I would like to introduce you to Dainin Katagiri. He’s a zenmaster and he was born in Osaka in 1928, that means he was a teenager in Japan during the Second World War. He remembers:
“(…) The next moment I heard the bomb coming down. (…) At that moment I noticed that I was practicing the invocation of Buddha’s name.”
Katagiri had been taught this practice by his parents. “My subconscious mind made me think,” he says: “I want to live. I have to live.” So he made an invocation of the Buddha’s name and his mind asked “Please help me.”
“The invocation gave me no help. It was just an invocation, that’s all. Fortunately, it was just a flare that dropped, not a bomb, so I survived.”
I think we can happily live your lives, read a bit of zen poetry and philosophy and have some lofty discussions about it. And that is absolutely fine. I, for one, love to do all that. But if I’m asked to put my faith in a practice, I would like to know what happens if war breaks out. Our existence is easily threatened and we notice that as soon as we let go of some false securities. Or is it?
Katagiri later trained at the famous Eiheiji monastery. There, he witnessed an earthquake: “The monks immediately ran away to some huge cedar trees in a vacant lot, where the big tree roots could protect them from the breaking ground. Even famous men ran to the trees. Nobody seemed to notice that a candle was burning on the altar, but one roshi went back into the zendo and blew it out. This roshi was a monk whom others always looked down on because of his particular characteristics. But when the great zen masters ran away, only he took care of the candle.”
“From these stories, I hope you understand,” Katagiri says, “that when something happens you didn’t expect, you cannot always control yourself with a calm mind. When the earthquake happened, many monks and Zen masters were upset and ran away.”
The earhquake compelled them to run; it was beyond their intellectual control.
He goes on to explain conditioned origination, but that is well beyond the scope of this blogpost. If you want to explore, the book is called: “Each moment is the universe” and it deals with Katagiri’s thoughts on time.
What comes next is the best bit, I think:
“(…) According to our usual sense, we believe that something substantial does exist – Zen master. Then our usual sense starts to judge: He is a good Zen master because he was calm. He is not so good because he ran away.”
I certainly judged it when I read this story first. Good zenmaster, bad zenmaster. And I’ve never even witnessed an earthquake happening firsthand.
“It is not necessary to judge the zen master as good or bad. Conditions came together around him, and the vivid moment compelled him to do something.”
According to Katagiri, that is why we have to practice zazen. Not because we have a choice when the bombs start to fall, but to train our ability to face impermanence.
Katagiri died in 1990.
This blogpost was inspired by a discussion I had with “bloggingisaresponsibility” last night, on meditation. If you would like to comment on this, please do.