What motivated Sodo-san to spend the last twenty years of his life in a “temple under the sky”― a corner of a public park where he taught passersby what it means to be forever young through the funky tunes he played on his grass flute?
In The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama, we are seeking not only a truer understanding of this well-loved monk, but of zazen, Zen meditation, itself. In his search for insights into Sodo Yokoyama’s life, Arthur Braverman skillfully weaves a tapestry from seemingly disparate threads—the brief taisho period into which Sodo-san was born and where individualism shone; his teachers, both ancient and contemporary practitioners of Zen Bhuddism; the monk’s love of baseball; and the similarities Braverman finds between Sodo-san and Walt Whitman, who both found the universal in nature.
Through conversations with Joko Shibata, Yokoyama’s sole disciple, and careful study of his teacher’s poetry, an intriguing tension between the personal and the universal is revealed. Despite the many photographs of Sodo-san’s smiling face, the youth and joy that he expressed through his playing of the leaf flute, and indeed despite his cheerful countenance when, in his youth, Braverman met the monk, there is a certain pathos that is revealed through his poetry.
The Grass Flute Zen Master is a meditative examination not of just one life, but of many. The lineage of teacher and protégé is traced back through generations, contemporaries are drawn up from unexpected places, and Braverman examines his own long journey in Zen Buddhism; confronting his own expectations and surprising disappointments (the monk lived in a boarding house and later took a cab to his park when he could no longer walk the whole way) and the understanding and acceptance that followed. “When you play the leaf,” Sodo-san once wrote, “you’ll usually be a little out of tune. That’s where its very charm lies…”