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Letting Go of Ego
An interview with David Daigaku Rumme, from KJ #57

by Nevin Thompson



Tall, angular and plainspoken, David Daigaku Rumme originally from Iowa, lived for nearly thirty years as an ordained monk at Hosshinji, a small Soto Zen monastery in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, north of Kyoto. During this period, he accompanied the abbot of Hosshinji, Harada Roshi several times, as his interpreter on trips teaching Zen in Europe and North America. These talks became the basis for Harada Sekkei's book, The Essence of Zen, which Daigaku translated into English in 1998 (Kodansha International).
Harada Roshi is currently Soto Zen Buddhism's representative in Europe; Daigaku Rumme returned to the United States in 2003 and now works at the Soto Zen International Center in San Francisco. Nevin Thompson recorded this interview with him in January 2004.


When did you first come to Japan?
I was ten years old, going on eleven when I first came to Japan in 1961. My father was an ordained Lutheran minister, and both my parents were missionaries. My family lived for two years in Tokyo. After that my parents lived down in Aichi Prefecture. I lived by myself in a dormitory and went to school in Tokyo.

Was it a Japanese school?
I went to an international school called The American School in Japan. As they go it's probably the best known. Classes were all in English. I did get to learn Japanese somewhat -- I took some Japanese classes.

What do you remember about growing up in Japan in the 1960s?
The first thing that comes to my mind is music. I was 13 when the first Beatles songs hit the air, and that just revolutionized everything. The music that developed in the sixties was very much connected with current events. We talk about the sixties, but I think it's really difficult for people, even myself, to understand those times if you don't reflect on how volatile it was. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and that just started off a whole tumultuous time, not to mention the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King being assassinated, and the whole counterculture that developed because of those problems. I finished high school in 1968.

The year of the barricades...
It was a difficult time for a lot of people, but here I was in Japan, caught between not being too close to the Japanese people, yet somehow attracted to part of the Japanese culture, some part of the culture I perceived to be older. I was American and disagreeing with a lot of the policies of the U.S. government, but attracted to the American music scene, so it was kind of an unsettled time for me to grow up.
In 1968 I remember participating in demonstrations against the war, in Shinjuku, which didn't happen that much, but I was sympathetic to the anti-war movement. That was a difficult time for me because already by the time I was 14 or 15 I didn't agree with the missionary work my father was doing. I disagreed with the idea of trying to convert people who were perfectly peaceful, and I thought that Japan was too harmonious and too sophisticated a culture for that sort of thing. There were a lot of problems in America that came up in the 1960s, not only Vietnam, but also social problems, such as civil rights and poverty. Pollution was just becoming an issue. So here were missionaries from the United States, coming to Japan with the idea that "we are going to convert these people" which basically means, and it was pretty black and white back then, that "we're right and you're wrong." In combination with a lot of things, including my own family situation, what was going on back in the US and the whole counterculture that was developing there, as well as the situation here in Japan, this attitude was just something I could not accept. I became quite a rebellious young man.

How did the music of the time affect you?
In 1965, the Beatles were in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and that was the first time meditation was given prominence in that generation, as far as I remember it. If the Beatles were doing it then... well, that put a whole big spotlight on it. I was part of that generation. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Even in 1967 and 1968 I was considering my options and studying about becoming a conscientious objector.

Were you already considering entering a monastery at that time?
When I was a senior in high school the students in one of my classes, Japan Seminar, took a trip down to Kyoto and visited many of the famous cultural sites there including Daitokuji, one of the big Rinzai Zen monasteries. That was my first contact that I remember with a "Zen-temple" environment. Daitokuji has maybe twenty sub-temples inside of it. It's one of the great temples of Japan and it's almost become a tourist attraction in some sense, but I was very impressed with the earnestness of the monk who showed us around as well as the natural, austere beauty of Daitokuji, and so that kind of put entering a monastery into my mind.

Did you remain in Japan after graduating from high school in Tokyo?
I went back to college in Iowa and graduated in 1972, a "properly disillusioned young man." There was no occupation I wanted to do. That was probably the worst of all those years, with the most conflict, in terms of the people who were for the war or against the war.
There were a lot of people looking around for alternatives in '72. One of the big ideas at that time was to go back to the land: "If we can't change society then we'll do it ourselves, we'll create our own society." So in '72 I had that idea, to live on the land. But it didn't take me too long to figure out that it was going to take me a lot more money and time to actually get some land to do that. At one point I considered leasing some land in Honduras. Later, I was always grateful that I didn't. That wouldn't have been the right thing for me. I couldn't have done it well.
Around that time I happened to read a book called Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. This was published in 1971 by Suzuki Shunryu, who was also the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, where I'm now living. Suzuki Shunryu was a monk and priest and belonged to the Soto Zen Sect. This book gave me the inspiration that if I put in some quality time doing Zazen, I could find that peace of mind, that deep sense of satisfaction that I was looking for. And not only that: by finding that peace of mind I would be able to somehow impart what I had learned to other people, although I wasn't really sure how that was going to happen.
That was when I decided to go back to Japan, thinking I would like to enter a Zen monastery, although at that time I didn't have any intention of becoming a Buddhist monk. I came back in December, 1974. I had some school loans to repay, so I taught English and sold little rings that I had made on the street, especially targeting high school girls who had come down to Kyoto on school trips. If a flock of them came down to your place, you could sell fifteen, twenty of them, just like that.

How did you enter Hosshinji?
A friend of mine had met two Americans who were living at Hosshinji when she was at the immigration office in Nagoya. So that was like what we call en: a condition or circumstance, a twist of fate; it put the idea into my mind. The second en was that Hosshinji had been mentioned in a book I had read called Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, one of the few books on Zen in the early seventies. So I had this idea that it was possible for Westerners to stay at Hosshinji. Then, a Canadian friend of mine who was living in the same gesshuku [rooming house] in Kyoto went up to Hosshinji a year before I did. It was because of those three "en" that I was finally able to make the big move to Hosshinji.

What did you think when you first arrived at the temple?
I first went up for sesshin [six times a year Hosshinji offers week-long sesshin, special periods of meditation and instruction for monks and lay persons] in October, 1976. I only stayed for four days. Then I went back on November 11th, not an easy time to go because we were just getting into the cold weather. Back in those days the climate was much colder than it is now. There was no heating in the rooms, and somehow I had brought lice with me from Kyoto. So, I had to shave off all of my body hair and boil all of my clothes. It was very cold, and I didn't have much to wear. That was a very difficult time for me. It was like, "Am I really up for this? Am I physically going to be able to endure this?" My birthday was November 15th, a few days after I arrived. Roshi called me into his room and gave me some kasutera sponge cake and a little teacup. It's a curious thing, because, at least traditionally, birthdays are not celebrated in Japan. I guess Roshi saw I was pretty unsteady, so it was a gesture of kindness to this young guy, a gambatte kudasai type of thing, and that was very touching.

How were the next few months at Hosshinji?
I remember Rohatsu [December] Sesshin, which is the most difficult one of the year. It had snowed at the end of November, which rarely happens now, but even back then it was unusual. It was cold and there was snow on the ground; there was no heating and I had caught a bad cold. I really wondered if I was going to be able to make it.
There were six Japanese and five Western monks, and I was quickly accepted into the group. In January we did kangyo [monks in Japan regularly beg for alms, a practice which is called takuhatsu -- kangyo literally means means "cold weather practice", and is done at Hosshinji in January for twenty-nine days straight]. It was very hard because there was a lot of snow. I remember always getting chilblains on my hands and feet.
At the end of kangyo I asked Roshi if it would be all right if I went back to Kyoto for two or three days. I wanted to get some music tapes -- I liked Yano Akiko's first album "Japanese Girl," Stevie Wonder, "Late for the Sky" by Jackson Browne... This is almost unbelievable now, but he agreed and I went. I look at myself today and ask, would I let someone leave the temple to go and get some cassette tapes? It just seems so wild to me. That just couldn't happen now. Monks need special permission to leave the monastery, and can leave only on specific days.

How did you become ordained as a Buddhist priest?
Ordination is a certain commitment you're making, saying that "to realize the Way of Buddha is the most important thing in my life." It's more important than getting married and having a family, and it’s more important than proving yourself in society through wealth or reputation.
To become ordained you have to find someone who will ordain you, and that may not be so easy as you might imagine: the Master is taking a certain responsibility. Traditionally, the Master would provide us with all of our gear, the robes and so on that you see Buddhist priests wearing, but Harada Roshi had too many disciples to do that, so we had to get these ourselves, and I think that was proper. The role of the Master, at least in my case, is to serve as inspiration, a person who could show me the way to finding the way of Buddha for myself.

What is a Master?
By definition, a Master is someone who has realized the Way of Buddha completely. I think for a lot of Westerners the word "Master" might sound a little bit peculiar or old fashioned. "Teacher" is a word we're more comfortable with. This "Master-disciple relationship" is a karmic relationship, and different people have different relations with their Master. In my case, this relationship is one that has grown; it's not something that was just there at the beginning. It took me several months just to begin to understand the direction of his teachings. Earlier I mentioned Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Suzuki Shunryu, and at some point I estimated I'd read that book fifty times, probably an exaggeration, but nevertheless, this was an important book to me. However, I realized over a period of several months that Harada Roshi's teaching was different than Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. In the process of realizing how it was different, this was about the time that I was starting to think, well, okay, this might take a little bit more time than I first imagined. It was then that I started thinking of becoming a monk.
My father came to visit me at Hosshinji, and Roshi invited him to the hojo, his room where he has guests come for tea, and it was as if there was a sense I had two fathers. It seemed to me that I had to make a choice: which one was more important? They were both about the same age, Harada Roshi about six months older than my father. I realized that if I had to choose, the relationship with Harada Roshi was more important for me.

How long had you been at Hosshinji?
Two years.

Do you and Roshi have the same emotional interplay that exists between fathers and sons?
No, that's why I would have to say that he's not my blood father, but there' a strong bond there, like that of a spiritual father; there's a deep trust in him.

You became quite sick after entering Hosshinji. What happened?
I was ordained as a priest in April 1978. Not long after that I came down with tuberculosis. It was terrifying: I didn't even know what TB was. I mean, you have some sort of lung disease, but I didn't know what was involved. It sounded really bad. I went back from the hospital and told Harada Roshi, and he just laughed and said, "Listen, don't worry about it. If I say don't worry about it, then you can really believe me." And after that I didn't really worry about it, even though that was no easy thing. I was in the hospital for exactly a year.
Were you immobilized in bed?
I could get out of bed, but couldn't leave the hospital for the first six months. Tuberculosis is a so-called zeitaku no byouki, a "luxury sickness". You're supposed to eat a lot of good food and rest and sleep. But this was back in the days when the Obama hospital was in a Quonset hut, like in the military. There were groups of beds, but everything was open, you could see down the hallway, right into the next ward, a very old Japanese style. There were six people in one section. At that time you could each have your own TV set at the foot of the bed, and sometimes they'd all be watching different shows. In my frame of mind television was the last thing I wanted to hear, so just living in that environment was very difficult. That year was like a long sesshin for me.

How did you spend your time?

There are two sides to everything, as they say. Good and bad are very relative. In my case, I was able to use the year to learn to read and write Japanese. As it turned out, foreign monks who were living at Hosshinji couldn't learn to read and write Japanese; even if they wanted to, there just wasn't enough time. As well, just before going into the hospital we had started to record my Master's talks. We wanted very much to understand his teachings and to be able to speak with and understand him in dokusan. That was critical for us.

What is dokusan and why is it so important?
Dokusan is the way we get individual teaching from the Master, particularly about practice and Zazen. It's an important part of practice. You have to speak; you have to bring your questions to dokusan. Roshi has to hear what you're thinking, and then, almost instantaneously, he can give you direction, and that's very, very important in practice. There are some people who practice without dokusan, without a Master, and in that sense it's really easy to go around in circles in your own ideas. At dokusan, the Master can take away your ideas just like that. And there's no doubt about it, we bring a lot of our own ideas and opinions from what we've read or heard. So it's important to have that face-to-face meeting with the Master to confirm whether you're really going in the right direction.
So, when I was in the hospital I'd go over and over the tapes we had made of his talks, trying to make sense out of them. That was how I got through that experience of being in the hospital. Until then there had been no translation. It was like, "What did Roshi say this morning?" and the other foreign monks would say, "Well, I think he said this or that." Now, all of Harada Roshi's talks are translated, so someone who doesn't speak any Japanese can attend sesshin and understand what's being said.

How are you adjusting to monastic life in the United States?
The San Francisco Zen Center is based on Japanese Soto Zen forms, and for that reason I feel quite comfortable there. SFZC provides a support group, as well as a support schedule in the practice, which makes it a lot easier than just living on my own. I have to say, though, that it's not a monastic life.

Are you able to contribute to a deeper understanding of Zen in the United States?
There's the possibility, but it's hard to know on what scale. For example, I can invite Harada Roshi to come and give sesshin, which he's doing in May. I gave a sesshin in Pennsylvania at the end of last year. I'm not going to take the country by storm, but I hope to make some impact.
I'm also leading a Dharma study group at SFZC, after some people asked me to get together to talk about The Essence of Zen. I have come up with this format where people reflect on the text in terms of their own practice and I respond to their inquiries or statements. At this time it is then possible to listen to how other people are reflecting on their practice. At the end we open it up for discussion. I look forward to it now. At first I wasn't really sure about how to proceed; in Japan people don't generally get together in groups and talk about the Dharma.

You've said that living at the San Francisco Zen Center resembles living at a Japanese monastery, until breakfast...
That's how I feel. There's a real tight form until breakfast, even more complicated than some of the things that we do at Hosshinji. The San Francisco Zen Center is like Eiheiji [a large monastery in Fukui Prefecture, founded by Dogen Zenji in 1243, one of the two head temples of the Soto Zen Sect]. Some monks from Eiheiji came to SFZC years and years ago and taught the various forms and practices that are still being used today. So, at SFZC, it's very formal until breakfast. At Hosshinji we eat quietly. We don't speak while we eat. At SFZC, though, we do a very short sutra for breakfast, but then people start talking, and it's quite relaxed, at least compared to where I'm from.

Are there cultural reasons for that?

Certainly. For example, Americans are used to having more freedom; there's an emphasis on rights. One thing you see at SFZC, the cooks have to cook special things for different people. Some people can't eat dairy, several people can't eat wheat, some people can't eat soybeans. That seems to be a bit of a cultural thing.

Isn't that outside the concept that one shouldn't have likes and dislikes?
That's true. The basic thing about being a monk is you take what you're given. Now, I'm not an extremist on that. My own feeling is if you can't eat it then just put it aside. But then, to expect that there has to be an alternative is another thing. Of course it would depend on the situation. And that goes back to my time at Hosshinji: if at all possible, people eat what is served, and that just seems to be the best way to go in that kind of group life. Because likes and dislikes could play into it: "I don't like that, so you have to give me something else." When you start expecting something else because you don't like it, then that's getting into the realm of discrimination. Now of course, food allergies are a different issue altogether.

What are some other differences you've noticed?
The chain of command, or authority, at the San Francisco Zen Center is much more diffused: there are two abbots. You see many more committees and board meetings; it's pretty complicated. Certainly the abbot is nothing like the figure she or he would be in Japan. At Hosshinji it's the old Japanese pyramid, the "emperor system", and the Roshi is definitely number one, and when he's not there someone else is number one, and that's clear. I think Americans by nature are much more skeptical of giving one person absolute authority.

Are people more attached to their opinions in the United States?
Dogen Zenji has a pretty straightforward formula for practice: "To study the way of Buddha is to study the 'big' Self. To study the 'big' Self is to forget the 'small' self. To forget the "small" self is to be enlightened or verified by all things." Now, he doesn't put it that way, but that's how I understand it. It's a very succinct expression of how we understand practice. In connection with the idea of having your own opinions, there's another very famous line from a Chinese sutra, which says: "Don't look for the truth, simply give up your opinions, simply cease to have opinions." There's this idea in spiritual practice that you're seeking for the truth. However, the actual way to discover that everything is the truth is to let go of dualistic ideas: good and bad, right and wrong, this and that.
In the West, especially in America, this idea of being somebody and having opinions and being able to articulate your opinions and so on is very important. If you can't do that, it's like there's something wrong with you. On the other hand, here in Zen you have this emphasis on letting go of your viewpoints and opinions. As Dogen says, "To study the way of Buddha is to study the universal Self, the Self that is one with everything." Okay, now how do you do that? All you have to do is forget the ego, that thing we associate as being "me." In other words, the body and all of those opinions that go along with it.
In American Zen, I wonder, well, has that teaching really been clearly explained? It's kind of like Zen becomes a way to keep your life together, but without doing it completely. And it's no easy thing for Japanese or Americans to give up that self-identity, because we dearly hold onto that, but my understanding of Zen practice and Zen awakening is nothing other than letting go of that. It's not like you really have a choice. I sometimes bring that up with Americans, and I say: "There is no self," and the people I talk to say, "Yeah, well," as if that idea that there is no self hasn't arrived in the West. Here in the States there's more of a tendency for people to become attached to their opinions, and then it becomes more of an argument at a certain point: who's right and who's wrong.
If you stop thinking, "This is me and these are my opinions," then everything is the truth; that's the flip side. Whatever you see, hear, taste, smell, touch and think: whatever is happening now is the truth. You don't have to look for it. In fact, looking for something is already your opinion. Let go of that. Let go of that and then wherever you are, that is the Dharma. "To study the way of Buddha is to study the big Self, the self with a capital 'S'". That equals the Dharma. The big Self is the Dharma. Wake up to the fact that everything is one already. It's not like you have to put it together, it's there already. How do you do that? Let go of that viewpoint of the ego. To me, that's what Zen practice is about.
I'm basing my observations of Zen in America on the San Francisco Zen Center, and it's only one place, that's true, I don't have much else to compare with. But, SFZC is one of the oldest.

How were you able to give up your own opinions?
To be perfectly honest, I can't say that I've given up all of my opinions. Earlier, you asked about my relationship with Roshi. And, at a certain point I realized that if I was really going to accept him as my teacher then I had to have complete faith in him. If I started to doubt what he was telling me, then there would be no end to the doubt, no way to cut it off. I realized fairly early on that I just had to do exactly what he told me to do. It wasn't blind faith: if I didn't understand, then I could ask him what he meant, but in terms of his answers, I never doubted anything. There might have been times when I didn't understand what he was saying, and I had to ask and think about it, but it was clear to me never to doubt his answers, and I can't explain exactly why that was. But, that faith in one's Master as well as verifying for yourself what he says are important aspects of letting go of your opinions.

You now live in San Francisco and Harada Roshi has moved to Europe. How does it feel to be separated from your Master?
I guess a lot of people might wonder about that, when they're leaving a monastery, how their practice might develop, but I've been with Harada Roshi for a long time, so it's not something I have to worry about.
It brings to mind the famous story of Kyogen, the Chinese priest who gave up, who thought to himself, "No, I'll never make it here," at a certain monastery where he'd been for ten years. "No, I'm just never going to get it," he thought, and went off to live on his own and gave up on practicing. He just lived his everyday life wholeheartedly, which is another definition of practice. Then, one day while he was sweeping, a rock hit a piece of bamboo, and when Kyogen heard that sound he became enlightened.

 


Nevin Thompson first came to Japan in 1994, and has since lived on the Noto Peninsula, in Toyama, Ibaraki and, most recently, Fukui Prefecture.

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