Remembering my teacher's teacher
Last Friday we received the news that Shinzan Miyamae Roshi, teacher of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and abbot of Gyokuryuji temple in Japan, passed away.
I never met Shinzan Roshi myself, but his presence is felt in every aspect of the Zenways community, from the calligraphies at the Dojo in London, to the enso in the Zenways logo (seen behind Shinzan Roshi in the picture above), to the teaching curriculum used within Zenways, to the format of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats that Zenways runs throughout the year. Even some of his turns of phrase have made their way into the Zenways lexicon.
So in this week's article I'd like to take a look at the life of this remarkable man, and see what suggestions Shinzan Roshi might have had for our own practice.
(Many of the biographical details given below are taken from Daizan's book Practical Zen, and the Zenways Press book The Zen Character: Life, Art and Teachings of Zen Master Shinzan Miyamae.)
Challenges in lay life and introduction to Zen
Shinzan Roshi was a child during the Second World War. Towards the end of the war, the Japanese education system had largely broken down, and the country began preparing for an Allied invasion. The young Shinzan found himself and a group of other young children taken aside by a teenager with a sharpened bamboo pole, to be given 'lessons' in 'killing Americans'. Then, with the sudden, shocking detonation of the two atomic bombs, the war was over. Abruptly, these young killers-in-training found themselves surrounded by American soldiers who would give the local children sweets and teach them to play baseball. This dramatic reversal had a profound effect on the young Shinzan, who said simply, 'I cried.' From that point onward, Shinzan had an affinity for Westerners, and it is perhaps because of this openness that our lineage exists in the West at all today.
As a young adult, Shinzan was determined to go into business, but unfortunately didn't have much affinity for it. He was a soft touch, never charging enough, never able to make enough money to keep the lights on. Two business ventures failed, the second one taking with it not only his own money but his parents' savings too. In despair, he even tried to commit suicide, but found himself unable to go through with it.
Then, one day, he gave a lift to a Zen nun who had arrived at a train station. He had never been particularly interested in Buddhism, but something about this nun impressed him, and she gave him a small book on Zen called Senshin Roku (On Purifying the Heart). This was his first proper introduction to Zen - and, not long afterwards, he ordained as a monk in the Rinzai Zen tradition.
Shinzan trained with several teachers, most notably the fierce and demanding master Itsugai Roshi at Shogenji temple, a training monastery also known as oni sodo, the 'devil's dojo'. Itsugai was a strong advocate of the central importance of kensho - seeing one's true nature, the first step along the path of awakening in Zen.
Shinzan had to prove himself to Itsugai. At first, he wasn't even allowed to attend sanzen, the interviews/encounters with the teacher which are so central to Rinzai Zen. But Shinzan was determined to experience kensho, and spent as much time as he could meditating. One day Itsugai noticed Shinzan walking back to the temple after a week spent meditating alone in a cave, and this clearly convinced him that Shinzan meant business.
Shinzan was given the 'mu' koan to work with. This famous koan relates an exchange between a monk and the master Joshu/Zhaozhou. The monk asks 'Does a dog have Buddha nature?', and Joshu replies 'Mu', meaning 'no' or 'not'. On the face of it, this seems straightforward enough - except that a central tenet of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature. So why does Joshu reply 'Mu'? What does this negation signify? Itsugai challenged Shinzan to 'Bring me this mu!'
Shinzan threw himself into the practice, and finally, late one night, he went up on the mountain behind Shogenji and shouted 'Mu!' with his whole being. In that moment, something happened. Shinzan would later say, in his simple English, 'I lost myself. After that, many koans, pass, pass, pass.' He had experienced kensho - Shinzan had seen his true nature - and the true world of Zen opened up to him.
Shinzan's controversial stances on kensho and social engagement
Kensho is a beginning rather than an end, and so Shinzan continued to train hard, progressing through the many koans in his lineage. As time went on, however, it became clearer and clearer that Shinzan's interest in awakening was relatively unusual. Many Japanese Zen temples are essentially family businesses which focus largely on conducting expensive funerals, and so many of the people who go to training monasteries like Shogenji have little interest in arduous spiritual training; they're simply there to become qualified as priests in order to take over the running of the family temple.
Shinzan was highly critical of those in the Zen world who lacked authentic insight - and, over the years, this stance ruffled enough feathers that Shinzan ended up outside of the mainstream of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Undeterred, he restored the former hermitage of the great 17th century Rinzai Zen master Bankei, set himself up there and hung a sign at the gate which read 'Training place for young and old people to realise their true nature.'
Kensho remained central to Shinzan's teaching for the rest of his life. His teachings would often begin 'The first priority is kensho. The second priority is kensho. The third priority is kensho.' However, rather than adopting an inflexible, one-size-fits-all curriculum, Shinzan recognised that different people had different needs, and so offered a range of practices to his students, including koan study but also offering Bankei's gentler style of practice, which has a close affinity to the Silent Illumination practice that I've written about on many occasions.
Shinzan was also determined that Zen practitioners should be engaged in the world, not cloistered away from it. (This attitude can be seen reflected in Zenways too - for example, their work with the homeless and imprisoned, some of which you can read about in the beautiful book Rough Waking.) In particular, after the sarin gas attacks instigated by the cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s, Shinzan worked with the notorious senior cult member Kazuaki Okazaki, a man who had committed terrible crimes in the name of the cult, trying to help Okazaki move beyond the beliefs Aum Shinrikyo had instilled in him. This was a profoundly controversial move at a time when the cult was regarded with deep fear and hatred throughout Japan, but Shinzan persisted nevertheless. Okazaki was ultimately able to move beyond his twisted world view, and became a Zen student of Shinzan's and a gifted artist (contributing a series of images to Rough Waking, mentioned above) until his execution in 2018.
Nari kiru: the heart of Zen
One of Shinzan Roshi's key teachings - and a frequent subject of his calligraphies - is the phrase 'nari kiru'. 'Nari' means 'become', and 'kiru' literally means 'cut off', in the sense of severing all ties. But what does this mean - is Shinzan pointing to a kind of renunciate stance on the world, casting off all worldly ties and retreating to a mountain hermitage?
Actually, it's the opposite, as can be seen from Daizan's preferred translation of nari kiru as 'completely becoming'. Shinzan Roshi is pointing to an attitude of total engagement with whatever situation is at hand. Very often, we're 'only half there' - partly engaged with what we're doing, partly thinking about something else. The nari kiru approach is to drop all distractions, let go of that part of ourselves that wants to think about what we're doing later on or how much we want this current task to be over with, and simply pour 100% of our energy into this, here, now.
Sometimes the Zen approach that Shinzan called nari kiru is described as 'engaging wholeheartedly' with whatever is going on, but a friend recently pointed out that this can make it sound like we're supposed to be enthusiastic about whatever we're doing, and very often in our lives we have to do things that we aren't at all enthusiastic about, so the 'wholehearted' attitude can be hard to find. An alternative suggestion comes from my friend's Zen teacher Domyo Burk, which is to think instead in terms of doing something 'undividedly'. Whatever is happening, we give it our full attention. We don't have to like it or be excited to do it - but we give the task our undivided focus nevertheless. In this way, we become increasingly present, increasingly absorbed in the moment-to-moment reality of our life, less and less distracted, less and less caught up in reactivity. We become free, not just in formal meditation, but in the midst of the very activities that make up our lives.
A final piece of advice from Shinzan Roshi
I'll give Shinzan Roshi the last word. Here is the closing passage from a talk given to his Western students concerning the Sixth Zen Ancestor Eno (Huineng in Chinese) and his fellow practitioner Myo (Huiming in Chinese).
'Soon Myo found his true nature, soon you will too. Please find quickly. You will be very happy and I will be very happy - and the world needs happy, awake people. Your practice is important.'
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.