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.
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.
Daibutsu, you sit placidly staring down at the throng that slowly bows before you. You can small the faint essence of the joss sticks wafting from the great cast iron pot outside the massive doors. “Do not act as if the world were real” you whisper, or so it seems to my chilled ears, “it is all but an illusion.” I see a faint smile cross your lips, then fly off on the early winter breeze. “The path is Noble, but it is no path, turn from it and you will find it, but seek it and it will be gone.” I turn from you and feel the touch of your hand between my shoulders. As I walk through the gate a deer nuzzles up against my leg “nothing in this world can be enjoyed forever” the deer says, “but would you have a scrap of cake for me, a tribute to our enlightened guide?”
The old monk, leaning on his cane smiled at the man prostrating himself before the great Buddha repeatedly. The monk gently interrupted the man, “what is it you hope to achieve by all of these prostrations, you clearly are seeking something, you clearly have not found what you are seeking.” “I am seeking the wisdom that only the great Buddha can provide,” the man said, looking into the eyes of the old monk, who only smiled. The monk reached within his robe, pulled out a mirror and held it in front of the man, who stared deeply into it, smiled and walked away. The monk prostrated himself three times to the great Golden Buddha, who smiled.
At the left click of the mouse my granddaughter appears barely a week old and with a right-click she is frozen into the hard drive. I remember sitting outside the Buddha Hall of Todai-Ji Temple in the mid-morning August sun the smiling at a baby waiting in her stroller for her mother to bow to the giant golden Buddha. I recall the soft touch of the young monk on my shoulder, his gentle smile, and in halting English, his saying, “All babies have the face of the old man Buddha.” In the photos, the smile of my granddaughter is the smile on the face of Thay, the suppressed giggle that always lies below the face of Tenzin Gyatso. There is much I want to ask her, my little Buddha, there is much she could offer, but I know that like all with Buddha mind she will respond with her own Mu and set me back on my path.
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.
They sit placidly on two small chairs placed by the steps of the Great Shrine each in the wedding clothes their families have worn for generations too many to count. I stand, out of the picture, leaning on the gate, telephoto lens extended and gently push down until I hear the click. They smile as their fingers intertwine certain their ancestors are pleased, that the great Buddha they will next visit will approve. I smile as I tuck the camera into my pocket certain the couple in their marital joy will be a fitting screen saver.
Ducks skitter across Ara-ike pond like a perfectly thrown skipping stone. Two sit and preen on large rocks left as pedestals. A spider dragging its prey along the weathered wood railing of the bridge pauses for a moment to contemplate ducks, then moves on consumed by hunger.
Several deer languish among the wizened Japanese vendors at the foot of the gate to the Five Story Pagoda. They stare at me as I pass and I wonder if all Nippon and Gaijin look the same to a buck or doe.
The clouds shimmer in echo of the peel of the great temple bell. Hearing the chorus of monks, a small red maple sheds a leaf. It is the butterfly whose wings gavotte to the inkin bell which causes waves to lap the shore of a distant sea.
In the heart of Nara Park there is a five story pagoda. Deer appear, standing sentinel along the lantern lined walk. Up the unseen hill the Temple bell announces the full arrival of morning as the Golden Buddha awakens. Young children can see all of this through eyes unlensed, and fetter free. They watch clouds release a cascade of tiny maple leaves which flow over sitting monks, a stream washing spring into the waiting valley. I sit with my granddaughter in the center of a dry garden. The Jizo will watch us. The three of us throw leaves into the air as the wrens echo our laughter in a five tiered cacophony