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.