Consultation with Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki

Twenty-four years after my start on the Way of Zen, though my pace was slow and unremarkable, I reached a certain landmark. Meanwhile many great changes had taken place, and not only in my private life, due in part to the China Incident (1937-41) and World War II. Having finished my spiritual apprenticeship, I keenly felt that I was charged with a fresh responsibility: the mission to propagate Zen Buddhism. And to this end I considered whether I would not do well to enter the priesthood, shaving my hair and assuming the priest’s black robe. The reading of the Book of the Merits of a Priest in Dogen’s Shoho Genzo (a collection of his Japanese writings on Zen Buddhism) and also of the Most Reverend Daio’s Final Advice gave a big new impetus to my resolve. As I pondered the question intently, I read and reread these writings.

I consulted Dr. Daisetsu Suzuki about my plan. He did not encourage me, saying, “In my opinion you need not enter the priesthood. But I admit priesthood has a certain prestige attached to it.” He had used the English word and being uncertain about the meaning of the word “prestige,” I consulted an English dictionary afterwards, and found it signified “reputation, influence derived from past achievements, positions, etc.,” but that the original French word meant “illusion” and“disillusion” as well as “trick” and “glamour.” Taking it all in all, prestige seemed to be an ironical word.

In the extensive grounds of Engakuji, some well-to-do people had built homes on rented sites: among them was Mr. Mitsuo Ishii, a retired businessman who was an expresident of the Japan Hypothec Bank. In his younger years he used to study Zen under Master Sokai, a former abbot of the monastery. He was friends with many famous priests, such as Soen Shaku, Toin Iida, Shizan Ashikaga, and Gempo Yamamoto, and was recognized as the greatest collector of Zen books. After I had decided to become a priest, I consulted Mr. Ishii about whom I should request to be the master priest in my ordination. My old master Gyodo Furukawa was then in retirement. Mr. Ishii recommended the Most Reverend Kendo Ueki of Unganji in Nasu, Tochigi prefecture, saying that as far as he knew, Master Kendo was a man of noblest character. I accepted his advice, and was given a letter of introduction.

In June, 1949,1 started for the temple. It was situated on a mountain fourteen miles southeast of Nishi-Nasuno station on the main North-East railway. It had been founded by the Most Reverend Bukkoku (one of the disciples of Bukko, a Chinese priest, who also founded Engakuji). In his time, the temple was renowned as one of the two greatest Zen centers in the country, the other being the Sufukuji at Hakata, Kyushu, presided over by the Most Reverend Daio. Alighting from the train at Nishi-Nasuno Station, and taking a local line and then a bus, I came within half a mile of my destination. Then I walked along a mountain stream called Mumogawa, and arrived at Unganji. Its traditional “mountain name” was Tozan (East Mount), standing as it did on the midslope of a thick, wooded mountain. The noise of the torrent was likely to be mistaken for the sound of a falling rain at night by strangers staying at the temple, so perfectly still were the surroundings of this temple.

One of my first impressions was of its cleanliness. The lavatories especially were kept so clean that they were shiny. I was first received by the Reverend Daikei Hayashi, present abbot, and then presented to Master Kendo Ueki. With permission I stayed here overnight, and explained to the ex-abbot all about my past and present. Despite the fact there were no female inhabitants, there was something mild and kindly in the atmosphere, in striking contrast with that of the average Zen temple where sternness alone would prevail. In this kindliness my heart felt at ease.

The education you are now engaged in is an important matter as you know,” the Master began, “and before complete renunciation of the world you will have to provide for the support of your wife and family. So you had better take your ordination without giving up your present profession for now.” It was arranged that I should come again toward the end of August during the summer vacation, for the purpose of taking the robe.

Immediately before taking the rites of ordination, I was to copy out a pledge, following a set formula. It consists of several lines, but the contents could be summed up in one sentence. “I vow to devote myself to the propagation of the Way, sacrificing everything.” There was no mention of studying or practicing the Way oneself, but it stressed exclusively propagation of the religion. Remembering that the Lotus Sutra was informed with the spirit of propaganda, I was struck by the manifestation of the Mahayana spirit in this formula. It is sometimes said that pity and love are lacking in Zen, and that compared to Christianity, Buddhism is poor in the spirit of propagation. Be that as it may, I realized on this occasion that the backbone of Zen was to be found in the cultivation of souls.

My master Gyodo had often said, “The first duty of a priest is to spread the religion. But nowadays there are few of them who will exert themselves in this way. ” Now, as I was writing out my pledge, his regretful words came back to me with great force.

The aspiration to bodhi (enlightenment) means the vow to save all sentient beings before one’s own salvation, and to exert oneself accordingly. Whether one be a layperson or a priest, a dweller in heaven or a human being, whether one is in pain or pleasure, one should resolve immediately to take the vow: ‘I will save others before myself.’ However humble one may be in his social estate if he takes this vow, he becomes a teacher of beings in heaven and on earth. Even if one may be a girl of seven, one becomes a teacher of the four ranks of Buddhists. Whether male or female such a one is the loving father of all creatures. This is the supreme principle of Buddhism. When one has taken the vow, one may happen to be bom in any of the Six States of Existence or in any of the species of living beings, but such an existence will provide opportunity to fulfil the great mission of the bodhisattva. Though one may have lived idly up till now one should hasten to take the vow while life yet remains.”

The above is a quotation from the Book of Vow and Salvation, in the Soto Kyokai Shushogi (Rules of Salvation and Enlightenment of the Soto Sect of Zen). I have repeatedly read this passage since my youth, sometimes finding my eyes filling with tears as I did so. The enthusiasm welling up from this passage is the backbone of Mahayana Buddhism. Unless inspired with this burning spirit, one’s study and practice of Zen cannot have the sincerity it should have.

 

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