Daizan remembers his first week at Gyokuryuji with Shinzan Roshi

Week One at Gyokuryuji
Digging bamboo shoots

Digging bamboo roots

Digging bamboo shoots

It was the beginning of April, the time when most Zen temples in Japan have an elaborate ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth. Instead, our Zen master, Shinzan Roshi, had us out in the bamboo grove below Gyokuryuji Temple digging up fresh bamboo shoots to eat. The ease and vigour of his movements belied his seventy-odd years. Bamboo roots are tough and awkward to dig so after a few hours work we rested in the shade drinking mugi cha, chilled barley tea.

Shinzan Roshi sat beside me. “No ceremony today,” he said. “ We make new baby Buddha like this.” He made digging movements with his hands.

I was new in the temple having spent fourteen years practising in a formal and tradition-minded Zen monastery in the UK. Shinzan Roshi’s freewheeling style and palpable joy were very different.

“Baby is very beautiful,” he continued. “Human baby is just completely perfect. When hungry it cries, when sleepy it sleeps.” He smiled and added, “Perhaps in Christian Bible, The Garden of Eden is like this baby time. But it is a very, very short time. We grow, study, leave the happy garden and long, long time, maybe longest of any animal, we grow.

“As we grow, grow, grow, the me, me, me is stronger and stronger. This is me,” he pointed to himself. “That is world,” he pointed away.

“Adult time is split. Little me: great big world. This is needed. Adult person is responsible so I must know myself, take charge of my life. I wanted to be big businessman, make money, build something.” He laughed. I had heard previously that his business ventures had been spectacular disasters.

“But also adult time is very lonely. Little me: great big world. That is why we practice.” He stood up. “Our practice is to now dig bamboo.”

Over the following months and years, I watched Shinzan Roshi expand on these simple truths. Whoever came with a wish to learn, he would meet them where they were. I saw farmers, gangsters, stressed executives, people of all types coming to the temple.

He welcomed them all, seeming to take particular delight in those who’d been treated most harshly by life. Frequently people would come who were so damaged that their behavior would disrupt temple routine. The rest of us trainees had to learn how to manage the situation to benefit all concerned. Believing that, “The lotus blooms in the heart of the fire,” Shinzan Roshi would constantly create situations where the koan of daily life was unavoidable.

He was also delighted by those who came with a burning desire to find the truth. He gave a Dharma talk every morning, frequently starting with “First priority is kensho; second priority is kensho; third priority is kensho.” Noting my previous background, Shinzan Roshi took great amusement in un-stuffing me from monastic formalities. My practice with him was intense and stretching. We lived through fire, human drama and physical exposure. Looking back I feel tremendously blessed.