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.
I sing a shattered song of someone else’s youth the melody forgotten the words faded into odd syllables heard in my dreams. The coyote stands at the edge of a gully staring at me and wondering why I slip from the hogan through the hole punched in the back wall slinking away in the encroaching dark. The priest, his saffron robes pulled tight around his legs in the morning chill, stares as I run my hands across the giant brass bell feeling its resonance. I hear the dirge as sleep nips at the edge of my consciousness grabbing the frayed margins of life
I have given up on winter, which is to say that I have fled its iron grip, but the memories I have linger painfully in the rods the surgeon carefully screwed onto my spine.
It wasn’t the cold, though it was far from pleasant, but the snow that demanded but also defied being shoveled.
I grudgingly face the job, moving the snow from walk and driveway to lawn and street, and on occasion I’d heed Buddha’s advice and treat the exercise as a meditation.
But even then I’d recall the tale of the monk told to clear the garden of leaves before a great master’s visit, who completed the job and proudly showed the abbot, who agreed, but said there was more thing needed, and dumped all of the collected leaves back on the garden, then said it perfect, and I knew the wind and weather would soon play the abbot’s role.
“There is an art,” the old monk said, his samu-e belted tightly, “to spreading peanut butter. Consider this carefully for it is a matter of gravest importance. Spreading peanut butter requires care just as meditation does. You wouldn’t think so, but try it in your robes and see how unruly your sleeve can be. It is like raking the sand in a dry garden. It seems easy enough to do, but you know how hard it is to ensure that your presence is unseen and unfelt when the job is done.”
Walking down this road I would like to see a rice field golden in the morning sun with a great mountain rising behind it just around the next bend. I would settle for a town its lone Temple quiet, awaiting the morning bell, the call to sit, with maybe a cat at the base of a statue the Bodhisattva. I am ready to bow deeply to the first monk I see this day, but my reverie is broken by the barely dodged wave thrown up by city bus running late and fast down the crowded street of this upstate New York city.
It was inside Nara that it finally slipped away. Its tether had grown ever weaker, the first slip was decades before, a book, brief meetings an answerless question. It stretched further in Tokyo, basin incense under the watchful third eye and hung perilously by fewer and fewer threads until, with the monks’ gentle bow, it broke and I found home.