Stepping into the hotel, it was like being dropped into a truly alien world. Nothing shiny, no excess of glass and marble. A simple dark wooden reception desk, a clerk in black with a white vest. A bow upon approaching. Your room is simple, no internet, a single light on a small desk. A tatami mat in the corner. A hard wired phone. And you know, in the distance, the Daibutsu awaits you in the morning. Here there is no CNN International, nothing that isn’t Japanese. Your computer is essentially useless, a fax machine in the office for emergencies. And the nearest business center, sorry closed, is in the city. The Internet is coming soon, they promise . But on your morning run, as you catch your breath on the step outside the Todai-ji Daibutsu-den, a deer comes up to you and licks your face and you know this morning Daibutsu is smiling.
It never rained
when I visited Senso-ji
and Todai-ji Temples.
I attributed this to good
fortune, the Buddha
clearing the skies
for my visit.
The young monk
said the Buddha
for weather, so
I should thank
the Japan Meteorological
Agency although they
never seem to give
him the weather
he truly wants.
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
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 what is.
Publshed in As Above, So Below, Issue 9, August 2022
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.
It was inside Nara
that it finally slipped away.
Its tether had grown
ever weaker, the first slip
was decades before, a book,
an answerless question.
It stretched further
in Tokyo, basin incense
under the watchful
and hung perilously
by fewer and fewer threads
until, with the monks’
gentle bow, it broke
and I found home.
VAIROCANA (NARA DAIBUTSU)
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?”
HUANG PO’S GOBBLERS OF DREGS
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.
A reflection on Case 11 of the Shobogenzo
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.
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.