This afternoon I drove up to Mukilteo, took the ferry across to Whidbey Island, and at 3.00 had tea with the Zen Master Roshi Harada Shodo. I had been introduced to him at a master lesson and exhibition of his zenga, or Zen based calligraphic treatments at his zendo, or training center in…a part of Seattle. As the last part of his name implies, s h o d o speaks of the “way” of writing. “Sho” is writing, “do” is way, in Japanese (Tao, the “way’ is in Chinese). Cha do is, by the same measure, the way of tea.
Driving out on the sunlit marshes and pastureland to this farmhouse was a shocking, but alluring break from the furious pace of the earlier day. High, nimbus cloud forms burgeoned on the horizon, a brilliant blue sky shown through, contrasting the verdant greens of the farmlands and forests. The sea channel glimmered in the furthest plain, refracting the scintillate light from the sun. The air was fresh, windswept from the salt-spray of the waterside, lapping at the edge of the distant, sea-timbered shoreline.
Arriving at the farm rented by the school for the Zesshin, or meditation retreat, was curious. It was a ranch style, nondescript structure, stationed in the middle of a cordoned field; horses gathered in the distance. Peering into the main house, I observed the participants in zazen, the formal position of meditation of Zen Buddhism. All members were dressed in the formal garb of classical Japanese attire, sashed heavy grade woven cotton, carefully pleated and starched, lighter undergarments, kimono-like in form; this, a quirky mix in the very non-Asian field of architecture and surroundings. As I arrived, my contact came out and greeted me and bade me entrance to another separate structure, the guesthouse, a smallish, discrete building located away from the main house.
Removing my shoes, I entered, still wearing my suit and overcoat, detailed with a pin, one of the eight Buddhist treasures, the eternal knot of silver. The space had the bitter scent of the green cha, a powerful, bright green, dense tea, smoky and strong, served in large, two hands-sized bowls, coupled with the faint wisp of incense, the delicate note one experiences in Buddhist temples in Japan.
The Roshi turned 60 this year. He has a questioning expression, as if he is constantly smitten with curiosity. His face, with its marvelous sense of openness, looks ready to laugh, and when he exclaims, his smile cracks wide in a facial gesture of complete, joyful hilarity. He is lean and looks like he laughs a lot. Roshi was sitting on the pad commonly used in meditation; his translator sat nearby. After the typical introductions and felicitations in Japanese, we sat and passed the time. The talk in the beginning was casual, friendly, exchanging the usual pleasantries that are the frequent opening discourse in Japanese.
He said, since I was wearing this Buddhist knot on my outer lapel, was I familiar with Buddhism, perhaps a practicing Buddhist student? Did I have any questions about Zen? I asked some questions.
How did I learn about Zen? I spoke of my introduction to Zen (to his inquiry) some 25 years ago, when I first read “Zen and Japanese Culture”, by the great American Roshi, Daisetz Suzuki, who a quarter century earlier had brought the first simple teaching of Zen (or in the Chinese: Chan) Buddhism to the U.S. I indicated that my experience with this cultural expression and form of worship was electrified by the connection between the simple, shibui spirit of Zen and its visual outcomes in gardens, temple compounds, stone arrangements, sand oceans, calligraphy and painting, food, flower arrangement, swordplay and sword making, archery and sculpture. I said that I was still perhaps too preoccupied with the outcomes-the outside-and less focused on the inner spirit of Zen.
He said: “Sometimes you have to walk around the garden, maybe to be on the outside, outside of the fence, to begin to see what is inside. To take the first step to the inside, you must start on the outside.” He then gave me a piece of calligraphy, “Bamboo has joints, above and below”, which he had inscribed. What does that mean? I don’t know. (image attached) It has a tall vertical stroke, which has the feeling of a powerful piece of bamboo. Bamboo has a special place for me, as you might know, from the arrangements in the lobby, telling our story and working methods. I explained how, when I was younger, I introduced a toddler child to bamboo, all the different types, and how it grows. How it mysteriously comes out of the ground in one form, then turns into another. It is supple, yet strong. This child called me “bamboo” for years (now he’s in college in LA). He asked if I had any examples of my work, since this was part of my introduction to him.
I told him that I had always been fascinated by the energy of Chinese/Japanese calligraphy and painting and that, with the Zen book I mentioned, how this had influenced my work. “Energy is eternal delight”, said William Blake, and for me, this is the potency of this form of calligraphy and drawing, it speaks of capturing the energy of the thing said, the spirit of the object to be illustrated; it’s ch’i; it’s energy and vitality are expressed in gesture. I gave him a tsumaranaimono (“a boring little nothing”), a keepsake book of cards of the Girvin 20th Anniversary cards. He went through them carefully. And said, in Japanese: “So, I see”.
He asked what kind of work was I doing in Japan, and what is this thing called “branding”? He was given the article from the recent Sunday treatment in the Times as part of the introduction. I explained that, as in Japan, marks and symbols for a company, or in the specific Japanese instance, a family crest, speak of the spirit, the driving flame of that entity. Branding is about finding the flame, and keeping it lit. This is what we do. Here, and in his homeland. He said that in Japan, “sometimes the wrapping is so beautiful on the outside, you keep unwrapping layer upon wonderful layer, and then, when you get to the center, there is nothing”. I asked, is Zen in the center, or the outside?
I acknowledged that perhaps a lot of what our profession did was on the outside, but that the important essence was on the inside. We tried to understand this first, then work outwardly. This inquiry led to the obvious overview, that sometimes you are on the outside, with the fancy dressing and “packaging”, but it is what is held in the interior that is most important. “All of us are progressively unwrapping, to get to the center, slowly, or in some instances, quickly. “This was an interesting experience, of the interior and the exterior, and certainly something that has been part of my exploratory all of these years. Looking into the garden, to the beauty of the inside arrangements, exquisite in their simplicity, yet surrounded by the containment of the outside, perhaps also beautiful expressions of the “soul” that lies inside. The Roshi said: “They both have their value, their place. It all depends on where you are, on the path”.
With that, one hour later, I left. He went into dinner.
Thanks for your considerations.