Wednesday, March 17, 2010

imagining the abbot

Watching St. Benedict's Rule the other day made me think of my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi who, before he died in 2007, was abbot of Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Japan. "St. Benedict's Rule" is a short film about a Christian monastery in Missouri and, although I am not a Christian, it had a number of touching and compelling aspects ... at least for me.

One such aspect was a comparison between the comments made by the abbot of the monastery and his fellow priests and brothers. Each of the men had his own personality and way of presenting things and most of them were very attractive in their straightforwardness and humility. The only slightly sour notes I detected -- or thought I detected -- came from the abbot. And that's what made me think of Kyudo.

The abbot acknowledged that he was in a somewhat different role from his companions -- forced by the nature of the job to have many concerns that were not part of their daily life. Food, squabbles, money, politics, chastisement/advice ... all the stuff that goes into running a large organization. And from time to time as he spoke, I thought I could detect his public-relations persona ... the one forced upon him by his office ... making things sound good, look good. And I felt sorry for him. Not because he was faking it outlandishly, but because being the front man so often entails being what you aren't, saying what you don't quite believe, and judiciously excising by omission the worms in the apple. What a weight.

Kyudo had been in Israel for 13 years and pretty much his own man as I understood things. But when his teacher, Soen Nakagawa died, the question of who might become the next abbot arose. One teacher who was dying to have the post and the prestige that went with it was not well-regarded by the monks at the monastery. He had the credentials, perhaps, but he was not a Zen teacher in anything but name. The monks, as I heard it from a great and perhaps-inaccurate distance, begged Kyudo to take the job. As it turned out, the post was given to Sochu Suzuki Roshi, one of Soen's Dharma heirs, and only on Sochu's death did Kyudo become abbot.

In Zen, there is a tradition for the one asking to ask three times. In this way, sincerity is suggested if not assured. And as I heard it, Kyudo turned down the request several times before finally accepting.

But in my mind, he wasn't playing Zen games. In my mind, he really didn't want the post. Really, he didn't. He took it, in my imagination, because he was a monk and because the Dharma was the Dharma, like it or lump it. But in his heart, as my imagination would have it, he knew that achieving so much rank and status was a dead loss ... the mirror image of what corporate cutthroats strive to attain. He wasn't anybody's front man... except that the Dharma was the Dharma and we are all front men.

I can't imagine that Kyudo did the job with anything less than his best abilities. But, perhaps entirely without reason, I feel sorry for his ascendancy and sorry for his descent ... neither of which probably apply ... and yet ... what an unfortunate outcome, my imagination suggests. It makes me feel the same as I might if one of my children broke an arm ... I would give anything to take that on myself so s/he didn't have to bear the burden.

It's all pretty imaginative.

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