Posts Tagged ‘Shundo Aoyama’

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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In a recent article for the New York Times (April 14), Jim Dwyer reported that the doctors and health-care workers at the front lines of the corona-virus pandemic are facing challenges not only to their health and safety but also to their previous medical knowledge. “What we thought we knew, we didn’t know,” said Dr. Nile Cemalovic, an intensive-care physician at Lincoln Memorial Center in the Bronx. As Dwyer explains, “certain ironclad emergency medical practices have dissolved almost overnight.”

By any standard, the circumstances under which doctors and health-care workers are currently laboring are extraordinary. At the same time, the experience of finding one’s knowledge obsolete or no longer useful is not unique to the present crisis. “Our knowledge is historical, flowing,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Bishop. And, according to Zen teachings, our previously acquired knowledge can also be an impediment to present understanding. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts the matter this way: (more…)

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Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly. (more…)

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