If you are interested in 'meeting the Buddha' and following his example, then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. – Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
There is a lot of meditation in this book. A lot. A lot of what most people, westerners certainly, would regard as doing nothing and thinking about nothing (mu) and that, I admit, on the surface of things does sound awfully boring and it would be if that was all Alan Spence’s new book was about. Thankfully, its subject, Hakuin Ekaku one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, was not a big fan of "Do-nothing Zen" and from the very first page I found myself enchanted by the boy I encountered there. This happened, too, when I recently read The Last Banquet—I loved the child we met on page 1 eating beetles although wasn’t nearly as enamoured with the man as he grew up—but with Night Boat there was never a point where I went off the lad we’re first introduced to as Iwajiro who becomes the young monk Ekaku and ultimately the head priest Hakuin; although he gains experience and eventually attains enlightenment, he never loses that childish innocence. Perhaps if he had gone to a military academy instead of a Zen temple his story might have been very different.
Iwajiro of the Nagasawa family is eight when we’re initially introduced to him. He’s not eating beetles. He’s been taken by his father “to hear [a] monk deliver a sermon, on the Eight Burning Hells.” It is a defining moment in the young boy’s life:
[F]rom that day on, everything had changed. The fear was always there.
He finally admits his fears to his mother:
If hell is waiting for us, how can we not be afraid? And if there is no escape, what is the point of anything we do?
His brother is less sympathetic and pretends to be a demon: “You’re going to burn in hell . . .” he calls out to his brother that night “from behind the shoji screen [in a] thin and wavery … demon-voice.”
Tenjin is the deity of Kitano shrine, she said. In life he was Michizane, a scholar and poet, a great calligrapher. As a god he is Tenjin, with the power of fire and thunder. He can drive out angry ghosts and conquer the fear of hell.
All you have to do, said my mother, is chant the sutra, every morning when you wake and every night before you sleep. It is only a few lines long, a hundred Chinese characters, but it is very powerful.
To reinforce what she’s told her son she takes him to the Sanen-ji temple which was literally across the road from where they lived. There a young monk, a very different man to the one who’d scared him with tales of hellfire, underlined what his mother had already told him with one proviso:
[T]he best time to pray to [Tenjin] is the hour of the ox, between two and three in the morning.
Responding to the mother’s unease he qualifies this by suggesting that, bearing in mind his age, Iwajiro should simply meditate as early as he could, but this is where we see the boy’s mettle because he does begin to wake in the early hours to do as he’s been bid despite his father’s disapproval. For months he continues with his devotions encouraged by his mother. That his father would not be more supportive is a little strange—for a few years he trained for the priesthood—but at least he doesn’t try too hard to dampen his spirits.
A puppet show some time later reinforces the boy’s burgeoning beliefs. It was the story of Nichiren or Nisshin-shonin. In 1427—so about two hundred years before Iwajiro was born—Nisshin wrote a book, Rissho Chikokuron, and sent it to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori. The book was critical of the Ashikaga regime and, as a result, Nisshin was arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured for two years. One of the tortures was placing a hot pot on his head, and since then he was called Nabe kamuri Nisshin, meaning “Nisshin with pot on his head". He copes with the torture by chanting a sutra similar to the one Iwajiro had been practicing. On his way home the boy announces to his mother that he intends to leave home and become a monk like Nisshin. His mother does not object: “Yes, she said. Yes. When it’s time.”
That time comes only a few years later when he reaches fourteen. He’s initially accepted into the Shoin-ji order—this was a Nichiren temple—but, after a few weeks, is transferred to Daisho-ji; the old high priest felt that living so close to home was perhaps not in the boy’s best interests. Whatever his reasons the new environment agrees with the young novice and he throws himself into his studies. The high priest at Daisho-ji is a plain speaker. When, for example, he learns where the boy, now going by Ekaku (which means ‘Wise Crane’), has come from he says of the high priest:
That old fart … He hasn’t had a thought in years. He should just write a death-verse and pack his bags and be done with it.
So it’s not surprising that when he’s finished his study of the Lotus Sutra—in honour of his mother, as the teachings of Nichiren had sustained her all her life— Ekaku tells the high priest that although the text contains “absolute jewels … they are hidden amongst so much dross, they are hard to find.” This direct, honest way of approaching Zen never leaves him and I can see why a Scot like Spence—we Scots do like to call a spade a spade—would be attracted to Hakuin as a character although we have many chapters to wade through before we see that name appear.
I chose the verb ‘wade’ not to suggest that the book is hard going because it’s not a hard read but then again it’s not a quick read. This is a man’s life here; you wouldn’t expect to flit through it in an afternoon. It took me about a week to read the 441 pages but I was in no rush to get to the end.
Of course by the end we’ve got what we pretty much expected—even if you know nothing about the subject before you start, the ending isn’t too hard to work out—but it’s not a disappointment that everything works out in the end, rather a vindication.
For all its merits and beauties, this is a novel which more readers may start than finish. Many indeed are likely to be deterred by the subject, but even those who embark on the voyage may find they are soon lost. Nor have the publishers helped them. I perforce read it in a proof copy which lacks a glossary for the many Japanese words; footnotes explaining such terms as “koan” and “kensho” and phrases like “Namu myoho renge kyo” would have been more welcome still. Perhaps this deficiency has been remedied in the finished copy. If not, it should have been.
I can see where he’s coming from and yet personally I didn’t find this an impediment to my enjoyment of the book. To be fair, some of the words are explained but Massie’s right, perhaps not enough for readers who know nothing about Zen Buddhism, not that I know much. I don’t think, for example, that the word ‘koan’ is ever defined but there are enough examples of koans throughout the book that it’s not hard to see what they’re all about and a whole chapter is devoted to Hakuin’s most famous koan—perhaps the world’s most famous koan—the sound of one hand clapping. I didn’t get it. I don’t need to get it. I got the idea of it. I think if there’d been footnotes, a glossary or an appendix this might’ve changed my experience of the book. I might have felt I was reading a textbook rather than a novel. If I wanted to study the teachings of Hakuin I’d dig out copies of his own books.
Some people have no sense of smell. I have no sense of spirituality. You would think I would hate a book like this but I really didn’t. It was a story, a work of historical fiction. It was made up. Much of it is based on recorded fact but who knows what the man was really like, any more than we know what Jesus was like. The ‘story’ of the life of Jesus is a good read. You don’t have to believe any of it but as a story it works. And so does Spence’s presentation of the life of Hakuin. His struggle is not with some extant deity—that’s the thing about Buddhism, it’s as much a philosophy as a religion—but with himself. Most religions impel an individual to kowtow to the will of some higher being and although there are gods mentioned along the way in this book they don’t have the prominence one might expect mighty gods to have. The struggle here is with the self and even the most irreligious amongst us have that to struggle with on a daily basis. Here’s as good as example as any from the book:
I had gone into the market one day with one of the young monks, Taku. He had asked with great earnestness about the aphorism Your everyday mind is the way. He found it difficult to understand, and I thought down there among the sights and sounds and smells of the marketplace he might catch a glimpse.
We stopped at the stall to buy vegetables—I picked out a few radishes and leeks and the girl placed them in a sack Taku had brought with him. Everything on the stall was laid out just so, the fruits and vegetables piled high. Right in the centre was a basket of persimmons, perfect and ripe. I could smell their sweetness. I told Taku to choose one and he asked the girl which was best.
She bowed to him and smiled.
They are all the best, she said.
I laughed and slapped Taku on the back.
You see, Taku, I said. This young woman has a deep understanding of Zen.
Do you get it? I don’t get it but then I don’t need to get it. I’m content to stand at a distance and watch poor Taku go red with embarrassment.
What is particularly remarkable is Spence’s evocation of 17th and 18th century Japan. Had this been handed to me with the author’s name redacted there’s no way I would’ve credited this book to a westerner. Well, there were a couple of expressions that might’ve made me wonder but I’d have probably laid them at the door of the translator.
This book won’t be for everyone but don’t prejudge it either. Good writing is good writing. It really doesn’t matter what the subject matter is.
Alan Spence is Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, where he is also artistic director of the annual WORD Festival. He was born in Glasgow in 1947, and much of his work is set in the city. He was recently commissioned by Scottish Opera for words for a libretto Zen Story, with music by Miriama Young. His first work was the collection of short stories Its Colours They Are Fine, published in 1977. This was followed by two plays, Sailmaker in 1982 and Space Invaders in 1983. The novel The Magic Flute appeared in 1990. In 1991 his play, Changed Days, was published before a brief hiatus. He returned in 1996 with Stone Garden, another collection of short stories. Since then he has published the novels Way To Go (1998) and The Pure Land (2006), a historical novel set in Japan based on the life of Thomas Blake Glover as immortalised in the story of Madame Butterfly.
His first poetry collection, Plop!, was published in 1970 and has since written several more collections, such as Glasgow Zen in 1981 and most recently Morning Glory (with illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder) in 2010. He is considered to be the leading Scottish haiku writer, with collections including Seasons of the Heart and Clear Light.
He has won a Scottish Arts Council Book award three times, was the SAC Scottish Writer of the Year in 1995, and in 2006 won the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland (Writing) Award in 2006. Alan Spence now lives in Edinburgh with his wife, where they run the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre.