Gudo Nishijima turned 91 last Monday. To mark his birthday, we asked him to give a talk last Saturday at our zazen meeting at the Young Buddhists Association in Tokyo. We also invited him to a small birthday lunch afterwards at a nearby Indian restaurant.
I arranged to pick him up at his apartment on Saturday, and then take a taxi together to the place (called “Hongo-sanchome”) where we hold our zazen meeting. I called for him at about 11.30 am. He was still getting himself ready, and he asked me to wait for a few minutes while he finished getting ready. He offered me some fruit while I was waiting. He recommended the persimmons. He told me they that were really ripe and tasty now. He gave me one and a knife to cut it up with. He was right. The persimmon did taste great. When he saw I’d eaten it quickly, he offered me another one. I didn’t want to eat all his persimmons, so I said I was okay. I was hoping we’d have the chance to eat some lunch together before we went to the zazen meeting, but it was getting a bit late and Nishijima was worried about keeping the people at the meeting waiting. So we decided to skip lunch. Instead Nishijima brought a few bananas with us to eat in the taxi.
It took us a while to get a taxi after we left his apartment. Nishijima doesn’t walk so quickly nowadays, and I didn’t want to hurry him either. There were a lot of autumn leaves on the road as we were walking along. Nishijima told me the particular leaves that were on the path we were walking along are used as the symbol for Tokyo. The tree they’re from is called “ichou” in Japanese. In English it’s called the “ginkgo” tree.
When we reached the main road, we stood at the kerb and eventually hailed a passing taxi. Nishijima told the driver where we were going and a good way to get there. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he decided to eat some of the bananas. I was wondering if the taxi driver would object to us eating, but he didn’t seem to mind. Nishijima told me that a former prime minister of Japan, named Nakasone, used to keep some bananas in his office desk and whenever he was too busy to eat lunch, he’d eat the bananas instead. So Nishijima and myself were following prime minister Nakasone’s example with the bananas. Anyway, it was fun eating the bananas together in the back of the taxi. I think Nishijima enjoyed doing it like that.
We were late arriving at the meeting, and Nishijima felt bad that everyone had been waiting. But I think the people understood that Nishijima had made a big effort to get there, and they were happy to see him. The room we hold the talks in is on the second floor, and there’s a steep flight of steps to get there. Nishijima did his best to walk up, and me and Saito-san helped him along. He managed to climb the steps without too much trouble. Then he went into the room and started his talk.
He hadn’t given a talk in English for about a year, and he was a bit rusty at the start. But after a while he got into his stride, and spoke about how he got interested in Buddhism and Master Dogen. He also told us how he began giving lectures in the same building we were in about 50 years ago. He told us he first came across Master Dogen’s book Shobogenzo when he was 16 years old. He had a read a lot of books before then, and felt he could understand all the books that he had read. But when he read the Shobogenzo he couldn’t understand it all. Even though it was written in Japanese and he could understand the words, he just couldn’t understand the meaning of what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo. He was very surprised that there was a book written in Japanese that he couldn’t understand. So he decided to try to find out what the meaning of the Shobogenzo was. He said he used to have a pocket edition of the Shobogenzo, which he carried around with him all the time. He said he read it on the train on his way to school and work and whenever else he had the chance. He read it over and over many times, and he eventually realized that the Shobogenzo was a very valuable and special book. He said he found that the Shobogenzo contained a real treasure. He said that what Master Dogen had written in the Shobogenzo was the “truth” itself. He said that even though he had read lots of books, he had never found one that he believed contained the truth. But after he’d read Shobogenzo over and over, he realized that he’d found a very special book. So he decided to devote his life to reading the Shobogenzo, and eventually he began translating it and giving lectures on it.
Nishijima told us that when he was 40 years old he asked the then head of the Young Buddhists Association at Tokyo University (the same place we were having the talk last Saturday) to allow him to hold a Buddhist meeting there. Nishijima’s idea was to hold a zazen class and afterwards give talks on the Shobogenzo. The head of the Young Buddhists Association agreed to Nishijima’s proposal, but told Nishijima that the Association wouldn’t be able to pay him any money for holding his lectures. Nishijima said he didn’t mind that, and he was happy to hold his classes for free. So he began to hold meetings there. Two Tokyo University students helped him organize the first few meetings and came to the zazen practice and his talk too. But then the students became busy with their other studies and couldn’t come to his class. The next time Nishijima held a class after that, no-one came to the zazen practice. But he decided to do zazen in the room by himself anyway. Just as he was finishing zazen, two people came in and asked him where the library was. He chatted to them for a few minutes and said that they could come and listen to his talk that day if they wanted, so he ended up giving a talk to the two people who came looking for the library. After that the number of people attending his talks started to increase. The following week he said five people came, and after that seven people attended. After a while 30 or 40 people were coming to his talks. Later on he started giving talks in English at the same place (which is how I met him). He told us he felt very happy that he was able to give a talk on the Shobogenzo to so many people there. He said he was really happy to see that the meetings (in Japanese and English) he started all those years ago were still continuing even now.
After he finished talking, we presented him with some flowers and a birthday card that everyone at the meeting had signed. His students in Finland had also sent him birthday greetings which they had all written. Some of his other students outside Japan had sent him a card or a gift as well.
After the meeting we took some photos with Nishijima Roshi, and then we went to a nearby Indian restaurant. The restaurant wasn’t that far away, and some people went by foot. But it was too far for Nishijima to walk to, so we went by taxi. While we were in the taxi Nishijima told me that he was very, very happy to be able to give a talk there that day. He said it was the happiest day of his life. He said he felt really happy that he had been able to give talks on Buddhism to people at the Young Buddhists Association.
It was around 3 pm when we reached the restaurant. There was 13 of us, and the restaurant put a few tables together to accommodate us. Nishijima sat in the middle and told us about the time he visited India and some other stories. He also answered some questions we had about Buddhism. At the end of the meal, we all stood up and sang “Happy Birthday”. Just about everyone who was in the restaurant joined in. I even heard the cooks joining in in the kitchen. After we finished singing, Nishijima said it was the happiest day of his life.
It was a real pleasure for me to spend time with Gudo Nishijima that day. It’s a day I’ll always remember.