Apr 30, 2022
Michael Haggiag

Summer Reading List by Michael Haggiag

Book Review

 In this warm and and often very funny autobiography, Zen Master Soko Morinaga encapsulates our the inherent comedy of attempting to rid ourselves of our egos.



Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity

Soko Morinaga

Wisdom Publications, 2004

 Most books are meant to be read either for pleasure or for the information they contain. There are the classics, which can be profitably reread from time to time; then there are  those books in one’s life that are simply cherished. Soko Morinaga’s brief memoir is one of these, for me. It’s full of entertaining anecdotes delivered in a friendly, down-to-earth manner that belies their profound wisdom and insight into the human condition. For a serious Zen practitioner, this isn’t a book to be read once and left to gather dust on a shelf. There are many subtleties to be appreciated, and they become more apparent the further one goes in one’s own training.

 I first came across Buddhism after my wife and I moved from Italy to London in the early 1970s. We attended regular meditation classes at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, and attended the summer school at the High Leigh conference centre in Hertfordshire and later at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. Like many of our fellow students, we were baby boomers  still in our twenties, and spiritual seekers.

 Fortunately for us, there were some extraordinary teachers about, such as Christmas Humphries, celebrated High Court judge and founder of the Buddhist Society; Trevor Leggett, head of the BBC’s Japanese Service, judo master and author of many seminal books on Buddhism; Ajahn Sumedho, a former American soldier who  encountered Buddhist teachings in the forests of Thailand; and Ven. Myokyo-ni, an acknowledged Zen master in the Rinzai tradition, who became our teacher.

 Ven. Myokyo-ni had studied for twelve years at Daitoku-ji, the renowned temple complex in Kyoto . During that time, the head monk was Soko Morinaga, who would later become the abbot of Daishu-in temple as well as the head of Hanazono University, the principal training centre of the Rinzai sect.

Soko Morinaga [1] would come to England every August for the summer school , where he gave talks that were translated from Japanese by interpreters – but one never felt that there was any language barrier. His graceful, vibrant presence and light-hearted approach to the dharma made an indelible impression on us all.

 Once, at a summer school talk, Soko Morinaga gave us all colourful little silk purses that were tied together with strings. He called them “grumble bags” and said that whenever we felt like moaning about something, we should untie the strings and whisper our complaint into the bag. He was sure that, at the end of each day, we would have rid ourselves of a whole collection of problems. We laughed – but this has remained, for me, a brilliant spiritual exercise. In the first place, we had to recognise that a complaint had arisen in us, and that it carried a certain amount of heat; then we had to articulate the grumble – preferably out loud,  because it had to have enough force to “go into” the bag. (Often, the mere act of verbalising a complaint made it seem ridiculous.) Finally, in closing the strings of our purse, we let go of the problem symbolically. No longer smouldering within, it had been placed where it belonged: in a grumble bag! In the process, we students became familiar with the often-ignored little flare-ups that dot our days, and  learned to bear the discomfort of fleeting emotions before they disappeared. This was called “allowing the passions to burn me away”.

 Sadly, I lost my grumble bag at some point, but today I can focus more easily on my own discomfort rather than hit out in anger or withdraw into a sulk. Doing so opens up a crucial gap between emotion and response that I have learned to rely upon whenever I find myself in trouble.

 On the surface, Novice to Master is a moving autobiography by a young Japanese soldier who becomes totally disillusioned after his country’s defeat in World War Two, loses his bearings and then discovers Buddhism. Yet, like the Buddha’s own life story, it’s also a teaching device that describes the many obstacles we encounter at different stages of our training. Soko Morinaga never departs far from the root of the matter: the need to die the Great Death while still alive. This handing over, time and again, of “I, me and mine” – of everything we hold most dear – is the animating theme of the book. Yet the tone, while completely authentic, is anything but tragic. It is warm and often very funny. There is something inherently comic about our attempts to rid ourselves of our own egos, a sort of contradiction in terms to which Soko Morinaga [2] is highly sensitive. Hence the subtitle of his book, which is, in my view, the real title: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity. The demands of our egos, and the depths to which we will go to protect ourselves, trip us up continuously. We are like Buster Keaton falling into a manhole, climbing out, dusting himself off with as much dignity as he can muster and immediately falling face-first into the hole again. It is often said that Zen makes fools of us all.

Soko [3]  Morinaga doesn’t ignore the tragic side of life – the grief and anguish of loss, the poignancy of old age, sickness and the process of dying. But he deftly enlarges the perspective, pointing to the mystery beyond – “beyond birth and death”, as the Buddha has it. In a chapter titled “God Is Right Here”, Soko Morinaga addresses the unfashionable question of faith in today’s world. He relates a story told to him by a mother in our meditation group. Her five-year-old daughter had been overheard talking to a companion who had just lost her grandfather:

         “He’s with God now, up in Heaven,” the little girl said.

 “No, no!” replied this woman’s daughter. “God is right here inside me and you, and here in this flower, too. My mother knows about this. She does zazen.”

 Buddhism doesn’t posit an external deity, but Soko Morinaga [4] considered this a wonderful story. “Words like these penetrate my mind,” he concludes, “as water penetrates the sandy soil.”

 (I shall always feel a special connection to this anecdote, because the mother in this story is my wife, Katharine, and the little girl is my daughter Alex – who is now a grown woman with two sons of her own.)

Last year, Katharine and I visited Japan for the first time and met our old friend Daiko Isuka, who trained under Soko Morinaga from a young age. He is now the head priest of Ichibata Yakushi, a large temple complex on the northern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Daiko brought out old photos he had taken of us all, forty years previously, when he had spent a year or two training in London with Ven. Myokyo-ni. He also showed us beautiful scrolls inked with Soko Morinaga’s[5]  exquisite calligraphy. Daiko’s father, the former head priest of Ichibata,  had gone to Kyoto to make enquiries about a suitable Zen teacher for his sons. He had two conditions: the teacher had to be young, so Daiko wouldn’t have to change masters midway through his training; and he had to be severe.

Soko Morinaga had never appeared severe to me in the slightest way, but Daiko assured me he could be very tough when he had to be. Some of his pupils had come from wealthy families and had a great sense of entitlement, which made them especially difficult to teach. Daiko recalled one such boy, whose father was the head of a large and famous Japanese company. One day, Soko[6]  Morinaga overheard him disparage the background of another pupil, and struck him several times with his hand. The boy ran off in shock, reappearing at dinnertime with a big bruise on his cheek. Soko[7]  Morinaga then gave him some yen and told him to buy an ice pack from a nearby pharmacy. The boy returned with the change and thanked his master for his kindness, but Soko[8]  Morinaga demanded that he hand over the ice pack as well. “That’s for my hand,” he said, adding: “It’s about time you thought about someone else besides yourself.”

It’s always shocking to think of a naturally gentle and compassionate person resorting to such harshness, but in Zen training this sort of incident is regarded – paradoxically – as the deepest form of kindness.

In Kyoto, we looked for Soko Morinaga’s memorial stone, which we found in a quiet angle of a leafy garden at the back of Daishu-in temple. The stone was completely covered with lichen, and I suddenly realised how many years had passed since I had last seen my teacher. I felt a lump in my throat.

 Next to his stone was another one of similar shape, but larger. “Whose tombstone is that?” I asked. The monk who accompanied us leaned over and read the weathered inscription: “H-A-K-U-I-N.”

 “The great Hakuin?” I exclaimed. Hakuin Ekaku is one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, and is considered to have revived the Rinzai sect.

 The monk looked perplexed. “Might be the same Hakuin; I have no idea.”

 It was the single most thrilling moment of my entire visit to Japan. We were following in the footsteps of giants, I reflected, and right there I renewed my vow to keep open the Buddha’s path in whatever little way I could, for those who would come after us.

 Text © The Zen Gateway

Images © Michael Haggiag


Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more