Novice to Master

May 18, 2011

Novice to master: an ongoing lesson in the extent of my own stupidity is a short, charming autobiography by Soko Morinaga roshi (1925-1995), an authentic Japanese Rinzai Zen priest and master (roshi). The book is divided into three sections: Novice, Training, and Master, the three parts of the path.

As a novice Morinaga encounters great suffering and misery. He’s yanked out of high school towards the end of World War II so that he can train for a suicide mission. Both of his parents die at this time, and what little emotional and financial security they had tried to provide, evaporates. Apparently left without any resources to call his own, Morinaga presents himself at a Zen temple and asks for help. Help is provided in the form of a seemingly stern master, but Morinaga discovers that he is more likely to reject assistance than accept it. His long-held notions of what he likes and dislikes keep getting in the way, and thus begins an “ongoing lesson in my own stupidity”.

Training eventually takes him to a large training monastery. His description of the “admissions test” and the privations he endures — inadequate food, barely adequate clothing and shelter, and very little sleep, plus long daily sessions of zazen — are horrific, but, as he subsequently explains, the most difficult part of training is not physical hardship, but the extreme emotional duress of solving koans.

The final section, Master, mainly consists of spiritual advice about life and what Zen can teach. A major theme running through these short chapters is each person’s inability to face their own decline and death. Or, perhaps better, our inability to live these parts of our lives.

A nice review can be found here.

Some stories from the book:

from the Preface (p. 12) – A young monk, Ken, is ordered to make a trip for his master. Ken resents this because he has not yet “attained anything” from his training and it appears to him that the trip will take him away from his spiritual development for a long time. Another monk, Genjoza, offers to accompany Ken and the two set out, but before long Ken’s resentment reappears and he breaks down in tears, unable to continue. Genjoza, “thrusting all the strength he had into his words” tells Ken: “I will take care of anything that I can take care of for you on this trip, but there are just five things that I cannot do in your place. I can’t wear clothes for you. I can’t eat for you. I can’t shit for you. I can’t piss for you. And I can’t carry your body around and live your life for you.” Hearing these words, Ken is enlightened.

from “living out belief in infinite power” (p. 75-78) – “Hakuin Zenji asserted that three essential elements are necessary to the realization of any endeavor: great belief, great doubt and great determination. … To believe in your teacher, in your seniors, in the tradition is, in other words, to believe in yourself. You must puzzle out your own unripeness [doubt in yourself]. What’s more, you must continue, standing firm through any trials that crop up. Regardless of the time, regardless of the place, without these three components you cannot carry anything through to completion. I firmly believe that no matter what changes occur in the world, these are the three pillars that will support anything we hope to accomplish. … I wonder why it is that parents, teachers, and other adults do not try to provide children earlier with the opportunity and the training to realize for themselves the power inherent within themselves, the power we all possess to stand up and work it out ourselves in times of trouble.”

from “what’s it all about?” (p. 111) – “What is important to me is not that Buddhism flourish or that the Zen sect spread over the globe, but rather that each and every human being live this life completely, in the most real sense, up until the day he or she dies, with satisfaction and with peace of mind. It is with this hope that I teach.”

the final passage (p. 154) –  “as I’ve mentioned, when I end a lecture, I often ask everyone to please forget everything I have just said. But nonetheless, it is my earnest desire that this clumsy narrative be a stimulus that may, in some way, help you to lead your own life — living each and every instant with great care, aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”

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