The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo - Selections
Hit the road with one of the most important Zen masters of the twentieth-century.
No Need to be Chained
People call me Homeless Kodo, but I don’t think they particularly intend to disparage me. They say “homeless” probably because I never had a temple or owned a house. Anyway, all human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home.
I’ve selected some of Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma words from my notebooks, which I kept while I practiced with him for twenty-five years. I’d like to savor them together with readers.
It wasn’t necessarily comfortable for me, as his disciple, that Sawaki Roshi was called Homeless Kodo. The word homeless has associations with stray dogs and alley cats. However, if all human beings are actually homeless, this nickname can be understood as an honorific title for a person who lives in accordance with reality.
As a disciple of a “homeless” teacher, I myself was homeless. I had to get daily food and provisions through takuhatsu, religious begging. Dogs often threatened me. Once a spitz jumped up and barked viciously. The chain tied to the dog’s collar wasn’t tight enough, and suddenly it came undone. The dog immediately cowered, whined, and retreated. It seems a dog barks overbearingly when chained, but loses nerve as soon as it’s free.
It was entertaining to see that the dog behaved like some human beings. However, it’s rather pitiful when humans act like that dog. Some people high-handedly bark at others while they’re leashed by financial power, social status, or organizational authority, but as soon as the chains are removed they become gutless and powerless, and they retreat. Such people are truly miserable. I hope to be a person who can live majestically while “homeless.”
For human beings, it’s best to be without chains.
This is the first article Uchiyama Roshi wrote in his series of weekly newspaper columns titled Yadonashi Hokku-san. Hokku literally means “Dharma phrases.” This word is used as the translation of the title of one of the oldest and most well-known Buddhist scriptures in the Pali canon: the Dhammapada. As he writes in chapter 8 of this book, Uchiyama Roshi intended this series of columns to be the Dhammapada of modern times.
Yadonashi, or “homeless” was Sawaki Roshi’s nickname, and in the Zen tradition, san means to meet a teacher to study and practice. So the title means studying and digesting the Dharma words of the homeless Zen master.
Sawaki Roshi’s nickname was coined by Rev. Yuho Hosokawa of the Buddhist publishing house Daihorinkaku, who edited the collection of Sawaki Roshi’s talks. When the editor had to contact Roshi, it was often difficult to find him because he was always traveling to teach. Sawaki Roshi called his style of teaching a “moving monastery.” When his editor called one place, they said, “Roshi was here but left several days ago.” Or “We expect Roshi soon, but he’s not here yet.” At that time, not many people in Japan had telephones. If Sawaki Roshi had known cellphones, I’m sure he would have considered them a leash.
Yadonashi refers to people removed from the census during the Tokugawa period. Some were criminals, while many others were farmers who left their home villages because of natural disasters or other reasons. They were considered outcasts. The label yadonashi had very negative connotations. However, if we interpret this expression in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, it refers to one of the three kinds of nirvana: mujusho nehan, the nirvana of no abiding. Bodhisattvas do not abide in samsara because of wisdom and do not rest in nirvana because of compassion.
2. Having Finally Returned to a True Way of Life
A religion that has nothing to do with our fundamental attitude toward our lives is nonsense. Buddhadharma is a religion that teaches us how to return to a true way of life. “Subduing non-Buddhists,” or converting people, means helping them transform their lives from a half-baked, incomplete way to a genuine way.
More than fourteen hundred years have passed since Buddhism was first transmitted to Japan. There’s something surprising in the achievements of Buddhist monks during this long history: they’ve never taught Japanese people the essence of Buddhism as a religion. In no other field of endeavor can a person waste time like this; if a pilot fails to operate an airplane, the plane will crash. But if a priest makes a mistake chanting sutras during a funeral, the deceased will not complain. Probably this is why priests can get away with laziness.
Sawaki Roshi comes directly to the heart of the matter and says, in a living, modern language, “Buddhadharma is a religion that allows us to live a genuine life.” From the time of Shakyamuni, Buddhism should have simply taught this point. Nevertheless, in the history of Buddhism, too much emphasis has been put on various ridiculous superstitions, and this fundamental point has been lost. We should reflect whether we are living our lives with an unshakably stable attitude. Please savor the following Dharma words.
Most people don’t act based on penetrating insights into their lives. They do things in a makeshift way, like putting a bandaid on their shoulder when they have soreness.
To be born human is rare, and we should be grateful and use our lives meaningfully. It’s absurd to get depressed because you don’t have money. It’s rubbish to become neurotic simply because you’re not sitting in a VIP seat. It’s foolish to cry merely because you were rejected by your girlfriend. Rather, having been born human, we should live a life worth living.
“Religion” is a translation of the Japanese word shukyo. Shukyo literally means teaching (kyo) about the ultimate truth (shu)—the truth to which the Buddha awakened, and his teachings on this truth. Because Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi use shukyo with this original meaning, the English word religion might cause confusion.
Of course, Uchiyama Roshi exaggerates somewhat in saying Japanese Buddhist monks have failed to teach the essence of Buddhism. There have been great Buddhist masters, such as Dogen Zenji and others, and many sincere monks and lay Buddhists. However it’s true that Buddhist monks have mainly taught worship of buddhas and bodhisattvas for worldly benefit, doing good and avoiding evil to be reborn in heaven rather than hell, and ancestor worship through funerals, memorial services, and other ceremonies.
Is it fair to call all these activities superstitions? Some priests in traditional Buddhist institutions, as well as some scholars of religion and cultural anthropology, wouldn’t agree with Uchiyama Roshi. But Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi are speaking from the “homeless” practitioner’s perspective, which has nothing to do with religious institutions or ordinary religious culture. For them, shukyo simply means to study, practice, and live the fundamental truth. Even when they’re respected, such people have often been considered outsiders within religious institutions. For example, Rev. Reirin Yamada, a former president of Komazawa University who later became abbot of Eiheiji monastery said, “Sawaki Roshi was a respectable Zen master. But because he spoke ill of Buddhist priests, I didn’t like him.”
“Having finally returned to a true way of life” is a translation of Sawaki Roshi’s expression ikituku tokoro e ikituita jinsei, or “the way of life having reached where we should reach.” Since this is unique wording, it’s difficult to translate. Uchiyama Roshi fully discusses this expression in an essay in the second part of this book, “Kodo Sawaki Roshi’s Zazen.” When he first listened to Sawaki Roshi’s lectures, Uchiyama Roshi thought this was the essential point of Sawaki Roshi’s teaching. The expression conveys Sawaki Roshi’s understanding of Dogen Zenji’s teaching that “we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha because these three are the place we finally return.” I think this expression also has the connotation of paramita, perfection, or crossing the boundary between samsara and nirvana. We practice not to get somewhere better. We practice here and now, transcending the distinction between samsara and nirvana.
This expression is also associated with the Lotus Sutra parable of a rich father and his poor son. The son left home when young and wandered here and there seeking clothing and food, sometimes receiving, sometimes not. Sawaki Roshi considers our makeshift way of life in samsara like the destitute son’s wandering. To practice zazen is to return to our true home and settle there.
It’s important to consider this chapter and the previous one together. Sawaki Roshi’s way of life was without a fixed home, yet his attitude toward life was resolute. He said, “I don’t grow rice, I don’t compose poems; I know what I do.”