Daisetz T. Suzuki and Saichi Asahara, a Shin Buddhist Poet

I went to study Buddhism under Daisetz T. Suzuki in March 1964. At that time D.T. Suzuki was already a world-renowned Buddhist philosopher of ninety-three whereas I was a mere student of twenty-four who simply wanted to learn from him how to live as a human being. I studied Buddhist philosophy under D. T. Suzuki for the last two and a half years of his life, right up until his death, sometimes working in his garden, sometimes reading books in his library, sometimes making copies of his hand-written drafts for publishers’ use, sometimes helping him edit a book on Pure Land Buddhism.

Whilst D. T. Suzuki is very famous as a Zen Buddhist, his deep understanding of Pure Land Buddhism is not very well known. In order to illustrate D. T. Suzuki’s involvement in Pure Land Buddhism I would like to talk a little bit about my initial encounter with him. When I visited him in February 1964, I accompanied Mr Masami Ishida, the father of my present master (Venerable Chimyo Takehara, Head Priest of Shogyoji Temple), to D. T. Suzuki’s house. There D. T. Suzuki talked joyfully about Pure Land Buddhism with Mr Ishida for over an hour. It was on this occasion that I told D. T. Suzuki about my wish to study Buddhism under his instruction. D. T. Suzuki showed me one of Saichi’s notebooks containing pages full of Namuamidabutsu. He then told me that because I must have already studied theories of religion and philosophy, all I needed now was to attain pure faith in Amida Buddha, to become myself Namuamidabutsu.

Two months before his sudden death on the 12th of July 1966, D. T. Suzuki told me to attend a lecture he was to give at a temple very close to his home. In this lecture, he declared he was not a politician, nor an economist, not a scholar, nor a philosopher, nor even a religious thinker. He rejected everything, every title. And so I came to ask myself just where this ancient old man stood. He was now 95 years old. In actual fact, however, the question was aimed far more at myself. I began wondering whether I had not simply been seeking for an outward form which I could depend on. Indeed, yes, I had. And I was wrong. Whatever that outward form might be, whether that of scholar or priest, what I was seeking was a title, a worldly state. When I realised this, when I saw there was nothing I could ultimately depend on, I instantly took refuge in Amida Buddha. I called the Buddha’s name, Namuamidabutsu, with my whole being. It was a wonderful experience. My questions were answered and I found a shining new world.

Next morning I went to D. T. Suzuki to express my deep-felt gratitude. When I came to him he was sitting before a round Japanese fireplace (charcoal brazier), raking ash with a little rake. While doing so, he listened to me. After I had finished talking he asked me what I would do next. At once I answered that I was going to become a scholar. I had never expected to say this. D. T. Suzuki was very pleased and encouraging. His question had enabled me to understand that, if one didn’t depend on outward form, one could take on any form. In other words, if you have no particular role you are attached to, you can assume any role. Then, looking into my eyes, with tears in his own eyes, he declared I had just started out on a new path. Soon after this, he passed away.

D. T. Suzuki has been called many things by many people; a Zen man of the world, a great Buddhist philosopher, a brilliant religious thinker, an eminent speaker on Eastern philosophy and so forth. For me, however, none of these epithets truly describe him. They just show how he appeared to his audience, each title standing for a part of what he was. D. T. Suzuki was a human being without a title. He was, quite simply, himself, just as he was.

Among all the many aspects of his life there is at least one important aspect that has not drawn much attention from the Western world— namely how deeply interested he was in Pure Land Buddhism, especially in Shin Buddhism. Because his introduction of Zen to the West is so vigorous and impressive, his appreciation of Pure Land philosophy is often overlooked.

Living with D. T. Suzuki during his last days, how often I witnessed him enjoying Pure Land documents, especially articles written by Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, and also a great number of poems composed by Saichi Asahara, one of the Shin Buddhist devotees who we call the Myokonin.

When introducing Japanese spirituality to the West, D. T. Suzuki placed great emphasis on the dynamic figures of Zen tradition. With their enigmatic words, paradoxical stories and forceful actions they have indeed made interesting figures of study, a study aided by the vast collection of Zen literature and mystical writings, and by the highly visible profile maintained by the Zen school throughout Japanese history. Japan has, however, another tradition of deep spirituality, the tradition of the Myokonin, the “wondrous, good people.” It was not any Shin Buddhist scholar but D. T. Suzuki himself who first started the study of Myokonin and introduced them to his contemporaries both in the East and the West. Writings on the Myokonin in English have been largely confined to a number of articles by D. T. Suzuki, who says:

“They are distinguished generally by their good-heartedness, unworldliness, piousness, and lastly by their illiteracy, that is, their not being learned in the lore of their religion and not being at all argumentative about what they believe …..they are not intellectually demonstrative, they just go on practising what they have innerly experienced. When they express themselves at all, they are unaffected, their words come directly from their innermost hearts and refer directly to the truth of their faith.”

The simplicity and ‘illiteracy’ of the Myokonin meant, of course, that they seldom attained positions of religious leadership and rarely left records of their spiritual insights. Even within Shin Buddhism their position has been largely peripheral. Writings on them began to reach the general public only with the work of D. T. Suzuki, who viewed the Myokonin as representing one of the purest forms of Japanese spirituality.

Biographies and other such works did exist prior to this. Such late Edo Period publications as the Biographies of Myokonin and Further Biographies of Myokonin record the words and deeds of some 150 Myokonin, men and women alike, who lived during that era. Other biographies appeared later, principally in the form of booklets devoted to particular Myokonin, such as The Record of Shoma’s Life As It Was (Shoma Arinomama no Ki).

These works were compiled by Shin priests on the basis of interviews and secondary reports: they invariably take the form of narratives in the third person, with the compiler’s own commentary and interpretation comprising the greater part of the text. This makes it hard to achieve any kind of contact with the living personalities of the Myokonin themselves.

For this reason the diaries of Saichi Asahara (1850-1932) are of particular value, providing a record of the spiritual insights of one deep in this tradition. Saichi was a woodworker who lived in the village of Kobama in Iwami Province, present-day Shimane Prefecture. He was a shipwright until his early fifties, when he changed trades and became a maker of geta (Japanese wooden clogs), a job he continued until his death at 83.

As Saichi sat carving his geta he would note down verses on shavings and scraps of wood. They are artless expressions of his inner, spiritual life; his very lack of erudition made them, if anything, all the more direct and alive. As these verses accumulated Saichi copied them into grade school notebooks, and they eventually comprised quite a large collection. Entered over a period of seventeen years, from the spring of 1915 until his death early in 1932, they are estimated to number upward of ten thousand. Over 3,500 of these poems were edited by D. T. Suzuki and myself and appear in The Collected Poems of Myokonin Asahara Saichi. Another 2,800 are found in The Poems of Myokonin Saichi edited by Kyo Kusunoki. The Suzuki and Kusunoki editions account for over 6,000 of Saichi’s poems, even taking into consideration the duplication of one notebook (notebook 7 in Kusunoki’s edition reproduces notebook 27 of the Suzuki edition). The remaining poems were in some thirty other notebooks in the possession of the Teramoto family, and were unfortunately lost during the Tokyo air raids of World War?. We may estimate, then, that for the period represented by these notebooks, Saichi was composing verses at an average of two a day.

When I went to study with D. T. Suzuki I was surprised, even though I had read quite a lot of his books, to find quite how much enjoyment he derived in his daily life from reading Pure Land texts, quite often the poems of Saichi. It was perhaps because I still thought of him primarily as a Zen scholar. One day Miss Mihoko Okamura, D. T. Suzuki’s secretary, told me how much she had enjoyed his translation of The Kyogyoshinsho ( Shinran’s main writing ): when D. T. Suzuki was engaged in translating this massive and deeply philosophical work, he was observed from time to time murmuring to himself “Shinran-san! Wakaruzo wakaruzo (I’ve got it or I understand).” If you read the essays he wrote in his last days, especially those compiled together as Toyo no Kokoro or Daisetsu Tsurezuregusa, you can easily recognise his deep spiritual involvement in Pure Land Buddhism and tell how much he loved Saichi’s poems.

It is intriguing to speculate on the exact content of Saichi’s first notebook, for it would shed much light on the earliest phase of Saichi’s religious transformation. But this notebook entitled “The First Notebook of a Layman’s Joy in Dharma” (Daiichi Hoetsucho Ubasoku) is now lost. Fortunately, at least some of its contents are known to us through quotations found in the book by Rev. E. Teramoto, Talks on Old Mr Saichi Asahara. Judging from those entries, the poems are not as polished as those of his later years, but they vividly convey to us Saichi’s state of mind around the time that he embarked on his spiritual journey into the world of faith. Among the entries is a poem of unusual length and humility, of which this is one part:

Numberless the ranks of evil men
Yet of all people in the world
My heart is the worst of all.
Though I may not have actually said it in words,
In my heart I wished my father dead.
I wondered why he didn’t die.
It’s amazing the earth hasn’t yet cracked open under me [despite such evil thought],
This mass of monstrously evil karma….

A sorrowful tone of confession is detected in these lines. As revealed in another poem of his, Saichi had accepted his father’s spiritual bequest, Namuamidabutsu, and made efforts to practise the Namuamidabutsu single-mindedly, but he had failed to realise that his desire to see his father dead tainted him, however remotely, with the guilt of patricide. Till then his reliance on self, his attachment to self-power, had confined him to the ignorance of an ego-centred world of subjective discrimination, and he had remained unaware of his own profound guilt. Without the light that pierces the shroud of ignorance, he could never realise that he was “this mass of monstrously evil karma.”

When and from where did this light issue? It had always been present. The light shining upon Saichi was none other than the Namuamidabutsu into which he had poured his whole life. As the light of Dharma, the light of Other Power, penetrated the very core of his existence, Saichi became aware of the monstrously evil karma of one who had wished the death of his own father. With this new-found insight into the true nature of his helplessness, Saichi realised the futility of his reliance on self-power, enabling the absolute compassion of Other Power to manifest itself. Thus his encounter with Other Power coincided with his encounter with his own true self. Or in other words at the moment of encounter both Self and Other Power were fully discovered.

When we say one person encounters another, we mean two people meet each other at a certain place. In this respect the English word encounter conveys a sense of “coming together,” “joining” or “uniting.” Through encounter these two people somehow become united. Compared to the term “meeting”, however, the word “encounter” has a stronger sense of confrontation or opposition. According to my dictionary “encounter” is derived from the Latin word “incontra” meaning facing. Thus the word “encounter” has two opposing nuances, facing and uniting. I like the paradoxical character of the word.

The Japanese word for encounter is deai. Literally it means “to come out” (de) and “to meet” (ai) and aptly expresses the idea that “meeting” can only occur with “coming out” (ekstasis), in the sense that true encounter can only take place when one comes out of the little world centred around the self. We encounter a true man or the true Dharma only when we forsake our little world of ego-centred discrimination, the subjective conceptualisation of “self” and “Dharma.”

Thus in the true encounter with self, ego-centred duality is left behind and the self becomes self-as-it-is. At the moment of full realisation of self-as-it-is, the dichotomy or bifurcation between self and Dharma disappears.

“Meeting” (ai) carries with it the connotation of coming together in unity. At the same time ‘encounter with self’ is the absolute unification of self, transcending the duality of ego consciousness. In the encounter of this self with Dharma, the primordial unity of self and Dharma is realised. In this lies the existential actualisation of “the identity (sameness) of opposites” (coincidentia oppositorum, Nicolaus Cusanus) and “the self-identity of absolute contradiction” (zettaimujun no jikodoitsu, Nishida Kitaro) of which the philosophers speak.

This encounter with self brought Saichi to realise his own “monstrously evil karma.” In Shin Buddhism this is the realisation of “the evil man who entrust himself to Other Power ( in Chapter 3 of The Tannisho),” a term which implies a turning away from the self-centred performance of good, replacing it with complete dependence on Other Power. Saichi says:

In Other Power
There is no self-power, no Other Power.
All is Other Power.
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.

“Other Power” in the first line is Saichi’s experience of absolute Other Power. In the second line he alludes to the relative, dualised “Other Power” that stands opposed to “self-power.” The true experience of Other Power is the experience of absolute Other Power that transcends our conceptual thinking and in which there is no discrimination between self and other. “The evil man who entrusts himself to Other Power” discovers his true self in the midst of Other Power, as expressed in the third line, “All is Other Power.”

The whole of the first three lines of the poem could easily have been written by any religious philosopher, for it is just the result of Saichi’s reflection on his own experience of Other Power. However, as D. T. Suzuki says, “The essence of the poem lies in the last line: ‘Namuamidabutsu Namuamidabutsu.’ Having enjoyed giving expression to his own personal experience, Saichi is simply returning to Amida Buddha by pronouncing the nembutsu, ‘Namuamidabutsu Namuamidabutsu’. This is the living Other Power working through the poet.”

Upon realising his true nature to be “this mass of monstrously evil karma,” Saichi earnestly sought refuge in Other Power. Pure faith in the great compassionate heart of Amida was born within him.

The Parent (Amida) and myself are joined in spirit.
Of course we’re joined: self and Dharma (Amida) are one
[in Namuamidabutsu].
We often hear about unity,
But there’s no unity as perfect as this.

Nothing is as intimate as Parent and child;
Your spirit and my spirit are together as one.
Namuamidabutsu has become my soul.

Parent’s mind and child’s mind,
Between them there is no restraint.
Namuamidabutsu is both Parent’s “Come!”
And child’s “Yes.”

In all the world there is but one Parent, one child;
Parent and child in Namuamidabutsu.
Reciting nembutsu full of joy.

The number of Saichi’s poems celebrating the “parent-child” relationship (“Parent,” of course, referring to Amida, and “child” to Saichi) is too great to count. When we become aware of the absolute compassion of Amida Buddha, a compassion which forgives and accepts even those things we would be afraid to reveal to our own flesh-and-blood parents, then we truly become as children, resting in the realm of peace created by the Compassionate Parent.

But this parent-child unity is not the unity of one who has never experienced separation. Saichi’s realisation of himself as a great sinner, one who “wished his father dead,” is not the realisation of one who has yet to grow out of his relationship of childish reliance on his parents. It is possible only from a position of full independence.

Through his confrontation with his parents, Saichi severed his natural relationship with them and found himself absolutely alone. In that state he encountered the Parent of Great Compassion. The unity expressed in the poems above is, therefore, a unity which has been reattained after passing through a period of separation, a unity possible only after complete severance has taken place. There is a poem which expresses this well:

The Name of the Parent cuts too well,
Too sharp to be felt is the Parent’s Name.
Unable to find a borderline between “Namu”
and “Amidabutsu”—
Such is the sharpness of the six-syllable Name.
Self is also one with Dharma, through the kindness and
true compassion of the Parent.
By this Saichi is subdued.

This poem calls to mind a line from one of Shan-tao’s hymns: “Like a keen sword is the Name of Amida: With one recitation all evil is cut out.” It is likely that Saichi had just listened to a sermon based on this line when he wrote the verse above. Yet there is in his understanding something unique, profound, and subtle. The keen blade of Namuamidabutsu cuts so well one is unaware any cut has been made.

When Saichi writes, “Unable to find a borderline between ‘Namu’ and ‘Amidabutsu’,” he means that these two have been severed with a single stroke; “Namu” (the self) and “Amidabutsu” (Dharma) have been cut asunder. By this act, what has actually been severed is the discriminating intellect relating “Namu” to “Amidabutsu” and, as it were, forcing them together: The keen edge of the Name, Namuamidabutsu, has cut the attachment of the rationalising mind to its own self-power. When this is severed, “Namu” is simply “Namu” and “Amidabutsu” is simply “Amidabutsu,” and herein lies the realisation of the absolute “Namuamidabutsu” where both self (Namu) and Dharma (Amidabutsu) are one and yet at the same time both independently themselves. This is the true faith-experience in Shin Buddhism, where self and Dharma are united transcending all attachment to the petty discriminations of the human mind.

This absolute Namuamidabutsu appears once the world of petty discriminations is cut off by Namuamidabutsu. This is the realm of absolute reality expressed in the line, “Unable to find a borderline between ‘Namu’ and ‘Amidabutsu’.” Praising this transcendent realm with the words “Such is the sharpness of the six-syllable Name,” Saichi then returns everything to Amida: “Self is also one with Dharma, through the kindness and true compassion of the Parent.”

The first statement can be viewed as an exclamation from the world of non-duality, and the second as Saichi’s appraisal of this experience after returning to ordinary consciousness. At the moment of his return to the everyday realm of separation, Saichi sees the limited nature of the self before the infinity of Dharma. Saichi’s very return to self thus gives rise to a pure faith absolutely passive to Other Power (Dharma). As he goes about his work of making geta in this state of faith, Saichi finds his ordinary life imbued with the workings of the non-dual Namuamidabutsu.

In this context I would like to introduce another poem of Saichi’s which aptly sums up his religious experience.

Suffering in heart, are you doubtful of Amida’s compassion?
That would truly be a great misunderstanding.
The suffering of this evil man becomes a great treasure.
Please understand the point of this teaching.
Namuamidabutsu is truly mysterious.
What is mysterious is that
Sea, mountains, food, lumber for building houses,
And everything else related to the life of an ordinary man,
All these are an embodiment of Namuamidabutsu.
Everyone, please understand this well.
This is the compassion of the Parent.
Such kindness fills me with joy!
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu!
The Tathagata possesses a truly mysterious power:
The means to turn Saichi into a Buddha.
Namuamidabutsu, Namuamidabutsu.

Thank you.
Kemmyo Taira Sato