There was a time, still within memory’s ever more tenuous grasp that I imagined myself, at this age, as a monk in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, that I had assumed a silence imposed by lack of language, not faith.
I am certain that the Japanese are pleased that I let that dream pass unfulfilled, that I confine my practice to that American form of Zen, softened and gently bleached from its shogun watered roots.
I recall my visits to Senso-ji, Todaii-ji and countless other small temples where I would often find a zafu and sit, but only the youngest monks I met could understand that it was there, among them, that I felt spiritually at home.
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.