antaiji, is both challenging and simple.
Koshi vowed to stay for ten years and he did. When I arrived from Japan to settle back in the states, the three monks, Koshi, Shohaku and Eishin were doing odd jobs for neighbours, tapping maple syrup, and when there was no outside work, clearing the land and pulling out tree stumps. Shohaku, a large and powerful looking monk was the main trunk puller outer and has been suffering from back and neck problems since. Hiroko and I got work in a nearby tofu shop and eventually all five of us were working there. They were truly following the spirit and letter of Pai-chang’s dictum ‘A day without work is a day without eating.’ [Baizhang Huaihai (720–814) Jap: Hyakujō Ekai]
Koshi never seemed comfortable with the attention many Americans gave to robed monks from Asia. I believe he endured because he was devoted to his teacher and to duty; a trait that Japanese have historically shown great respect, but one that can take its toll on one’s emotional constitution. Koshi always seemed more comfortable working with his hands than with words. But he wanted the students at the zendo to know his teacher’s words first hand. Perhaps he hoped for those words to reach beyond the small group at the zendo. Together with an American resident, Marshel Metinick, he translated Yado nashi Hokusan, which, together with a lecture by Kosho Uchiyama translated by Koshi’s dharma brother, Shohaku Okumura, became the book Homeless Kodo: the sayings of Kodo Sawaki with commentary by Uchiyama. (See Buddhism Now Vol VIII No. 1 February 1996).
Toward the end of his stay in America he married and returned to Japan, as he had come, with no fanfare. In Japan, Koshi struggled to survive. While most of his brother disciples took over temples either through inheritance or through the connection of an old student of Uchiyama’s, when Koshi returned to Japan the pickings were slim. The years in America had taken him out of the loop. He worked at odd jobs, helped out at other temples, and together with his wife taught English privately. Though it must have been a struggle for him, I can’t imagine him feeling comfortable being in charge of a temple with a wealthy parish. His Swiss army knife would have rusted from lack of use.
I try to understand why Koshi’s death affects me so. Two things stand out. The first, I see him as a tragic hero. The Japanese worship tragic heroes, and I’m afraid some of that romanticism has rubbed off on me. He had a quiet dignity, even in difficult times, that I always admired. Though he may not have been a confident teacher, he persevered when others would have thrown in the towel. I think that even his lack of confidence appealed to me; having seen so many teachers over the years whose confidence seemed to be nothing more than self-deception. While I know I’m not alone in my admiration for him, I don’t believe Koshi ever recognised the degree to which many of us respected him. I believe he felt that he didn’t do enough for the zendo or for his teacher.
The second relates to one reason why people grieve over the loss of a loved one. Many wonder why they hadn’t related more to the person when he or she was alive; why they hadn’t expressed their appreciation or simply been with the person in a more wholehearted way.
When my wife Hiroko and I came to Massachusetts, Koshi was excited. We had just arrived from Japan and I believe Koshi felt that connection. He hadn’t fully acclimatised himself to America at the time, and I’m not sure he ever did.. He, Shohaku and Eishin took us around the temple grounds showing us the land and landscape. We came to a small one-room cabin. He opened the door and beckoned us in. We sat in this dusty one-room cabin talking for a while. Then Koshi turned to us and said, `What do you think?’ I was puzzled by the question, being slow to understand the nuances of Japanese indirect communication. Hiroko wasn’t. Japanese need few words to communicate with each other and that is why the English language and the culture that goes with it can be so tiring to them. Koshi was asking us, as directly as anyone from Kyoto is capable, if we would consider living in the cabin. Hiroko looked at me and said, `No way.’ She had come from a Japanese temple. She was leaving that tradition with a dream, perhaps a fantasy, of becoming an artist. She didn’t want to see her dream slip away now that she had made it so close to a centre of western art, New York. I understood her feelings and so we found an apartment in a nearby town, South Deerfield. We eventually moved to New York and then to California.
Koshi visited us in New York and in California, and we visited him at the zendo. We sat together and we talked together but never probed deeply into each other’s feelings. Neither of us was so strong that we couldn’t have used the other’s help, but whether it was pride or posturing or not wanting to be a burden to the other we never asked for it. I thought at times that he needed help, but I never knew how to broach the question.
During his fourteen years in Japan after leaving the Pioneer Valley Zendo I saw him less than half a dozen times. Even at the hospital this summer, I found myself holding back my feelings. As is my way, I wrote him of this when I returned to the States. I told him that I didn’t know how to tell him how much I cared about him while facing him in a room with others present, but that I did care, very much. He wrote back saying he understood, and in an attempt to put me at ease, spent the rest of the letter telling me how grateful he was to have studied the dharma from Uchiyama and as a result to have made so many good friends. I think he was glad that I held back any display of affection, as it would have made him as uncomfortable as it made me. I feel that we would have needed more time to break through the ‘cautious’ way we related to each other, but we no longer have that time.
My father visited my wife and I when we lived in Massachusetts and we took him to the zendo. He marvelled at the construction of the building and even more when Koshi told him how he struggled with American carpenters’ tools and building regulations. When I visit my folks and my connection with the zendo comes up in conversation, my father inevitably asks how that monk who built that sturdy house is doing. Even to my father whose interest in Zen ranks with my interest in the Tokyo Stock Exchange, remembers the Pioneer Valley Zendo and the talented carpenter monk who built it.
Read more articles by Arthur Braverman here.
Buddhism Now May 2001