RYOKAN SAN and TAKUHATSU IN AMERICA (Excerpt)
by Eido Frances Carney (Olympia Zen Center, Olympia, Washington)
On the narrow, stone paths that curl up the hill in Tamashima, Izumozaki, or Bunsui, there are echoes of Ryokan san. His woven sandals leave soft imprints on the dirt walkways. His koromo rustles, just barely, if you draw near. The ching-ching of his begging stick resonates against the old walls of the cities. We find solace in his presence, are comforted by the opportunity to remember this moment as refuge - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha - the oneness in giving and receiving.
Ryokan san as teacher of Takuhatsu speaks of the lineage he follows, a true student of Shakyamuni Buddha who first led monks on begging rounds: "Long ago the Prince of Pure Eating preached how to beg, and the Beggar of Beggars truly acted out his teaching. Since then it is two thousand, seven hundred years and more. Yet am I no less a faithful pupil of the first Teacher. Therefore I beg, a bowl in my hands, a gown on my back."
If we near the heart of Ryokan san, we cannot miss this echo - the living breath of his teaching. We hear the presence of Ryokan san in America. Yet, when we enter Zen practice in America, we do not see the practice of Takuhatsu. How deeply can we follow Ryokan san? Can the practice of Takuhatsu take root in America?
In America, the practice of Takuhatsu is not so direct and simple. Ryokan san's choice to practice humility and poverty through the actual practice of Takuhatsu, is against the law in some places. We do not see monks begging on the street, we see the homeless, the disabled, the forlorn. Begging is no longer a religious activity. The word "begging" has taken on overtones of distaste for it is thought to be the practice of those who are too lazy to work of those who are homeless, sick, or infirm, or practiced by people who are drug addicts and are "ripping off" others. It is seen as something vile and distasteful.
Takuhatsu and begging appear to have different meanings and different intentions. Takuhatsu is a religious gesture, an activity of prayer for the benefit of society. Both the monk and the public are recipients or beneficiaries of Dharma. To give to the support of a monk's life, is to express full trust in the life and truth of Dharma. To give alms in this way is itself virtuous and expresses recognition of the living Dharma. The one who taps the begging stick and the one who puts an offering in the bowl are the one practice of Takuhatsu. Both are one supporting the Dharma.
The word "begging" is the only word we have in English for the practice once performed by mendicants, although the word "panhandling" is now used. But today, to be a beggar is to be one who is impoverished, homeless, infirm, indigent, to be so miserably poor that one is forced to ask for alms to survive. But the homeless are the Buddha of the Present asking for food. A distinction between Takuhatsu and begging may appear in society's eyes, but it cannot be separated through the eyes of Shakyamuni Buddha. There can be no difference between the mendicant and the street person. If we give to the homeless on the street, we are giving to the whole life of Buddha.
In America, religious begging has all but disappeared. In the 1950's, religious organizations practiced begging on city streets. Religious went from door to door, or they stood at train stations, or outside factories accepting donations. This was acceptable and recognized as virtuous practice.
The disappearance of the religious from the activity of begging may have had more to do with the increased wealth of the religious communities than the denigration of begging. Few religious groups truly practice poverty in the style in which Ryokan san lived. Most religious live in comfortable housing with excellent meals and an income. Begging has been institutionalized in the form of fundraising and is conducted by every church and nonprofit corporation in America. Giving is no longer the direct matter from the donor to the begging bowl.
It seems time to begin Takuhatsu in America in the spirit of Ryokan san and in recognition of our true homelessness. Ryokan san taught us this way. If we fail to commit ourselves to the deepest level in practice, we will be picking and choosing what we like or don't like in practice. We will commit an ignorant cultural selection, which eliminates what it doesn't feel is appropriate or suitable, and we will fail to transmit the full teachings which dwell in the realm of Buddha and are beyond culture, itself.
The practice of Takuhatsu does not teach us to be dependent upon society, asking for something that is not earned, or pressuring a community for an entitlement to food or goods. Rather, it teaches us to be dependent on nothing, to live our original homelessness, to include the homeless in thought and deed, to share everything, to accept what comes to us, to be generous, to be humble in society, to recognize the timid, to resist fame, to be modest, to resist the acquisition of goods, to throw off ego, to have the courage to be fully visible in practice. And as we practice Takuhatsu, that is what we teach and that becomes our culture.
Here in the small city of Olympia we are one of many Zen centers just beginning. Once we establish our Zendo, we may move gently toward Takuhatsu, respecting the community, honoring its needs and the people who live in it. We can begin slowly in our own neighborhood informing the community of our practice and what it means. We cannot force Takuhatsu upon others, but we can begin where we are known, just as Ryokan san did, familiar to those in Izumozaki and Bunsui, wherever he went.
Making money or filling the bowl is not the point. The point is the practice of Emptiness. When we see that we are all dependent upon the same Emptiness, that we are all homeless, we can fully exchange the deepest meaning of this practice. Our giving away, our receiving are the same act. The spiritual act of Takuhatsu reminds us where our true treasures are and that the begging bowl and the hand filling it are always Empty.
Ryokan san's familiarity with the townsfolk never guaranteed a full stomach. Once he wrote: "This rank absurdity of mine, when can I throw it away? This abject poverty I shall take to the grave with me. After dark, along the dirt road of a decaying village, I carry homeward my begging bowl, weathered and empty." We see that Takuhatsu is Emptiness, itself, not the practice of acquiring goods or food. Ryokan san expresses this even when something does arrive in his bowl: "After a long day of begging in the city, I go homeward, fully contented with what I have got in my begging bag. Holy man, which way lies your home, your resting place? Somewhere beneath those clouds, is all I know about it."
The echoes of Ryokan san's begging stick are the teacher, resonating wherever practice is, across the ocean to America, to the forested land of the north. The weathered bowl is waiting, the sandals are resting at the gate.
Translations of Ryokan san's poetry are from Yuasa, Nobuyuki. The Zen Poems of Ryokan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
This article has been translated to Japanese and will be published in THE JOURNAL OF RYOKAN SAN, a publication of the Ryokan san Society of Japan.