Our bodies are the great universal life

No, Sawaki wasn’t my friend. I was a pauper and he was a tycoon. So he took pity on me.

These are the words of Katô Kôzan in an interview in his 95th year. Kôzan and Sawaki Kôdô were old friends and Dharma brothers. Their practices turned out quite different though, and they never tired of ribbing each other about the differences. The mutual respect they had for each other was actually enhanced by those differences.

Katô Kôzan and Sawaki Kôdô having tea with some Dharma brothers. Photo: Arthur Braverman

There are two main schools of Zen in Japan, Rinzai and Sôtô with their very distinct approaches to practice. [There are of course many shades of practice that lie somewhere in between the extremes, one, Obaku Zen, even has its own sect name. However, for the purpose of this essay I will simply describe the two main approaches.] In Rinzai Zen, students usually meditate on koans, paradoxical stories pointing to ultimate truth, traditionally taken from encounters between early Zen masters and their students. In Sôtô Zen, students sit in meditation in what its founder Dôgen called shikantaza. Shikantaza is usually described as ‘just sitting’ and the student’s energy is usually concentrated on the awareness of being there as you are.

Sawaki Kôdô around 33 years old. Photo: Arthur BravermanSawaki Kôdô was a clear proponent of the Zen master Dôgen’s shikantaza (just sitting), and when he had a chance to tease his friend about what he called Kôzan’s ‘step ladder’ Zen, his name for koan Zen, he jumped on the opportunity.

In referring to Sawaki as a Tycoon (an interesting epithet for a man who spent most of his life roaming the country living on a bare minimum) and a scholar, Kôzan was calling him two of the dirtiest words he could think of.

Poor as he was for most of his life, Sawaki was still able to save his friend from abject poverty when Kôzan had come to Tokyo. He had arrived in Tokyo whith his wife and child, without a yen in his pocket, to take over what turned out to be a dilapidated abandoned temple. Sawaki took one look at Kôzan’s temple and knew that his friend was in trouble. Kôzan had been living under rather strained circumstances in a small temple in Kurume City in Kyûshû near the monastery where he completed his training. When a friend invited him to take over the Tokyo temple, he had imagined a very different situation.

`How much do you need each month to survive here with your family?’ Sawaki asked.

`I can make it on fifteen yen.’ Kôzan replied.

Sawaki then took Kôzan around to the houses of fifteen of his followers. To each he explained, `This is my older brother disciple (ani deshi). Let him come to your house each month and read sutras in my stead and give him one yen.’

Katô Kôzan mid 40s. Photo: Arthur BravermanAnd that was how Kôzan survived the war years in Tokyo in a temple that was barely standing.

Sawaki had grown up in poverty in the slums of Tsu City in Mie Prefecture. His parents died when he was quite young and he became an orphan in the family of his gambler uncle and his uncle’s eleventh wife, a veteran prostitute. In his later years he became known throughout the country for his life as a rebel Zen monk with a gift for expressing the Dharma as he saw it. He loved the old Zen eccentrics, Jittoku, Kanzan (Cold Mountain), Hotei and Fuke. Kôzan was a 20th century example of these old crazies, and Sawaki respected him greatly for never selling out.

They met at a monastery called Yôsenji, in Matsusaka on the Ise Peninsula in 1913. Kôzan had just come down from a mountain where he spent three years sitting alone.

`That was where we first met,’ recalls Kozan. `At that time he was deeply involved in studies and in lecturing on Buddhist texts and I was concentrating on zazen. We were together there for a year, and in that time we became very close . . . ‘

Katô Kôzan doing calligraphy. Photo: Arthur BravermanKôzan had been given over to a temple when he was nine, ‘a captive of the temple’ in his words. Kôzan was the fourth child in a family of ten siblings. It was not uncommon in those days for a child of a large family to be given over to a temple in order to allow him to study while, at the same time, to relieve the family of another mouth to feed. He went on to graduate from college, and to inherit a Sôtô Zen temple through his father’s connections. Most temples in Japan, with the exception of the large training monasteries, were family temples as monks in Japan were permitted to marry. When there was no son or disciple to take over a temple, it was possible for someone else to pay the people in charge (perhaps those of the head temple of that particular sect) and actually buy the temple. Kôzan’s father apparently did this for his son. But shortly after, in a very dramatic fashion, Kôzan passed it on to his disciple and wandered the country looking for a place to practise in a serious manner.

He had spent a short time studying under Shaku Soen, the teacher of D.T. Suzuki. Under Soen he solved koans easily and was turned off the practice he felt he could easily master. Disillusioned with the koan system, he decided to just sit in meditation all the time. He found sitting meditation comfortable. Upon reflection he saw this as an escape from dealing with people and pressures he didn’t like to face. However, in the eyes of others he was a stalwart practitioner and to his surprise and confusion, his reputation as a serious Zen monk grew.

Sawaki Kôdô. Photo: Arthur BravermanSawaki’s reputation as a Buddhist scholar too was growing, but he was becoming more and more convinced that the true Buddhist Way was through concentrated zazen rather than scholarship; another reason for his great respect for Kôzan.

At Yôsenji, Sawaki and Kôzan spent a lot of time together, both unhappy with the lack of true practice around them. One night they talked about leaving to find a more intense place to practise. They didn’t talk about when they would leave, and to Sawaki’s surprise Kôzan was gone the next morning.

`Never before,’ Sawaki said, `did anyone ever beat me to the punch in that way.’

Kôzan, who traveled with only a small bundle wrapped in a furoshiki scarf, said he couldn’t wait for Sawaki because his friend’s room was cluttered with books that would load him down and make the journey impossible.

They met again years later on the streets of Kurume City in Kyûshû near Bairinji, where Kôzan was completing his koan training. Upon a friend’s advice he had decided to follow koan training through to its completion. Sawaki was living in Kyûshû, lecturing and conducting sesshins throughout the country.

The friendship between Sawaki and Kôzan grew over the years. Sawaki, having grown up in poverty in the slums, had to fight to survive. He had nobody to help him so he learned to be tough and to be a fierce competitor, a trait that stayed with him through his years as a training monk. Kôzan was a vigorous and persevering monk but not so much the fighter as was his friend Sawaki. He gave up the financial security of an established temple, living the life of a mendicant in order to practise in accord with his ideal. But as a child he didn’t have to fend for himself the way Sawaki did, so he never developed the mental resources needed to get himself out of his troubled situation. I believe that if Sawaki were in Kôzan’s situation in Tokyo, he would have figured some enterprising way of picking himself up and making things work. So it’s not surprising that Sawaki did end up rescuing his friend.

Sawaki Kôdô doing calligraphy. Photo: Arthur BravermanThe biggest difference between Sawaki and Kôzan was their Zen, or at least, how they taught. Kôzan went through the koan program at Bairinji and finally, after a long initial period of doubt, came to appreciate the importance of koans. Sawaki, on the other hand, was a strong critic of koan Zen and an advocate of shikantaza or ‘just sitting‘.

It seems to me that their different approaches actually added to their affection for each other. They helped each other transcend the narrowness of rigid sectarian practice. Only then were they able to consider their teaching ‘a universal practice,’ a phrase both never tired of using. Each recognised in the other the quality of a true Zen man, and hence neither could simply dismiss the other’s method.

To Kôzan, Dôgen’s shikantaza was the ultimate practice. But he felt that without koan meditation few people would stay around long enough to appreciate the power of the practice of ‘just sitting.’

Zen teachers, as a rule, recommend zazen as the most important practice. But they don’t always actually do much meditation as Kôzan learned when he studied under Shaku Soen. Kôzan and Sawaki both had a strong belief in zazen, and their total absorption in this practice was something that separated them from most other Zen teachers. Each recognised this commitment to practise in the other, and this recognition was one source of their close friendship.

Katô Kôzan at 95 doing zazen. Photo: Arthur BravermanKôzan’s description of his last encounter with Sawaki reveals their warm, if not always forthright relationship. Sawaki had spent part of the new year holiday at Kôzan’s temple each year for over thirty years, until he could no longer travel. It became a ritual that Kôzan and his parishioners looked forward to each year. One year Sawaki acted strange, refusing to brush his customary calligraphy for his fans at the temple. When pushed for a reason, he finally admitted to his friend that he wanted them to ask for Kôzan’s calligraphy and not his. He apparently sensed his health failing and his time visiting Tokuunin, Kôzan’s temple, coming to a close. He was frustrated with the fact that the people who came to see him at Tokuunin didn’t realise Kôzan’s talent. During this last visit he told Kôzan that he wouldn’t return to the temple until his friends 90th birthday. Kôzan recalls:

Sawaki Kôdô. Photo: Arthur BravermanI was eight-eight that year. Sawaki collapsed during a lecture after which his legs weren’t strong enough to hold him up anymore. Did he foresee this? It was truly strange. His situation got worse and he went to his disciple Uchiyama Kôshô’s place (Antaiji). I wanted to visit him in Kyoto. A fellow by the name of Matsumoto said he was going there and I asked him to tell Sawaki of my plans. When Sawaki heard that I wanted to visit him he said, ‘There’s no sense in that old man plodding all the way here, he shouldn’t come.’

Hearing that I said, ‘Fine,’ and that was that.

About a year passed and Sawaki died. It was 1965. I heard that he really yearned to see me then.

But Sawaki and I were like a temple bell and a paper lantern. He was quite a scholar and I was illiterate. Yet we got on well. Even now, something comes up and I’m reminded of what a dear man he was.


From Sawaki Kôdô on Zazen

Sawaki Kôdô. Photo: Arthur BravermanEveryone is originally pure, not in the slightest way different from the Buddha. Zazen is the purity of one’s own nature through the body. So the self of zazen is different from the self of ordinary life. With the ordinary self you are always using your mind to figure out: how to get through this world, how to make life easier, how to make it more pleasurable, [to know] what is delicious and what is tasteless. Zazen puts all that aside. In other words, it takes a break from the human world. What is the human world? The five desires and the six dusts. Wanting money, wanting to eat tasty food, and wanting things to be easy. [People] spend their whole lives [seeking] sex, food, position and the likes. In zazen, however, you let go of all relationships, take a pause from everything, stop thinking in terms of good and bad, stop judging right from wrong. You stop the movement of consciousness, refrain from calculation of ideas. You don’t seek to be a Buddha because that too is a desire.

(Zenshû [Collected Works] vol. 15 p. 161)

Our bodies do not belong to us. They are the true activity of the life of the great universe. That is to say, our bodies are the great universal life. The proof that our bodies are the life of the universe is zazen. In zazen, you place your hands like this and cross your legs and do nothing at all with regard to yourself. By doing zazen in this manner, your body will become the actuality of the great universe . . .

Zazen is an activity that is an extension of the universe. Zazen is not the life of an individual, it is the universe that is breathing.

(Dôgen Zen Sankyû [Dôgen Zen Studies] Edited by Tokugen Sakai, p. 208)

From Katô Kôzan on Zazen

Katô Kôzan. Photo: Arthur BravermanWhen you come right down to it Zen is most important. You can skip a meal once in a while, but you should never forget zazen. If you practise zazen there is that [spiritual] power that comes from the body.

Put your body in order. It will follow naturally that the mind will improve. Mind—body—mind—body—mind . . . Mind and body will always be in harmony.

When you focus on putting your energy into your hara (the lower abdomen), you will function properly whether you are using your hands or your mind. Everything should centre  in your hara . . .

The hara is your base. Even learning should be centred in your hara.

Scholar’s studies can become an obstacle, making the mind difficult to control. The effect of zazen is to let your mind and body really listen to you. Quiet sitting is good. Zazen can reasonably be taken as far as one chooses—one can advance by the light discovered within it.

Though I’m 80 [Kôzan was actually 84 when he gave this talk] I haven’t awakened. Even the Buddha is still practising.

. . Only zazen is the real thing—you can’t go wrong. It’s Shakyamuni Buddha as is. There’s no deception in it. It’s a natural need in a human being’s life. It’s the call by the universe to a human being’s true nature. Zazen perfects the human being.

Even at 92 I still live by zazen. It’s my pleasure, my joy.

Whatever I come across, I resolve through my experience with zazen. When it’s hot it is hot. I feel through zazen that when it’s hot I’m not dissatisfied or in discomfort. Even if there is satori, for example, I must practise zazen. I must continue zazen because [satori] is a momentary dream. It can, after all, pull you around.

Whether you know it or not, zazen will polish the mind and body. Leave satori for later. It is important, but you must do zazen every day. Even for two or three minutes, you must practise it daily.

(From Ôgon Hempen Zezean Dai Roshi Hôgo [Pieces of Gold: Katô Kôzan Dharma Talks])

The following is from a conversation Kôzan had with Satô Minoru just hours before Kôzan’s death at 96 years old:

Zazen to me . . . When Bodhidharma sat quietly for nine years facing the wall at Shaolin Temple, zazen spread throughout China. I believe that zazen is the supreme way. `Zazen is the supreme way of Heaven and Earth.’ I am carrying on this way. Practising this is what is called satori.

[After this talk, Kôzan inscribed a wooden tablet, ending with the character for the Zen shout katsu. He fell over and died shortly after.]

From Two Friends, by Arthur Braverman.
Published in the November 2000 Buddhism Now.

Click here to read more from Arthur Braverman

Categories: Arthur Braverman, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen

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2 replies

  1. Question: How can I practice Zazen or sitting or meditation when I have a back problem?


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