Kodo Sawaki and The Art of Zen Meditation | Author Interview with Arthur Braverman

Having come of age as an orphan in the slums of Tsu City, Japan, Kodo Sawaki had to fight his way to adulthood, and became one of the most respected Zen masters of the 20th century. Sawaki had a great understanding of Dogen Zenji’s teachings and he knew how to express Dogen’s philosophy in clear, easily-understood language. Sawaki’s primary mission was to bring all people to an awareness of the Self, which he believed came through Zen meditation.

Kodo Sawaki

His humor and straightforward talk garnered Sawaki followers from all walks of life. Though he remained poor by choice, he was rich in spirit. Two of his disciples who became known in America as well as in Japan were Kosho Uchiyama, abbot of Antaiji Temple and author of Opening The Hand of Thought, and Gudo Nishijima, Zen teacher and translator of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

A student of Kosho Uchiyama, Arthur Braverman has compiled an anthology of Sawaki’s writings and a garland of sayings gathered from throughout his lifetime. One of a few collections of Sawaki’s teachings published in English, his life and work bracket the most intriguing and influential period of modern Zen practice in Japan and America.

Welcome to another Fireside Chat at Mith Books. I am pleased to have Arthur Braverman with me today. We have a conversation about his latest book Discovering the True Self.

Dipa: Could you tell us what inspired you to translate Kodo Sawaki’s work in Discovering the True Self?

Arthur: Having practiced at Antaiji Temple under Sawaki’s disciple, Kosho Uchiyama, for six years, Kodo Sawaki had become a household word. I wanted to know more about the man who created the zazen atmosphere at Antaiji. The best way to learn about a teacher aside from practicing zazen is to translate his talks.

Dipa: Translating religious texts can be particularly challenging. Words can mean different things in a different time and place. For instance, biblical Hebrew is significantly different to modern Hebrew. Could you tell us about the methodology you employed in translating Kodo Sawaki’s work?

Arthur: Kodo Sawaki died in 1965, not that distant from now (compared to the Zen master of ancient times). Sawaki was known for taking classical texts and giving their meanings in everyday language (everyday modern Japanese language). There are over twenty volumes of Sawaki’s talks and much of it is repeated many times. Between Sawaki and his disciple Uchiyama, whom I often talked to, I started to understand the points he was making.

Dipa: Context, in particular, can be easily lost in translation. For instance, in your book, you mention segaki—a ceremony where one makes oblation to the hungry spirits. Whilst similar concepts may be found in certain cultures; the notion of holding a ceremony for the repose of the souls of the dead, may not exist everywhere. How can a translator do justice to explaining these concepts to a readership that may not be exposed to such ideas?

Arthur: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a good answer. I could have described the meaning of ‘hungry spirits.’ For example, they are beings from one of the three negative modes of existence: beings whose karma is not so bad as to send them to hell but not good enough for rebirth as an asura and so on.

But I have to ask myself is that going to help the reader understand the message of Kodo Sawaki? My purpose in translating Sawaki’s talks is to help the reader understand the man and his message. If historical references make his message clearer, I will work toward making the reader understand them. But I don’t want the reader to lose the message among details that will not make it clearer. With Sawaki in particular the message is the importance of zazen or Zen meditation.

Dipa: Buddhism originated in India. However, it has a stronger following and resonance outside its place of birth—much like Christianity in the West. How would you describe the way in which Buddhism is presently practised in Japan? Could you tell us a bit about your own journey with Buddhism?

Arthur: I’m not trying to dodge the question, but there are many forms of Buddhism in Japan and it would require many pages to just scratch the surface. Zen Buddhism, which is the form Sawaki studied and taught and which he can be considered quite versed in, is one of those many forms. And to add to the difficulty, Sawaki’s form of Zen which is called Soto Zen Buddhism is one form of Zen and different than the other main form. Zen in general is considered the school of Buddhism that emphasises sitting meditation. It is not the only school that considers meditation an important part of Buddhism, but is perhaps the one that gives it so much weight.

My interest in Buddhism came out of an interest in meditation. After reading many books on meditation, I felt that Zen meditation was the most appealing to me. I came upon Antaiji Temple when I travelled in Japan looking for a place where I could practice Zen meditation. Antaiji wasn’t the first temple I studied at, but it appeared to be the purest in the sense that zazen or Zen meditation was its true focus.

There are many family temples in Japan where meditation is not practiced. Thanks to Sawaki, Antaiji is truly devoted to the ways of the ancients. And thanks to his main disciple Uchiyama, it is one of the few Zen temples in Japan that is quite open to foreigners practicing together with the Japanese monks.

Antajiji Temple in Hyogo Prefecture

Dipa: Many of us live in capitalist societies where self-interest reigns supreme. And yet, so many world religions speak against ‘personal gain’. Whilst many may agree with this as a philosophy, they may find it hard to practise it in their lives. How does one apply these teachings to a modern capitalist society

Arthur: To practice ‘no-gain’ in one’s life, I think it requires a radical change in one’s way of thinking. That does not happen easily. We have to change our minds before we can change our actions. The first step is to notice how deluded even our ‘respected’ leaders are. Once we see that, we have to really change our minds.

Meditation is in my estimation one of the best ways to start moving in that direction. If we understand how Sawaki stresses the importance of no-gain in our lives, we are at least on our way. It really makes life a lot easier not to be set on making something of yourself in the world. Of course believing it is only the first step. Practicing it and seeing that it actually works is the next and most important step.

Dipa: There was one particular quote in the book that left me perplexed and rather curious. It goes, “When we are born, our universe is born too. When we die, we take everything of our universe with us.” Could you kindly elaborate on the meaning behind this quote?

Arthur: An excellent question. I’m sure you’ve noticed the fact that the word ‘self’ is spelled with a lower case s sometimes and an uppercase S at others. There is no verbal distinction between self and Self in Japanese as Sawaki states it. But the context of the statement is what I used to determine which ‘s’ to use. I feel that the self (with the lower case s) is to describe the image we usually walk around with about ourselves. The one we formed from our experiences and our memories about those experiences. Some people would say it’s the ego, but it may include more than that. It is what we refer to when we talk about ourselves.

Then we have the ‘Self.’ Shunryu Suzuki, the late abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and author of “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” called it “Big Mind” It is something we can’t really explain, but we demonstrate in our actions: it is something we have though we may not know it with our small mind. This is something many of us have difficulty accepting. It may be what we call faith.

Back to the meaning behind the quote: Sawaki switches back and forth with the meaning of (Self and self). When we die, all our thoughts and memories die too. They are the things of our universe. They are not with us when we are born and they don’t live beyond our life of the small self. The big mind is always there but we can’t know it with our small mind.

Dipa: In Eastern traditions, one often learns under a ‘master’ or ‘teacher’ who transmits their knowledge and perhaps even accepts a student into a particular lineage. Not everyone is accepted or makes the cut. I even get the sense that one has to earn their place there. You write, “When we choose a teacher, it is because there is something within us that resonates with that teacher. So it is not necessarily something new that we’ve come across, but rather something in us that we may not have known was there.” How does one discover themselves under the guidance of a teacher?

Arthur: I think that your question is a good follow up from the last one. I’m not a big fan of complete acceptance to the will of the master. It has gotten too many relations between master and student that lead into turmoil. That of course is my opinion. Each person has to deal with that by him or herself. I feel that when one chooses a teacher or visa versa there has to be some sense of big mind. And that is what resonates between the two. Of course we can fool ourselves and that can cause real problems.

That, I believe, is why Sawaki didn’t make demands of his students that would require the student to give up his or her personal sense of who he or she is.

Dipa: Students often outgrow their teachers or later go on to challenge their teacher’s beliefs—as was the case with Aristotle and Plato. Sawaki, himself, went on to develop his own teaching philosophy. He was particularly motivated to ‘present Buddhist principals in ways that the average person would be able to understand’. In the Buddhist tradition, how does a student—who later becomes a teacher—build on their teacher’s teachings?

Arthur: First of all, I believe it’s a healthy thing to challenge your teacher. And a genuine teacher should be happy to have a student who will express her or his mind. Without that possibility, there would be no true relationship between teacher and student.

Kosho Uchiyama said that after studying with Sawaki for twenty-five years he didn’t know whether what he said were his own words or his teacher’s. I believe that he probably had a healthy relationship with Sawaki or he wouldn’t have been able to express it like that.

Dipa: Hierarchy still has a strong foothold in many religious traditions. How can a teacher grow alongside a ‘former student’ without stifling their progress?

Arthur: If the teacher does not need something from the student, he will not stifle the student’s development.

Personally I chose Sawaki’s Zen because I felt that meditative religion should be relatively free from hierarchy. When Sawaki states that he is the most deluded person in the world, and is only as free as his understanding of zazen, he is telling students to rely on their own understanding, an understanding that comes from Zen meditation.

From his point of view meditation is something we should all depend on as he does. Student and teacher grow together because of their faith in Zen meditation. I feel very strongly in the truth of that tradition and hope that hierarchical religions will little by little fade away. They have caused too much pain for many while they claim to want to free people.

Author: Dipa Sanatani

Publisher | Mith Books | Author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories

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