By hour six, the plane was just a lumbering beast dividing the sky, halfway from God knows where to nowhere special. His body cried for sleep but he knew he had to deny it. That much he had learned from prior trips. For when he landed, made his way painfully slowly into the city, it would be early evening when he arrived at his hotel. He knew he needed to be on the edge of exhaustion. Only that way could he grab a meal from the 7 Eleven down the block, and finally get to sleep, reasonably fresh in the morning. It would be a long day. Each day in Tokyo was a long day of endless meetings and negotiations. It was mind numbing, but he was paid well to suffer it. And he knew that on his last day in the city he would have time to board the subway for Asakusa. There he would wander slowly down the line of stalls, to the great gate of Senso-ji Temple, its giant lantern shedding no light, and peer at the Buddha Hall in the distance. There would be school children in neat uniforms, always hand in hand, and pigeonss, flocking around them and anyone who looked gaijin, easy marks for photos and handouts. And the orange tiger cat would huddle at the base of the nearby Buddha seeking enlightenment. For that hour or so he was in a different world. The giant city melted away. His thoughts grew placid as he placed his incense into to giant earthenware jokoro then washed its smoke over his face and shoulders. He bowed to the young monk carefully writing the prayer sticks. He stood silent at the foot of the Buddha Hall, a conversation no one could hear, one that everyone here was having simultaneously. Time does not yield, and as it ran thin, he headed back to the subway knowing his fortune without purchasing it for 100 yen. A simple fortune really, a return visit on his next trip to Tokyo and maybe a side trip to Kyoto, and as the icing on his taiyaki, a trip to Nara, to again wander the grounds of Todai-ji and commune with the deer at first light, in the shadow of the Daibutsu. On the flight home he thought of the moments in Buddha’s shadow, the resounding of the great bell. He smiled recalling the red bibbed jizo, knowing they gave up Buddhahood to help those like him, still lost on the path. He is saddened knowing he will soon be back in his world, the daily grind, this trip shortened, as all return trips are. And when he lands, goes through Immigration and customs, when they ask if he has anything to declare, he may say “just a moment of kensho.”
Tonight, if all goes well, I will be
a monk in a good-sized Buddhist temple.
I am hoping it will be in Nara,
at Todai-ji perhaps, or Asakusa
at Senso-ji, or better still somewhere
in Kyoto, although it might well be
in the Myanmar jungle or somewhere
deep within the Laotian highlands.
One problem with that world is
that I have no control over it, which,
come to think of it, leaves it
like the waking world which
has never hewn to my direction.
I’ve had this desire for weeks
on end, and I suspect tonight
will be no different, and I will spend
eight hours sorting files, writing
cease and desist letters and trying
to convince myself that even that
is a form of mindful meditation
and abiding kensho will arrive
in the next rapid eye movement.
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.
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.