Spiritual Journey


BY BARRY JAMES LECKENBY, Photographs by John Einarsen

Out under red leaves

Shinnyo-do’s black bronze Buddha

Has it compassion?

—Edith Shiffert

The Light Comes Slowly

Poets continue to be attracted to Kyoto as a place of pilgrimage. Gary Synder drew inspiration from Kyoto. So too have Cid Corman and Edith Shiffert, both making it a permanent home and source of solace. Australian-born Buddhist poet Harold Stewart lived in Kyoto for twenty-nine years, and in 1995 his ashes were scattered near the Shonin-in on Higashiyama, the city’s Eastern mountain range, confirming that he considered Kyoto his home.

Stewart’s metaphysical flight to the East was not so much a fight with the values of Western Christianity as a counterpoise to secular Western notions of identity that promoted a “mindless hedonism and hardened materialism.” His notion of identity is based on the Eastern concept of the selfless self. Not an easy concept to come to terms with, and one which brought him to a point of crisis.

During the 1950’s he had been involved in an Eastern religion study group based in Melbourne. Stewart usually led the discussions, held at the bookshop he managed. Every Friday night, for well over ten years, writers like Rene Guenon, A.K. Coomaraswary and Fritjhof Schuon were discussed. These writers explored different aspects of Eastern religions, at a time when the West still had much to learn about this topic. Generally they believed in the essential metaphysical unity of all religious traditions. Even with this solid theoretical grounding, Stewart must have sensed the need for some practical dimension to his spiritual outlook. Schuon had suggested that Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shin Shu sect) provided just that. So in the early 1960’s Stewart came to Higashi Hongan-ji in Kyoto to train as a Jodo Shin Shu priest. But inexplicably he withdrew from the training, leaving his close friends in disbelief. He had been preparing for so long, and seemed fully committed to the Dharma. Going back to Australia, no doubt in crisis, Stewart began to rebuild his faith.

In 1966 he returned to Kyoto, this time permanently, recognising that a true appreciation of the Eastern perspective would require a new approach: “I must of necessity pass through a period of unlearning and re-education before the Japanese outlook can be correctly appreciated and its cultural qualities assimilated.” Deconstructing the substantial “I” by “unlearning and re-education,” he began to look for a solution to his metaphysically-induced identity crisis. In effect what Stewart was trying to do was to gain a fuller understanding of the Buddhist concept of Alaya, the consciousness to which all other states of mind can be reduced. This is the Universal Consciousness, affirmed by the Buddha, where one is possessed of transcendent wisdom and all-embracing compassion. Achieving this state of mind is known as samadhi.

As he studied the many different types of Buddhism practiced in Kyoto, it became apparent that his original choice of Jodo Shin Shu was actually the right one for him. His journey from faith to doubt, to Faith beyond doubt, is poignantly celebrated in the little known but classic By the Old Walls of Kyoto (hereafter referred to as Old Walls). It is the poetic soul’s ‘lonely planet’ guide to Kyoto.

Edith Shiffert believes Old Walls is a “fine and sincere book from the heart.” It poetically recreates his spiritual journey and experience of samadhi, and subsequent return to the world of suffering to live out the accumulated karma of his sentient days. Before it is possible to dwell in the great nirvanic tranquillity of samadhi, the poet must overcome the delusional power of the self. To do this he needs to establish a practical spiritual method. Stewart writes: “For those who have gone astray in the modern secular wilderness but are seeking some way out of their existential predicament, the main obstruction often proves to be the seeker’s own struggle to find and follow some spiritual method.”

The rigours and discipline of Zen are seen by many in the West as a cure for modern secular sickness. An indomitable belief in the power of self to overcome its own faults leads many to choose Zen as a means of salvation. Is not the overcrowded self-help book market evidence of a fundamental Western belief in the power of self to overcome self? Zen strikes a familiar philosophical chord with the Western temperament but is “probably far beyond our limited [spiritual] capabilities.” It might seem as if Zen suits the Western temperament, with its belief in the power of self to achieve Enlightenment, but it is quite contrary to what the self really needs. Without being considered an opponent of Zen, as he acknowledges its benefits, he does think it tends to confirm the Western notions of identity based on self power.

Stewart argues for a freedom from the self, not a freedom of self. He points out that most Westerners are already affected by “elephantiasis of the ego,”and not in need of further encouragement to indulge in the delusions of self power. He writes of Zen practiced outside of Japan: “Although modern Western transplanted Zen may be called by the same name, it has largely been deprived of its Eastern cultural environment and spiritual climate.” Noting that the Zen practiced in the West is often conducted by people who have failed to receive an inka (the necessary teaching standard), he describes it as a dubious interpretation “accommodated to contemporary assumptions and prejudices.”He points out that the phoneys charge money for their so-called spiritual services, noting that “the teaching of a genuine spiritual master is always free to all comers.”

Jodo Shin Shu is a type of Mahayana Buddhism promoting the simple method of reciting the Name of the Buddha to gain salvation. The principal and sacred figure of Jodo Shin Shu is Amida (pronounced A-me-da). To be saved one must recite the Name of Amida —Namu Amida Butsu — with pure and perfect Faith. Stewart writes: “For in the calling of the Name of Amida, Pure Land Buddhism opens up for us at last a practical Way out of our existential impasse.”10

The poet’s struggle to overcome the false ideas and illusions of self power forms the basic narrative structure of Old Walls, set within the seasonal cycle of one year. Each of thirteen poems is accompanied by an expositional essay, providing an insight into Kyoto and its Buddhist history. These essays are a very accessible introduction to those who are exploring the Dharma for the first time. However it is in his poetry that the reader can observe a spiritual journeyman achieving his metaphysical goal by practicing the premier Buddhist values of compassion and impartial detachment, while coming to appreciate the true nature and worth of suffering.

In Poem Four he experiences the moment when Amida transfers Faith by sounding his Name spontaneously in the heart of the devotee. After spending a hot sleepless night in the stifling humidity of Kyoto’s summer, searching for answers to his existential doubts in the reductive dead-ends of subjectivity, the bell at Honen-in booms to greet the dawning of a new day:

Again the heavy pole is swung, and pounds
Its tongueless dome, whose bronze vibrations vie
In their sonourous hive, and humming deep
Pervade the hush that holds the earth and sky.
The damp air breathes, lifting the slightest sigh:
A little windbell, hung beneath my eaves,
Instantly rings its lightly trilled reply.

I wake at once out of a lifelong sleep:
My being’s inmost solitude receives
A summons that dissolves its sombre spell.
The Heart’s reverberations rise and swell
Till lips and tongue spontaneously exclaim:
“Amida Butsu!”— Buddha’s sacred Name.

The delicate balance of Faith between Amida and the poet is rehearsed in the hushed fragility of silence that holds the earth and sky together, just at the moment when his hope of spiritual renewal has seemed to pass. The damp air breathes and his doubts begin to abate. A subtle sense of the Other Power is signalled in the sweet sound of the windbell that awakens him from the dark night of ignorance. The moment of affinity between Amida and the poet is given both the universal greatness of earth and sky in harmony and the humble delicateness of a little windbell trilling at dawn. The darkness of ignorance gives way to the blessing of saving knowledge as the Other Power of Amida is transferred: for if the poet had not wrestled with his own doubts, while keeping Faith in Amida, there would have been no epiphany. The poet’s “inmost solitude”receives a summons that dissolves all doubt and the Heart rises in spontaneous joy. As the dawn light appears on the horizon the poet’s Faith is kept and the sacred Name is exclaimed.

For the poet this moment is not an excuse to escape forever into some sort of lotus-eating spiritual wonderland, but the very reason to return to the material realities of this world and understand it through Buddhist values.

Stewart returns to the material world in Poem Five to contemplate a specific example of suffering. Whilst walking amongst the holidaying crowd he observes an old beggar woman, who was in fact a common sight on Shijo Bridge for many years. This bridge connects Gion and Ponto cho, two competing pleasure quarters in Kyoto.

At sunset as the pleasure seekers cross the bridge in search of coolness, the old woman kneels begging and bowing in vain, “unnoticed by compassion or disdain.” The twilight shadows falling across the Kamo River symbolise her darkening prospects as the sound of the shuffling feet becomes the steady flow of rejection. The poet feels sorry for her:

And so, to bribe my pity’s selfish qualms,
I slip a surreptitious coin of alms
On to her mat, enough to buy some food.

Her reaction to the donation catches him off guard:

But I, the giver, feel no gratitude
For her acceptance, only deeper shame,
Because she bows to thank me just the same
With simple dignity that no one buys.

She refuses to differentiate between those who have given her money and those who have ignored her. The poet had expected that his gift of charity would bring forth a special commendation, but instead she displays the Buddhist values that he has been searching for. This shames him into admitting that his giving had an ulterior motive. He wanted to feel good about himself and confer the power of self. With simple dignity the old lady forces the self-indulgent giver, with silent rebuke, into “deeper shame.” Wanting to better understand the true nature of poverty he asks:

Yet in what inward riches must she dwell,
Who only has her poverty to sell?

With a growing awareness he recognises that the spiritual riches of friendship and compassion can bring far more comfort than the ever-depreciating returns of material riches. He accepts that the self is powerless in the face of the benevolent Other Power because, in the end, it is simply more providential.

The old beggar lady imagines spiritual paradise by achieving impartial detachment from self, and this must be the poet’s goal if he is to dwell there.

In Poem Six, the poet journeys to Uji, a suburb of Kyoto, to visit Mampuku-Ji, a famous Zen temple. He attempts to meditate and achieve detachment by using self power but finds it difficult to maintain the necessary one-pointed concentration to achieved samadhi. He realizes that all his efforts to obtain Enlightenment with self power will fail:

I realize that I cannot transcend
My egocentric world, nor put an end
To self-concern, so long as I am I.
For every ego-circumventing scheme
Or selfless ruse that I contrive and try
Makes my pretensions even more conceited
And secretly inflates my self-esteem.

Like his gift of charity, which was “secretly”designed to inflate his self-esteem, schemes that assert the power of self are also conceited pretensions. This confession is pivotal as the poet acknowledges his inability to overcome the pretensions of self and the need of Amida’s Other Power. He declares:

My life is Amida’s and must resign
That secular self which is no longer mine.

In Poem Nine the poet’s wish of finding paradise is finally realised, yet only partially as it is not possible to fully visualise Amida’s Pure Land — the land of ultimate bliss and beautitude beyond this round of existence — while still living here on earth. He rambles through the fields of Ohara, a farming district north of Kyoto, and observes the unique design of the thatched roofs; the country girls dressed in traditional blue and white folk-dress; and the bamboo groves growing along the Takano River. In this beautiful valley, virtually untouched by the concrete ravages afflicting Kyoto, he imagines a new perspective to the landscape that prefigures the Pure Land. After crossing the Takano River with a hasty leap, he scrambles up the eroded riverbank and observes:

The landscape seems transfigured, born anew:
Persimmon branches that have all but shed
Their autumn leaves are hanging overhead
Clusters of fruit, with sunlight slanting through
Their orange globes of sweetness, almost ripe,
As though the richly laden trees were burning
With lampions of gold against the blue.

In the midst of this radiant and golden afternoon he rejoices in wonder, celebrating the moment with a haiku:

My dusty journey ends in joy today:
I see a hundred butterflies at play.

Old Walls has many touches of haiku. Stewart was the first Western writer to adapt the seventeen syllable form of indigenous Japanese verse into the two-line form of the rhyming couplet, rather than following the well-established convention of three lines.

Edith Shiffert uses the three-line form. In The Light Comes Slowly, the heavy summer rain stops for a short time and in a retrospective glance down the corridor of years she writes:

Here in the quiet
before rain pours down again,
I remember years.

This form of poetry, concise yet evocative, concentrates on the particulars of nature to draw larger universal themes, and is deftly handled by Shiffert. Stewart writes: “…it may come as a surprise to those who do not read Japanese to learn that a haiku is normally written and printed vertically in a single line.”11 He notes that the division of haiku into three lines was originally a printer’s convention, following Western verse form. He concludes: “So whether the haiku is translated into two, three, or four lines in any European language, it bears little resemblance to the one vertical line of the original text.”

In 1969 his second best-selling volume of haiku was published. In A Chime of Windbells he borrows the haiku of Buson, Basho, Issa, and many others, to create his own interpretation of the original poems. Amongst the many famous Japanese poets Stewart borrows from is one by the name of Ho o. Always one for a good practical joke, he tried to convince some of his Australian friends that Ho o was a poet, long dead, whose manuscripts he had uncovered. This is far from the truth. Ho o was actually Stewart.

This was his second such invention. His first (in collaboration with fellow-poet James McAuley) was a poet by the name of Ern Malley, and his grieving sister Ethel. They are now part of literary folklore. Ern had supposedly died of Graves disease, which is not usually a fatal condition. The story went that when his tearful sister was packing up his belongings she found a manuscript of poems. “A friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good and told me it should be published,” she wrote to Max Harris, an ambitious editor who was looking for a writer to declare Australia’s first modern poetic genius.12

An enthusiastic Harris went ahead with publication, and pretty well everyone was fooled until the secret was leaked to a newspaper. It was not long before this literary hoax was being featured all over the world — from the London Times to the American Time. The well-known British poet Sir Herbert Read considered the poems to be excellent, and the highly regarded American poet John Ashberry used them in his literature classes at Brooklyn College in the 1970’s. Harold Bloom, a respected critic and academic, thinks the poems have significant literary worth.

Harris was duped by both the quality of the poetry and the letters “Ethel” wrote, creating the integrity of Ern’s personality. Ern’s tetchy insouciance seemed authentically modern. Harris, some time later wrote: “I can still close my eyes and conjure up such a person in our streets. A young person. A person without the protection against the world that comes from living in it. A man outside.”13

Ern became a symbol for the disgruntled and alienated modern man — “A man outside.” In Australia Stewart, like Ern Malley, is also an outsider, rarely and only briefly anthologised. And like Ern, he too seems out of place in the modern secular world where individuals gain status mainly through material accumulation. His poetry, while not a polemic against materialism, is mindful that the spirit works through the material to enrich everyone.

Stewart concludes Old Walls at one of Kyoto’s most peaceful and beautiful precincts: the old graveyards of Shinnyo-do and Kurodani. Walking along a path near the main temple as winter draws closer, he views the famous and massive Buddha of Shinnyo-do:

Who, seated on a granite lotus-base,
Has kept his vigil in the temple grounds
Through years of every weather, till the streaks
Of long green tears have tarnished both his cheeks.
His silent admonition thus reminds me
That I must yet fulfil the Vow that binds me:
For moved by his compassionate Heart I swore
To journey back into this world once more
So that his Other Power might still proclaim,
Through my poetic mask of words, the Name.

The patient force of Stewart’s thought never neglects the overarching theme of compassion, which by definition requires both empathy and forbearance. The resolute measure of the first four lines finishes at the softest point of the envisaged scene: “his cheeks.” Steadily professing like one who knows our secular lives are contingent and provisional, he gathers strength from his most consistently stated and emphatic purpose: proclamation of “the Name.” Moved by the Buddha’s compassionate Heart, the poet fulfils his promise to return to this world with Buddhist values. The silent admonition of the Buddha has kept vigil “Through years of every weather,”giving direction to those who, with intemperate action or misguided thought, would stray off the path of the Middle Way of the Dharma.

Old Walls describes the ancient monuments of Kyoto in beautiful detail and confirms a place for Stewart in the cultural history of Japan. His poetry helps to preserve the spiritual legacy of Kyoto’s long Buddhist history. It does not seek the concrete assurances of self power but creates a space for the abstract miracle of the Other Power. He returned to Kyoto in pilgrimage and was nurtured back to metaphysical health, resigning his secular self to the Other Power of Amida. Kyoto represents a crucial turning point and is integral to the philosophical temper of his poetry. It is the setting in which he truly realised the Buddha’s message that wisdom needs to be tempered with compassion. Harold Stewart is the most significant Australian writer to have contact with Japan in the twentieth century and through his writing he sought to make others aware of Kyoto’s distinct spiritual aura. His contribution to the understanding of the Pure Land doctrines is embodied in the deeply felt spiritual testimony of Old Walls, providing great local knowledge of the Dharma’s universal values.

kyoto journal logo red


Author's Bio