Sogenji Journal - Shinkai's Birthday Poem

Spring has arrived at Sogenji, and almost overnight the cherry blossoms have burst forth, bringing tons of Japanese tourists to the temple grounds looking for the peak-moment photograph. Spring blossoms and fall colors are like Christmas and Easter for the Japanese – real celebratory events. sogenji cherry blossoms

My 64th birthday came on my last full day at Sogenji. I was hoping to slip it under the radar, but Chisan has a way of knowing about these things. So as tradition here has it, I was expected to offer a poem to commemorate the occasion. My poem was received with the reverent respect that is my due as an elder in the community. I'll share it with you here:

Curse you Paul McCartney

Long ago you predicted that this would happen.

Now it has come to pass,

And I must learn the painful truth.

'Will they still need me

Will they still feed me,

When I'm sixty-four?'

But I will not give in to fear.

'On top of Mt. Sogenji I have met the painful stick,

And there is still one more shout coming.'

'At this moment, what more need I seek?'

I will wander the world as a beggar now,

At least until next Tuesday

When my plane touches down in Seattle

And I wake from this dream,

Wondering . . .

                 what . . .

                               happened . . .

(Commentary on the poem for those unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of Zen:

  • Paul McCartney is a British singer/songwriter.
  • The allusion to "meeting the painful stick" and to "one more shout coming" is from The Preface to the Saying of Zen Master Rinzai, which we recite every morning during sutra service.
  • The “painful stick” is a reference to the kyosaku, a flattened wooden rod that the head monk carries around to whack any monk foolish enough to doze off on the cushion.
  • “At this moment what more need I seek” is plagiarized from Hakuin Zenki's Song of Zazen, which we also, unfortunately, recite every morning during the 4:00 hour.

Kurt with chiselThings changed for me at Sogenji when word got out that I had carpentry skills. I have been plenty busy during the daily work time, which usually lasts three hours. I've used my work practice to build two beds and three desks for the guesthouse, putting the final touches on them just as my last work period was drawing to a close today. This work has been a lot of fun, and it has given me the illusion that I am being "useful".

Sogenji table





The monks have generally found my woodworking projects entertaining, and they like to check in on my progress.


Kurt with desks


In fact, I have decided to start a new line of furniture. I'm calling it Sogenji Shaker. It is guaranteed made with inadequate tools, cheap materials, compressed work time, and no flat surfaces to work on. And it has given me something creative to not think about while I am on the cushion.





Ko zan takuhatsu

Probably two thirds of these students are from Eastern Europe; primarily Hungary, Poland and Russia. When I ask why they think that is, I've been given some fascinating answers. In their view, the Eastern European countries came out of the Soviet era spiritually starved, and they have had to reinvent a foundation for spiritual growth and practice. Many of them also carry a strong devotional spirit from their traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths, but without a sense of belonging within those traditions in the new era. Buddhism is turning out to be a compelling place to invest that spirit and passion.

They have also inherited a cultural identity crisis from the Soviet era, along with persistently lousy economies, and are having to rediscover who they are now within the matrix. So for these young people, finding this full-bodied place of practice has given them a new lease on life, along with a stong community of international colleagues. Almost all of them intend to return to their home countries after a few years of training here, and to express the fruits of their training in a life of service there.


Tomorrow I leave Sogenji for Kyoto for two days with my friend Yuho, an American Zen monk who runs a temple there. I am really looking forward to this time in the old capital of Japan, before I fly home on April 1st. Chisan informed me today that Harada is also traveling to Kyoto tomorrow, along with Sho-e, his senior German student, so I will take the bullet train with them. Being with Harada outside of the training environment is a little intimidating. But then being with him in the training environment is intimidating too. That's just how it is with him. Chisan seems to think its a great idea, and besides, I'm not really being given a choice. So no doubt this will keep the adventure going.