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“I thought I had killed my patient.” Nodo Daito Roshi is my grandfather teacher. He was a doctor of acupuncture prior to becoming a Zen priest. His family had migrated to Manchuria prior to World War II. His mother said that they had so much land that they could ride naked on a horse for miles without being seen. When the war ended, they lost everything and had to return to Japan with heads bowed.
Daito Roshi’s father owned a small piece of land near the top of a mountain in the city of Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku. At the foot of the mountain was a soy sauce factory and up above was a bird sanctuary. The family returned to a house that was collapsing in on itself, they had little money, and five children that needed support. The youngest was sent to America – adopted – because they were too poor to care for him.
As the oldest child, his father having died young, Daito Roshi had to become self-sufficient and to help his mother care for the remaining children. He studied acupuncture and had recently opened his practice when he thought that he had accidentally killed one of his patients. He was so distraught that when he met a Buddhist priest at the local bar, had had a few cups of sake in him, he confessed his problem saying, “Maybe I should become a priest like you to make amends for what I have done.”
In Japanese culture few people choose to be a priest. Most are born into it. Their fathers are priests and it’s their obligation to train a certain number of years at a training monastery before eventually assuming their father’s home-temple. If one does choose to be a priest, meaning that their father is not a priest, then it’s often because one has done something regrettable, and they need to repay, or at least feel they owe an obligation back to society in some way. This was the case for Daito Roshi.
“Daishin-san, please don’t think less of me because I drank sake. If I had not had a few drinks in me, I would never have considered becoming a priest,” Daito Roshi told me.
Noda Daito Roshi is pictured center. His son, Dainen-san, is on the right. My teacher, Dai-En Roshi, is on the left.
The picture was taken at Kappa Dojo, in Takamatsu City on the island of Shikoku. They are inside the Buddha Hall, the place where sutras are chanted.
It’s considered against the Buddhist precepts to consume alcohol. Yet, in Japanese culture, alcohol is one of the primary means in facilitating true communication, so one gains the confidence to speak their mind. Had Daito Roshi not had those few drinks in him, he may never had become a priest, my teacher may never have met him, and I may never have met my teacher. I can say today that thanks to alcohol I am a priest.
Daishun Shimbi, the priest with which he was conversing with at the bar said, “Hold on a minute before you jump to conclusions. Wait for the autopsy and then make your decision.”
The autopsy revealed that indeed the man died of other causes not related to malpractice.
“But I got the kick in the butt that I needed to get me on the Buddhist path,” Daito Roshi said.
It did not matter to Daito Roshi that he had not killed someone. The incident had helped him to wake up to the reality of life and death. He had an awakening because of the remorse that he felt. He couldn’t undo that awakening, and, though the immediate causes of the awakening turned out to be illusory, he had nonetheless raised the Bodhimind. He couldn’t stuff the genie back in the bottle.
In Zen practice there’s no need to dwell on past mistakes in a self-flagellating kind of way. This kind of inward mutilation only leads further into suffering. Rather, the past is dwelt on for the purpose of remembering how the present manifested, and where one might need to improve themselves. Recalling one’s past mistakes can be a means of orientation toward and affirmation of the Dao, the path of the Buddha.
This is the back of my rakusu, or abbreviated Buddha robe. It’s one of the items I received when I took Shukke Tokudo, or initiation into priesthood.
It reads, “Do shin no naka, e, jiki ari.” The translation is, “If you have a heart for the way [the ‘way seeking mind’], then you will always have enough food to eat and clothing to wear.”
Dogen Zenji says that all monks must raise the Bodhimind, the mind that seeks Enlightenment, at least once in their lifetimes. One can then think back on their Bodhimind as needed, to propel them up the mountain of Enlightenment.
Daito Roshi went to train at Zuioji, a Soto Zen training monastery, and never looked back. A few years later, after his training completed, he began to build his temple from scratch on the small piece of land he had inherited from his father on the side of the mountain, next to the bird sanctuary. He started by sitting zazen alone in the Takamaya department store, begging for alms, expressing the need, to anyone who would listen, to construct a Zen temple that ministers to the welfare of children.
One person donated an old school bus. This was to become the first Zendo. The seats were soldered out, an altar was made in the back, and zafus for zazen were stacked in the racks above where the seats had been.
The soy sauce factory at the foot of the mountain had discarded large heavy wooden planks no longer useful for brewing soy sauce. Daito Roshi asked if he may use them, and they were donated to the Dojo. Without a car he carried one plank at a time up the mountain and constructed the first huts.
This is an image from inside the bus. My teacher is dressed in white. Notice the zafus on the top racks, and the altar at one end of the bus. The teaching hear is that you don’t need a fancy temple in order to practice. You just need a heart for the way.
Both the bus and the huts embody the Zen teaching that we use whatever is at our hands to promote and practice the Dharma. Nothing gets wasted. It’s an important lesson in taking what seems like garbage and turning it into lotus flowers. This is the spirit in which Daito Roshi lives by, and is also the spirit of Zen.
Starting from a small piece of land on the side of a mountain he eventually created a meditation hall, a sutra chanting hall, a kitchen, a place for lodging, and a school that is specifically for bullied children who can’t make it in the mainstream public schools. Kappa Dojo is one of only a handful of temples in Japan dedicated to youth in this way.
“All my past and harmful karma, born from beginningless greed, hate and delusion, through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow.”
Zen asks us at the start of each day to remember our past bad karma, our mistakes, to accept them, and then to use the memory of them to motivate us to create good karma that may benefit the widest number of people possible.