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On the Shores of Lake Biwa


“Dogen?” her Japanese friend said, “no one understands him.” “Zen training?” she is warned, “too hard for a human being.” Natalie Goldberg goes to Japan in search of real Zen, and finds it on the shores of Lake Biwa. Her days at the monastery are just about as tough as advertised, but at the end she reaches Almond Joy.

I wanted to go to Japan to see the country that produced my teacher. But Japan was far away. I’m terrible with languages. When I tried to learn short Japanese phrases, it sounded like I was shredding coleslaw with my tongue and not budging one inch from Brooklyn. And all the words of that island country are written in kanji. I wouldn’t even be able to decipher signs.
People assured me that everyone in Japan learned English in school. “No problem,” they said. I didn’t believe them. Hadn’t I studied French for eight years? and all I could do was conjugate the verb “to be.” Better to just spend my days on Coney Island—I knew where the hot dogs were.
But I had a writing student who had lived in Japan for several years and generously contacted a Japanese couple; they agreed to take me around Kyoto. They spoke good English, so I could ask questions. I talked my partner Michele into coming along.
We’d been there a week when Kenji and Tomoko picked us up at the hotel. I already felt isolated, walking down crowded streets, peering into unknown temples. I found myself several times towering over a young man or woman, asking something and receiving giggles behind polite hands. The Japanese might have learned English in school but they were too shy to speak it.
“They grind their own beans here,” Kenji said as he drove us to a coffee shop.
Just the smell cleared my sinuses. I never drink coffee—I have enough trouble sleeping and fear chugging that dark brew would send me running at 100 m.p.h. But at this moment, I was so elated to speak to a native, not to feel so alone, that I too ordered a shot.
The four of us sat at a small square table, elbow to elbow. “So how do you know English so well?” I asked.
The white cups were placed in front of us. I took a sip. The black blend cut off the top of my head, hair and all. My eyes darted around the room. No tea, cookies, buns, rolls, rice cakes. Zen purity had been translated into a single-taste caffeine shop.
“We lived in England for four years. I was getting a Ph.D. in philosophy,” Kenji explained.
“Really? Who did you study over there?” I’d done my master’s in Western philosophy in my early twenties. But soon after I’d discovered Zen, I never thought of Bergson or Heidegger again.
“Immanuel Kant.”
“You’re kidding.” My mouth fell open. “I did my thesis on him. You went all the way over to Europe for Kant?” I was incredulous. “In America we want to study Dogen.”
It was Kenji’s turn to be dumbstruck. “Ugh, no one understands Dogen. He’s much too difficult.” His nose crunched up.
Then I let the bomb drop. “I’ve been a Zen student for over two decades.”
Now Tomoko grimaced. “That’s awful. No one here likes Zen.”
I had suddenly become peculiar to this Japanese couple.
Kenji injected, “Zen monks all die young.”
I already knew, but asked, anyway, “Why?” I swallowed another gulp of coffee. I was never able to admit the answer through years of knee-aching, backbreaking sitting on little sleep.
“The training’s too hard for a human being,” he said.
My teacher had died in his early sixties. I could name several other Zen masters who had died too early. I had hoped it was the difficult shift they had made to America.
The conversation slid into pleasantries. Yes, I was a writer. Yes, my first book had been translated into Japanese.
Michele offered to meet them in New York the next time they visited. She described her family’s apartment in that favorite of cities. I was watchful for my next opportunity to gather another crumb of information, a morsel of understanding, to slip in another question about my old practice.
My cup was almost empty. If I took one more sip I’d buzz out the window. I threw care to the neon lights above the entrance and put liquid to mouth. I leaned in close. “Can I ask you a question?” They both nodded simultaneously. Michele rolled her eyes. She knew where this was going. That morning in bed I had had a realization. Maybe I did know a little Japanese after all. In the zendo we chanted from cards that translated Japanese sounds into English syllables.
“Does this sound familiar?” I asked and then belted out the first line of the early morning chant that preceded putting on our rakusus. At this moment in the zendo our hands would be clasped in front of us with the lay ordination cloth on top of our heads. I saw the whole scene unfold as I chanted Dai Sai Ge Da Pu Ku in the coffee shop.
“Never heard of it,” both Kenji and Tomoko shook their heads. They must have learned that head shake in England. When I shook my head No here, everyone looked at me blankly.
“You’re kidding.” What had I been studying all these years?
“What does it mean?” Tomoko asked.
I was too disappointed to be embarrassed. “Great robe of liberation.”
They both stared at me.
“This coffee is delicious,” Michele quickly interjected and downed her cup.
They explained where they were going to take us. All I caught was “famous temples.” I was templed out. Everyplace Michele and I went no one was meditating—just beautiful buildings, ornate altars, highly waxed, fine wood floors. I hadn’t realized it, but what I’d come for was sixteenth-century Japan. I was looking for the descendants of Linji and Hakuin. Where were the kick-ass practitioners, like the wild Americans back in the States who were imitating the monks we thought were over here? We woke at four a.m., meditated all day, sewed robes, ate in formal style with three enamel bowls, even had miso soup for breakfast.
I let Michele do the socializing as I sat looking out the car window in the backseat next to Tomoko. Michele shifted the conversation from the dot-com explosion to a list of Japanese authors we’d been reading since we arrived. I perked up. “Yeah, we’re reading these prize-winning novels and it’s a surprise how often the plot is around a homosexual or a lesbian. I thought the Japanese were more uptight than that?”
Kenji lifted a hand off the steering wheel, “Oh, no, we’re used to it—from the monasteries. The boys go in young.”
I gulped. Is that what goes on in monasteries?
They drove us from one ancient shrine to another, all with indiscernible names. I was young again, dragged to one art museum after another. The afternoon was a blur and my eyes teared. I wanted to lie down and take a deep nap.
“I’m sorry,” Kenji said. “We only have one more, but this one is important. You have to see it. Very famous.”
Two young girls in navy-blue school uniforms explained the significance of the temple. All of the other visitors were Japanese. Michele and I politely stood with our hands shading our eyes. We didn’t understand a word.
My mind was zinging out in the stratosphere, rejoicing that this was the last temple, when one word snapped through my daydream. Hold everything! Did that ingénue on the left say a familiar name?
“Excuse me, Tomoko,” I whispered. “Who lived here in ancient days? What’s his name?”
She shrugged. Even though she spoke the language this world was foreign to her.
“Please, help me,” I took her hand. “I have to find out.”
The student didn’t know what I was talking about even through translation. She handed me the sheet she read from.
“Is the name ‘Ikkyu’ here?” I turned the paper over to Tomoko. “What’s the name of this temple?”
Tomoko slowly pronounced, “Daitokuji.”
My eyebrows jumped off my face. “Daitokuji. Did this temple burn down in the fifteenth century? Who rebuilt it? Does it say?”
Tomoko looked back at the paper and translated to the young hosts what I was asking. “Hai, hai,” in unison they nodded.
“Oh my god.” I threw my hand over my mouth.
The thinner girl pointed to a square white building over the high stuccoed wall we were standing near. This time Kenji translated. “She says Ikkyu is in there.”
“Ikkyu in there,” my eyes widened, the eccentric Zen monk with a wild spirit whose poetry I loved. I imagined him preserved in zazen position in his ragged, brown monk’s robe, the one he wore when hanging out with drunks under the bridge.
My hands curled into fists. I wanted to leap the wall, burst into the tomb, bow at his feet, tell him how I’d spent a cold winter and dark spring reading his poems. They never failed me.
When a friend having a hard time would call, I’d say, “Hold on a minute,” and grab Crow with No Mouth. “Listen to this,” and I’d read them Ikkyu.
People were horrified by Ikkyu’s unconventional life—he alternated between practicing hard, then frequenting brothels and bars with prostitutes and hoboes. But when he was eighty-two, he was asked to be head of Daitokuji. It was a great honor. He did not refuse. With his tremendous energy, he rebuilt the temple.
The intensity of having Ikkyu nearby was overwhelming. I was afraid I disappointed this great practitioner. He would have leaped over the barrier. He was waiting for me. I think he is still waiting.
I left Michele in Kyoto to travel north by train to Bukkokuji, one of the few Japanese monasteries that were willing to take Westerners and women. I thought, if I was going to be in this country, I had to experience their monasteries, even if for a short time. Michele and I went over my route many times in the hotel before I departed. The train moved fast and I was alert to hear the Obama stop announced, even though I knew it wouldn’t be for quite a while.
To my right out the window was a great gray lake, reflecting the overcast sky. I heard, “Biwa.”
“Biwa?” I poked the man next to me. This was very un-Japanese, but the train moved so quickly I had to act fast.
He nodded briskly, not glancing my way. “Hai.”
At twenty-seven, Ikkyu, meditating alone at midnight out in a rowboat on this very lake, heard the caw caw caw of a crow overhead and was turned inside out, becoming totally realized.
He was a poet. It made sense that awakening would enter his body through sound. For a cook the ax might fall while tasting a particularly pungent lemon: She would drop to the ground, savoring bitter lemon in all things.
My stop was finally called and I jumped off, clutching my knapsack. I followed a path through weeds and empty lots into the monastery cemetery. Often at night monks sat at the gravestones and meditated. It was mid-afternoon. I was nervous. I kept repeating, You’ll be okay. You’ve sat six three-month difficult practice periods and this time it’s just a few days.
The small building complex was a hundred yards away, built right up against a hill. I stepped into the courtyard. No one was there. A beefily built monk appeared and spoke to me in Japanese.
I shook my head. I understood not a word.
He continued to talk and motion with his hands. At this point Tangen—I recognized his face from a photo—the Zen master of the monastery, who was in his seventies and had rarely left in the last thirty-five years, glided into the courtyard and he and the head monk (I figured out who the beefily built man was) grunted at each other. The head monk then grabbed my pack and I followed him.
Near twin sinks he stopped and pointed, holding out my sack. I took it and walked alone through a set of doors. Ten thin mattresses were on the floor and five Japanese nuns with shaved heads were lying on them. Near the entrance was a small, spare woman—the only other Western female at the monastery—who introduced herself and pointed to a rolled bed. I nervously set out my few things, unrolled the mattress, and laid down. I didn’t know what the routine would be, but I knew it would be in silence. I tried to rest. How did the saying go? Rest when you rest, sleep when you sleep, cry when you cry. Et cetera, et cetera. I could have made the list go on: be nervous when you’re nervous, feel your tight chest when you feel your tight chest, want to go home when you want to go home. I noticed how hot and humid it was. My straight hair was curling. No one else around me had any hair. I remembered my friend who’d been to Japan saying, there is nothing like the humidity. For emphasis he repeated himself: Trust me, Natalie, in all the world, your clothes will not get wetter than in Japan. Obama was on the sea. I was in for it.
Bells rang. All seven of us in the dormitory sprang up. They put on their robes; I put on my black long-sleeved tee-shirt and black long pants and we sat through two periods of zazen in the upstairs zendo across the court. I had no idea how long each sitting was. It could have been twenty-five minutes or forty. I was just happy to know how to do something and proud at the end to recognize the Heart Sutra as it was shot through at a speed no American could follow.
At dinner we ate cross-legged in the dining room in a ritualized style, with three oryoki bowls, chopsticks, napkin, and drying cloth. The actual meal was a mush of colors. What hadn’t been eaten from breakfast and lunch was consumed at night. What hadn’t been eaten from the meals of the days before were also in there. If mold was forming from a week ago, a high boil took care of it all.
At the end of the meal, we fingered thin slices of pickles to clean our bowls, ate the pickle slices, and drank the washing water. The bowls were then wrapped again in the lap cloth with a formal knot. I could do all this and the Japanese nuns clucked in surprise.
We sat zazen again and went to bed. I hadn’t spoken a word to anyone. I didn’t know what time we would wake the next morning, but I could rely on the tight structure. Don’t think, I told myself. Take care of your life—connected to all life—moment by moment.
I did not sleep for one moment the entire night. I was drenched in sweat. I think it was three a.m. when the bells rang and everyone popped out of bed. I ran the brush one time over my teeth. We were in the zendo fifteen minutes later.
The zendo was a comfort, but not for long. The bell quickly rang again and people ran down the stairs. Where were they going? I turned around and everyone was gone. I bolted after them and saw the monks running out the gate. I put on my shoes and dashed after them.
The streets of Obama were quiet. I heard only the swish of my rubber soles. Thank god I hadn’t worn flip-flops. I chugged along, but way behind. Suddenly they turned a corner and I lost them. We were the Japanese Marx brothers. I headed east on one block, I saw them passing west on another; I darted north at the lamppost, I caught sight of them sprinting south at the turn. I was panting hard. I hadn’t run like this in ten years. The sea was to my right as I galloped up an incline. Just as they neared the gate I caught up. My lungs were burning. My breath was heaving. I was soaked, hair dripping, pants and shirt stuck to my body.
I followed the monks into an empty room, where less than twenty-four hours ago the head monk had grunted at me. Another monk called out a command and everyone hit the ground flat-out; another shout and everyone was on their feet. Then we were slammed on the floor again, doing push-ups. I was already one command behind. They were down; I was up. They were up; I was down. Finally, the exercise stopped. I was a dishrag.
People stood around. Sunlight was creeping across the gravestones. I sidled over to the Irishwoman and whispered so softly—the sound could have fit under a saltine cracker—“Can we take showers now?”
She replied with a single line: “There are no showers here.”
Uh huh, I nodded. I’d heard a rumor years ago back in the comfort of the Minneapolis zendo that baths in Japanese monasteries were taken once a week at public bath houses.
I sat on a stone step and waited for the next activity. Exhaustion allowed surrender.
The bell rang. We piled up to the zendo and sat for one period. Another bell rang and off everyone dashed down the stairs again. This time I walked. I didn’t care if the fires of hell leaped at me. I found the monks in seiza, kneeling with their legs tucked under them, on the hard, wooden floor in a single row. A bell rang in another room and the first person in line jumped up and disappeared. The row of people on their knees slid up to the next place.
I knelt at the end, the last person, the longest wait. My knees felt as though they were about to snap, but I didn’t change positions. I crawled behind everyone else each time the first person left. I knew what was happening. This was our chance to talk to the Roshi, face to face, in his small dokusan room. I had heard he was clear, that just to watch him walk across a room was inspiring, that he took joy in the smallest things.
What was I doing here with this resounding pain? No one said I had to stay in this position, but everyone else was doing it and I was a stubborn person. Dedication no longer mattered, only animal will. What could I say to this man from another world? I had already had my true teacher. He’d died eight years ago.
My turn came. I did the three prostrations and sat in front of Tangen Roshi. He tilted his head to peer at me. I was hopeless. I knew it. He said three English words: Not long enough.
I thought, thank god. I was fifty years old. Too old. Too tired. Too dirty.
The gesture was made for me to leave. The meeting was over. I had the urge to put my hand on his knee, to assure him I would be okay. After all, here was a man who was dedicated to waking us up. I didn’t want to disappoint him but right then I wanted to go to sleep.
That afternoon after a work period when we beat mattresses and rolled blankets and towels, we had tea—and doughnuts, wrapped in cellophane, bought at a local store. I could tell this was a real treat and I abstained so the monks could have more.
Each day was long. I had no illusions that something big or deep would happen. I just wanted to make it through each day running, walking, sitting, eating in that single pair of black pants and shirt.
Young monks pounded big bells that hung from eaves and ran in the halls. Even the army knows to take boys early. Only me, only I don’t know I’m not young. That is what these days taught me: I was no longer young. How easy it was for me at twenty-six, at thirty-one—but even then I complained. Now I had only a few days left in a Japanese monastery and I was thankful I would get to leave.
That day did come and there was no formality. No one said, “Oh, Natalie, we loved having you.” I rolled up my mattress, deposited my scant towel and bedding in the laundry room and slung my pack on my back.
I was thinking how I couldn’t wait to return to Kyoto and take a shower when I passed the altar room. I noticed a big Buddha statue and a small inconspicuous donation box, but it wasn’t necessary to pay anything for your stay.
I turned to head out. “C’mon, Nat, you can give a little something, even though these days were no fun.”
I counted out yen. I was not good at figuring out the equivalent in dollars, a hundred and ten to one, too many zeros. I left what I thought was twenty-five dollars. I followed the path through weeds back to the railroad station. I was a bit early for the next train. I wandered over to the concession stand and eyed the bags of M & M’s. A great compulsion overcame me. I bought two. I ripped one open; they were already melted. I shoved the colored chocolates into my mouth and they smeared over my right hand and around my lips. I had nothing to wipe them with but my dirty black sleeve.
Suddenly I looked up: one of the monks from the monastery had just entered the station, recognized me, and was walking over. He was dressed immaculately in formal traveling attire. I tried to hide my chocolate-covered hand, having already wiped my mouth. He stood in front of me in his platform sandals. He noticed my hand and flashed a warm smile. I felt the color come to my face. He reached into the front of his robe. He pulled out some kind of bar and held it up. My eyes focused. Almond Joy. We both burst out laughing.
My train pulled up. I threw myself into a seat near the window and waved. The scenery zoomed by.
All at once, yens popped into my head. I hadn’t left 2,750—I left 27,500. Two hundred and fifty American dollars. I gasped, my stomach tightened. Then completely let go. It was fine, just fine. I was glad I’d contributed that much. And right there was everything I knew and I could not say what that was.

Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books, including The Great Failure. With filmmaker Mary Feidt, Natalie completed a one-hour documentary called Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan. She shows her paintings in Santa Fe at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery and leads retreats in Taos, New Mexico.

On the Shores of Lake Biwa, by Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, July 2006.

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