They circle slowly each in its own tier of a near cloudless sky, their wings still as if frozen, riding the breeze, dipping and rising, going nowhere, needing nowhere, riding, riding, looking down at the wetland, and circling, until with a shift in the breeze the vulture vortex shifts east, and you watch them shrink, thankful that they are simply out for a flight, and not finding a meal in the reeds and trees where all the other birds live.
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.”
An elk stands at the edge of a placid mountain lake and sees only the clouds of an approaching winter. A black bear leans over the mirrored surface of the lake and sees only the fish that will soon be his repast. The young man draped in saffron robes looks calmly into the water and sees a pebble, the spirit of his ancestors. I look carefully into the water looking for an answer to a question always lurking out of reach and see only my ever thinning hair.
FirstAppeared in Green’s Magazine (Canada), Vol. 29, No.1, Autumn 2000.
Hands touch silently いただきます we humbly receive the meal a prayer of thanks to all who planted who harvested who sold who bought who prepared who enabled いただきます said each meal a silent reminder of thanks itadakimasu
If, sitting at your meal you hear the song of a bird, what do you do? You may tap your chopstick rest, and perhaps he will answer and repeat his sweet song. If you tap a second time and there is only silence is the bird rejecting you or offering his song to another, flown from your window.
Perhaps you should tap again and hear the sweeter song of silence that echoes over the garden and zendo. On a distant limb the small songbird smiles.