My stay in Kyoto for the purpose of getting training in the life of a priest had been arranged at the suggestion, and with the assistance, of the American whom I have mentioned. He conducted a meditation hall in New York and wanted me to come over to be the teacher there. It was proposed that a certain Zen master, under whom my American would-be benefactor had himself trained, would supervise my training as a novice priest. However, after a little contact with this master, I realized that there was something about him that did not quite satisfy me. Considering the future, I decided to cut short my relationship with him. I sent a letter to the American to express my thanks for his kindness so far, but to say that I no longer felt I could go on with the project. I wrote to my wife and family explaining the decision, and suggested that as no more money would now be coming from America there was no alternative but to dispose of the house in Kamakura, the proceeds of which would secure their livelihood for quite some time to come. I realized what a shock this would be to them, but there was no other way of tiding over the present difficulties.
I went back to Unganji, and explained things to Master Ueki Kendo, who fully appreciated the position. As I was packing up my things, there came the news of the outbreak of the Korean conflict. This was a great anxiety to everyone, as it seemed very likely to presage another world war.
At this time of crisis I pondered within myself that what the world needed was souls to dedicate themselves to continuously praying for peace, leaving their own welfare entirely to chance. So I determined to live as a beggar myself, maintaining a continuous stream of prayer for the peace of the world. I returned to Kyoto with this decision, thinking that I might also be able to continue the study of Buddhism, which would surely be useful in furtherance of my mission in helping its propagation. I wrote a detailed letter to Master Ueki Kendo explaining what I intended to do, and others to my family, entreating them to try to understand.
So it was that from the middle of July I found myself walking the streets of Kyoto as a mendicant begging for alms. At each door I used to stand and chant the traditional Avalokiteshvara Sutra in Ten Verses. I did not want to seem to be too importunate, so instead of facing the door directly I stood sideways on, looking along the street as it were.
To beg for alms was quite a new experience for me, and it needed a great effort to overcome a sort of embarrassment in doing it: it was a bit like jumping off a cliff. The evening before my first day as a beggar, I had placed the mendicant’s scrip in front of the Buddha shrine and chanted the Hannya Rishubun (Arya— Prajnaparamita-naya-satapanca-sutika) and others for hours, praying for blessings on my undertaking which would begin next day. In my beggar’s scrip I put a copy of the Zen-sect Scriptures for Daily Use (a sort of Zen breviary), the Lotus Sutra, and the Christian Bible. I wanted to face the austerity armed with these sacred books.
The first day of my life as a mendicant was one of violent wind and rain. I had a raincoat made of thick oiled paper, and went on from door to door chanting the Avalokiteshvara Sutra, and tinkling my little bell, braving the curious or contemptuous stares of the general public.
I knew about the “emptiness of the three elements of gift,” which is taught as the true spirit of the monk’s begging. The three elements are: the giver, the receiver, and the thing given, and their emptiness or nonexistence should be realized in the mendicant’s mind at the moment that he receives the alms. In actual practice, however, a monk does tend to notice one or other of the elements, and it is incumbent on him to cease to notice them by exercising mental control. I used to concentrate on the chanting of the sutra, and this became my method of practicing the emptiness of the three elements.
In July and August it is mostly boiling hot in Kyoto. My whole body used to get drenched with perspiration, and I could feel a burning heat on the soles of my feet through the thin straw sandals that were all that covered them. Through these not very favorable circumstances, I pursued my vocation of begging for alms. But at the end of the day, when I looked toward the hills of Mount Hiei in the east, it seemed to me that never had I seen them looking so beautiful and refreshing. Then again, as I became used to the routine, I began to feel a sort of inner serenity as I began my first chanting in the intended round of the day.
The income from my begging was very small. I still remember, however, some of the charitable people I met: a high-school boy who when he saw me would stop and get off his bicycle to give me some small coins; a young girl who crossed the street for the same purpose; an elderly man putting his palms together in reverent salutation after making his gift; and once an old woman, on her way home from collecting her ration of rice from the distribution station, who came up and gave me some of it. I had not expected that in the poor quarters of the north of the city the people were in fact more generous than the inhabitants of houses in the richer parts. I remember going along one of those streets, and nearly all the houses had their front door shut. I went down the street chanting in front of each door, but no one ever came out. I recall the feeling of rejection, as if one had been somehow condemned, or had had a bucket of dirty water thrown over me. But as I went on with the sutra I recovered from this wave of heart-questioning, and was soon walking on confidently as before. The thought came to me: CI worship the Buddha in every person: if I am fed, it is by the Buddha in those that feed me; I do not
need to abase myself before any person. I do not demean myself before any person. It was in those days that I learned to speak openly and listen wholeheartedly even to people I was meeting for the first time, provided they had a kindly attitude. I could accept hospitality in a calm state of mind. I was learning something of the freedom of the life of a priest, and I got a glimpse of the carefree heart of the renunciate poet-monk Ryokan.
In this way of life, however, I have to confess that I could not altogether free myself from attraction toward the other sex. Admirer of the ideal of chastity as I was, I was forced to recognize the irrepressible force of the sexual instinct in human nature. This recalled to me something said by one of the outstanding Zen masters of the relatively recent past in Japan, namely Shido Bunan. When he was seventy years of age, he wrote: “No priest or monk should approach a woman. Even though he does not infringe the precept, he cannot prevent his mind being affected by her presence. To approach a woman therefore is to initiate a karmic tendency toward the animal state. I make it my practice to avoid women because I am conscious of the residue of animal nature in my self.55
Sometimes I would picture to myself how pleasant it would be if only I could afford to have my wife come and live with me here in Kyoto. But I had barely enough to live on myself, and to support a wife, and family as well, was quite out of the question. In one of the letters from Dr. Suzuki Daisetsu, then a professor at Columbia University, New York, he said: “Mendicancy is all very well, but can you not devise some modem substitute for the traditional way?” and Dr. Hisamatsu Shinichi remarked to me in Kyoto: “There are many Zen masters of the traditional type. I have a hope that you could become one of quite a different type,” and he added that there was a need of a Zen master who renounced not only the layman’s life but also that of a priest.
As time went on, I became aware of the growing weakness of my body. Master Gyodo sent me a word of advice: “In your present physical condition, it would be risky to continue like this through the severe Kyoto winter.” Master Kendo wrote to me to return to his temple at once, for the sake of my health. These words from revered teachers were reinforced by my own realization that to persist with the present way of life would lead to total collapse.
My only object in renouncing layman’s life had been to propagate the true Way which I had learned from my master, and the life I had adopted in Kyoto had been a means towards that objective. I thought to myself that it would not be reasonable to cling to the means at the expense of the final purpose.
So I went back to Kamakura, sold the house at Hase, and found lodging for my wife and the children at Obai- in retreat in the grounds of Engakuji at Kamakura. Then I returned to Unganji. This was in January 1951, and concluded my mendicant’s life. But the lessons I had learned from it, namely inner freedom and serenity, remained with me as foundation stones for the future.