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My (Two) Journeys into Zen

On the theme of Beginnings, here Clive Lindley-Jones takes us on a fascinating journey from Japan, through the Buddhist Society in London and the early years of the White Plum Sanga in the UK to StoneWater today.

One of my early Zen teachers, Soko Morinaga Roshi, in his book, ‘Novice to Master: The Extent of My Own Stupidity’, bagged what is, perhaps, one of the best Zen book subtitles that I might have wished to borrow. While many of us have taken a tortuous path to Zen, for my own life the Master bit has a fair old way to go, but is rich in own-goals and a good share of my own stupidity. That said, it can be interesting and instructive to share our journeys, so here goes.

Its 1972, I have just celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday in Kyoto. After almost a year and a half in Japan, mostly in the unrelenting urban jungle of Tokyo, I can’t wait to be on the road again, and the country. But finally, thanks to an all-important letter of introduction from a friend, I am hitchhiking through the green, forested hills beyond Kyoto. I am on my way to a Zen temple to sample this mysterious approach to answering some of those eternal questions I have been struggling with over much of my young life.

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Soon after confirmation into the Anglican Church in a fine ancient English Cathedral, the existential answers offered me at that time seemed unsatisfactory, and my attention had turned to the Three Treasures of adolescence: Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.

Along the way, my romantic propensity and my attraction to East Asian culture had led me into a haphazard search. Books on Yoga, Taoism and, eventually, DT Suzuki’s ill understood Introduction to Zen Buddhism crept into my library. Alan Watts (“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth”) was one of the most cogent writers in the 1960s, advancing an alternative vision. In fact it was his book, The Way of Zen, which I carried in my rucksack, through Iran, Afghanistan and India, all the way across Asia to Japan.

Ping-pong diplomacy was about to take Nixon to China. The world was still in torment with the Vietnam war. At last I had found a way to dip my toe into the alluring, but mystifying, world of Zen.

If this was a graphic novel the next picture might be one looking over a few monks shoulders to Japanese paper doors being drawn back and a young Englishman bowing and stammering his introduction in faulty Japanese, when he finds that the all important letter of introduction must have been lost on the journey.

My time at Senkoku-ji, with the young priest Doyu-san and three other questing young men, was to be pivotal.

In my generally lost and miserable state, adrift and insecure, I found the spartan country zendo, surrounded by the still and silent bamboo clad hills, fed me. The 4am zazen, eating rice gruel and pickles, with ōryōki, (a nest of bowels), as well as sleeping all on the same tatami mats we sat zazen on watered a seed that became, almost despite myself, a desire to follow this path, without knowing quite why.

The push was my own unhappiness and pain, the pull was the exotic trappings apart, the appeal of zen’s seemingly solid willingness to look into the mystery of life and face it, with no apparent need to weave a fanciful story, but rather to sit and embrace a wise unknowing. I wanted more. I needed a guide. But where to find one?

Back in London the following year, my travels put aside, I turned up at the urbane establishment Buddhist Society, on the hunt for insight. Soon I had asked to join the new sitting group led by Dr. Irmgard Schloegl a no-nonsense, fifty-something Austrian paleontologist who, as my luck would have it, had just returned from twelve years formal Zen practice in Daitoku-ji Zen Monastery in Kyoto, the heart of Rinzai Zen. Thus began eleven years with this Zen group.

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The gentle, respectable, Buddhist Society, founded by Judge Christmas Humphries in 1924, was having to get used to this group of mainly long haired young men, fresh from their external Asian travels and internal journeys through the then prevalent interest in the use of psychedelic drugs for mystical insight. Two cultures with one quest; to engage with the age old teaching of the Buddha as to the cause and resolution of suffering.

Looking back the Buddhist Society folk were very indulgent in accepting us, with our youthful disdain for their theoretical and, at times bombastic style, while in our arrogance, we, knowing nothing, were sniffing around for ‘the real thing’.

Having moved on from the drug quest, (in Watts’ pithy phrase, ‘if you get the message hang up the phone,’) we had settled around the unlikely feet of this supremely self confident warm but tough woman, who seemed to carry something of the power and authenticity we in our unhappy state were hungry for.

So began for me over a decade of exposure to an only mildly filtered version of the age old traditional Japanese Rinzai zen approach. In hindsight, it cannot have been easy for Irmgard to walk that fine line between the traditional monastic, male ‘priest factory’ of Kyoto and a lay, zen group of pushy, counterculture lost boys. And we were mostly men. Despite Irmgard being a woman, admittedly of a very yang style (who else could have survived all those years in Kyoto?), in those early days few women seem to be attracted to our group. As I notice from this photo of our first sesshin with Moranaga Roshi at the Buddhist Society in the summer of 1974, apart from Irmgard there is only one woman; an issue that would later come to bother me more and more.

Some years later, at another residential Buddhist Society summer school, after taisho from Moranaga Roshi, I met a keen, thoughtful young man from Manchester called Charles Fletcher who had temporarily joined our zen class. Whatever happened to him?

As time went on I had more and more conflict in myself over various issues with zen and our group. By now I had a new career, wife and family and had moved out of London to Oxford. This geographical divide only served to emphasise the gap that had opened up, even in a lay group, between the essentially monastically driven world of zen and the all encompassing pressures and joys of life with a young family.

I felt a bit like Kyogen, in despair, at his and my inability to break through the barrier that seemed to stretch interminably and impenetrably ahead. I was fearful we were becoming like nameless zen stormtroopers. Instead of manifesting joy, humour and warmth, were we becoming dour, plodding and emotionally constipated? Eventually, inspired by Kogen, with a heavy heart I left the group, figuratively retreating to my nameless ‘grave-keeper life’, in my case looking after my family and patients in Oxford.

Decades passed. Children were brought up, students taught, patients treated. It is very hard to practice zen without a sangha, let alone a teacher to guide you.

My old friend from the zen group, Sumi, had long since jumped ship to sit with Maezumi Roshi in LA. When she first brought him to London I was tempted to visit, but still felt too tender and raw to re-enter the world of zen. So, apart from hosting Sumi and Genpo Merzel Sensei, as he then was, for lunch one day as they looked for a place to set up a practice centre in the UK, my participation in formal zen came to a halt.

Like a ronin, a masterless samurai, I told myself that I should have imbibed enough in a decade of practice to live a good life, and unless an unmistakable sign presented itself, I had to get along as best I could alone, with the joys of my family and work to sustain me. This I did, mostly happily, after much heartache and confusion at the self imposed loss of a teacher.

Three decades had passed. My wife Kerstin and I had promised we would come to America, where we had family and friends, and support Sumi who, by then, had very little family left, at the wedding of her son Rupert.

It is interesting to see what three decades will do. While we never change from our recognisable nature however long we live, we hope, and expect, that the practice has wrought some change in our state and behaviour.

Spending time that weekend with Tenshin Fletcher Roshi, who was officiating at the wedding, that same Charles Fletcher who I first met long ago at the summer school was a great gift. Here was someone like me, who, unlike me, had taken the formal practice all the way. Here was an affinity link that perhaps was speaking to me, should I care to listen.

So this is how I came to be joining the StoneWater autumn sesshins a few years ago. At first, I would come slowly, once a year. My trust needed time to built. And my sorrow at all those spiritual scandals and crashed dreams of recent decades, weighed heavily in the balance. We naïve children of the sixties had made plenty of elementary screw ups along the way in our headlong embrace of the exciting world outside of our parents’ generation’s conservative certainties. This time I was a lot older, and perhaps a little wiser.

Some years on I am only sorry that the distance between Oxford and Liverpool is so great. Now I try to visit and sit with StoneWater sangha as often as I can. Today there is even ‘e-mail zen’. There is a warmth, solidity and healthy irreverence, a solid northern truthfulness in the group. No truck with many of the common pitfalls that plagued so many of those who have taken the road less travelled into zen.

So what have I learnt along my own, peripatetic, zen path?

Perhaps it is the teaching that comes with aging if you stay half awake and aware and allow the years to weather you. Looking back I find I am more forgiving, of the frailties of my own youthful miss-steps, but even more so of those who gave their teaching so freely. It is not an easy task to teach others, least of all to be an exemplar in every waking hour.

One knows so much when young. In time one learns to know less and appreciate others more. We were often arrogant about the old guard, and might listen to the booming lectures of the likes of Christmas (Toby to his friends) Humphries, with a slight inward snigger. What did these old guys know, we might think. In time I got to know, and appreciate him. Soon after I left the Zen Centre Irmgard was ordained and became The Venerable Myokyo-ni, posthumously given the title, Daiyu Myokyo Zenji Those who came before us, were doing their best to tread the path that was before them. And in their case what a best it was.

We all must take what we are given and do the best we can with it. I am often strongly moved to see how many have given me so much out of their hard won wisdom.

We briefly walk the way and soon are gone. Each of us has a unique opportunity and a unique contribution to make. If the practice engenders anything in us, it is an opening of our heart; a gentling and expansion of gratitude and kindness both to ourselves and to all those in our sangha, which, for me, means everyone I meet.

A special thanks goes to those who by touched our lives directly with their teaching and example have helped open our hearts.

To have a second zen life thanks to Tenshin Roshi and David Keizan Scott Sensei is truly a blessing. Thank you.

Clive Lindley-Jones