What does "Issendai" mean?
This chapter is taken from David Chadwick's book Thank
You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan, in which
he tells about the time he spent in two Zen monasteries in Japan.
Chadwick defines roshi as "Venerable old teacher; respectful
title for priest, especially in the U.S., where it is used as a
title to mean Zen master."
Hougoji, May 15, 1988
Koji was drying with the same greyed dishtowels we always used.
Maku was sweeping and being quiet while I kidded around with Koji
and washed the bowls and pots. I occasionally paused to write down
the words for different types of trash and cleaning implements like
dust pan and garbage can. Organic garbage, namagomi, was
put into the compost pile by the vegetable garden below Yoshiko's.
Koji asked me to please bury it. I picked up the bucket, made a
run down to the pile, threw it in and covered it well with dirt
and leaves so it would compost and wouldn't attract animals and
flies. In the garden the daikon had sprouted a few inches above
the ground, but the Chinese cabbage was large and ready to eat.
I returned with the bucket, which I had washed out in a runoff trough.
Placing it in its proper spot, I stood and smartly saluted. "I
am namagomi, please bury me," I announced.
Maku turned and looked at me.
Saluting in return, Koji said, "I am namagomi, please bury
Shuko walked in. We turned in tandem and said, "We are namagomi,
please bury us." Shuko smiled vaguely, shook his head, got
a teapot and walked out.
Koji leaned over to me and whispered, "He wants to be a roshi."
"I know. But he is just namagomi. We will bury him,"
I said, quoting Khrushchev.
"He will bury himself," said Koji taking a bowl from
me and drying it.
"Can't he be a roshi if he wants to?" I asked. "Isn't
that what you're going to be and what all these monks aspire to?"
"I'm just going to be a temple priest. He wants to be a roshi
like Nishiki Roshi, a high, respected priest." He looked around
the corner to make sure he couldn't be overheard.
"Do you want to be a roshi?" I asked Maku, who was now
wiping the floor with a grey damp rag. He shook his head no.
"It's okay for Shuko to be one, of course," Koji said.
"It's just wanting to be one that's a problem. Ambition is
one of the great obstacles for a monk, more deluding than alcohol
and more tantalizing than sex."
"Pride is said to be the disease of the monk. Anyway, I'd
rather have sex and alcohol, roshis just have a lot of trouble."
"Especially the ones who dream of it," said Koji.
"What about enlightenment? Do you think that wanting to be
enlightened is a big obstacle to enlightenment?"
"The desire to be enlightened must be transformed into enlightenment.
If it remains desire it will be in the way," Koji answered.
Whereas Maku exhibited no desire for fame or fortune, he did want
psychic power and spiritual accomplishment. He nodded with his lower
lip pushed out.
So then we got into discussing the various levels of enlightenment
according to an old Indian Buddhist breakdown: stream-winners who
are locked into the path, never-returners who won't be reborn again,
arhats who are the original Buddhist saints, pratyeka
buddhas who can't teach others and bodhisattvas who have vowed to
save all beings. It took a while to get through each term because
I knew them best in English and Sanskrit, and they mainly knew the
old Japanized Chinese Buddhist terms. I asked if they believed in
all that stuff. Maku said he did. Koji felt that they represented
different attitudes that a person could have and were more like
literary teaching devices.
I asked, "What do you call the being that can't be enlightened,
who is totally devoid of buddha nature and has no possibility ever
ever to enter nirvana?"
My question was met with immediate denials by Koji and Maku that
such a being existed.
I said, "Yes, yes, I know that, but what's it called?"
Again I was told that's not Buddhist and I said, "Yeah I know,
but they gave it a name and debated its existence. Now what is it?"
Koji put up a lacquer bowl and said, "Oh, in Sanskrit that's
an icchantika, isn't it? I forget what it is in Japanese."
"Issendai," said Maku, capturing the prize in our trivial
"Yeah. Well, it's true that there's no such thing..."
Koji leaned an ear toward me. "But..." I paused dramatically,
"there's one exception."
"What do you mean?" Koji asked.
"You see," I went on, "in the whole history of the
universe there has been only one being who is in reality an icchantika
and can never ever be enlightened. It's just impossible for this
one being to get enlightened."
"What being?" Koji's mouth was open with a half smile
Looking at him with knitted eyebrows, I spoke pointing to myself:
"MeI am namagomi, please bury me." Koji was reduced
to a writhing puddle at my feet. Maku rinsed out his dirty floor
rag, grinning. I went on washing with the satisfying feeling there
had been a meaningful and rewarding exchange between Buddhists of
different cultures. We always had a good time doing the dishes.