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  First Time Round  


First Time Round

Gary Snyder  

May 21, 1956

Arita Maru

Coasting along Wakayama: the sharp cut steep green haze hills, boats about, high-prowed dip slop in wave wash and new white-bellied birds following wavelick over, then, morning passing — sitting under a lifeboat watching land slip by. Beyond Awaji Island — jokes about Genji. Into the long smoggy Osaka bay leading finally up to Kobe — ship upon ship — rusty Korean tiny freighters — and to the pier.

A truckload of seals on the road by Customs snaking their tiny heads about. And train, and thousands of crowded tile-roof houses along the track, little patches of tended ground; O man — poorness and small houses.

May 23,1956


...they make references to short hours of sleep and simple food — good Xrist you'd think Zen was just a roundabout way for the rich to live like the workingman — I know people who are humble about their Buddhism and ashamed of their profligacy while living on stolen vegetables and broken rice — sleep six hours a night so as to study books and think, and so to work, to keep the wife and kids — foppery is this — and it turns out you got to spend $30.00 for a special cushion.

June 7,1956


...one begins to see the connecting truths hidden in Zen, Avatamsaka, and Tantra. The giving of a love relationship is a Bodhisattva relaxation of personal fearful defenses and self-interest strivings — which communicates unverbal to the other and leaves them do the same. "Enlightenment" is this interior ease and freedom carried not only to persons but to all the universe, such-such-and void — which is in essence and always freely changing and interacting without meaning, regret, or condition — this is the emptiness "of both self and things" — only a Bodhisattva has no Buddha-nature. (Lankavatarasutra.)

So, Zen being founded on Avatamsaka, and the net-net-network of things; and Tantra being the application of the "interaction with no obstacles" vision on a personal-human level — the "other" becomes the lover through whom the other links in the net becomes perceived (to both). As Zen goes to anything direct — rocks or bushes or people, interpenetrating; the Roshi being there to keep attention undivided and to simplify the mind: like a blade which sharpens — to nothing.

Tantra, Avatamsaka, and Zen really closely historically related: and these aspects of philosophy and practice were done all at once, years ago, up on Tendai. Knit old dharma-trails.

June 29, 1956

Koen temple

The altar statue is Manjusri, in goldlacquered wood. Not only can you tell enlightenment from the face, but you can tell how it was achieved. The old Zen Master statues in the Zendo show them as human beings who made it through will, effort, years of struggle and intensity. Manjusri has the face of a man who did it with cool intellect and comprehension, cynicism and long historical views. Another made it by poverty, wandering, and simple-minded self-sufficient detachment.

Poking about in the abandoned monks' rooms — smell of an old unused mining cabin or logging shanty — a cupboard of bindles the boys left behind, a drawer full of letters, notebooks, seals; the dark smoky kitchen where Han Shan might have worked.

October 6. 1956


W. the tender secret sensitive square artist, all in himself, a tiny smile, walks out and makes a clean bow, his head all curly blond, and sits down at black piano, him in black. Against the gold zigzag screen: and plays Haydn — as I heard him for weeks on practising in the small raw wood room — blue jeans and coffee in his cup through hot days and between naps.

Decorous passionate music of old Europe out his Zen fingers, to the hall full of culture-thirsty student boys and girls in blackwhite uniform, fierce-eyed and full of orderly resentment, making their heart's Europe out of thousandfold paperback translations — Aesop to Sartre — digging this lush music. All in a land of rice paddy and greeny hills and rains where still deep-hatted Dharma-hobos try to rove.

November 22,1956

Founder's day at Daitoku-ji

A ringing bell starts it all — a few "cloud and water" monks in travelling clothes, in a cluster, chatting under the pines at the corner of the Dharma Hall. Colored banners. Priests in purple and gold and Chinese high-toed slippers with Raven-beak hats on.

A black-and-white dragon splashed across the ceiling glaring down, body a circle in cloud and lightning — six burning 2 foot candles, and two 4 foot pine boughs. Priests walk in file scuffing the big boat shoes. Sunshine comes in through tree-beams, inside the hall here it's like a grove of Redwood, or under a mountain. Oda Roshi made eighteen bows.

November 26,1956

Rinko temple

Barefoot down cold halls.

Maple red now glows, the high limbs first. Venus the morning star — at daybreak and evening, sparrows hurtle in thousands chittering. Five men in jikatabi work-shoes slouching across the baseball diamond by the Kamo river. A woman under the bridge, nursing her baby at noonhour, shovel and rake parked by. Faint and windy mists in the hills north — smoke and charcoal and straw — at night a hot soup "kasujiru" made of saké mash. Little girls in long tan cotton stockings, red garters, still the skimpy skirts. College boys cynically amble around in their worn-flat geta and shiny black uniforms looking raw cold and careless. Big man on a motorcycle with a load of noodles.

"It is unspeakably wonderful to see a large volume of water falling with a thunderous noise." — Japanese lesson.

December 1-8,1956

Rohatsu Meditation Week at Daitoku-ji

Friday night W. and I walked to the Sodo, putting our things in little ratty room in older monks' house which stood across from the meditation hall (Zendo) with banjo (toilet) in between. Half an hour in the Zendo, and then free-sitting in the garden. We put in an hour on the veranda of the main hall.

Three A.M. a distant bell coming closer woke us, and leaped with unreasonable but traditional speed flinging big black useless quilt up about and on the shelf — going out to spit and wipe the face in icy water; back in, up on the seat. Kosan the bird-head, silent skinny monk, swiftly patrols the room serving dabs of salty hot plum tea.

Crouched in the dim light kneeling on two long high platforms facing across the diagonal criss-crossed concrete floor. A bell from the main hall means sutra-chanting time; so single file march into the big room, chant the Prajña-paramita Hridaya, the Dharani for Removing Disasters about seven times and the Dharani of the Great Compassionate One how many times. And several others. A big bell with a deep tone; a small bell; and a large 'wooden-fish drum. Oda Roshi comes in with slopey back and slow walk — making various bows on brocade zabuton, lighting incenses — all this takes about an hour. Then (this is our schedule every day) return to Zendo and chant standing before our seats the Wisdom sutra, and the dharanis, again. After a short while meditating the sanzen bell rings from afar, and the head monk barrel-chested round-skulled dark-bearded man roars out soré! meaning GET OUT! and they all scramble back to the main hall to sit in single file on the veranda. Going in turn, following the bell signals, in to sanzen, the interview with the Roshi. After the sanzen-is-done bell rings, bells from the kitchen are heard, and we get up and walk single file through the connecting covered walk from Zendo to Hondo and through to the eating hall; the Zendo head monk tingling his little bowl bell as he walks, and an answering clang on the kitchen "cloud board" as we come. About a quarter to five A.M.

Then clacker, dipping bundle of bowls to the head, sitting down on the floor — and while food-chants are sung the food is served around — server monks with huge tub of rice, some soup, and pickles. Clacker again and we eat — being reserved as much as we need — ceasing to eat when one on either side is being served — the server boys making ancient gesture-of-bestowing with their hand, when passing bowls of food. Wash the bowls in tea and wipe with pickle, eat and drink it, and swiftly stand and whip back to the Zendo.

From 5:30 until daybreak free time, which most spend trying to meditate some more: but some fold over on their cushions and just nap. At dawn, cleaning the main hall and garden and everywhere. Little work-trousers tucking the robes in. Frost outside; floors ice-cold and wind through all the open walls, mopping and sweeping and wiping.

After cleaning, a smoke behind the benjos just at sunrise — people going to work seen through the hedge, little students, grandmothers, and every day a man with a brown bull and a trailer of honeybuckets, a towel round his head and a red blanket on his bull. Drift back into the meditation hall and sit; at eight the lecture bell rings and we pick up our copies of the Hekiganroku ("Blue Cliff Anthology") and bow to them, and go sit in two rows on the cold mat floor of the main hall, while Oda Roshi climbs into the high chair most modestly, Ke-san helping his robe. He talks on the line "chih-tao wunan" — Achieve the Way without Difficulty. A diabolical subject to take for Rohatsu meditation week. He drinks tea from his Roshi-cup and finally descends, as we go back to the big Zendo, bowing each time entering to Manjusri in his box up in the air like a crane-operator in his tower. Now, about half an hour later, a quarter to ten, the lunch bell rings and off we go for another. At the breakfast meal you put a dab of rice before your bowl with chopsticks. At lunch with ring-finger and thumb, a bit of rice, a touch of soup, and a touch of tea. These are offerings to all sentient beings; like birds and such that will actually eat it later.

After lunch free time until 11: 30. Now monks lounge in the sun at the far end of the vegetable patch, or along the sunny side of the Zendo wall smoking, or just walk; some read little books of koans and sayings. Some talk quietly about actresses, guns, and American music. One a dolichocephalic type with almost Sumerian head, forty years old, has been a monk for three years — formerly worked in an office in Osaka. Another thirty-one, monk on and off since age ten, fought all over China and Southeast Asia. Looks and talks like a marine. A country-looking boy from Gifu with many scars on his head. A little one 19 whom everyone likes and who always rings bells and beats the wooden-fish.

Another, higher ranking, who always leads chanting with a strong clear voice and bell-handling. The Fusu, administrative monk, Ke-san; with many silvered teeth and gentle face — kept books and cooked all week while most of us sat. Laymen — two men in business suits who didn't know the proper way to be struck with the keisaku stick; a big layman who sometimes carried the stick and hit me once like to knock me off the seat; a painter of modem abstract paintings. Also a girl about thirty who has been a sanzen-disciple of the Roshi for several years; she lived and meditated all week in the main hall.

Start sitting again and at 2:30 P.M. again dash off to sanzen. Gradually, having been finished with by the Roshi, the monks drift back into the meditation hall. Afternoon sutra-chanting, and again in the Zendo, a cup of hot tea all around. Sitting another half-hour, the dinner bell rings and off we go, dinging and scuffing. At dinner no food-chants because it's not supposed to exist as a meal. After dinner I walk around the Zendo watching sunset and maples.

At five the long haul starts. A break every half hour, but I am ashamed to be always descending and stretching, when the others sit motionless even during rest periods. Knees and hips and joints unheard-of discomfort pains; and darkening and cold. just before 7:30 another sanzen, and then tea and a little leaf-shaped cake gets passed. At eight usually, kinhin, all men single file hands folded over chest running out around and around robes flying and leaning — big black floppy Buddharunners, or bats; twice out and down around the Daitoku-ji Dharma Hall and back. On narrow cut-granite and natural-boulder walks. An amazed boy on a bike.

From eight on, one more sanzen; and then about 10:30 a bell from the kitchen.

Relieved and pleased, close the windowshoji now and file off to the kitchen for a bowl of noodles or sweet-saké-mash soup. Two or three large bowls gulped down each. Back in the Zendo, twenty minutes to clean up and organize — and a last sit until midnight. Sitting where you are a last sutra-chant; and jumping up three jack-in-the-box deep bows; and pull down the quilt from the shelves behind and overhead. Fold into bed quick. The head monk stalks out, and the lights go down but not off. Everybody arranges his bed proper, and then slips outside for another half hour or hour of "yaza" — night sitting, on the veranda of the main hall. Finally in bed, about two hours of sleep, and the bell comes round to wake you up again.

Strange to hear — on the lane beyond the Zendo — the sounds of daily life go by, and be so out of it. The intricate orderedness of Sodo life — mingled admiration and disgust. Long hours of zazen gradually learning to feel the body entirely in that solid square position; breathe into it; sometimes let the mind wander with wild association or sudden memories of forgotten things; and once a set of peyote-like visions. Came out of it high, supersensitive and transparent, feeling like a Yurok or Comanche after vision quest and fast; seeing the daily world as a lovely glowing jewel.

January 14, 1957


Among the mad, none madder

and in the company

Of the virtuous, for virtue

there is no man like me.

—Theognis of Megara.

Discovery of the mind-standpoint.

Radical empiricism.

Doubting all bases of knowledge.

First symbols and then even the evidence of the senses.

Rehabilitating language.

Myth scene as a big word for parts of the mind.

The world as a sort of unconscious, floating below the range of conscious perceivable limit sense-world

THEN the open mind moves all ways

I opened my mind

something flew out


Rats in the ceiling

Shoes in the street

My head has no feeling

My feet are asleep.

— a kind of clarity in the play of instinct. — Nakite koyu nari   "They came crying."

January 21, 1956

Daiken, period of Great Cold

Thick frost and a few flakes of dry cold snow; ice thick in the stone hole water bowl boulder where the doves drink, frost keen lines on all the twigs of the naked plum and each small leaf of a tree.

EROTICISM of China and Japan a dark shadowy thing — a perfumed cunt in a cave of brocades; Greek eroticism is nakedness in full blast of sunlight; fucking on high sunny hills. India is great hips and breasts, agile limbs in cool courts full of intricate designs.

Depth is the body — body the unconscious, also the mind. A world, as they say. How does one perceive internal physical states? Isolate and cultivate that awareness. Soil conservation / reforestation / birth control / spelling reform.

February 15, 1957

Rinko temple

Fine clear morning sun melts frost — plum tree soon bloom — dove early to the stone water bowl (froze hard, so it walked and pecked on it, no drink) Full moon last night — home from zazen — flying eaves of the Dharma Hall silvery slate tile against Orion — icy air slamming into the mouth. Stupid self dragging its feet while I sit fooling with recall and fantasy... where the sound or sight HITS and is transformed by the mental, at THAT razoredge is the gate. MU is the wedge to chock it with, that very crack.

March 12,1957

Todai temple's "Water-gathering" ceremony

Todaiji's unbelievably big and ancient Chinese-Indian Power Gate; a pair of sawhorn mangy buck deer walking around too. Mizutori, water-gathering, up at Second Month temple. Granddaddy of all Sugi trees in front. Complex beaming and gabling and copper lanterns hanging ornate faintly glowing. Far off dream lamps of former birth, sort of narcotic, familiar, and mysterious. At seven monks run up the long stairway with twenty-foot torches and wave and shake them at the crowd, which delights to have the luck of standing under falling clouds of sparks. Inside the hall, priests run clack-clack around and around the central shrine in white wood shoes, stop, sit, and blow conchhorns. They recite the names of all the Gods of Japan, and all the thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It takes most of the night. Finally a group comes out and goes down the steps to the well, makes two trips with decked-and-garlanded buckets of water to be blessed by Kwannon. Last, a bit more chanting and then the biggest torch of all is lit and danced INSIDE the hall by masked and headdressed man — like a raven-beak — bell bonging. This at three A.M.

Later had breakfast with the priests at a branch temple — came back on early train to Kyoto watching the fresh snow powdered hills and cold March sun, the last morning of the spring to wake up snowy. All those little houses, some smoking faint wispy blue in the long blue valley and pure air.

April 14,1957


Cherries, cherries — and over the hills from Pete's school — up past Hideyoshi's tomb and down and through a tunnel and by a lake — on — air dry and dusty wind blowing — just rambling — drank saké on top of Higashiyama under white petalscattering tree. Down, almost trapped behind Miyako hotel, then along canal past drunk dancing grandmothers and over brush hills, blue wild bushes blooming — again canal — to Pete's friend's house, a mycologist who does no and writes haiku and paints — days gone thus, spring rambles and flowers, beyond there lies —

October 1, 1957

Back at Sea
The Sappa Creek

Wallowing about 11:30 p.m. off flashing Midway lights. Poker game. ah Mephistophele I'll burn my books


blue water breaking on the reef circle out there — white flat sand island here with ironwood trees like feathery pine, fairy tern and long-tailed tropic birds; and navy streets of gray buildings, official signs, feeble lawns. Hawaiian Dredge Co. men with helmets and trucks, lift-trucks, steamrollers, dozers, all about and yards of steel reinforcing, tar, all sorts of building things piled. Grass, and daisy-sort of flower; sailors and workers. Last night beer-drinking in the big workers hall, dice games going, bearded Hawaiian-Chinese-Japanese mixtures in rubber zori and hacked-off trouser short pants; combinations of color and configuration of every human race.

Sitting across from Caruso the oiler; big wood table, cans of beer — the worst thing, he says, is greed. "Look at me — greed ruined my life. Every time I see something I think I got to have it. But the more you grab the farther it gets away." Advice which in all humbleness I accept. Sense of religious presence as I stepped into the quonset chapel to scan their pamphlet rack; involuntary gassho and bow to the Virgin.

© Aspen No. 10, Section 5



Original format: Eighteen page booklet, 3 by 6 inches.



Adapted for the web by Andrew Stafford.
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