Everything is the Working of Eternal Life

It was early on the morning of 12 July 1966 that Daisetz T. Suzuki died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo. It rained that morning, a steady, continuous rain that had poured down all through the night and was still coming down that day. Just when we were going to move the coffin bearing his corpse from the Matsugaoka Library, where it lay in state, to Tokeiji proper for the funeral ceremony, it let up long enough to let us pass. As we carried the coffin down the narrow flight of stairs we passed between rows of hydrangeas that lined the path, and as we brushed up against them they drenched the casket with rain. This, I thought, must be Heaven’s way of shedding tears.

Daisetz Sensei kept on working till the very end. Even on the 11th, the day he was taken ill, he had originally scheduled a trip to Karuizawa, where, according to his secretary Mihoko Okamura, he had planned to continue working on his English translation of the Hekigan roku. Indeed, he was often heard to discuss his five year plan for other texts he wanted to translate. One, the Kyogyoshinsho, was almost complete, whilst another, the Hekigan roku, he had only just begun.

Aside from these Buddhist translation projects that required long stretches of concentrated effort, Sensei was always willing to accept requests for articles from newspapers and journals. Somewhere along the way it was decided that, in order to preserve samples of his original handwritten manuscripts at the Matsugaoka Library, it should be my responsibility to make exact copies of the manuscript to hand over to the publishers. One manuscript I reproduced in this way was edited into Toyo no kokoro, and a large amount of the other materials I transcribed was compiled into Daisetz Tsurezuregusa. Included in the latter publication were essays such as Anjin: Zen to Shin (Peaceful Mind: Zen and Shin Buddhism); a piece that Sensei actually dictated to me. When he first got the idea to dictate his essays, he said, “Ah, now here’s what we should do!” Working in this way was not just a matter of convenience to him, for I am sure he did it for my edification, although it is only now, some thirty years later, that I have finally come to realise that this must indeed have been the case.

One day while I was engaged in this task of copying manuscripts, Sensei turned to me and said, “Just look at the finished product. It gives you the impression it was written quite effortlessly. What the author doesn’t reveal is all the hard work that went into it.” He continued; “Look at the ducks on the pond. They make floating seem easy. But under the surface their little legs are paddling away furiously!” I must admit I was rather moved when he told me this. It was as if Sensei had shown me the secret resolve hidden deep within these essays that he then wrote with such fluency. I can find no other word to describe that resolve of his other than the word “makoto (Truth or Sincerity).” As he continued to work so hard for the sake of others, this Truth of life was always flowing throughout his works like a current of warm blood, and it was this flow of lifeblood that was running so strongly in the depths of his writings.

Shido Bunan Zenji has a waka that goes:

iki nagara
shinin to narite
nari hatete
omoi no mama ni
suru waza so yoki

While alive,
Be as if dead.
Once you have become so,
Doing things as you like
Is good.

This beautifully poetic expression of the Buddhist Way urges us to live as if we have died wholly to the world. At the same time however, though I only lived with Daisetz Sensei for a brief period, I have always felt that this poem lacks a sense of the dynamism that I observed in Sensei. For, if we go deeper into the assertion, “Doing things as you like / Is good,” we find a dynamic activity that emerges from within only through the complete extinction of our selfish way of life. There is neither birth nor death in the deepest dimension of life. As such this new life, to which we arrive, takes us beyond the ordinary fetters of birth and death. In Sensei’s case, his heroic act of continuing to apply himself until the very end was itself an instance of this Eternal Life at work, where physical death was just another milestone along the way. Thirty-five years later, I still have a sense of his presence even now. It was of course a matter of great sorrow that he passed on to that realm beyond the world of our senses. What is important to remember though is that, through this event of the great change called ‘Death’, the working of eternity that Sensei embodied was clearly demonstrated in the midst of our everyday life, that very working that arises of itself and gathers in and purifies all that comes into contact with it.

As to how D. T. Suzuki became my teacher, this came about entirely due to the efforts of one remarkable woman. This lady was Mrs. Ekai Miyo Nonaka, of Shogyoji temple in Chikushino City, Kyushu, whom we, followers of Shogyoji Temple, used to call our Dharma-Mother. At that time I was a graduate student in religious philosophy at Kyoto University, and had become much troubled by the gap I detected between religious study and religious practice. Since my acquaintance with my Dharma-Mother at the age of fourteen I had often consulted her when I encountered a crossroads in my life. As such, in late autumn of 1963, I set down all my grievances in a long letter to her. Three months later her answer came in the form of an order: “Go to Daisetz Sensei.”

One day in early spring, when snowcapped Mount Fuji was in full view, I paid a call on Daisetz Sensei at Tokeiji Temple, in Kamakura, accompanied by Mr. Masami Ishida, the father of Reverend Chimyo Takehara, the present head priest of Shogyoji. The temple grounds at Tokeiji were filled with plum blossoms in full bloom and their fragrance was borne upon the spring breeze. Mr. Ishida was then Executive Director of the Idemitsu Corporation, later to become its President. He was an extremely devout Shin believer who, in his student days, had been instructed by Reverend Reion Takehara, the head priest of Shogyoji two generations ago. Ascending the long flight of stairs we arrived at the Matsugaoka Library where we were shown into the reception room. After talking a while, Daisetz Sensei agreed to take me on as a student, saying, “Well, we’ll see what we can do.”

On that day Sensei talked about the Myokonin Saichi Asahara and the religious poetry written by that special person. Of twenty-seven notebooks all written by Saichi in his own hand, Sensei showed us one that had page after page inscribed with the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” Sensei explained to us his thoughts on this and I listened in as Sensei and Mr. Ishida started to engage in a lively conversation about Buddhist Dharma. After an hour or so had passed, Sensei suddenly turned to me and said, “Now that you have studied theories of religion and philosophy at Kyoto University, all you need to do here is simply to become Namu Amida Butsu itself.” I immediately responded “Yes”, but in truth, at the time I still regarded D. T. Suzuki as a Zen man and myself as Shin. As I was still confined to such a view I was frankly bowled over by his remark. He had read me like a book. However, ignorant as I was, there was something that appealed to me greatly in his statement; “All you need to do is simply to become Namu Amida Butsu itself,” and I sensed that this was the great problem I would have to grapple with somehow in the coming years.

That night I phoned up my Dharma Mother, Mrs. Ekai Nonaka, to report on my meeting with Daisetz Sensei, and she immediately asked me whether I had suggested to D. T. Suzuki that my coming to him was in fulfilment of the great working of Namu Amida Butsu. She shot the question at me just like that, as swift as an arrow.

With hindsight I see now that the words Daisetz Sensei and Dharma Mother Ekai spoke to me were extraordinary examples of Buddhist compassion, but, sad to say, their significance was largely lost on me at the time. Nevertheless what they both had to say had an impact on my life similar to that of a Zen koan, and thanks to them I was left with the great problem I would struggle with everyday in my religious life.

Whilst lodging at Uncho-an, a hermitage within Engakuji Temple, I would go to visit Daisetz Sensei at his residence, the Matsugaoka Library. At the Library I spent most of my days pulling up weeds in the garden, copying manuscripts, putting books back on the shelves, or helping Sensei with his belongings whenever he went out. Of course I also had some free time to do my own reading and research.

Later, much of my time was taken up by the work of interpreting and editing the twenty- seven notebooks of religious poetry composed by Myokonin Saichi Asahara. To this number I also added several more notebooks that I myself discovered while on a research trip to the Iwami area where Saichi had once lived. Since it was also the wish of Daisetz Sensei to publish this annotated volume with chronology, when it appeared posthumously on 15 July 1967, it was released as D. T. Suzuki, ed., Myokonin Asahara Saichi Shu, Tokyo: Shunjusha.

I believe it was the 28th May of the year he died that Sensei came to me and said, “I’m going down to Tokeiji to give a talk. Would you care to come too?” This was the first and last time he ever invited me like that, and it turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. When I got there I sat at the very back of the audience of several dozen people, and listened intently, straining my ears. Sensei was about an hour into his talk when he suddenly said something like, “I’m not a politician or an economist, I’m not a scholar or a thinker, I’m not a religionist,” and so on, effectively denying for himself in this way any possible standing in society. As I listened, I wondered to myself, “So where does that leave the Old Man, then?” Really though, at that moment, the question was directed rather more at myself. I asked myself whether I was not simply seeking for an outward form which I could depend on. And indeed so I was. And that was wrong. Whatever that outward form might be, whether that of scholar or priest, what I was seeking was a title or a worldly state by which I could support myself. When I realized this, when I suddenly caught a glimpse of Sensei standing on “nothing,” when I realized that there was nothing I could ultimately depend on, I instantly took refuge in the Buddha. From within the depths of my heart “Namu Amida Butsu” came spurting out. This outpouring of Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) kept gushing up in an unceasing flow. It is when one finds there is “nothing” to abide in that the heart that turns to the Buddha emerges. For the first time I understood what Daisetz Sensei had meant when he said, “All you need to do here is simply to become Namu Amida Butsu itself.”

The next morning I went to the Library as usual but I could barely contain my joy as I went to express my thanks to Daisetz Sensei. He was sitting in a low chair next to a hibachi (chacoal brazier) on which stood an iron kettle. He listened quietly to what I had to say, raking the ashes with a little rake as he did so. When I had finished, he said, searching my face, “And so what are you going to do then?” I immediately replied, “I am going to become a scholar.” Then in those bright eyes behind their glasses I could see the little beads of tears well up. “You have just started out on your path,” he said, by way of encouragement. A month later Sensei made the journey to the Pure Land. Though I never quite amounted to the scholar I had set out to be, Sensei’s inquiry, “And so what are you going to do then?”, had drawn out in me that dimension in which, having no form, one can assume any form. Sensei had shown me the crucial dimension where ‘Form is Emptiness’ evolves of itself into ‘Emptiness is Form.’

One day Sensei brushed a piece of calligraphy for Shogyoji’s Dharma Mother Ekai. It read “Muryoju,” or Eternal Life. As I was admiring it in my quarters at Engakuji, it occurred to me that if I simply took it back to Shogyoji as it was without any comment from Sensei, Ekai-san must not be happy. With this in mind I went to see Sensei and asked him what the phrase meant; “Sensei, regarding the calligraphy you did for Ekai-san, what does this ‘Eternal Life’ mean.” He replied, “Well, see that cat moving over there and the daffodils blooming in the garden? All of it is Eternal Life. Yes, everything’s the working of Eternal Life.” Dharma Mother Ekai-san, who greatly valued the working of the Nembutsu, was, needless to say, extremely pleased to hear Daisetz Sensei’s comment. Though I did not perceive it at the time, Sensei lived in a world filled with light, where yes, everything was indeed the working of Eternal Life. It is because of this that the term “myoyu” or wondrous working, could be said to characterize the core of Daisetz Sensei’s religious philosophy. While he strove to the very end to serve as a bridge between East and West, the totality of this person who lived his life so fully and so completely unaffectedly is best portrayed as the wondrous working of Eternal Life, or as the working of Infinite Life.

Every day at Three Wheels Temple in London where I now live, I enjoy encounters and re-encounters with all sorts of people, both Japanese and Westerners. My role is to present Buddhism in English, a task that comes no easier as I advance through my sixties. Almost every time I start to prepare my lecture notes, I come upon something for which I can find no adequate English expression. At that point, I sit myself down before a small shrine of Daisetz Sensei and talk to him. And he never fails to answer me, saying, “All you need to do is simply to become Namu Amida Butsu itself; yes, everything’s the working of Eternal Life.” Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu.

12 January 2002