When I was a young child, I began to have an interest in Buddhism. This started from curiosity about the strange, mysterious Eastern statues that cluttered my late uncle’s house in London. He had a fine collection of Buddhas from all corners of Asia; each displaying their individual cultural design. There was something intriguing in their benevolent smile that just enticed me to learn more.
At 12, I started to build a small collection of books devoted to mysticism around the world. I prized a set of encyclopaedias, called Man, Myth & Magic, which covered every topic regarding occultism, religion, legends and Anthropology. Within, were a grand array of images that to this day remain potent in my mind; particularly those of Buddhist monks meditating at Zen gardens in Japan.
In a secondhand bookshop in London, I purchased my first book on Zen, written by Christmas Humphreys. It was a slender volume, with an image of an Asian tiger on the front. The next book I purchased on the subject, again in London, was a delightful tome by Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I found this book to be a clear gateway into understanding the point – if there is indeed a point – to Zen.
In those young years, Zen had enormous appeal to me, even though I had much to learn. I adored the design and art of Zen, with their pristine, clear gardens of raked gravel and precisely placed rocks. It was exotic for a small English boy dreaming of travelling to far-flung places. I kept this interest quiet, as I was a non-Catholic at a Catholic school.
At long last, I finally completed my school studies, graduated from university and I was now an adult free in the big old world. Within six months of graduation, I moved to Japan. Inevitably, high on my priority list of places to visit in this most curious of countries were the Zen temples of Kamakura. It was a childhood dream to see with my very own eyes the scenes that had attracted me so much in the pages of my books.
In no time, I was heading away from Tokyo to my first Zen temple, on what now seems like such an innocent adventure into the unknown. I got off the train in Kita-Kamakura and took a short walk to a nearby temple, called Enkaku-ji. I felt myself pulsating with joy to see a real living Zen temple.
Enkaku-ji was selected by the Hojo clan, towards the end of the Kamakura period – when the town was the capital of Japan – as one of the five most important Zen temples. The Rinzai school of Zen is practiced within, and to this day, it remains an important place for the study of Zazen (meditation).
As I moved closer to the main central complex, enamoured with delight, I came across a small door, with an improvised sign stuck to it. Written on a piece of paper, in English, were the clear words ‘Come in.’ My mind was abuzz with excitement that just maybe I would finally meet a real Zen monk within, who would take me under his wing and lead me to Satori (instant enlightenment). I clasped the small ring handle and turned it, full of trepidation and curiosity…
…The door opened and at this point, a monk, dressed in black robes, came screaming towards me, ‘GET OUT! GET OUT!’ It was not the moment I had dreamt of as a child! I quickly made a retreat, feeling ejected, rejected and dejected that I had been scorned by a holy man for opening a door.
As I walked away, I started to chuckle to myself, as I realised what a classic Zen lesson I had been taught. Instantly, the ‘exotic’ which had intoxicated my mind, and had become a distraction from a truer understanding of Buddhism, was now instantly removed. For the first time, I recognised that the tranquil, idealised monks in my Western books were, in fact, no different than I. To this day, I thank that monk for treating me in such a brusque manner.