Two Words
Published in Shambhala Sun, March 2002

In the autumn of 1968, I received a letter from a friend inviting me to join him in Japan. As a would-be Zen student, there was no question: I arrived in Tokyo a few weeks later.

There I met a young Englishman, a student from Oxford, who said he had an invitation to do the winter sesshin at 'a real Zen monastery, built in the eighteenth century by the great master Hakuin.' This may be my only chance to stay at a monastery, I thought, so I asked him if I could tag along. He was apprehensive, saying that as I didn't have an invitation I probably wouldn't be welcome there. I asked another Zen student about it and was told that although it was against etiquette, I should go for it.

We took the train to Mishima City, about halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo,then walked up a wide, curving dirt road. It was dusk. There was a light rain. I breathed in the fragrant air deeply. Small buddhas peeked from behind bushes, wondering what these two tall gaijin were doing there.

We reached the gate in darkness and rang the bell, which beckoned a young shaven-headed monk to the door. "Who is this person with you?" the monk asked my companion. "He's a poet from America," the Englishman replied.

Maybe because the abbot was a poet too, or maybe because the Japanese expect from Americans such an unthinkable breach of etiquette as showing up at a monastery's gate without an invitation, both my friend and I were admitted. We were shown into a large, bare room where we waited on the tatamied floor, crosslegged, tired and hungry, listening to the patter of rain.

Some time later, a telephone rang in an adjoining room and someone with an unbelievably deep voice answered it. After the conversation was over, a small, ageless-looking man with a very powerful presence appeared and smiled. This was how I met Soen Nakagawa Roshi, the abbot of Ryutakuji.

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