SENSO-JI

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.”

IN MY BAG

I carry my past
in a monk’s bag
that rests on my shoulder.

In it you will find
my history, or bits
of it, names I have
been given, given up,
memories of childhood,
pictures of my parents
who I never knew,
aged in my mind from
the photos in yearbooks,
all that I have of them..

I still have room
in my bag, perhaps
more room than time.

REFLECTIONS

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.

A DEAFENING SILENCE

Sitting in stillness, the silence
is at first shocking, deafening
in a way unimagined but there.

Within the lack of sound lies
a thousand sounds you had
never heard in the din of life.

You hear the young monk at Senso-ji
approach the great bell and pull
back on the log shu-moku, straining.

You hear the laugh of school aged
children hand in hand walking through
the temple grounds as pigeons gather.

You hear the cat, sitting at the foot
of Daibutsudan, staring out
and the deer waiting at the gate.

You hear your breath and that
of a million others as they sit
on their cushions sharing a moment.

NAMASTE

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.

MELODY

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

Published in These Lines, Fall 2020
https://theselines.org/these-lines-1.1-fall-2020.pdf

A WINTER MEDITATION

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.