PETER MURYO MATTHIESSEN


Excerpts from the book
Nine-Headed Dragon River - Zen Journals
Shambhala Publications, 1998



On an August day of 1968, returning home to Sagaponack, Long Island, after a seven-month absence in Africa, I was astonished by the presence in my driveway of three inscrutable small men who turned out to be Japanese Zen masters. Hakuun Yasutani-roshi, eighty-four years old, was a light, gaunt figure with hollowed eyes and round, prominent ears; as I was to learn, he had spent much of that morning upside down, standing on his head. Beside him, Nakagawa Soen-roshi, slit-eyed, elfin, and merry, entirely at ease and entirely aware, like a paused swallow, gave off emanations of lightly-contained energy that made him seem much larger than he was. The roshis were attended by Tai-san (now Shimano Eido-roshi), a compact young monk with a confident face and samurai bearing. Though lacking the strange ' transparent' presence of his teachers, Taisan conveyed the same impression of contained power. The teachers were guests of my wife, Deborah Love, a new student of Zen.

Two years later, Deborah invited me to join a reconnaissance led by Soen-roshi and Tai-san of a tract of mountain land at Beecher Lake, in the headwaters of the Beaverkill River in the Catskills. This beautiful place would be chosen as the site of Dai Bosatsu (Great Bodhisattva), the first Zen monastery ever constructed in America. What struck me most forcibly during our visit was the quiet precision, power, and wild humor of Soen-roshi, who became my Zen teacher even before I realized that I was a student.


***



In the summer of 1972, Soen-roshi came back to America and led a "week's holiday, the best sesshin now taking place in world!" at the Catholic retreat house in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was accompanied by the bamboo flute master Watazumi-sensei, who played every morning and evening in the zendo.

Watazumi-sensei spoke about the similarity of flute music and Zen as manifestations of true self. Since he usually practiced alone, even in secret, his playing was to be considered not as a musical performance but as an expression of the Buddha-nature all around us. To coax his instrument to fulfill itself, he said, required seventeen years -- a Zen lesson, since almost all of his efforts went unheard and since he had found no student able to succeed him. We were fortunate to hear such a great master's flute, Soen-roshi said, since so few of the master's own students had ever heard him play.








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