The Zen Life-style of Reverend Kendo at Unganji

The Unganji (Temple of Clouds and Rocks) is about fourteen miles southeast of Nishi-Nasuno station on the North-East line, in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture. Bukkoku Kokushi founded it as a Buddhist temple in the twelfth century, when Zen had barely reached Japan.

Muso Kokushi, one of his followers, was for some time abbot of Unganji. A great survey was made by Sekiguchi Tai of all the places in Japan associated with Muso’s life, and he commented that for beauty of natural surroundings, Unganji was one of the three most supremely impressive that he had seen. The temple grounds include some well-wooded hills covering some four thousand square kilometres, which was a bequest in the original grant of land for the temple. When I was there, the abbot was the Reverend Hayashi Taikei, the 59th in the line of succession.

The 58th abbot had been the old Zen master Ueki Kendo, who had given the ordination rites to me. When he had first come to live in the temple, he found some of the buildings in a state of advanced dilapidation. For instance, even the reception room next to the entrance to the priests5 living quarters had no sliding doors at all, and there were not enough of the trays and standard low tables for the monks to sit for meals and take their soup and rice gruel. It took him ten years of great efforts before the temple was restored to a sound financial condition, so that he could rebuild the present Buddha Hall. As a matter of fact, being an enthusiast for public education, his original plan had been to use the saved-up money to build a middle school. But some of the supporters of the temple, who had generously contributed to the funds, pressed the case for a new Buddha Hall, and he acceded to their wishes.

For the ceremony of installing the Buddha images in the new Buddha Hall, my old master Gyodo, then abbot of Engakuji, was invited to preside. The Rinzai Zen sect in Japan has a number of sub-sects, one of which is called the Engakuji sect, because its headquarters, so to say, are at Engakuji. Unganji belongs to this Engakuji sect; in fact the founder of Engakuji, Bukko Kokushi, had been what one might call the honorary first Zen abbot of Unganji. This was in the thirteenth century, and he is not to be confused with Bukkoku Kokushi, who had actually founded Unganji as a Buddhist temple in the previous century. This circumstance, seemingly so trivial, I mention because it marked a remarkable coincidence in my own spiritual life. The personal name of Bukko Kokushi (which is a title meaning National Teacher Buddha- Light) was So-gen, and his pen name was Mugaku (Without Learning). When Master Kendo gave a new Buddhist name at an ordination, he made it his rule to make one of the syllables a gen, in memory of So-gen. In my case, the name chosen was Gen-yo, having the same gen syllable as the first one.

Master Kendo had been bom in the township of Kaya, in Okayama prefecture, on September 15, 1871. He was the eighth son of Fujii Kyuemon, who combined farming and medical practice. He was ordained as a Buddhist novice by Soshun, priest of the local Saifukuji, on December 8, 1882. He was thus eleven years old, and he stayed at the temple until he was twenty-two. During this time he had some experience in teaching as an assistant at the nearby elementary school. In 1893 he went to Shofukuji at Kobe, where he entered the attached monastery. The next year he moved to the much bigger monastery at Myoshinji, the famous head temple of the Myoshinji sub-sect. For ten years, until 1903, he trained under Zen master Kokan there. When Kokan died, his successor Shozan continued the training, until he finally received the formal attestation as a Zen master himself.

The late Dr. Nishida Kitaro, whose philosophy was rooted in Zen, had been a disciple of Kokan, and was a close friend of Shozan. Speaking about those days, Kendo said that Dr. Nishida had been a man noted for complete sincerity.

Master Kendo told us that Master Kokan had been very austere and frugal in his style of life. For instance, though he was very fond of tofu bean-curd cakes, he would never buy more than one half-cake at a time; when radishes were in season, he gave strict orders to limit the amount that was to be purchased, though he liked them. In his long life of over eighty-seven years, Master Kendo never broke the ban on meat diet and sex indulgence to which he had vowed himself. In these respects and in the general austerity of his life, he surely owed a great deal to the influence of Kokan. He once remarked to me: “Compared to my master Kokan, I live a very indulgent life.”

At every meal he still continued to use the simple lacquer bowls which are given to the novices, and after eating he carefully washed and cleaned them himself according to the monastery regulations. He washed his underclothes for himself, and mended them with needle and thread—it was quite impressive to see this octogenarian senior priest of high rank plying the needle. He would also clean the lavatory which he used. He rose at the same time as the young monks, in the small hours of the morning. To set an example to them in every way, he conformed minutely to all the monastery rules and regulations for conduct. On the wall in his room there was always a piece of paper with some motto for his own behavior, just in the way that junior monks are encouraged to write up their own mottos.

Once when I was in his room helping him with some business papers, it began to get dark as evening came on, and I moved to turn on the light. He reproved me for wastefulness, saying: “It is still too early. There’s enough light.” I was impressed by his insistence on strict economy, and a phrase of the old master Shido Bunan came to my mind: “We should be very careful in making use of a half-sheet of paper, or in spending a half-penny. ”

From time to time I was called to his room to write letters he dictated. Occasionally seeing that I was about to begin a new line, he would check me, saying: “You have still got some space at the end of the line.” When writing postcards for him, it could sometimes happen that the card was full up with writing, but he wanted to add something extra. Then I would be told to use a fine pen, and write in red ink between the lines.

It might seem that such extreme economy is almost meanness, but in fact he would always give money gladly when there was some reason for it. When he had guests, he treated them most hospitably. He always impressed on the people at the temple: “Be kind to others!” and he followed the principle himself. He was all strictness about his own conduct, but generous in judging others, always seeking to look on the good side of everyone and shut his eyes to the bad side. He used to say: “When I consider my own failings, I find I cannot criticize others.” When I was living at Unganji, my own behavior was not always exactly what is traditional in a Zen disciple, but Master Kendo was patient and tolerant of my shortcomings. His warm-heartedness made me look up to him more and more as a sort of incarnation of Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy.

He was always concerned about the troubles of those with whom he had contact, and he would willingly undertake the arduous journey to Tokyo from his remote temple on the Nasu plateau if he heard of any serious difficulties in their families. In fact we used to be careful in the evenings to see that he should not hear of any such thing that he might feel anxious over. For he used to take these troubles to himself, so that he would not sleep until, sometimes in the middle of the night, he had gotten up and written a letter to them. I once heard him mutter to himself: “It does make it awkward when I am rung up about a serious matter in the evening.”

Still, this extreme kindliness of character was backed by a parallel trait of severity. According to one who had trained for some time at Unganji when the Master was in his fifties, Master Kendo would sometimes lose his temper when he came across some serious negligence on the part of a disciple. He remembered seeing the Master, brandishing the bamboo broom with which he had been sweeping the garden, running after a young monk and hitting him across the shoulders with it, as if it had been a keisaku (the warning-stick used in the meditation hall to arouse the slack).

From occasional remarks he made about his own training period at Myoshinji, I gathered that he had sometimes a disagreement with some senior monk about some point or other. At those times, if at the end of the argument he was still convinced of the rightness of his own position, he would never submit to their ruling.

Even in old age, when he got up in the morning he would lock his hands above his head, stretch them straight up vigorously above his head, and give a tremendous shout. It had an electrifying effect on those who heard it.

I came to the conclusion that the kindliness, which I as well as others experienced, was so to say the flesh on the bones of inner strictness and austerity.



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