Night Boat is the story of Ekaku Hakuin, one of the most influential monks in the history of Zen Buddhism. It recreates his life from early childhood in a small Japanese village through a lifetime of adventures, both physical and spiritual. And Spence spends as much time in the beautiful landscape of Japan—using Mt Fuji as a touchstone throughout—as he does in the landscape of the mind.
The historical Ekaku revived the practice of Zen from a period of lethargy and stagnation, and in Night Boat, Spence recreates not just a curious monk and later, charismatic abbot, but also a man determined to pursue his true calling despite the obstacles that Zen’s debased reputation presents. Ekaku finds challenges in the natural world, his own body and mind, and even the sarcasm of his best teachers who believe Zen has been ruined for good. But the adventure carries on because Ekaku is steadfast in his belief that there is more to learn, and more to conquer—more to put right. Ekaku shares many of his adventures with other characters in Night Boat: first and throughout there is his family, and there are plenty of great sages, fellow monks and, later, students (male and female), along with friends and neighbours, and even a brief flirtation with romance—all vividly drawn and relatable (if not necessarily likeable!).
Ekaku, or ‘Wise Crane’, is born Iwajiro, in a small village in seventeenth-century Japan. His mother is a very devout Zen practitioner, and Iwajiro himself is recognised very early in his life as having a particular aptitude for Buddhist study. Night Boat begins with him learning about the Hell Realms, terrifying enough material for an eight-year old, but Iwajiro is even more frightened because the teacher directs the instruction at him. We understand why this happens when, on his way out the door, the teacher stops in front of Iwajiro and asks:
Have these words put fear into you?
[…] I couldn’t say one word.
A man of silence, he said. This is a good place to begin.
He held up his right hand, fingers spread, and for a moment I flinched, expecting him to strike me. But instead he closed his hand again, made a fist, clenched it in front of my face. Ha! He said, shaking the fist. […] He looked at my father who tensed beside me.
Look after this one, said the monk. Teach him well. (p.9)
Iwajiro says nothing when challenged—he has nothing to say, nothing on his mind. In many ways there could be no better start to life as a Zen monk, where hours will be spent pondering the great Zen koan of Mu, or the concept of no-thingness. Zen koans are famous for seeming to be nonsensical, but considering them at great length can lead to new ways of thinking and perceiving—and Spence’s writing is inspired when matching these complicated concepts to the pace of his prose: when walking, exhausted, up a mountainside to seek guidance, Ekaku rests for a moment:
I sat back down on the rock, looked around and took my bearings.
Sound of the water. Wind in the trees.
The way ahead was on and up.
One foot. The other.
These passages feel very much like poetry—like haiku (and Spence is also an accomplished poet in this genre)—but you don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to empathise with Ekaku. Anyone who has ever been in the middle of a long and arduous walk knows exactly this frame of mind: just put one foot in front of the other. Just walk!
The book’s title refers to ‘A Chat on a Boat in the Evening’1, a work by the historical Ekaku Hakuin which recounts his ‘Zen sickness’—mental and physical exhaustion through over-practising and not taking enough care of his body—and the partly magical cure he received at the hands of a great mystical sage. ‘Night Boat’ is also used as a metaphor for a method of teaching using storytelling: later established as an abbot of his own modest monastery, Ekaku tells Torei, a star pupil, about the legendary hermit he had visited to cure his Zen sickness. Torei doesn’t believe the hermit could possibly be as old as he claimed, and he challenges his teacher on this point. Ekaku asks if Torei knows the story of the Night Boat, and he does, reciting:
[Torei] The country bumpkin who boasts to his friends about his visit to Kyoto where he’s seen all the wonderful sights of the city. Someone asks him about the Shirakawa river …
[Ekaku] Which is in fact nothing more than a small stream.
[Torei] … and he replied that it was night-time when his boat sailed on the river, so he couldn’t get a clear view and was unable to describe it.
[Ekaku] In other words, his visit to Kyoto was a fabrication, a tale he’d made up.
[Torei] Idle talk.
[Ekaku] Expedient means. (p.309)
Ekaku clarifies Torei’s accusation of ‘idle talk’ as ‘expedient means’— in other words, stories that aren’t ‘true’ in the sense we expect can be a very effective means of teaching.
Spence’s writing is graceful and poetic, and in the best Zen tradition, he is also playful with language. Early in the novel, young Iwajiro’s mother is comforting a neighbour whose husband is ill, and the woman replies using a Scots expression: ‘What’s for us will not go by us, said the woman.’ (p.14) Much later, when Ekaku first goes to visit the derelict temple where he will become abbot, he opens the gate, which falls off in his hands. ‘Entering the Gateless Gate’, he thinks wryly, dropping the gate to one side, and mimicking the description given to those considering the troublesome koan of Mu. (p.224)
But Night Boat is not just a wonderful book, well-written: it is a true inspiration. The essential Buddhist concepts discussed are ones that Zen has in common with every other Buddhist tradition, and reading Night Boat is like reading the words of a great teacher directly, which in many instances we are: Spence quotes haiku that Ekaku writes throughout his life, and quotes his teachings too: for example, it is from Ekaku that we have that most famous of koans ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’
Spence uses specifically Zen terms, e.g. sesshin, kensho, and the prayer mantra Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, but these terms are explained. A reader does not need to be familiar with Zen in order to engage with the story and the characters, and for someone curious about Zen, there is no better way to experience its heart without becoming a practitioner oneself—Spence’s writing gives an unmistakable flavour of the Zen view. For that reason it would be a mistake (and a shame) to try and read Night Boat in any kind of hurry. Indeed, this is a book to approach as a Zen koan—if you look at it the way you look at everything else, you’ll miss the entire point. So.
Night Boat by Alan Spence is published by Canongate, 2013.
- Paul Crompton, ed., Selections from The Embossed Tea Kettle (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986 ). The title links to a pdf which includes the entire text of Yasen Kanna, or A Chat on a Boat in the Evening.