Laughter Through the Tears: Kosho Uchiyama Roshi on Life as a Zen Beggar

Kosho Uchiyama Roshi on the bittersweet life of a Zen beggar, translated by Daitsu Tom Wright and Jisho Warner.

By Daitsu Tom Wright

Daitsu Tom Wright, Jisho Warner
Photo by Jie Yang.

Kosho Uchiyama Roshi was one of the great Zen masters of the twentieth century. He centered his life on zazen, and, at his temple Antaiji, on the outskirts of Kyoto, he taught a life of the highest culture to everyone who wanted to practice with him, monk and lay, Japanese and foreigner.

For Uchiyama Roshi, leading a truly rich spiritual life meant leading a life grounded in zazen and following a lifestyle of material minimalism. He did not see material simplicity as some sort of asceticism, but he often spoke to his disciples and followers of the importance of never being afraid or ashamed of material poverty. He saw how the very abundance that people seek confuses them and becomes the cause of so much suffering.

Uchiyama Roshi came to Antaiji shortly after the end of the Second World War, in poor health, but not having been a soldier. From the late 1940’s through most of the 1950’s, he lived a bare-bones life of zazen and takuhatsutakuhatsu being the Japanese Zen term for the begging rounds that a monk undertakes to sustain himself and his monastery. He was a Soto Zen priest, but an iconoclast within the school who cared only for practicing and transmitting true dharma.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Uchiyama Roshi no longer needed to do takuhatsu. He became the abbot of Antaiji and led a practice of intensive zazen and sesshins, and he lectured and wrote extensively. In his later years, after retiring from Antaiji, he continued to write, more poetry than prose, as he explored what it was like to be at the farthest reaches of a long life.

Through his long and distinguished life, Uchiyama Roshi was a true man of Zen, who guided and inspired a great many people. According to him, the religious life was the most refined and distilled practice of life for human beings. He felt it was imperative to bring this understanding to the United States, both because we need it badly here and because he thought we would be receptive to it.

The following is an excerpt from an essay Uchiyama Roshi wrote in the late 1960’s on his life of mendicancy in Kyoto. He called it Nakiwarai no Takuhatsu, “The Takuhatsu of Laughter Through the Tears.” Roshi said that one reason he wrote Laughter Through the Tears was to thank all the people in Kyoto who had supported him during those difficult post-war years of his practice.

Uchiyama Roshi suffered from the effects of tuberculosis throughout his life. On March 13, 1998, at the age of eighty-six, he passed away quietly at his home at Noke-in Hermitage, in Kohata, a suburb of Kyoto. He is much missed, but his wisdom and great heart live on.

—Daitsu Tom Wright & Jisho Warner

The famous Japanese Zen monk Ryokan lived by takuhatsu and wrote about it in his poems. Picture a warm spring day, the flowers in full bloom, the warblers singing away, and beautiful butterflies flitting here and there. That surely must have been the setting for Ryokan’s walks through country villages from one farmhouse to the next. Children ran in delight to greet their familiar playmate. Ryokan, always happy to see the children, would put down his bowl and join in the children’s games. Poor Ryokan, the day would pass quickly while he was absorbed in the games with the children, completely unaware that all his rice was being eaten by the sparrows.

The deep resonating sound of a nearby temple bell would announce the end of the day. The light of the early evening moon shone brightly after all the children had gone home. Ryokan would feel a tinge of loneliness and head toward his own grass hut. Suddenly, he’d turn and run back to the village where he vaguely remembered having left his bowl hours before.

Just picturing Ryokan all flustered returning to the village to fetch the bowl can’t help but bring a smile to my face.

Of course, I would have liked my takuhatsu to have been that sort of idyllic, simple kind, too. Unfortunately, the reality of my life of takuhatsu was anything but that. In fact, it was the extreme opposite of the idyllic, simple takuhatsu lifestyle. If you go out on takuhatsu and can do so with the attitude of “Well, if people put something in my bowl, that’s fine, and if they don’t that’s okay, too,” then you can say that your takuhatsu is ideal with no complications. However, I was unable to do that. I was dead serious about it, and I couldn’t hide my feelings. As long as I was going out, I felt I just had to bring home a certain amount of money—I had my quota to fill. Not only that, I felt I had to do it in the most efficient way, because I needed to get back to the temple as quickly as possible. So my story becomes even more pathetic.

It wasn’t because I wanted to take a rest that I desired to get right back to the temple. Rather, besides takuhatsu, I had a lot of other work to do that made my going out all the more important. Knowing how much work was waiting for me at the temple, there was no way I could ever feel that what I was doing was in any way “spiritually uplifting.” But everyone in the world has feelings of being pursued, and of living from hand to mouth. I am not talking about my present-day life. The period I’m talking about began in the summer of 1949, when I first arrived in Kyoto, and lasted until the spring of 1962. That is, from the age of thirty-seven until I reached fifty. So, perhaps because there is a certain amount of distance between those days and my life now, I am able to talk about the sweetness and bitterness of takuhatsu.

The lifestyle of takuhatsu

Once you start down the path of poverty, there seems to be no limit to how far down you can go. I had been prepared for it by the life I led during the war prior to settling at Antaiji. In 1949, when I first began going out on takuhatsu in Kyoto, the emotion and poverty of the war years had not yet subsided. In that kind of economically difficult environment, the number of fellow practitioners diminished greatly. Finally, there were only two of us left at Antaiji, the leaf-flute artist Yokoyama Sodo and me. On top of that, Antaiji had deteriorated so badly during the war that Sodo had to go out on takuhatsu for funds to refurbish the broken-down temple, while I went around on takuhatsu to supply us with food and also to cover sesshin expenses.

I was not only going out on takuhatsu, I also had to take care of the vegetable garden and fertilize it, cut and chop the wood for cooking and heating the bath, plus make our pickle supply, weed and keep up the grounds, clean the temple, and so forth. Also, I prepared three meals a day, and if I didn’t go out on takuhatsu, I had my laundry to do.

So, obviously, I couldn’t blithely go out on takuhatsu like Ryokan and enjoy playing with the children along the way. Far from it, I had to keep my mind on how to juggle doing takuhatsu and caring for the temple. I had to figure out how to cut corners everywhere to get a little extra time for zazen and study. Being careless with even one piece of firewood meant that I would have to take that much more time to chop and cut up wood. Or, if I left a light on needlessly, that meant I had to go out on takuhatsu to pay for it. Cutting back on needless expenditures was absolutely critical for the kind of frugal life we were leading.

Our life was always on the edge. Whenever Sawaki Roshi came back to Antaiji to lead sesshin, I wanted to have a special treat of lotus root on his tray for him. I would go to the market to get some and not have the few yen the greengrocer asked for. Here was this forty-year-old adult having to say, “Oh, my God, if it is going to cost me that much, I will take something else!” We were really in a pitiable state. If I had had a wife and family to take care of, I would have broken down completely. Fortunately, I was single then. Needless to say, in those days I was never able to purchase any new clothing, such as robes. Actually, from the time the war began in 1941, I was never able to buy any new clothing, and everything I had was tattered. Even the covering on my futon was all torn up. Going to bed was like covering myself with the cotton padding that’s inside futons. If I got sick for a couple days and had to rest, my whole room seemed to be awash in dust balls of cotton.

Old newspapers served as toilet paper. Our washcloths looked like some sort of netting, since I used them far beyond the point where they resembled washcloths. Even though they only cost ten or fifteen yen at the time, I couldn’t afford new ones.

I did have one bad habit that I just couldn’t give up—smoking. I would collect half-smoked cigarettes left behind by guests and smoke the tobacco in long reedlike pipes—pretty despicable, I admit.

In those days, Antaiji looked gruesome. The tatami in my room were completely torn up, with straw popping out of them here and there. And the floor joists supporting the tatami were as soft as cushions. Twice I fell right through the floor. I just took a couple of orange crates that were lying around and used them to prop up the joists. The normally white-papered shoji looked like a patchwork quilt with slips of paper pasted over the holes. But what could I do? I had neither the money nor the time to make any proper repairs.

Antaiji was truly a dreary and desolate place in those days. This made it imperative that I put all my energy into takuhatsu. Although it would seem to be nothing more than walking around shouting, “Ho~~~!” when you go out on takuhatsu, you are risking your life. One little mistake in judgment and you’re liable to find yourself sprawled out on the street, having been hit by a car, with one-yen coins scattered all around.

Moreover, the emotional burden is incredible. When an able-bodied male is just walking around begging for money, people look at him with contempt. Enduring that look is far more difficult than enduring some half-baked job. And in the end, the amount received is barely a pittance. Besides that, while the monk on takuhatsu is the very last person to receive any material benefits when times are good, he is the very first to feel any economic downturn. By the mid-1950’s, people mostly thought the war was completely behind them, but for people like us, the war was barely over.

Occasionally, on late autumn days, Sodo and I would trudge back to the temple as the sun was going down and see a praying mantis clinging to the shoji along the west side of the building. The mantises, themselves yellowish brown in color, looked like withered leaves. They would be warming themselves in the last rays of the day. The mantis finishes laying its eggs in late September, and from then until about the middle of November, it seems to search out a warm spot, sitting there through chilling winds and showers as though just waiting for the end to come.

I always got a lump in my throat when I came across a praying mantis in the late fall. With all worldly connections cut off, just living the whole of its life by itself, breathing in and out and clinging there, not moving, waiting for death—somehow the image of that mantis at a dilapidated temple at the end of autumn was equally a picture of us. Sodo, too, must have been deeply moved by this, because he composed the following verse.

Autumn mantis clinging
to the white paper I glued to the shoji
where did it come from and where did it go?

These sad and lonely thoughts came and went in our hearts, but it isn’t really right to use the plural “in our hearts” here. Each of us had to bear his own life, in his own heart. Sodo was living out his life, and I was living out mine. We were side by side in this life at Antaiji, and at the same time, each of us was completely alone. Such thoughts came and went for each of us. They were part of the scenery of Sodo’s life of shikantaza, just as they were for me.

Precisely because takuhatsu was a part of our overall life, which centered around sitting zazen, it was a life of entrusting our lives to the bowl completely. If there had been no zazen and only begging, my life would have been nothing more than a pitiable life of poverty.

Kyoto’s other mendicants

Many of the major Rinzai training monasteries in Japan, like Daitokuji, Myoshinji, and Nanzenji are located in Kyoto. The monks go out on takuhatsu through the streets of the city, all of them carrying bags around their necks with the name of the monastery clearly written on the front of it. Occasionally, when I stopped in front of a shop, some woman would come out and ask politely, “Oh, are you from Myoshinji?” “No,” I would reply, “I’m from Antaiji.” Suddenly, the bright, friendly smile would disappear from her face, and with a very skeptical eye, she would look me up and down and deftly place a one-yen coin in my bowl instead of the ten-yen coin she had been preparing to give me. At times like that, I felt so wretched. Going out on takuhatsu from Antaiji was not like selling some famous brand name or reputation. I was often treated more like an ordinary beggar than a religious mendicant.

One thing people out on takuhatsu cannot abide are all the other people plying the trade. Among the beneficiaries of begging are, first of all, those monks and nuns from the “brand name” monasteries. Then there are monks wearing picturesque pointy hats and carrying a staff with metal rings on top that jingle as they walk around, or the Nichiren monks pounding their drums. And then there are the goeika Buddhist hymn singers walking around. I mustn’t leave out the mendicants of the Zen Fuke sect, playing the shakuhachi (traditional bamboo flute) as they go around wearing the special straw hat that covers their head and face completely, plus the yamabushi, the itinerant mountain hermits. And, last but not least, there is the ordinary garden-variety beggar. I once heard from one of the shop owners that on average five groups a day passed by looking for a handout. It follows that the first ones who come will get the best donations. That means the first fellow might get twenty yen, the second, five yen, and by the last one, it’s down to one yen—if he or she is lucky—or perhaps nothing more than a “Get lost!” Just in terms of human emotions, this is understandable behavior.

One day I went to Yamashina for takuhatsu. I used what little money I had to get there on the electric train. When I got off the train, I took the side streets first, saving the best street for last. But just as I turned the corner to start down Plum Street, lo and behold, a mendicant playing the shakuhachi came toward me from the opposite direction. He had obviously just finished making a stupendous haul! I felt just awful. To rub salt in the wound, the monk stopped in front of me and, with the utmost composure, said, “Pardon me for going first,” and continued on his way. Inside, I wanted to shout, “You rat, I’ve been saving this street for last!” But I took one look at his proud, smirking face and the whole situation suddenly seemed so absurdly funny to me that I gave him a forced smile and bowed back. I suppose you could call that a sort of unwritten etiquette among mendicants.

Takuhatsu neurosis

I had some experience of takuhatsu before I moved to Antaiji, when I lived in temples out in the countryside. There were several of us going out together just once or twice a month, so the atmosphere was more like going on an outing; and besides, it wasn’t as if our lives depended on it.

In Kyoto, my situation was totally different. Antaiji had absolutely no other income, and it was a burden to set out alone, knowing that I had to bring back a certain amount, and on top of that, knowing that the amount was not really much. I had to go out every day that it didn’t rain, so it didn’t take long before everyone in town seemed to know my face.

Once my face became familiar, shopkeepers would give me an “Oh, God, here he comes again” look. And I would show a “Hi, well, here I am again” look. After a while, I started becoming not only depressed, but also totally intimidated.

Just before going out for the day, I would imagine the street I was about to go down, and very clearly in my mind, I could picture the tobacconist on the corner and the barber shop next door, then the sweet cake shop, and the hardware store, and beyond that the fishmonger. I would imagine everyone giving me the “Oh no, not that guy again” look, and I would start feeling truly dark and gloomy. Once I reached the street, without stopping to think about it, I would start walking and muttering under my breath, “Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu, Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu”—“I take refuge in you, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.”

At last I would arrive at the intended street, and, sure enough, the street was laid out just as I had pictured it in my mind, and, sure enough, I would begin to feel depressed. I found myself standing in front of the first house, intoning the takuhatsu greeting, “Ho~~~” in the most timid of voices. And, sure enough, the woman would come out of her house and give me that disgusted look I knew she would, and blurt out, “Move along, there, you’re blocking the way.” I’d get more depressed and shuffle along to the next door. Just as I expected, the man there shouted at me without any mercy, “Hit the road, buster!” My voice would get even tinier as I stepped up to the next shop. Another lady would come out and, with a disgusted air, toss a measly one-yen bill into my bowl as though she didn’t really want to but felt obligated. I began to almost cower in front of every house, and after taking a quick glance at the owner, I’d move on to the next place without looking back or even intoning the usual takuhatsu greeting.

So there I was, faced with a dilemma of having to go out every day because I had to bring in so much money just to survive, while at the same time, I was walking through the streets of the city with virtually no money coming in. So, while going out every day walking my feet off from morning till night, I really began to develop a neurosis.

Three years after I came to Kyoto and began going out on takuhatsu on a daily basis, I reached this impasse. It took three years to become a thoroughly familiar face. And then, though I received grudging recognition as a monk, people still seemed to see me as “that guy in the begging business.” At any rate, I had convinced myself that people were looking at me in that way. And there I was, just going through the motions with almost nothing being dropped into my bowl. This kind of takuhatsu neurosis continued for about a year.

Although this may seem like an overblown way of putting it, to get over my neurosis regarding takuhatsu, it was necessary for me to become personally aware of my religious mission to society as a mendicant priest. Even during that period when I was personally depressed and feeling terribly intimidated and there was so little coming into my bowl, the people of Kyoto did donate something to support me, despite the fact that in those days most people would look around for the cheapest place to buy an eggplant, even just to save one sen. During my entire life of practice, I was supported entirely by the people of Kyoto, although it used to puzzle me what motivated the local folk to put money in the bowl of a monk out on takuhatsu in the first place.

One day I was taking a lunch break in the confines of Toji Temple. As we always had rice gruel for breakfast at Antaiji, it was not practical to prepare a lunch of leftover breakfast, so I usually bought a couple of rolls. I often ate on the grounds of a temple or shrine, or in a temple cemetery. Nowadays, the grounds at Toji are all fenced off, and they charge money just to get in. But in those days, there were no fences or places that collected entrance fees, and Toji was an ideal place to rest and eat a roll or two. Pigeons would approach, and I’d break off a little of the bread I was eating and share it with them. Watching them eat the few crumbs I tossed somehow cheered me up, particularly during the period when I was so depressed about going out in the first place. At some point, if I knew I would be stopping off at Toji, I got into the habit of buying an extra roll to share with the pigeons. As I was feeding the pigeons one day, I realized that I, too, was one of the pigeons of Kyoto. When the pigeons came around, people would want to feed them if they had any bread leftover, simply out of human sentiment. In the same way, if some monk happens to stop in front of your house, you might think that another one of those pigeons has come around, and you open the door and toss one or two yen into his bowl, just as you would toss bread to the birds. I realized that in a sense, I had to behave and appear attractive just like one of those Toji pigeons.

One wave at a time

It’s a fairy tale to think that once we have attained deep faith, or have had some great enlightenment experience, our whole life will be one joyous delight after another and all sadness will be swept away, so that all we can see is paradise. Living a life of true reality, experiencing an ongoing restlessness with alternate moments of joy and sadness, there has to be a settling into one’s life in a much deeper place, where you face whatever comes up. Likewise, true religious teaching is not a denial of our day-to-day predicaments; it is not cleverly glossing over reality, or feigning happiness. On the contrary, true religious teaching has to be able to show us how we can swim through one wave at a time—that is, those waves of laughter, tears, prosperity, or adversity.

Studying and practicing the buddhadharma is neither a kind of academic exercise to be carried out only after your livelihood has been secured, nor some sort of zazen performed when circumstances are favorable. I was forced to search out what true religion is when I was not unlike a stray dog, always badgered by anxieties over daily life, having to pick up whatever scraps I could.

As long as we are alive, there will always be fortunate things and unfortunate things happening in our lives. Inevitably, we go through times of utter collapse as well. Frequently during that period prior to throwing off my takuhatsu neurosis, there were days when one person after another would tell me to go away.

When we settle in the attitude that whichever way our life falls we feel grateful, we can feel the varying textures of fortune and misfortune in terms of joy and bitterness during the day’s walk. If we look at humankind from a long view of billions of years, this animal called Homo sapiens is nothing more than a single existence that suddenly appeared in this universe and will leave it without a trace. A single day in the life of this very small human species is just one tiny joy, one minute of bitterness. Without an attitude that whatever happens is OK, we are going to wind up neurotic. Still, even though whatever may happen is OK, if you do not apply any businesslike principle to your activities, even to one like takuhatsu, you will end up a fool. Going the Middle Way between the neurotic and the fool is precisely what doing takuhatsu is about.

Why go out on takuhatsu?

Most of the stories I have related here about takuhatsu don’t sound very religious, so I would like to close on a slightly more serious note about why takuhatsu is a vital activity for a person who chooses to live out genuine religious teachings.

During all the years I went out on takuhatsu, this was always a fundamental question: Why go out? As I’ve said before, takuhatsu is a kind of donation collection. There is no merchandise, no product or gift to offset the donation. It is just walking around accepting charity. Because of that, if I had been unable to totally accept myself as a beggar, I would have continued to suffer emotionally. Many times, especially when I was neurotic about it, I thought how much easier it would be if I at least had something to exchange, like a door-to-door salesman. I thought of giving up and doing some kind of part-time work. On the other hand, I thought of all the truly religious figures in Buddhist history, beginning with Shakyamuni, who lived by takuhatsu, and the Christians in the Middle Ages, like the Franciscans and Dominicans, who also lived by takuhatsu. I thought there might be a crucial relationship between takuhatsu and religion that I could never really know. If there were some intrinsic reason why a person aspiring to live out a religious life should do takuhatsu, what could it be? Ten years passed as I thought about this.

It was just at the end of that period that I read a book about the scientists who developed the atomic bomb that laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the midst of all that horror, no one could imagine what sort of human beings could have made such an accursed thing. I myself thought that it must have been the work of some inhuman devil who never shed a tear and had ice in his veins instead of blood. Of course, it turned out that they were not some special breed of animal; they were none other than the nuclear scientists in the vanguard of physics. How could these men have made such a terrible weapon, one that, even now, could very well lead to the complete annihilation of all human beings on this planet? Scientists around the world had raced to be the first ones to make such a bomb, and in the end the Americans had won the race.

The horrible result of dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki pricked the consciences of these top atomic scientists and they wanted to stop further research in this area, so they requested that they be allowed to return to their universities. The American government said they could return to their laboratories, but at the same time, the government issued an order to each of the universities not to rehire those scientists. Since all of the science departments at these universities were receiving financial aid from the government, the universities were obligated to follow those orders. Consequently, all the universities turned down the scientists’ requests to return, and the unfortunate scientists returned to the government facilities and continued their work on new atomic weapons.

Thinking about this, I couldn’t help but feel the weakness of human beings when confronted with money. That was when I realized that takuhatsu is important for any person intending to live by true religious teachings, because once you receive money from one designated person, you obligate yourself to bow to the money or to its source.

Of course, out on takuhatsu, I might have to lower my head several hundred or even a thousand times. Yet I am not bowing to the money, nor do I have to cavil or get down on my knees.

In all the years I have been at Antaiji, I have never solicited a penny from anyone. In that sense, I am my own person. Since Antaiji is a monastery, it has received all sorts of donations. Still, no matter how large or small the amount, to the extent that I haven’t solicited it, it is no different from a donation put into my bowl when I am out on takuhatsu. For that reason, it is not necessary to bow and scrape before the money or its source.

I have always tried to live my life in accord with religious teachings, although I am not what anyone would call orthodox. I have been able to act this way due to the support I have received through takuhatsu. If you are intending to live out a genuine religious life, then you must learn never to bow before money. And, for that, you must never be afraid of being poor.

Once I passed fifty, takuhatsu became increasingly difficult for me. Fortunately, my takuhatsu life ended in the spring of 1962, because of the royalties I began to receive from the books I had published on my hobby of origami. I am grateful for that. I have had no teacher or master or boss to bow down before, and the royalties are not something I need to bow to either. In any event, as long as you keep your desires within the parameters of your income, I see no necessity to bow down before Mammon. But if the royalties on my origami books ever dry up so that I no longer have even the bare minimum to support myself, you will see me back out on the streets.

Daitsu Tom Wright

Wright was ordained by Uchiyama Roshi in 1974 and is a professor of English at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan.

Daitsu Tom Wright

Wright was ordained by Uchiyama Roshi in 1974 and is a professor of English at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan.

Jisho Warner

Warner is head teacher at the Soto Creek Zen Center in Sebastopol, California.