biography of Master Deshimaru



    We never called him differently than Sensei. For us, the great buddha Deshimaru, it was Sensei, in english "the old hand", a quite simple name: in Japan, the grandfather of the family or the school teacher is called this way. So for all the people who got to know him, the people who were maybe even more than his own children, Sensei means ... It means maybe, ninety buddhas who become incarnate suddently in front of you without any affectation. It is as astonishing and maybe as dangerous as to win in a lottery, but once billionnaire we get used to it very quickly and after few months we find such a situation almost normal. And then one day without expecting it, we find ourselves without a penny because we spent it all, it is the end, it remains only for us to summarize what we have done with this money during the time that we were riches.

    I remember the ceremony of the burial of the ashes of Sensei in the Temple of La Gendronnière, after we had, myself and few other disciples, brought back his ashes from Japan. I had been asked to make a little speech and I said that:
"Sensei !!!
Where are you now ?
In this box, there are bones and ashes.
The ones of your knees,
Of your neck stretched,
Of your hands in zazen.
Body and mind given away !
Your body in the earth,
Your spirit in the cosmos
And your teaching, your disciples, here, in front of you,
Are not separated, they are unity.""

    Then I read a poem written by our master in the most traditional zen form:

" The long bellowing of the beef of stone soars above the fields,
Outside is only vacuity.
The neigh of the wooden horse bursts in the valley,
The mountains have obscured the moon.

    We cannot explain the poem that you have written with words but it seems perfectly suited to the situation. And moreover, even if we do not have the satori, we should continue your teaching.

   Sensei was telling us: "Before becoming a Buddha, you have to become a real person, understand the true specificity of the human being."

    In a very old zen text, it is written:
"The true nature of our ignorance is in itself our buddha's nature. This body, empty and illusory, is in itself the body of the Law."

    Master Deshimaru, even before becoming a Buddha alive, was hundred percents human. He personified not only the humankind in its largest joy and generosity, but his friends were telling of him that he was the last Japanese of a mystical time, the one of the old tales of Japan. He transmitted zen to us, but also a lot of the popular culture of his country. You cannot imagine how this culture is complementary to the French culture, as the two hemispheres of the brain are indispensable to the good behaviour of the mind.

    " A troop of travelling artists was giving an open air show and the crowd was surrounding the trestles where it was performing. Lost far away behind the spectators, there was a dwarf who of course could neither see nor hear what was happening on the stage. However, each time the crowd was laughing and applauding, the dwarf was laughing and applauding too; each time the crowd was crying and moaning, the dwarf was crying and moaning too."
This is an old story that his mother was telling him when he was young, before he felt asleep.

    Yasuo Deshimaru is born in 1914, on the 29th of November, in a small village of south of Japan, downstream the river Chikugo, the one which meanders in the plain of Chikusi, nor far from the city of Saga. He spent his youth in the atmosphere of a rural Japan, still very traditional. His father was a small ship owner; he was leading the farming and fishing clubs of the village. He was very authoritarian and was dreaming of a brilliant future for his son :
"My son shall earn a lot of money and becoming somebody important, minister why not? Or a important industrial?"
He always regretted that Yasuo put so much importance to religion and spend so much energy in following and helping his master, Kodo Sawaki. Until his last day, he urged his son to become serious and to focus himself with determination to succeed socially and to earn a lot of money in order to honour his family. When his father died, Sensei really felt a great pain, he was torn between the desire to accomplish his father's wish and the vital necessity to follow his religious vocation. He talked to his master about it, Kodo Sawaki, and expressed to him, as he had done it already several times in the past, his desire to becoming a monk. But, like each time, Master Sawaki sent him away and, this time, he told him :
"You should not deceive your father. Focus yourself on what he asked you to do. Zen is not separated from life, you shall experiment everything: success and failure, prosperity and poverty. Maybe, one day, from your experience - if however you do not sink under the weight of your karma and forget about zazen - you will be able to help the others."

    He found then a job as manager in a cookie factory and got married, although he had preferred the life of a monk. It is right at the time of the birth of his first child, a boy, that war exploded and that Deshimaru, wearing the rakusu of his master, left for Indonesia.

    His own mother was quite the contrary of his father: full of compassion and of a great delicacy, she believed in Buddha Amida with fervour. Buddha Amida is the one who saves all existences; his compassion is so large that he says: "Even the good ones will be saved. Moreover the bad ones!". His mummy would not let a single day pass without prying him. She was so respected in the village that some people were asking themselves if she was not an incarnation of the goddess Kannon. By her example, she taught his son profound religious feelings from his childhood. Yasuo had two older sisters and two younger ones, he was the only boy among these four girls.

    As the village had no primary school at the time, Yasuo, in his prime childhood, was mainly raised by his grandfather, a judge guy who had a fantastic strength, although he was already pretty old. Master in the art of yawara (the martial art ancestor of judo and jiu-jitsu), he was teaching it in the Meiji period to important samourais. He then taught him the rudiments of his art even before he knew how to write and was sending him rolling on the mats without worrying about his small size. Tears in his eyes, Yasuo would attack back with courage screaming: "Obangyaka (old bandit!)".
But even when he had become really old, the grandfather could still give him a "ashibarai" which was sending him to the roof before he would crash heavily on to the ground.

    It is really difficult for us to understand the Japanese mentality, firstly because Japan is an island ( and we know that the islanders have always been pretty originals compare with the people from the continent) and secondly because this country has passed in a little bit less than a century from the Middle Age and feudality to the most absolute modernity in a democratic system. Master Deshimaru is one of these men who have known the passage between these two ages and who were able to adapt to this situation in a quite astonishing manner.

    At the coming out of his primary school, the young Yasuo met a great professor of drawing whose name was Tanahaka Suishi, who taught him the art of the Japanese sumi-e. During a whole period, Yasuo was thrilled by the Japanese water-colour. After few years, as he was the preferred pupil of his professor, who pushed him to enter the school of fine Arts of Ueno in Tokyo. He was persuaded that Yasuo would become a great painter. But when Yasuo got the idea of speaking about this idea to his father, the reaction of his father was quite immediate: "Would Got be my witness! Me alive, you will never become a painter!" With these words he gave him a kick:" As you are my son, it would be preferable that you enter immediately a business school, as one day you will have to succeed to me". These words distressed Yasuo who understood that it would ever be impossible for him to realise one of his most beloved child dreams. His father's desire was that he would enter one of these great schools (a business school, even a military school) which were at that time gratuitous. Yasuo's father, who had gone through a valorous fight during the Chinese-Japanese war, would have wished that his son succeeded first in the army...
Then, abandoning against his own will his project to enter the Fine Arts, Yasuo had to apply to the entrance exam of the Military School. Luckily, during the medical visit, it turned out that he was short-sighted and he was released.
The prom to which he should have belonged was decimated on the front during World War II. If he had been accepted, he would have had very little chances to escape the hecatomb, and moreover, due to his character, he would surely have fought on the forefront, ready to take big risks. So, what was considered as a mischance for the father, turned out as a chance for the son.

    After this failure which had preserved him from the army, the future was still dark. He ended up presenting himself humbly to the College of Saga, asking himself with anxiety what will happen with him. A little later, due to his father insistence, Yasuo had to accept to abandon his studies in order to help him in his work. They were loading coal into their steamers in the mines of Mike, then going down the river stopping to deliver it to all the brick factories by which they were passing. He was working with very strong dockers who gave him the responsibility to weigh the coal. One time, when he was still not at ease in his work, he slipped on the gangway which was bridging the boat to the bank and he ended up in the mud. As he was completely bogged down, the dockers had to put all their efforts together to rescue him. All wet, soiled with mud, he laid down on the bank, asking himself if his future was not to fall all the time in the mud …

    When he saw back his cousin Tamotsu, the latter was in a uniform of student and himself dressed as a worker. The job that his father wanted to impose to him was not pleasing him but, by good luck, his father ended up accepting that Yasuo did not want to have the same live as himself and did not want to succeed him in the business. He adopted then a young boy who could later on take his succession, which was at the time a current habit in Japan.
Yasuo could then take his studies back. The Majima family, a family from the neighbourhood, from Saga, offered him a room in their house so that he could work in there. It is there that he met Master Kodo Sawaki for the first time, who should one day transform totally his life.

   Sensei was saying :
"Sawaki, who was then living in the neighbourhood of Kumamoto, was coming down from time to time to Saga for giving some conferences. On these days, he was given my room and I had to sleep in another room. One day, when he saw that, he called me and told me: "But, stay and sleep here!" and he helped me to move my bed and my stuff into his room. I was eighteen years old at that time and Kodo Sawaki was around fifty. I was immediately charmed by him. He was dressed in the most modest way, wearing an old brownish kolomo, washy, and was always wearing a kind of wallet around his neck. Nevertheless, his majestic look was imposing respect. "Deshimaru! Was he saying entering my room. I come to tease you again!" and he was pulling out from his wallet few sesame cookies. I was loving him more and more and admiring him, however I could not decide to go and listen to his conferences. Zen and zazen were for me part of the forbidden religious activities, because my family was belonging to the "Jodo Shin Shu" sect. Master Kodo Sawaki himself was never saying a word about Zen; simply, we were drinking tea and eating small cookies together and we were sleeping in the same room.

   I particularly remember a summer night, humid and sticky: when we were laying down under the mosquito-net and I had fallen asleep. I heard him moving and clapping his hands. That waked me up. That were the mosquitos: there was an incredible number of them inside the mosquito-net. Looking very closely, I noticed a big hole. "Oh ! These mosquitos are really tough!" Kodo Sawaki was saying, trying to plug the hole with a pillow. I could not well see where he was heading to. "Good! Well, at least the ones which are outside will not enter! But what are we going to do with the ones which are inside? We can kill him one by one, but I am afraid that it would take us the entire night!" My advice, I said, is that it would be better to remove the mosquito-net and then put it back in place. You are right, did he say. Lets go! Ah! Saga is really a town full of mosquitos! Luckily you know how to handle it!" When he was holding the mosquito-net upwards, I hunted the mosquitos with a fan. Finally, after many pursuits, we could readjust the mosquito-net. But, once I was laying down again, I noticed that some of them had staid inside: "Master, there are some more!..." No answer. He was quietly snoring, and myself I could not sleep anymore. "That is incredible! He is harder than the people from Saga!"

   Yasuo continued his adolescence, dreaming of America and successes, pursuing his studies in economics, dreaming of purity and idealism in studying Buddhism at the University. Theoretical Buddhism of course. However, one day, when he was in third year of these studies and was following with great interest the courses on Buddhism morale with the Professor Asahi, as well as his commentaries about the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku (main texts of the zen literature), the latter and his friends convinced him to participate to a sesshin of Rinzai Zen in the Enkaku-ji temple. Although Yasuo at that time had the feeling to fall in heresy and to betray the "Jodo Shin Shu", he had a great respect for the Professor Asahi and he finally decided to leave for Uinokama instead of going to Saga as he was used to do it each week-end. There he had some rest before starting the sesshin. The next day, when he passed under the big door, he entered the Korin-ji temple: it was his first sesshin.
" We were weaken up brutally at two o'clock in the morning, says Deshimaru. I am asking myself if this is not the training of kendo, I was at that time fifth dan, who was giving me an arrogant attitude; still it happen that the young monk giving the kyosaku and responsible for watching the postures attacked furiously my back during the eight days of that sesshin. With repeated strokes of these judge kyosakus which are used in the Rinzai Zen, he was kicking my shoulders which had become red and swollen. I was there from eight days, I had not even seen the Professor Asahi, neither any master supposed to be the leader of this sesshin. I was starting to ask myself if this Zen, about which I had so much heard, was not simply consisting in getting kicked by these young monks. I was in the middle of severe doubts when, by lack of attention, tired or being distracted, the clumsy and sadistic monk who was attacking me furiously from many days missed his stroke and hit me on the head. Then, maybe it is what they call satori, I forgot about everything and I found myself, I do not know how, standing up with the kyosaku in my own hands, thrashing the young monk as he deserved it. Monks were springing up from everywhere and I was sending them to the roof screaming with these big "kwats" that the Rinzai so much appreciate. They wanted zen, they could get it! "Listen to me well, you all! Your zen has nothing to do with religion, it is only some kind of violence and fascism! I will not respect you ever and I will never practice zazen in my life again!"

Yasuo packed up quickly his stuff and let temple and mountains behind him. He came back to the Professor Asahi who was living in the Joshi-ji temple, told him about the whole story, told him about his indignation and explained to him that he had decided to go back home. The Professor bursted laughing. From the time that this temple was existing, nobody had ever heard about such story!

     You may not know the Japanese bowls: these are big bowls of noodles cooked in the Chinese fashion that people eat in all the small shops at the corners of the streets. You do not know how delicious it is, especially after eight days of starvation. Well, Deshimaru pretends that he gobbled up seven of these bowls before being satisfied.!
For the moment. Yasuo Deshimaru had not found the religious form which could suit him and, although he continued to study with his Buddhism professor, he put more effort in the next period on his studies in economics and on his dream of America. These two worlds which attracted him were so different, so contradictory: economists are rarely interested in religious questions; on the other side, the Buddhist Masters never take the economical problems into consideration, which however determine the everyday life of each of us.
Why that was the case?
Why such an incompatibility?
Is our existence not influenced by the others?
For the adolescent that he was, it was a crucial question. He could not envisage that pursuing a spiritual ideal could force him to turn his back to the advantages that the materialistic civilization could procure him. He thought that the one who choose the spiritual life was condemned to live alone and to eat only rice soup. In the business world, the honesty of such a man would have brought him the worst insults and would have rendered him ridiculous. On the other side, the one who would only look for success and materialistic pleasure would find himself carried along in a pitiless competition made of calculation, treasury and mistrust where he would only succeed in loosing himself. These two worlds seemed incompatible and without any communication in between them. They were coexisting by ignoring each other. It seemed to Yasuo that he knew about this situation from his tender childhood, between a father of an absolute integrity but profoundly materialistic and a mother who was only living by faith. Even if they were living in an apparent harmony, their opinions and vision of the world were irreconcilable, as spirituality and materialism are...