Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Two

Butterfly and Tiger

     My family and friends stood on the dock; I stood high above at the ship's railing in my robes. Enormous ropes were the last things that tethered us to the continent. Gangplanks were hoisted up, the lines were cast off and the great ship pulled away. The throng faded, the dock faded, the city faded and finally the brand new Golden Gate Bridge, painted tori-gate orange, faded from view. As the ship churned its way west into the setting sun and darkening Pacific Ocean, I felt as though I were casting off on a great symbolic ocean: a young prince on a mystic quest, a modern Siddhartha leaving the palace. I wasn't looking back. I felt a great sense of mission. The English translations of Buddhist writings that had been the mainstay of my intellectual development contained the pervasive theme of creating a "bridge of understanding between East and West". That's what I wanted my life to be. And all the efforts of my life would be spent in that creation. My sense of mission deepened in the weeks at sea.

    Our destination was the temple complex at Minobu, where Nichiren, the founder, had spent the last eight years of his life. Nichiren was both a historical and legendary figure. His name means "Sun-Lotus". He was born in the fishing village of Rominato; the southeastern-most point in Japan where, it is said, the rising sun first touches the shores of the nation.

    Legend has it that at his conception, Nichiren's mother dreamed of a tiny sun coming to rest on a lotus blossom. On the day of his birth, a spring of clear water gushed forth in the corner of their garden and hundreds of white lotuses had blossomed in the cold waters of the bay... signaling the birth of a great man.

    He was born in 1222, during a feudal period in Japanese history in which the country was ruled by a succession of shoguns, military dictators who rose to power through inter clan warfare and ruled from the capital at Kamakura.

    He had an early interest in Buddhism and entered the monastery near his home at age eleven. From his earliest days, he was disturbed by his country's perpetual internal warfare and the fragmentary proliferation of innumerable Buddhist sects their rivalries even becoming murderous at times. He became conscious of the chasm between the peasants and the wealthy; the poverty and malnutrition of the masses and the indifference of their masters. He couldn't understand how it was that Buddhism, which was supposed to bring harmony and peace, had failed so miserably; and why the lofty priesthood ministered carefully to the aristocracy and ignored the plight of the masses. He concluded that most of the sects must have been teaching false doctrines. The singular quest of

    his youth, then, was to discover the true form and the true teaching of Buddhism. He traveled all over Japan and studied at all of the great temples of all the sects and by the age of thirty-one he had determined that the Lotus Sutra was the ultimate word of the Buddha and that the unification of the country could only be achieved by using the Lotus as the basis of governing.

    Returning to the small temple near his home where he had begun, he preached his first sermon. He exalted the Lotus and denounced all other teachings as false and destructive. When the ruling lord of Kominato heard of this he was outraged and ordered Nichiren's execution, but he had already left the district.

    For the next seven years, he traveled the outer provinces and delivered his teachings, gaining important disciples and allies among the scattered warlords, and formulating his plan for saving the nation, predicting the Mongol invasions, which came true in 1274.

    In 1260, he completed his Rissho Ankoku Ron, a discourse on the country's ailments and a procedure for restoring it. He presented it to an officer of the military government in Kamakura, but received no response. He began to speak his mind before the impoverished crowds in the streets of the city. He was becoming too revolutionary to be tolerated.

    The ruling family and members of the officially sanctioned Nembutsu priesthood incited a mob to burn his hermitage and kill him, but, according to legend, a white monkey awakened him and led him to safety. Again he fled to the outer provinces.

    The following year he had returned to Kamakura and to his outspoken ways, and this time he was charged with disturbing the peace and exiled to the Izu Peninsula, a common sentence for political agitators. The intention was to silence him for good. Instead of leaving him on the shore they stranded him on a rocky islet at low tide. The rock, Mana Ita, would be completely covered when the tide came in, and he would be swept away. Instead, he was rescued by an old fisherman and subsisted on Izu for nearly two years. He was able to gain pardon by curing the local lord on Izu of his madness.

    The very next year, he returned to his birthplace because his mother lay dying and he was said to have brought her back from death. When he heard that Nichiren was in the district, Lord Kagenobu of Kominato, who had ordered him executed eleven years before, organized an ambush. A number of Nichiren's entourage were killed by arrows and swords and as Lord Kagenobu himself charged Nichiren with his sword raised, Nichiren calmly stood his ground, holding his ojuzu, his prayer beads. A flash of sunlight from the beads startled the horse, Lord Kagenobu was thrown and struck his head on a rock, and Nichiren was saved.

    In 1268 one of Nichiren's prophesies from the Rissho Ankoku Ron concerning the invasion of foreign armies appeared to be about to come true, and Nichiren stepped up his campaign. Kubli Kahn, the Mongol emperor of China, was demanding tribute and threatening invasion. This time Nichiren's efforts earned him a charge of treason and though he was officially sentenced to banishment, an execution had been secretly planned.

    The night he was to be sent into exile, he was instead taken to a place of execution and he calmly prepared himself for his end. As he kneeled on a straw mat, the executioner raised his sword and a ball of light is said to have appeared in the sky. The swordsman became dizzy and dropped his sword to the ground.

    Instead of being killed, Nichiren was sent into exile on Sado Island, off the Northwest coast of Japan's main island, Honshu. He remained on Sado three years when the military ruler at Kamakura, fearing the impending Mongol invasion, pardoned him and had him returned to the capital. The Shogun asked for Nichiren's advice. Nichiren insisted that the government turn away from all other sects of Buddhism and take refuge in the Lotus. The Shogun refused.

    Nichiren left Kamakura and moved to the western side of Mt. Fuji, to the slopes of Mt. Minobu; he built a small hermitage where he intended to live in seclusion, though hundreds would come to hear him teach. His health was poor from years of malnutrition in exile and he wished to live out his days at Minobu. He spent the last eight years of his life there, teaching and writing. He was on his way to the hot springs at Ikegami when he died. His ashes are enshrined at Minobu.

    As I was arriving in Japan nearly 700 years later, I wasn't anticipating an experience that included official persecution, exile, near execution and charges of treason. These were more peaceful, civilized times, and the Nichiren School, Nichirenshuj, was well established.

    Our arrival as young priest and master in Yokohama was on one of those rare days when Mt. Fuji is visible. The lower slopes were covered with clouds, and the ancient volcano shone brightly above giving it the appearance of floating in the air. There was a reception for Reverend Aoiyagi and me at the hotel in Yokohama where we spent the first night. The following day we made the 100-mile train ride to the beautiful valley on the far side of Mt. Fuji.

    We arrived in the town of Minobu in the late afternoon and found a room in the Tamaya Inn. In the morning we arose long before dawn to climb Mt. Minobu to the temple to arrive in time for the morning otsutome, the worship service conducted each day in the founder's hall.

    Garbed in white robes, we started up the mountain through the great sammon, a mammoth gateway and up the Bodhisattva stairs, a huge oversized stone stairway. The stairway led up to a large plateau, some 300 feet long. As we reached the top of the stairs, we could see the giant facade of the Kuonji, the founder's hall: a centuries old temple with vast eaves extending over the verandas. It was breathtaking. To me it was stepping six or seven hundred years into the past. It had indeed remained unchanged for that length of time in its appearance and function. The monastery and temple complex is set in a great quiet misty grove of cryptomeria trees. Their appearance is much like large redwood trees, except their branches look like cloud formations. At Minobusan there is often a mist the Japanese call kiri that gives an ethereal appearance to everything, completing the atmosphere of reverence and other-worldliness.

    We entered the temple. To the measured beat of the drum, all the pilgrims were chanting the odaimoku, "Namu Myoho-renge-kyo" as they waited for the Lord Abbot, his entourage, and all the other priests, monks and novices to enter and start the morning service. It was dark and a priest mounted the stairway and struck flint in the center and both sides of the central part of the shrine, where two vast doors remained closed. He then lit two candles and the two doors were slowly opened to reveal the seated figure of St. Nichiren, the founder. The drumbeat reached a crescendo and then stopped. The ancient bugakyu music began as the Lord Abbot entered from behind the shrine and prostrated himself before the high altar three times, then proceeded to the back of the temple where he climbed a stairway to a high throne-like pile of cushions, with a small gong at his right hand and at his left hand a book of the dead, containing the names and the death dates of those persons and patriarchs to be remembered this particular morning.

    Mochizuki Nichiken, the Lord Abbot, chanted several invocations and then named the chapter of the sutra to be read that morning. Simultaneously, the several rows of monks lifted the wooden covers off their eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra in red boxes and all turned to the indicated chapter.

    During the course of the service, I was led to a raised dais, close to the shrine, surrounded with a low lacquer fence, and at the appropriate time was told that I could offer incense. After bowing to the Lord Abbot, I turned to the shrine and offered incense three times, in reverence to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; triple jewel of the Lotus, and then returned to the dais where I had been and sat down on the cushion.

    Later that same morning, after we had breakfasted in the monastery I was coached for my presentation to the Abbot. I was then taken to a huge reception hall. At the far end of the hall the Lord Abbot was seated on a raised dais. I was required to make several bows as I proceeded down this long massive hall toward him. I felt as though I were growing smaller and smaller as I approached and the Abbot loomed larger and more formidable. Finally I reached the dais and made my last bow and looked up. The Abbot said to me, in Japanese, "It is well you have come. You are my disciple. Now get out." It was not until that moment that I knew that I would be accepted. It was a great honor to be accepted as a novitiate by a master who was over thousands of monks and priests.

    There was a sadness about this as well, because I was deeply attached to Reverend Aoiyagi. He would soon return to his parish and duties in San Francisco. There was time for us to share a few days exploring the temple complex and the sylvan mountainside of Minobu. We climbed the mountains behind the main temple. We were going to a small temple very high up the slopes of Mt. Minobu.

    I had gone on some distance ahead, since my legs were much longer then Aoiyagi's and reached the temple a few minutes before him. The priestess of the temple bowed as I approached but as soon as she could see me closely, her eyes grew large, and her expressionless face could not mask her anxiety. I bowed and greeted her in Japanese. As she made tea and prepared oranges for her guest, she did not turn her back or take her eyes off of me for one second.

    Soon Aoiyagi approached the temple and the priestess looked anxiously back and forth as between he and I as we conversed in English. When Aoiyagi explained to the woman that I was a priest from America, she asked, "What's that?" Aoiyagi replied that America was a land far across the ocean, and she said, "But his eyes ...they're blue" Aoiyagi explained that there were many in America that looked like me. Only then did the priestess relax. She said that when I first walked up, she had thought that I was the fox-god. I was the first Caucasian she had ever seen. Imagine, she thought she was in the presence of the fox god, and she served him tea and oranges!

    Soon Aoiyagi left to return to San Francisco, and I began my formal training. For the first few weeks, I was quartered in a monastery dormitory with other novices. Then, a single dwelling was made available for me that was close to the Lord Abbot's villa, the Minobusan college building, and the various temples. It was agreed that I would undertake to teach English to the novice students attending the College.

    The world at Minobusan was everything I had hoped it would be. It was the ancient and classical Buddhist training in every sense. It was completely separated from the outside world. It was harmonious, it was beautiful, it was immaculately clean, it was calm; it was so well run that I always knew exactly where I should be at any given moment and what my duties were. There was time for study, there was time for meditation, there was time for work, there was time for ceremony, time for eating, time for bathing and even time, if I stayed up late enough, to write letters home.

    The diet provided to novice monks was by design minimal as a part of their often-harsh training. It was barely adequate for the typical Japanese novice, but for my somewhat larger occidental frame it represented malnutrition. As a rare Caucasian, my training was made extra harsh; I was not expected to complete the rigors of the novices' monastic experience. I was given the daily job of cleaning the toilets for nearly a year. I became thin and frail, and when finally it became apparent that I would persevere even though I was literally wasting away, I was allowed to go to the Tamaya Inn in Minobu Village once a week to eat meat.

    In the home of one of my socialite sponsors in San Francisco hung a magnificent scroll painting of a butterfly reflected in a pond. A tiger lurks nearby, tensing itself to pounce: That's me at Minobu, 1941. The butterfly is an image of self-admiring serenity, the tiger a harsh reality about to turn quiet into chaos. In just this way, the blissful experience I was enjoying at Minobusan would not last. Beyond the confines of the monastery, menacing forces were gathering in anticipation of an unprecedented cataclysm. Except two tigers were circling each other, and I, the butterfly, was of no interest to them.

    My English teaching duties were expanded to include teaching students in the local middle school. I became aware that there was an acute food shortage. Many of my students had a sickly greenish appearance and I learned that many of them had resorted to catching and eating salamanders on their way to school to supplement their diets.

    At the end of six months training, I began to be allowed to go on excursions, always robed and in the company of other monks and priests, to visit various shrines and temples. When on these excursions to Nara, Nikko, Tokyo-Yokohama and Kamakura, I became keenly aware of a general state of suppressed excitement, of hostility just below the surface. Posters in the train stations cautioned the public not to speak to foreigners. The posters depicted a grotesque Uncle Sam, some with a great big ear.

    I began to come under the scrutiny of the civilian authorities, first at the local police station in Minobu. I was required to make a lengthy statement as to my intentions and the duration of my stay. On my few brief travels, I was approached by police and questioned, though the robes of a prestigious Buddhist Order insulated me from direct harassment.

    I received a communication from the American Embassy in Tokyo that I should make an appearance there, which I did. It was suggested that I return to the United States. I replied that I didn't wish to do so, that I was in the country for the purpose of training for the priesthood, that I hadn't completed my training and that I intended to return to the United States after my ordination.

    Japan was at war on the Asian continent, at the time, in Manchuria and China. The Dutch, the British and the Americans were ratcheting up their economic sanctions, and everyday people were feeling the effects. Japan was a country with few natural resources other than timber and coal. Its heavy industries were being stagnated by the shortage of oil and scrap metal, which previously had been imported in large quantities. There was a severe economic depression in the country and it was not uncommon for someone to faint in the street from malnutrition. There was increasing bitterness among the population that was being amplified and encouraged by the press. On several occasions I was asked, "Why is it that President Roosevelt wants to make war against us?"

    War was spoken of everywhere by the Japanese population. My excursions would take me past schoolyards where grade school children drilled with wooden rifles. I witnessed the return of shiploads of the ashes of their fallen soldiers, and many patriotic rallies. At the hot springs at Shimobe, I would see many, many wounded soldiers there taking their soaks in the numerous hot baths. Their open wounds didn't seem to disconcert them in the slightest. They were tough and battle-hardened. On the streets, everywhere, there were uniforms. The military party in Japanese politics was becoming increasingly dominant. The military forces on the Asian mainland seemed at times to act as completely independent entity, out of the control of the headquarters in Japan. I felt a great concern about the direction of events: Relations between Japan and the United States were running exactly opposite what I had hoped. The bridge between East and West was starting to burn, and I had to choose which shore.

    I received more communications from the American embassy, each successively couched in a little firmer language, a little more direct. I was called in for a number of interviews and at one point was told, "Well, we will call your passport" or, "We will require you to make another passport." And each time I replied, "If that's what's necessary, that's what I will do."

    The Japanese authorities were taking note of my repeated visits to the embassy, and finally I was taken to police headquarters in Tokyo and questioned exhaustively. There was a growing dossier on John Provoo in the files of both the Japanese and American authorities, the beginnings of a web of suspicions that would entangle me for the rest of my life.

    When I would return from these visits to Minobu, I would find in that placid atmosphere only compassion, wisdom, understanding and peace, but I remained disturbed about what was transpiring outside. I had become close to the Lord Abbot in my stay there. He and everyone became aware of my predicament. I was urged to stay, in fact, an official of the prefecture in which the monastery was located told me that in the event of war with the U.S., I would be guaranteed immunity from incarceration and harassment.

    At one interview at the American Embassy, I was told that if I didn't return to the United States very soon, it was likely that I would not be able to do so for many years, if at all, in which case I would probably never see my parents alive again. As it turned out this would have been the case since my mother died before I returned from my wartime experience. On the other hand, the Lord Abbot was getting very old and it was likely that if I did leave I would never see my master alive again. The embassy personnel were understandably circumspect about their reasons for pressuring me to return. They would not say directly that war was coming, and finally I asked to see the ambassador himself, Joseph C. Grew.

    The ambassador was refreshingly understanding of my situation. He himself was a great student of Japanese culture and an expert calligraphist. He was highly respected by the Japanese people and was placed under protective guard after the outbreak of war and eventually exchanged through Lorenzo Marques, capitol of the neutral Portuguese territory, Mozambique.

    I was receiving two sorts of letters from the United States; my mother was advising me to stay and complete my training; Antoinette, my friend from the Reserve Bank, and I had been corresponding since I had came to Minobu. She had been supportive of my spiritual quest, but now she was beginning to sense the peril of my presence there.

    My dream of monastic utopia and the unification of my own psyche had become a new fitful conflict. I saw it as two distinct choices: To remain in Japan, continue my studies for the priesthood and dedicate my life to peace and enlightenment; or, to return to America, abandon Buddhist training and probably be drafted into the Army.

    I did feel a call to action; to somehow use the tools I had gained, however naive my feeble efforts might be. If I were to remain in Japan, I would have to find a way to publicly counter the officially orchestrated war hysteria with words of compassion and understanding. On a trip to the detached temple of Minobu in Tokyo with several junior monks, I entered Hibaya Park, just outside the walls of the Imperial Palace, and found a spot in the plaza where the traffic of pedestrians converged. With the junior monks holding a banner, which read "Namu Myoho-renge-kyo", I began to preach peace. Peace depends on one's state of awareness: Within the turmoil and warmongering that appears on the surface, there is a land of harmony wherein good people worked to ease tensions and resolve conflicts. I exhorted the passersby to uproot the hatred that was being cultivated by propagandists and instead to sow understanding among their families and friends. I emphasized that President Roosevelt was not mad and didn't want war.

    It didn't take long to draw a crowd, and a few moments later, plainclothes police appeared and led me away to headquarters of the Tokyo police. I was held for several hours and questioned with new intensity. When I was released that afternoon, I went directly to the American embassy and reported the incident.

    It was a very disturbing series of events and left me very nearly resolved to abandon my goals to stay and become a priest. The focus of my monastic training at that point was the teaching of Kannon, the all compassionate one, "regarder of the cries of the world"; but outside the monastery, the Japanese Imperial military and propaganda machines were exhibiting the opposite of compassion.

    It was in this mood that I spent a restless night in a friend's house near the river in the village of Minobu. In the morning, I was awakened by the screams of a rat. It sounded to me as if the rat was calling to me for help. I rushed outside to find two villagers with a rat in a wire cage trap, carrying it down to the river to drown it. I ran to them and pleaded with them to show compassion and release it, quoting from the teaching of Kannon. They agreed to let it go and as they did and it scampered away, I realized that some door within my internal conflict had been opened as well. I could return to America and still be a Buddhist priest; they were not mutually exclusive ideas. I would continue in my vows and studies, and return to Japan and Minobu when it was possible. I credited the rat for recalling me to my vows, and saving me from drowning in my own cage.

    Still, it was not easy to leave, and in May 1941, I made two trips to Yokohama with my trunks packed for departure, only to return to Minobu. On the third trip, I did in fact depart, with the blessing of the Lord Abbot and the promise that I could return when possible to complete my training.

    With each illumination I gained, the world offered a greater darkness. The Buddha had renounced the world to understand the truth of sickness, old age, suffering and death: I had renounced materialism in favor of a deeper knowledge, and through my choices, I was going to learn of racism, suspicion, war, hate, brutality, starvation, treachery, injustice and persecution. From the mud, the lotus grows.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver