DUSK

As the afternoon fades,
the gray of the sky deepens,
the crows gather
in the highest branches
of the older trees,
until the leafless branches
seems suddenly burdened
with great black leaves.
As the already waning light fades
they take up their hymns
to the passing day, approaching night,
and we wait patiently
amid the cacophony
for the final refrain
of this solemn Mass,
when the oak and maple pews
will again sit starkly vacant.

SIGNS OF AGE

1.
I wrote a note
to remind me
to remind you
of that thing
you didn’t want
to forget, but
I can’t remember
where I put it.
Have you seen it?

2.
I am rapidly
approaching that point
when counting black hairs
on my head is easier
then counting years.

3.
This year I finally
remembered your birthday, now
if I could only think
of your name.

4.
In the mall last week
I walked excitedly
into “The Body Shoppe”
only to find they
don’t sell replacement parts.

CANYON

He stands  on the edge
of the canyon and peers
into the river etched below.
At first you think
he is considering jumping,
but his gaze is too studious,
as if he is waiting
for some particular moment.
You are correct,
he is waiting
for a particular moment
and when it arrives
he shouts at the far
canyon wall, entreating God
and the ghosts
that inhabit the nearby
cliff dwellings.
God answers
in the man’s voice, echoing
his plea, and the ghosts
take up the chorus.
He smiles
and retreats
from the precipice
certain that he,
and all who are holy,
sing in harmony.

DRAGON HOWLING IN A WITHERED TREE 正法眼蔵 二十八

Cut the hook off the line
and throw it into the lake,
dump the bait container
onto the damp soil
along the shore.
Now sit silently
in the oarless boat
in the middle of the lake
and drop your line and wait
for the dragon to bite.
And when it does,
yell at it, hear it howl.
The lake is a withered tree,
the fish a proud dragon.
Who will you be?


Reflecting on Shobogenzo (The True Dharma Eye) case 28

HISTORY AS IT WAS?

The reason the Jews
spent forty years wandering
in the desert had nothing to do
with bad directions, or
generational turnover, according
to Larry’s father who worked
in advertising. It was
quite simply because God
got really pissed off
at Aaron’s marketing plan,
“A Golden Calf, my ass!”
is what he probably said.
“I had better start working
on a few alternative faiths if
I want to increase
my market penetration.”

THROUGH GAIJIN EYES

1.
From the window of the hotel bus
the small, squared fields
are a green that only painters achieve,
deep, intense, unreal.
As the bus inches forward
along the Narita–Tokyo expressway
the green forms neat rows set off
by a shimmer of the gray sky mirror
that bathes the young plants.

2.
Tokyo is a city of great precision
where there are few birds,
and even crows are well mannered.
At Senso-ji Temple, it is left
to the pigeons to give avian life
to a sprawling city.

3.
There are uncountable cars, trucks
in Tokyo, motorcycles
dance among them like small children
grown bored with the wedding dance.
A rainbow of taxis fill the streets,
form unending lines, snake
around the large hotels and office towers.
There are forty taxi companies
in Tokyo, each with its fleet, but all
of the drivers are male.

THEN AGAIN

1970.
The evening news
is a procession of body bags,
the halls of the VA Hospital
are a storehouse of shattered bodies.
He sits with a surreal placidity
cross-legged on the small cushion,
the corners of his eyes pulling up
as if lost in thoughts of Kyoto.
I sit, knees creaking even then,
across the small tatami mat.
He listens with a stillness,
a silent patience, save
for the occasional bat of an eyelid
and gentle nod. His fingers
curl, palm in palm, the work
of the stone sculptor’s art.
“If you are called up,”
he says in a half whisper,
“will you go to Canada or stay?”
We both know I have no answer to that.
Other questions follow, most answered.
Finally as my knees cramp, he asks
“Why aren’t you willing to serve?”
By then we have moved
well past “killing is wrong,”
though we both agree it is.
He wants another, a deeper answer,
and will wait lifetimes until
I offer it, if necessary.
Finally, “I’m afraid of dying.”
It is there, laid out on the floor,
an ugly little thing we both can see.
We stare at it a moment longer
until the silence, too, grows painful.
“Why?” a small voice asks
from somewhere in the room.
I have no answer, for fear may shout
but never speaks in its own defense.
“Why?” again. Another pause.
“Why?” yet again – again silence.
“No,” he says quietly, “Not why
do you fear death, but why
must you die – today, next week
in this war, some other
or eighty years from now.”
“Because I was born,” I say.
The corners of his mouth
turn gently upward, not a smile,
a silent “ahah,” as if he’s struck me
with his stick in mid-zazen,
and I have awakened from a fogged sleep.
As I rise and bow to leave the room
he adjusts his robes, and says softly,
“And did you fear being born?”
Years later, wandering
the tree-shaded paths
of the Imperial Park
at Nara, I paused to stoke the head
of a deer, who nuzzles my shoulder
and we look together
into the Great Buddha Hall,
and all three of us smile
in shared awakening.


In fond memory of Roshi Philip Kapleau.

UNTIL DEATH

They sit placidly
on two small chairs
placed by the steps
of the Great Shrine
each in the wedding clothes
their families have worn
for generations too many to count.
I stand, out of the picture,
leaning on the gate,
telephoto lens extended
and gently push down
until I hear the click.
They smile as their fingers intertwine
certain their ancestors are pleased,
that the great Buddha
they will next visit will approve.
I smile as I tuck the camera
into my pocket
certain the couple
in their marital joy
will be a fitting screen saver.