Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Fifteen

100 Days in Winter

          The Golden Bear rolled on heavy seas; a rough northern crossing in the dead of winter. Unlike 1940, there was little in America that I could regret leaving behind. The widening expanse of time and space stretched out behind us. The churning wake quickly disappeared into a stormy sea, erasing the tracks of our passing.

        The seas became calm as the islands of Japan seemed to rise from beneath them, and again Mt. Fuji appeared in the distance. Again my ship docked at Yokohama, this time in an era of peace. There was an enthusiastic reception for me, the prodigal "Furobo-san", as they called me, since they could not pronounce "Provoo", and a banquet in a fine hotel. Many among the Japanese population who knew my story had adopted me as their own, and I felt fondness in their welcome. Then the train ride to Minobu: I was overjoyed to find that it had been untouched by the war.

        Nichiren, the founder, had retired here in seclusion, having exhausted his enthusiasm for confrontation with the temporal authorities, had spent the last eight years of his life here, writing, teaching and quietly enjoying an earthly paradise:

        "When the autumn evening draws on, lonesomely, the surroundings of the thatched hermitage are bedewed, and the spider's webs hanging from the eaves are transformed into garlands of jewels.
        Noiselessly, deeply tinged maple leaves come floating on the water that flows from the bamboo pipes, and the water, colored in pattern, seems to stream forth from the fountain of Tatsuta, where the brocade-weaving lady is said to abide.
        "Behind the hermitage, the steep peaks rear their heads aloft, where on the slopes the trees bear the fruits of 'the Unique Truth', and the singing crickets are heard among the branches.
        When the limitless sky of 'entity' is cloudless, and the moon shines bright, it seems as if the 'darkness of the shrouding delusion' was gone forever."
        In the hermitage thus situated, throughout the day we converse and discuss the truths of the Unique Scripture, while in the evening and late into the night is heard the gentle murmur of the recitation of passages from the sacred text. Thus, we deem that to this place has been transferred Vulture Peak, where the Lord Sakya lived.
        When fog veils the valley, and even when a gale is blowing, we go to gather wood in the forest, or through the bedewed bushes down to the dells to pick parsley leaves.
        Reflecting on these conditions of my present life, I often think, so must it have been with Buddha, when he was in search of truth and disciplining himself in expiation and mortification...
        Having served the masters, By collecting wood and gathering herbs, And by fetching water for them,
        I have at last attained this enlightenment- The enlightenment in the Lotus of Truth"
                ---from Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet, Masaharu Anesaki, 1916.

        The events of reality are never as simple as they are in our myths, and I was not here to spend my final days in sublime repose; I was here to receive training, to perfect my understanding of the Lotus, and to continue the mission to spread the teaching throughout the world. As I had learned from the British officers on Taiwan, "duty is a thing never done", and my duty now was solely to the Lotus.

        I was raised in rank to Sozu (Right Reverend) so that I would be eligible for advanced trainings. I was at first housed in the dormitory until my own quarters could be built for me. I entered the shugyo training, a strenuous ascetic practice; arising before dawn, a cold water bath, a lengthy service chanting the sutra, before joining the procession to the morning otsutome. Each morning after the otsutome, I would go to the Lord Abbot's villa. Every two or three days the Abbot would say, "is there something you wish to ask?" and I would offer my interpretation of a particular point and ask if it was correct. I also began to ask if I might be included in a very high training, the "Arai Gyodo"--the "One Hundred Days in Winter", an ordeal of cleansing and purification. The Lord Abbot would put me off.

        I had easily entered into the life of the monastery. The regimen that had been difficult and harsh to me as a young novice was now easy. I didn't have the pressure of being in a strange country that was preparing for war against my own, and the students in my English classes at Minobusan College were not sickly and green from malnutrition.

        I made many excursions to the various shrines in Japan commemorating the events of Nichiren's life. To his birthplace at Kominato, where he entered a monastery at the age of eleven, and had been saved by a flash of light from his ojuzu beads; to Kamakura where the white monkey had led him away from a mob's murderous plot, and the spot where the executioner had been bedazzled by a comet; to his place' of exile on Sado Island; and returning, of course, to the most important shrine of all, Nichiren's tomb at his sylvan retreat, Minobu.

        Finally, the Lord Abbot informed me that I would be allowed to participate in the Arai Gyodo--beginning in the middle of November. There had been snow on the ground for several weeks and the crisp mountain air cut through our usual robes, but the clothing for the Arai Gyodo was to be a single cotton garment, and no shoes at all. The regular meals at Minobu had been Spartan, but for the monks of the Arai Gyodo, there would be a cup of rice and soup once a day, and a cup of tea at another time. I believed that I could survive on this ration for three months: I had lived for years on less.

        There is a big difference, however, in what one must endure and what one chooses to endure. Imposed discipline is easier in a way than self discipline; and those participating in the Arai Gyodo could leave whenever they wanted, though it would mean they would have to leave Minobu in disgrace.

        Many old monks were taking part this time, some of whom had taken the purification as many as fifteen times before. At least four masters participated in order to conduct the training.

        The day begins with a pre-dawn ice water bath, and the chanting begins, as the monks walk around and around in a circle, barefoot in the snow. Each hour we stop for an ice water bath, then return to our chanting and their circular procession in the snow. Twenty-one ice water baths a day, three hours sleep, one hundred days; this is the Arai Gyodo, a "purification place", "One Hundred Days in Winter."

        In a few days I felt like I wasn't going to make it. It was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Food, warmth and sleep were just outside the temple gate. Our feet became cracked and bloody, and our path, a red circle in the white snow. There was a vat of warm sake from which we could drink whenever we wanted, but the old timers cautioned me to avoid it. Likewise there was a choice of a warm bath every two weeks, but the old ones told me I would be better off without that as well.

        We chanted "Namu Myoho-renge-kyo", "Adoration to the Lotus, to the mysterious perfection of everything, just as it is." The sound of our voices became hoarse and cracked and the source of the tones moved to deep inside, so that the chanting took on a guttural resonation. The voices from stomachs became a communal heartbeat fusing our bodies and spirits into one. I began to experience my body disappearing, or rather, revealing its etheric true nature, an illusion as insubstantial as my own individual identity, my "self": a puppet's fantasy. My being became centered and calm ...and "here". I knew that I would make it.

        The others had reached this plane as well, and our combined states of mind and our constant chanting was creating a spiritual vortex. The energy of each monk in the circle seemed combined with the rest, the group becoming one being, the individuals as the fingers of one hand, one mind.

        After three-quarters of the hundred days had elapsed, I had reached the state of mind that I wanted this to go on forever, and I could understand why the old ones had come again and again. One old monk died during the ritual, and I could see what a sublime death it was, and we were certain that the old monk had been happy to have ended that way.

        Having been prepared in this manner, the participants were ready to receive the highest teachings of the order. The attendant masters delivered occult training in the healing arts based on the 16th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The teachings of the Arai Gyodo are secret and are not described to outsiders. Finally, the Hundred Days in Winter have passed and it is over; but for the others, and myself it is too soon. How to leave such a state? It is customarily arranged that some strong supporter of the priest's teaching is there to greet him as he emerges. For me, it was Ralph Lindquist, the man with the Karate Dojo in Pennsylvania, who had been instrumental in my return to teaching Buddhism. Shortly after completing the Arai Gyodo, I was raised in rank to something on the order of Bishop, with the authority to ordain priests. I was given the name Nichijo Shaka. Nichijo means "sun-vehicle", and Shaka is the Japanese spelling of the name of the clan from which emerged the original historic Buddha, the Sakya clan.

        Following my ordination ceremony, I walked down to the village of Minobu's outer gate, to make the traditional procession up through the winding main street of Minobu chanting "Namu Myoho-renge-kyo".

        I was known to everyone in the village, and today, wearing my new insignia of high rank, I was honored and congratulated by all. The proprietors of every shop and inn asked me to stop and chant a sutra before each of their shrines. It was a triumphant procession, Minobu's version of a ticker tape parade. After some hours, I reached the huge Sammon Gate, entrance to the temple grounds, and retired to my quarters.

        My first official function with my new rank came a few days later, when late one cold evening a schoolboy came to my quarters. The boy had come all the way up the dark stairs and through the monastery grounds to find me. There was an emergency in an old woman's home down by the river in the poorest part of the village. The woman wanted the "blue-eyed priest and no other".

        I got robed, banked the ashes over the coals in my hibachi to keep them going until I returned, and gathered my sutras and my cape. Guided by the schoolboy, we made our way down the mountain to the old woman's hut. The dilapidated thatched building was in an advanced state of disrepair. The old woman greeted me at the door and invited me to enter. She was bent way over from age and wore an old padded robe that was faded and had the stuffing coming out in several places. The straw mats on the floor were unraveling and her feet were bare; she hadn't even tabi. In her hibachi there were only a few small lumps of charcoal and it wasn't enough to keep the cottage warm, not with the holes in the walls.

        Her tragedy was that her hibari bird was dead in its cage. It had died from the cold. She wanted the Lotus Sutra chanted for the happy transfiguration of her dead bird's spirit. I was touched by this and agreed.

        Her shrine was clean, there were artificial flowers and a glass of water as an offering, and there was incense there for me to light. I took off my cape and began the service. I opened my sutra and chanted at least five chapters, the long version of the ceremony.

        When it was over, the woman seemed much moved and had become very peaceful. She tried to make tea, but with her small amount of charcoal she could only make the water lukewarm, and the tea was weak when she served it.

        She rummaged around in her belongings and found two 100-yen notes, wrinkled and dirty. They were worth about six cents. She didn't have the proper envelope, so she wrapped the notes in white paper and knelt down to offer them to me. It was the hardest danna I would ever have to accept. Danna is a Sanskrit term denoting that offering given to a priest which bears the connotation "...where it is understood that there is neither gift, giver or recipient." To have refused to accept it from the old woman would have been unthinkable, it would have been a cruel insult.

        I returned to my quarters in the monastery. In the following days I arranged, in an indirect way, to have charcoal sent to the old woman's house as well as some nonperishable foodstuffs.

        One of my students from Minobu College, Osamu Narita, had begun to petition me to accept him as my deshi, my student in Buddhist matters: At first I refused. I hadn't anticipated ordaining anyone until I returned to America. Also, it would be a break with tradition; no Caucasian had ever ordained a Japanese National in Japan. Young Narita was persistent and often brought me flowers and repeatedly asked to be accepted. One day when Narita had come to my quarters and been refused, Narita said to me, "Master, don't you know me?" At those words I had experienced satori, an instant flash of illumination. After that it was difficult to refuse. I asked the boy's father, and then discussed the matter with the Lord Abbot. Narita was shortly thereafter raised to full priest.

        I had been trying to arrange a program for foreign students to be established at Minobu, and though I had the support of the Lord Abbot, I was meeting some resistance from the administrative hierarchy. A few days before my departure for America, I went to meet with the order's leaders at Shumuin headquarters in Tokyo. When they repeated their reluctance I confronted them head on and harangued them for their provincial attitude. I said that when I had established a temple in America, I would open the gates wide to all who wished to study the Lotus; Chinese, Koreans, Caucasians, anyone ...Nichiren was a saint for the world, not just Japan.

        As I prepared myself for returning to America, I had several audiences with the Lord Abbot concerning establishment of the temple in America. How would the temple survive, how would I know where to build it, how would I raise the funds? The Lord Abbot answered, "If your teaching is valid, everything will support you, if it is not, nothing will."

        Unlike before, leaving Japan this time had meaning and mission. Much had been resolved inwardly and outwardly during my training. I felt that the very nature of reality almost by conscious design, had guided me through the worst ordeals of life to reveal the innate symmetry of karmic justice: That whenever I had abandoned my fate, something unexpected had come to my rescue; that each time I was placed in captivity, among my captors there had been an ally; that within every destructive thing lies the seeds of its own destruction; that the machinations and maneuvers of my legal defense had not been able to prevent my conviction, it was the ruthlessness and dirty tricks of the prosecution that had ultimately freed me; that within a seemingly omnipotent government, dispassionately bent on my execution, there were men of justice. The perfect void within which all visible things exist acts as a mirror that reflects hatred and evil back on themselves; and love, giving and compassion back on themselves, too. Hatred need not be reciprocated, it is self-destructive; and love need not be rewarded, the giving of it is the source of happiness.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver