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The Classical Monk

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Arthur Braverman returns to the park where Sodo Yokoyama, "the Leaf-flute Zen Master," sat and led a classical Zen life in the midst of modern Japan's speed and stress.


My daughter Nao and I board the bullet train at Osaka station. The station is crowded, as are all places in Osaka, but the crowds are not imposing. The Japanese have mastered the art of maintaining their tranquility while living together in extremely close quarters. We are on our way to Komoro City in Nagano prefecture, the mountainous region in the north that was the home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. We are going to visit Joko Shibata, the sole disciple of Sodo Yokoyama, the Leaf-flute Zen Master.

Joko is my main link to Yokoyama, a twentieth-century monk whose classical Zen life gave us a glimpse of a beauty almost lost to the modern world. Yokoyama died in 1980, the year my daughter was born. Twenty-three years later, I am hoping to give her a scent of his world. My wife Hiroko is staying behind in Osaka, continuing to visit her parents, while Nao and I do a bit more touring. Though Nao is half-Japanese, she is an American woman, born and raised in America and not as passionate as I am about Japan, where I spent seven years before she was born. However, she is fluent in spoken Japanese and feels comfortable traveling with me to new places in Japan. I know she is not excited about meeting a monk who spends most of his day sitting zazen, but she is anxious to see different parts of the country and needs a break from her grandparents’ home in Osaka. I believe that Joko’s vivacious spirit will win her over. He became Yokoyama’s only disciple through great persistence—the Leaf-flute Zen Master did not want official students, since he did not reside in a temple.

Riding the bullet trains in Japan is like being in a luxury hotel. They are smooth and air-conditioned, and people walk through the cars selling all kinds of goodies, including delicious green tea. I feel the contradiction: riding in extreme comfort to see a monk whom I respect for living a simple life, a man who needs so little and yet enjoys life to its fullest. His teacher, Yokoyama, had, in Joko’s words, “perfected a life of poverty.”

Sodo Yokoyama was a student of Kodo Sawaki, a well-known twentieth-century Zen master. After spending ten years at Sawaki’s temple, Antaiji, he moved to a park in Komoro City, where he started his unique life in his “temple under the sky.”

Yokoyama sat in the park under a self-constructed plastic awning with a little charcoal stove, a teapot, a pan, a cup, a bowl, and some bamboo sticks for eating utensils. He also had some freshly picked leaves in a bowl of water and his writing implements—brushes, paper, ink sticks, and an ink block. The leaves he would “play” as a flute, by taking one of them, placing it between his fingers, and blowing. With practice in leaf blowing, one can produce a range of notes, like any reed instrument, and Yokoyama learned the leaf so well that he could play many tunes. Children often try to make sounds by blowing on a leaf, and Yokoyama wanted to maintain a childlike spirit by continuing to play the leaf into old age. Sitting in the park, he would also compose poems or recreate others’ poems in brush and ink.

Whether playing a tune on the leaf, brushing poetry, or sitting in zazen, this classical monk and his simple lifestyle left an impression on passersby that lifted their spirits and brought new meaning into their lives. Despite taking only one disciple, he had many admirers and touched many lives.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.”

On one level his zazen sounds passive. Just sit; let zazen do the work. But is it passive? Yokoyama always seemed so full of life. His life seemed to be quite productive spiritually, and that spirituality radiated to ordinary people who walked by his little haunt in the park. He didn’t build temples or bridges in any literal sense, but his temple under the sky was a bridge that connected passersby with their own hearts. What he learned from retreating to a world of “no gain,” as his teacher Sawaki described zazen, he communicated through his poetry, his music, and his simple presence.

In winter he wrapped himself in his robe, used his stole as a hood, and sat while the bamboo leaves shielded him from the wind. His thin body—the result of a diet of rice, tea, and a few vegetables, mostly wild, picked around the park—couldn’t fend off the pneumonia that killed him at seventy-four years old. At our last meeting, Joko had expressed regrets at not being able to afford to give his teacher the proper nourishment to allow him a few more healthy years of life.


Our train passes through Kyoto, a second home to me, and even the Kyoto tower, a giant eyesore to many, excites me. Kyoto was spared from destruction by American bombers during World War II, when the rest of the country was being devastated, because Secretary of War Henry Stimson was in love with its cultural treasures. So the city still maintains some flavor of traditional Japan.

When we come to Shizuoka, I stop reading to enjoy the beautiful rows of tea bushes. Like so many landscapes in Japan, these perfect rows of tea bushes are like works of art. On the other side of the train is Mt. Fuji. The fun is anticipating whether it will be blotted out by fog or not. We are lucky. Fuji juts out of its snow encasement in a striking symmetry—a sharp contrast to the asymmetry at the heart of the Japanese aesthetic. But then, the Japanese didn’t create it. Their gods did.

As we get closer to Komoro, the beauty of the Japanese countryside reveals itself. I get excited as I look out the window at Mt. Asama, a live volcano, and my daughter enjoys my excitement as much as I enjoy the scenery. I have always had a special feeling for the people I have met as I traveled north of Tokyo. They have treated me well whenever I’ve wandered through their country. They are rugged but kind, and the sound of their language, a dialect of Japanese that becomes more difficult to understand the farther north one gets, becomes almost impossible for a foreigner to understand. It is said that the northern dialect is difficult to understand because the cold keeps the people from opening their mouths when they talk. The homey sound of this country vernacular has always pleased me.

It was his love for this part of Japan that drew Yokoyama back from Kyoto, despite its harsh climate: Komoro gets quite cold in winter and very humid and hot in summer. Another draw for Yokoyama—what brought him to Kaiko Park in particular—was his love for the writing of a well-known poet and innovative novelist, Toson Shimazaki. Shimazaki lived near the park and its environs figured in many of his poems. A monument honoring him stands in the park today. He is unique among Japanese poets, in that his early connection to the Christian church helped him to develop a confessional and very un-Japanese style of writing. I believe Yokoyama identified with the feelings of isolation from his homeland that Shimazaki expressed about leaving Nagano prefecture to study in Tokyo and the separation the poet felt from his samurai class when he decided to pursue a literary career.

In Shimazaki’s famous poem “Under the Old Castle,” the old castle referred to stood where Kaiko Park is today. He writes, “…the sun sinks / Mt. Asama too no longer seen / the sad sound of the leaf flute of Saku / I climb up to an inn near the bank / where the waves of Chikuma River reach…”

Shimazaki externalized his consciousness in his novels, while Yokoyama did the same in his lifestyle. While it is true that Yokoyama was a poet, his lifestyle was his greatest poem. Travelers who passed the bamboo grove in a corner of Kaiko Park and saw this monk in classical garb sitting in zazen or brushing a poem or playing the leaf were affected in many ways. Older travelers felt younger when they watched him play the leaf and children were drawn to his playfulness. Most importantly, those caught up in the rat race of this industrial giant of a country felt the need to slow down and look at their lives before they lost their ability to see.

As his brother disciple Kosho Uchiyama once commented after visiting Yokoyama in the park, “In this materialistic world, how heartwarming his elegant lifestyle is.”

How different the world my twenty-five-year-old daughter has grown up in is from the world I knew when I was in my twenties! I wonder how she would have responded to this monk’s “elegant lifestyle.” Yokoyama has been dead for over twenty years, so she can’t meet him. How much can she know from meeting his sole disciple, and from being in the town Yokoyama loved and where he spent the final years of his life? How much of a part does place play in preserving the essence of a life?

When we arrive at the Komoro Station, we see a poster on the platform introducing Kaiko Park, which is only a five-minute walk from the station. There is a picture of the entrance gate and, next to it, Shimazaki’s “Under the Old Castle.” We are two hours earlier than our appointed time to meet Joko. Joko and his teacher used to live in a boarding house, walking distance from the park. Now Joko lives by himself about twenty minutes by car from the park. He will come with a friend to pick us up, so we have two hours to kill. I ask Nao if she would like to see the park. She says that she would. I wonder whether she might feel something simply as a result of being at the spot where Yokoyama sat, but first I must find it. More than thirty years have passed since I saw him there. He was not famous like Shimazaki, so I’m sure there will be no marker indicating the spot. I am wrong.

We walk for a while and I start to remember landmarks. Then to my surprise, I recognize the place. Even more surprising, there is a stone monument with a poem carved in the calligraphy of Yokoyama. It translates:

The floating cloud monk
Plays the leaf sadly
Chikuma River

Nao watches as I struggle to hold back tears.  She remains quiet. Then we notice a most peculiar box with a poster pasted to it. There is a picture of Yokoyama and the story of this unusual monk who sat at this spot for over twenty years, following his heart. The box has a button on it. I look at Nao and back at the button. Then I push the button and a tape plays a throaty singing voice. It is Yokoyama brought back to us by modern technology. What strange irony. The singing stops and the leaf flute follows.

I don’t have to say a thing. Nao watches me like a mother watching her child open a Christmas present. After some time passes, we walk out of the park in silence. We walk back to Komoro station and wait. Soon, Joko, an unassuming monk wearing samue, monk’s work clothes, greets us. He takes us to his house, which he named Kokasenri Temple, after one of Yokoyama’s calligraphies. Kokasenri means “a fragrant mist [of truth travels] a thousand miles.” We will spend the night there, drinking tea and sharing remembrances with this monk whose lifestyle, like his teacher’s, speaks the words, “Slow down and see who you really are. Don’t miss the beauty of this moment.”

Facing Asama Mountain
Smoke rises;
The sleeve of a traveler’s robe flutters.

The joy of playing the leaf
In the shack of the temple
On top of Hawk’s Peak.
        — two waka poems by Sodo Yokoyama

I walk along a road
That takes me I know not where;
Will I chance to meet one of the ancients?
        — By Kumamoto no Ou, a friend and mentor of Yokoyama’s

Arthur Braverman lived in Japan for many years, where he studied Zen at Antaiji temple. He is the author of Living and Dying in Zazen: Five Masters of Modern Japan and translator of Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. He lives in Ojai, California.

The Classical Monk, Arthur Braverman, Shambhala Sun, July 2005.

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