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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 13, 2004

Way of Zen enlightens followers in Kalihi Valley

 •  Tips on Visiting the Dojo

By Robert M. Rees
Special to The Advertiser

Ken Yokoyama pauses next to a Hotei statue in the grounds of the Daihonzan Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo in Kalihi Valley.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The roadway up Kalihi Valley is littered with junked automobiles, wooden crates that once contained refrigerators and other debris of civilization. Near the top of the valley, however, at 3565 Kalihi St., sits a private oasis, an enclave shaped by the green walls of the valley, frequently cooled by mist and rain and calmed by the sound and chill of a stream that rushes against the valley wall.

You have arrived at the Daihonzan Chozen-ji International Zen Dojo. The tranquility of the setting brings to mind one of the haiku poems of Matsuo Basho, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism in 17th-century Japan:

The cuckoo —
Through the dense bamboo grove,
Moonlight seeping.

"The dojo," says former state House Speaker Joe Souki, who has visited, "has a good feeling of peacefulness."

But there has been a ripple in the calm waters, of late, due to rumors and online reports — firmly denied — that in addition to being a place of refuge for some of Hawai'i's movers and shakers, the dojo serves as a center for power-brokering. To understand the irony of this, it is necessary to understand the Zen Way.

Dojo means "Place of Learning the Way," and Chozen-ji translates to "Temple of Zen Transcending the Form of Zen." The word "Daihonzan" signifies that this dojo in Kalihi Valley is the headquarters for a new lineage of Zen established in 1972 "as a place of Zen training where persons of any race, creed or religion who are determined to live in accordance with the Buddha Nature ... may fulfill this need through intensive training."

Zen places emphasis on lineage because of the importance of the master-student relationship. The master acknowledges when a student has seen dharma — one's true role in the universe — and the student carries on the heritage.

The dojo in Kalihi Valley stems from the Rinzai school of Zen, started in Japan in the 1100s, but it also has its own, more recent lineage that began with its founding by Omori Rotaishi and Tanouye Rotaishi. The latter, in 1987, became kancho or archbishop. Following his death in 2003, current archbishop Dogen Hosokawa Roshi took his place by pre-arrangement.

Zen, Japanese for meditation, is neither a religion nor a philosophy, and it's certainly not the beatnik perspective exhibited by writer Jack Kerouac in his novel "The Dharma Bums" of 1958. Rather, it is a discipline meant to facilitate the realization that clutching at life, or for that matter at definitions, only creates obstacles to the liberation that accompanies awakening.

The discipline derives from the introduction of Indian Buddhism to China in the sixth century. Elements of Taoism and Buddhism combined to form Chan, later mispronounced Zen when the discipline was introduced to Japan in the 1100s. As Robert Pirsig notes in his novel "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Chan and Zen placed great value "on the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat Tvam Asi, 'Thou Art That,' which asserts that everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided. To realize fully this lack of division is to become enlightened."

Asked to define enlightenment, University of Hawai'i Japanese religions specialist Helen Baroni responds: "Scholars disagree on what it is and don't like to talk about it. However, a better term than enlightenment is awakening." She points out that satori, the state of spiritual enlightenment sought by practitioners of Zen, means to wake up or to open one's eyes.

The chairman of humanities at Chaminade University, David Coleman, adds that enlightenment is the absence of attachments, aversions and confusion.

Who goes

The dojo in Kalihi Valley has a membership of 700, which includes a wide range of people, from Lionel Tokioka, until recently CB BancShares board chairman, to students from the University of Hawai'i.

Ken Yokoyama, a master of za-zen, or sitting meditation, and one of four full-time staff members, says, "Anyone who wants can come, but all must go through training." Even a reputed member of the underworld sought training at the dojo, Yokoyama said.

The dojo has attracted Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists from around the world. It even has an affiliate in Israel, as well as branches in Chicago, Okinawa and elsewhere.

Hawaiians including Poka Laenui and Puanani Burgess have longstanding ties to the dojo, and the late Pilahi Paki, famous for her chant on the meaning of aloha, was a frequent visitor.

One of the dojo's most ardent supporters is House Speaker Calvin Say, the product of a Catholic high school in Hawai'i. Say has been a member for 20 years, and serves on the board, or riji.

"It is a place of refuge," notes Say, "a place to go to revitalize and clear the mind. I go every other month to talk with (archbishop) Hosokawa to gain a different perspective."

Politicians and Zen seem to have an affinity, one with historical roots.

"Zen Buddhists may not want to hear this," says UH professor Baroni, "but in Japan, Zen was intertwined with politics from the beginning." At least part of the reason is that Buddhism has always emphasized the importance and impact of personal contact.

Tanouye Rotaishi, archbishop from 1987 until his death in 2003, excelled at personal contact. Among the powerful, rich and famous who sought an edge, visiting the dojo became the "in" thing to do. A sort of "enlightenment chic" attracted such visitors as Walter Dods of First Hawaiian Bank, Larry Vogel, then CEO of Duty Free Shoppers, House Speaker Joe Souki, Lt. Gov. Ben Cayetano, Gov. John Waihee and others.

One who is hesitant to talk about the dojo experience is Colbert Matsumoto, CEO of Island Insurance Co. Ltd., chairman of the Japanese Cultural Center and one of Hawai'i's leading power brokers. A member of the dojo and formerly on its board, Matsumoto responded to a query by saying membership in the dojo is a private matter. He is particularly bothered about recent reports in one of Hawai'i's Internet blogs, "Hawaii Reporter," that the dojo was somehow a player in the recent merger of City Bank and Central Pacific. He calls this assertion "disturbed" and believes the rumor is related to the racist view that because the dojo is Asian, it must be a nefarious cabal. Speaker Say, who has served on the board of City Bank, says reports about business plots at the dojo are "absolutely incorrect."

What goes on

Life at the dojo is a far cry from power brokering. As Yokoyama puts it, "The training never stops."

At 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., a horizontally suspended log strikes a bell-shaped gong. This is not a signal to start and end the day, but a reminder that our existence is irrelevant to the passage of time. In the center of the compound is a symbolic hill that represents the climb to enlightenment. At the foot of the hill is a statute of a Buddha, a reminder that even after satori one must remain part of the world.

A nearby inscription reads, "Look beneath your feet." This is a caution that you won't find enlightenment by looking to higher authorities, to deities or to scripture. The responsibility for enlightenment is yours. It is this emphasis on the individual and self-reliance that has provided Zen's historical attraction to the Samurai warriors, as well as to artists and poets.

The primary discipline at the dojo is zazen. The practice of sitting meditation, says Coleman, allows one to forget one's self and ego and to be "authenticated."

The dojo compound is marked by functional wooden structures, including a main training hall reserved for the martial arts. Kendo, fencing with bamboo swords, and aikido, unarmed combat, are taught as means to learning The Way.

Tanouye Rotaishi utilized kendo to challenge those seeking satori, and used to say, "You want it, come through me."

Ceramics is another important discipline at the dojo, and in the main martial arts hall are three ceramic vases created over a month's time during the artist's states of enlightenment, ranging from kensho, first experience, to a more advanced consciousness. The wood-burning and gas kilns are located just off the archery field between the great training hall and valley stream. Yokoyama, in describing the wood-burning process, observes, "You never know how it will come out. That's part of the training."

Kauila Clark, a shihan or high-ranking layperson in the dojo and a teacher of Native Hawaiian values who is a master potter, often uses the hard-stoking wood-burning kiln. He made his first visit to the dojo in 1987, and recalls how Tanouye Rotaishi, a complete stranger, mysteriously greeted him: "I knew you were coming three weeks ago. We've been looking for you."

Tanouye Rotaishi proposed that Clark fire a million ceramic plates, one for each person in Hawai'i. When Clark responded that such a task would take 20 years, the archbishop replied, "If 20 years sets the attitude for the next 500 years, isn't it worth it? We cannot let Hawai'i go and be like the rest of the world."

Later, after Clark had fired up the wood-burning kiln in record time, he said to the archbishop, "I'm so tired I don't know what I'm doing."

Replied Tanouye Rotaishi in one of the great lessons of Zen, "Good!" His response is related to the koan, or zen problem, a concept developed by the Rinzai school in the 1100s. The discipline is to meditate on an enigma or riddle for which there is no solution.

Perhaps the most famous koan in the West is the one American writer J.D. Salinger, author of "Catcher in the Rye," used as a preface for his 1953 publication "Nine Stories": "We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Whether the activity is gardening, archery, calligraphy, fencing with bamboo swords, aikido, meditation, poetry, ceramics or the contemplation of the sound of one hand clapping, the point is to clear the mind.

The truth of Buddhism is self-evident, maintains Zen, but hidden and obfuscated by goals, explanations and rationality. These affectations, as Alan Watts points out in his 1957 classic "The Way of Zen," are for those who haven't seen the futility of trying to hold one's breath (or life) indefinitely, since to hold one's breath is to lose it.

As Basho put it 350 years ago:

A banana plant in the autumn gale —
I listen to the dripping of rain
Into a basin at night.

• • •

Tips on Visiting the Dojo

If you have an interest in going, remember that the Chozen-ji Dojo in Kalihi Valley is a "Place of Learning the Way," and privacy is vital. Appointments are necessary, from Ken Yokoyama at 845-8129. You may have to wait a few weeks for a slot.

If you go, you will gain far more from your visit if you first read Alan Watt's "The Way of Zen." Watts died in 1973, but his short book lives on as perhaps the single best English-language introduction to Zen.

A member of the dojo, Colbert Matsumoto, also recommends a book by the late Nana Veary, "Change We Must," which discusses her experiences at the Chozen-ji Dojo.

Before or after going, you might want to see the film "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray and directed by Harold Ramis. According to an "Annals of Hollywood" piece in the New Yorker, it has become somewhat of a touchstone for followers of Zen. The protagonist, even with all the time in the world to polish his skills, is unable to impress the woman of his dreams with his accomplishments. He wins her only when he stops trying.