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Shundo Aoyama Roshi

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question. “How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

Paradoxical and enigmatic, this statement alludes to a classic Zen koan: Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves. Zen koans—those ancient Chinese anecdotes, dialogues, and apothegms that Zen students are assigned to memorize and contemplate—often pose logic-defying questions (“What was your original face before your parents were born?”). By internalizing the question and living with it for a time, the student awakens intuitive insight. In this instance, however, the main point of interest is not the question but the master’s answer. What might it mean, we might inquire, to walk straight by winding along?

Such an inquiry might begin with consideration of the word straight, which calls to mind a venerable Zen saying: Jikishin kore dojo (“The straightforward mind is the place of practice.”). In Japanese, jiki can mean “direct,” “correct,” or “looking straight ahead.” Closely associated with Zen, the tea ceremony, and the martial arts, jikishin kore dojo equates the “place of practice” with the “straightforward mind” of the Zen practitioner. Free of anger, craving, and other destabilizing emotions, the straightforward mind perceives things as they are. To walk straight is to embody and realize this capacity. And it is also to pursue, with integrity and a single-minded sense of purpose, one’s chosen vocation.

To do so may well require one to climb a “steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves.” In her commentary on Watanabe’s admonition, the Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi recalls the injunction of an earlier Zen master, Eihei Dogen, to “do good single-mindedly and continually.” “`Continually,’” she reminds us, “does not mean without stopping. As in driving a car, when we go down the road of life we cannot expect the traffic lights always to be green. Sometimes we have to stop at the red light of illness. . . . But stopping, retreating, or making a wide detour is more enriching and gives us far more inner strength than traveling down a straight and easy road.” The road of life, in other words, is seldom linear, and it is often complicated by dead ends, detours, and retreats—by its steepness and ninety-nine curves. Why ninety-nine? Like the phrase “the ten thousand things,” which crops up often in Zen and Taoist teachings, “ninety-nine” may be understood to mean “a great many.” It refers to the innumerable, unexpected stops and turns that one is more than likely to encounter.

Faced with the ninety-nine curves, we might prefer to take a short cut. The shortest distance, as we know, between two points is a straight line. “Walking straight” might imply avoiding the ninety-nine curves altogether. But such an attitude and the actions it engenders are neither constructive nor realistic. “When told to walk straight,” Aoyama writes, “we stupidly think we have to cross mountains, hills, rivers, and the sea in a straight line. Ignoring traffic lights, we dash off like a race car, looking neither left nor right. But we only deceive ourselves into thinking we progress as we lurch forward.”

By contrast, to “wind along” a winding road is to align oneself with the realities one is actually encountering. Embodying the “straightforward mind” of the committed practitioner, one makes true progress, impeded and delayed though it be by stops, turns, detours, and other apparent setbacks. To progress in this way requires patience and persistence. It also requires the ability to see clearly and the courage to resist, when necessary, those voices calling for rapidity, efficiency, or a culpable expediency.

Today more than a hundred projects are underway, one of the most promising being at Oxford University, to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. To those doctors and research scientists who are working night and day to accomplish that purpose: Thank you, and Godspeed. But for the rest of us, who have little practical choice but to wait, patiently or otherwise, for that urgent goal to be met, Watanabe Roshi’s advice is both timely and on the mark. Walking straight may well mean winding along.

__________

In her commentary: Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds: Essential Buddhist Teachings on Effort, Gratitude, and Happiness (Shambhala, 2019), 61.
 

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