- Letting Go: The Story of Zen Master Tosui
In his latest book, Letting Go: The Story of Zen Master Tōsui, Peter Haskel has taken on the task of translating the traditional biography of an obscure and eccentric Japanese Zen monk of the seventeenth century, the Tōsui oshō densan, which was compiled by the celebrated scholar-monk Menzan Zuihō (1683-1769). Haskel has added an impressively comprehensive critical introduction, extensive footnotes, and a concluding essay. The translation of this collection of anecdotes is accurate and very readable, and the supporting critical apparatus is a concise survey of recent critical scholarship concerning the turbulent world of Zen Buddhism in early Tokugawa Japan.
The first half of Tōsui's life was unremarkable: he traveled and met various teachers and then was recognized as a master in his own right. He was eventually invited to preside over a Sōtō Zen training temple, where he settled down and led meditation retreats for five years. By the end of this time he was attracting many disciples, including some very well known monks, when suddenly he simply disappeared. At the end of a training season, instead of presiding over the usual elaborate ceremonies, he stuck a poem to the wall, and without a word to anyone walked out with just the clothes on his back. Even the earlier facts of his life are sketchy, but from this time on all we have are stories that Menzan himself acknowledges cannot be arranged in a clear chronology. According to one tale, after an extensive search, two of his closest disciples found Tōsui living among beggars. His hair and beard were wild, his Buddhist robe was tattered, and his begging bowl was broken. Tōsui berated the two for interfering with his desire to be left alone and stalked off. One disciple continued to pester him; Tōsui relented, and they set off together. At the side of the road Tōsui discovered the body of a dead beggar and set about to bury him with his own hands. He then insisted that the disciple accompany him in eating what food remained in the beggar's bowl, but the disciple was overcome with disgust. Tōsui sent him off with instructions to go study under the émigré Chinese master Kao-ch'uan, an important teacher of the newly imported Chinese Buddhism (called Ōbaku Zen in Japan). As is always the case with these stories, there is no explanation of his actions: no indication of why Tōsui chose this teacher or if there was any significance to sending his student to a teacher in another lineage.
Various people continued to attempt to find Tōsui over a span of many years, but he refused to teach or even talk to most of them. Besides anecdotes like this, we have only a few short poems and ripostes that give a flavor of his irreverent style. In response to a merchant who wanted to know how to do Zen meditation, Tōsui would only say, "Soy sauce should be made in midsummer; miso should be made in winter." If people persisted in trying to see him, he simply disappeared rather than deal with them. He lived in tiny rented rooms in towns working as a maker of straw sandals, doing day labor or simply begging for his sustenance. He rejected all offers of support, and if someone attempted to get around his refusals by leaving money or [End Page 132] clothes nearby, he distributed everything to the beggars among whom he lived. As he got older he relented a bit and allowed a follower to provide a meager living for him making vinegar, using the ruse that it wasn't patronage since the rice used for making the vinegar would otherwise have been discarded. When Tōsui died, his funeral was presided over by Kao-ch'uan (the Ōbaku teacher to whom he had entrusted his former students), and his remains were interred at Kao-ch...