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.
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 son is the smile
on the face of Thay,
the suppressed giggle that always
lies below the surface of
the face of Tenzin Gyatso.
There is much I want to ask her,
my little Leila, there is much
she could offer, but I know
that like all Buddhas
she will respond with a smiling
silence and set me back on my path.
Published in As Above, So Below, Issue 9, August 2022
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.”
The snow capped mountain
stares at the December sky
shredding laughing clouds.
I sit by the fire dreaming
of the slow approach of spring.
There is a moment
when all is only silence
the zendo in stillness.
In that moment I can hear
the entirety of Dharma
The temple bell tolls,
the deer assume their posture,
I walk around Todai-ji
in futile search of Buddha.
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.
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.
On the steps of the Temple
the unexpected morning snow
which cast a threadbare blanket
over the gates and lanterns
recedes slowly like a supplicant
whose prayers have been offered.
The candle flames shiver
in the strong February wind
while the Buddha sits, implacable.
In the park below a dragon kite
takes the wind and swoops and darts
higher and higher, staring down
at the Temple and the children laughing
as they chase each other among the trees.
It is gold, red and black
reflecting the sun, the fires
of heaven dance down
over the head of the gold robed priests
who bow while chanting the prayer cards
yet look up and smile at the serpent
who dips his tail to the enlightened one
and tears off after a cloud.