Kyoto, Japan circa 1986, and there I was — standing at the ancient gates of Tofukuji monastery — eagerly attempting to meet the wizard.
In truth, Fukushima Roshi is no sorcerer, nor is Tofukuji the Emerald City. But the Abbot of Tofukuji temple is certainly “wizardly” in his sense of calm, equanimity, and spiritual development…or so I had heard. My college classmate, Tim Armacost — a Zen Buddhist and old Japan hand — was the one who had initially insisted I drop in on the Roshi when touring Japan’s imperial city.
“You have to go visit the Roshi. He may not change your life, but then again, he just might.”
High praise indeed. At age 23, full of spiritual ardor, here was an “experience” I needed to have!
Knocking on the heavy wooden front door of the monastery one chilly April morning, I felt like I had truly come to the end of the Yellow Brick Road…right down to the mysterious, diffident doorman barring my progress. Bald and wizened, in brown monk’s garb, my greeter was a tall, thin and solemn man – pretty much what you’d expect from the gatekeeper at a Zen monastery.
With broken Japanese, I asked to see the Roshi. Silence. I tried again, this time in English. “May I see the Roshi?” More silence, combined with puzzlement and a mounting sense of impatience. At last I played my final trump card.
“I am a friend of Tim Armacost and Margaret Dornish (Tim’s Asian Studies professor at my alma mater, Pomona College).”
“Ah, Dornish San. Wait one minute!” said the gatekeeper, turning quickly on his heels and vanising quietly into the dark recesses of the temple on white-socked feet .
Ten minutes later he returned and, with a nod, and beckoned me inside. I had passed the first hurdle! It seemed I was really off to see the wizard.
Deeper and deeper into Tofukuji’s sanctum sanctorum I followed my solemn guide, thinking to myself: “This is incredible! I’ve made it! And in a few minutes, I’m going to meet an actual enlightened person!” Would my life be changed, as Tim suggested? Would I experience a peak experience? I was both nervous and excited to find out.
Eventually I was ushered into a traditional Japanese room, with tatami flooring and large windows overlooking a garden. At one end of the office was a large desk — at the other, a plush leather couch. On the walls were pictures of the Roshi with what I assumed were photos of his friends and admirers, including Prince Charles of England, of all people. Thirty minutes of quiet waiting later, the Roshi, himself, came rushing into the room. A small, round man with bald head and twinkling eyes, the temple abbot surprised me with his forthright nature, dispensing with a traditional bow and instead thrusting out his arm and grabbing my hand in a vigorous shake. “Nice to meet you. Thank you for visiting my temple!” he declared, in perfect English.
Far from presenting himself as this deep and serene authority figure, Fukushima Roshi came across as congenial, welcoming…jolly even. When he spoke, his whole being seemed suffused with humor. If Santa Claus had shaved his beard and traded in his red suit for Zen robes, that would be the Roshi. As we talked, I learned more about the abbot’s life — his tour of the U.S., his long-standing friendship with Prince Charles and other world leaders, his relationship with my college. (As it turns out, he taught Zen Meditation to American students at the Claremont Colleges from 1973 to 1974). We spoke about my friend, Tim, and his professor, Margaret Dornish. In the end, the Roshi asked where I was staying in Kyoto and inquired how I was getting back to my hotel. Before I knew it, a yellow cab had arrived in the temple compound
“It was nice to meet you, David-san” said the Roshi, vigorously pumping my arm as he showed me to the door. Here are some postcards of Tofukuji. I’ve paid for your taxi. Have a safe trip back to your hotel, and please come again.” The audience was over; I was off.
Reflecting on my visit with the “wizard”, I find myself dwelling on the nature of expectations. Frequently, you go into a situation expecting something amazing to happen: happiness, perhaps, or safety, security, a pay raise, excitement — in short, a peak experience. And, counter to your expectations, so often what you find is something far more simple and mundane. If you’re really lucky, perhaps, you walk away with a nice pack of postcards. Whatever the situation, the trick, it seems, is to put aside your disappointment, your expectations, your hopes for enlightenment, and enjoy the simple pleasures of whatever happens. Did the Abbot of Tofukuji change my life? Not particularly. I enjoyed speaking with him, appreciating his joyful energy and intelligence. I did not, alas, walk away feeling especially “touched by divinity” afterwards. I will, however, always remember the Roshi’s dancing eyes and his ceaseless joy for life. And that, I believe, is enough.