Left to Right: Choro Carla Antonaccio, Rev. Issu Fujita, Hoitsu Roshi

Returning to the Source
by Choro Carla Antonaccio

On October 2, I flew to Tokyo to join priests and lay practitioners from all over Japan, North and South America, Europe and Hawaii for a conference and other events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the re-founding of Soji-ji, one of the two chief temples of Soto Zen, the tradition brought from China by Eihei Dogen Zenji. Sponsored by the Sotoshu or Soto Zen organization in Japan, the aim of the gathering was to use the occasion to consider the future of Soto Zen in Japan and the world, and to reach out to Soto Zen practitioners around the globe. With thirteen hours of flying and a thirteen-hour time difference, my Sunday morning departure meant a Monday evening arrival in Tokyo. Last summer, I sat sesshin at the Mt. Equity Zendo in Pennsylvania and the abbess, Rev. Dai-En, kindly invited me to travel with her after the conference. She spent many years living and training in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. On Tuesday morning I joined Rev. Dai-En and two of her students for breakfast, and in the afternoon we assembled in the hotelís conference space for a series of presentations on the theme, "Advance One Step Further: Soto Zen Opens the Way to the Future," organized by the Sotoshu. I was very much struck by the specter of the disaster of "3/11" (the earthquake and tsunami in Tokoku prefecture) at the conference, since it has largely faded from the news, especially in America. More than 15,000 people died in this catastrophe, which is having long-term and traumatic effects. A fund raising bazaar had been organized at which crafts, food, clothing, incense, books, art, and many other things were for sale, all proceeds to benefit the victims. Temples from everywhere had donated items made by members, or specialties (such as Kona coffee) associated with their location. I bought a mala made of wooden beads from the fallen branches of the one pine tree, 100 feet tall and 200 years old, which remained of a famous grove of 70,000 at a place called Rikuzentakata. The town itself was all but erased from existence.
At the conference (program available at http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/news/symposium201110.html) the four directors of the overseas departments of international Soto Zen detailed the history of the practice in their regions. It became very clear how unusual American Zen is. In America Zen is practiced not only by Japanese immigrants and their descendants as part of their cultural heritage, but it is also vigorously growing among diverse sanghas practicing in Zen centers for which there is no real parallel in Japan. In addition, the Rev. Daigaku Rummť, director of the North American office, pointed to the role of lay practitioners and of women in American Zen. It is also noteworthy that two of the current four directors are non-Japanese: the European bishop is the Rev. Jiso Forzani, who came with a contingent of Italians to Japan. Another highlight of the conference was the keynote address by Prof. Noriyuki Ueda whose theme was "The Great Possibilities for Buddhism in Contemporary Society." Prof. Ueda, who is an anthropologist, pointed to the great sense of despair and alienation in Japan where, for example, 30,000 suicides happen ever year, and asked how Buddhism could address the suffering of the world. Among his suggestions was that Soto Zen in Japan should look to the West for how to make Zen practice relevant to peopleís lives, instead of something they turn to only when itís time for a funeral. The day closed with a group photo and social event with lots of toasts and good food.

I was truly elated to realize that Suzuki Roshiís son, Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, had come to Tokyo for the event. He was sitting in the lobby and bowed to us as we entered; I recognized him from pictures. I asked Rev. Fujita to introduce me and Roshi warmly grasped my hand while repeating, "North Carolina!" His humor and playfulness reminded me of his fatherís presence as recorded on video, and the photo here does not do him justice. Meeting him was one of the two real highlights of the trip.

The next day, morning service was held at the hotel, we took a tour of the Soto Zen organizationís offices adjacent to the hotel, and then set out by bus to visit Chokoku-ji, the official branch temple in Tokyo of Eihei-ji monastery, founded by Dogen in the mountains near the eastern coast of Japan. There we observed a service in honor of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought Zen to China. A major attraction of this temple is the huge statue of Kannon (Kwan-yin in Chinese, and Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit), the bodhisattva of compassion, which was carved from a single enormous cedar. Next was a second symposium arranged for us at a branch campus of Komazawa University, a Soto Zen university where many priests are schooled. This second symposium focused on Soto Zen history where I learned that at one time there had been an intense rivalry between Eihei-ji and Soji-ji, the two head training temples of Soto Zen, and that Eihei-ji sought to prevent Soji-ji from relocating after its destruction by fire in 1898.

Soji-ji is near Yokohama, south of Tokyo on the coast. Originally founded by Keizan Jokin, who is therefore honored as the second founder of Soto Zen in Japan, it was originally located on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. After its destruction by fire in 1898, the location was moved closer to Tokyo. Though the buildings are only 100 years old, you are transported back to the medieval period as soon as you enter the gate. We arrived in time to have a beautifully prepared bento box dinner, hear a dharma talk by the head of training, take a Japanese style bath and collapse into bed. In groups we shared very nice guest rooms with tatami mats and futon on the floor; my companions were the Rev. Dai-En, her students and another American practitioner from Great Vow monastery in Oregon. On our trip down two floors to the communal bath, we discovered many, many lay people from Japan getting ready for a veritable slumber party in all the large spaces throughout the temple. It was clear that the event the next day was going to be a large one.

On Thursday morning at Soji-ji, we were awakened at 3:50 by our monk hosts who got us into line and marched us through many long corridors to a zendo for a period of zazen with our group. It was deeply moving to sit with everyone from senior priests to elderly Japanese lay practitioners and to chant the robe chant and put on my okesa in that space. After that, priests were separated from the lay people for the long service which followed, one part for the recently deceased abbot of the temple, whose funeral would start the next day, the other for deceased priests who had disseminated Soto Zen overseas. At two different points in the ceremony, priests and lay people were led in their respective groups to make incense offerings and then three floor bows with the group afterward. This also affected me deeply, as did the chanting: we all joined our voices in the familiar sutras such as the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, and it was amazing to witness the precise choreography of the monks in training and hear the enormous bell and mokugyo sounded. All this was followed by a very abbreviated tour of the temple, a breakfast of delicious rice porridge and many side dishes, and our departures.

I now left the large group behind and was in the company of the Mt. Equity group. We made our way by train from Yokohama to Kamakura to see the famous bronze Daibutsu, a huge seated Buddha figure from the 13th century that coincidentally had lost the structure it was housed in because of a tsunami and has been in the open air since 1495. Ever since seeing a photograph of this figure when I was perhaps 12 or 13, I have always felt drawn to this image of Amida Buddha (the Buddha of the Pure Land). It felt like some kind of karma was playing out in actually being there. A giant bronze incensor was burning whole bundles of incense, offered by visitors; the sky was a brilliant blue and the trees in the surrounding hills were just beginning to see their leaves turn. It was hard to leave, but finally we made our way to the station to take the "bullet train" and arrived in Kyoto by dinnertime.

On Friday we were joined by the Buddhist laywoman Mihoko Morita, a long-time friend of Rev. Dai-En, who lives near Kyoto. She guided us to two temples in nearby Uji, Kosho-ji and Byodo-in, the latter a UNESCO World Heritage site with an enormous gilded image of Amida Buddha surrounded by carved and painted wooden reliefs of 52 bodhisattvas playing various musical instruments. But it was Kosho-ji that was the most meaningful of all the places I visited in Japan. Also known as Kannondori Kosho Horinji, "Kannonís Guiding Power, Raising Sages, Treasure Forest Temple," it is the first temple founded by Dogen, in 1233 after his return from China. It was from this temple that Dogen set out to found Eihei-ji, and it was at this temple that he composed some of his earliest writings, including the Genjokoan and Tenzokyokun or Instructions to the Head Cook. As it turned out, Rev. Bennage did two practice periods there as part of her advanced training in the early 1990s, and she was uniquely suited to guide us through the complex. It is a wonderfully situated place, on a hill above a river and surrounded by woods, entirely peaceful and with only a few monks working in the garden Ė no tourists. We entered the kaisando or founderís hall, where monthly ceremonies are held in honor of Dogen and Keizan. Dai-En offered three prostrations, and I was moved to tears.

The next day we visited three more UNESCO World Heritage sites: Kinkaku-ji, or the "Golden Pavilion," with beautiful gardens; Ryoan-ji, with its famous dry garden of raked gravel and stones; and Kiyomizudera, a huge complex on a hill overlooking Kyoto with many shrines and altars, including a spring where pilgrims bathe. Here, too, we found many people who were making incense offerings and ringing a large bell in memory of those lost in the recent earthquake and tsunami. We hiked down the hill in the last of the afternoon, surrounded by Japanese enjoying a 3-day weekend, South Korean sailors on shore leave, and tourists of all nationalities. As we turned from the main gate we encountered a Buddhist nun on her alms round, and no one stopping. Each of us made an offering and received her chanting as we bowed together. It was just the right way to end the trip.

Many American practitioners of Soto Zen never hear or think about the official Soto organization, or think about Japan very much apart from acknowledging Sotoís founder Eihei Dogen Zenji, or Suzuki Roshi the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. We understand the forms we use in the zendo and some of our chants are Japanese in origin but the cultural and linguistic difference is very great. I was deeply affected by returning to the origin of our way of practice and encountering so many places and people all connected by the gift of practice. I was amazed by the generosity of strangers who helped us navigate public transportation, by the devotion of Mihoko-san to making our time in Kyoto as productive and informative as possible, and the astonishing richness of the heritage of Buddhism in Japan. I want to thank Rev. Dai-En for inviting me to travel with her and her students and everyone at home who supported and encouraged me to make the trip. Though it was all too short, it was a powerful experience of connection. May I be fortunate enough to return some day.

With a deep bow: Choro Carla Antonaccio

© Copyright Choro Carla Antonaccio, 2011

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