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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 67 conversation from the dot-com explosion to a list of Japa- nese authors we’d been reading since we arrived. I perked up. “Yeah, we’re reading these prize-winning novels and it’s a sur- prise how often the plot is around a homosexual or a lesbian. I thought the Japanese were more uptight than that?” Kenji lifted a hand off the steering wheel, “Oh, no, we’re used to it—from the monasteries. The boys go in young.” I gulped. Is that what goes on in monasteries? They drove us from one ancient shrine to another, all with indiscernible names. I was young again, dragged to one art museum after another. The afternoon was a blur and my eyes teared. I wanted to lie down and take a deep nap. “I’m sorry,” Kenji said. “We only have one more, but this one is important. You have to see it. Very famous.” Two young girls in navy-blue school uniforms explained the significance of the temple. All of the other visitors were Japanese. Michele and I politely stood with our hands shading our eyes. We didn’t understand a word. My mind was zinging out in the stratosphere, rejoicing that this was the last temple, when one word snapped through my daydream. Hold everything! Did that ingénue on the left say a familiar name? “Excuse me, Tomoko,” I whispered. “Who lived here in an- cient days? What’s his name?” She shrugged. Even though she spoke the language this world was foreign to her. “Please, help me,” I took her hand. “I have to find out.” The student didn’t know what I was talking about even through translation. She handed me the sheet she read from. “Is the name ‘Ikkyu’ here?” I turned the paper over to To- moko. “What’s the name of this temple?” Tomoko slowly pronounced, “Daitokuji.” My eyebrows jumped off my face. “Daitokuji. Did this temple burn down in the fifteenth century? Who rebuilt it? Does it say?” Tomoko looked back at the paper and translated to the young hosts what I was asking. “Hai, hai,” in unison they nodded. “Oh my god.” I threw my hand over my mouth. The thinner girl pointed to a square white building over the high stuccoed wall we were standing near. This time Kenji translated. “She says Ikkyu is in there.” “Ikkyu in there,” my eyes widened, the eccentric Zen monk with a wild spirit whose poetry I loved. I imagined him pre- served in zazen position in his ragged, brown monk’s robe, the one he wore when hanging out with drunks under the bridge. My hands curled into fists. I wanted to leap the wall, burst into the tomb, bow at his feet, tell him how I’d spent a cold winter and dark spring reading his poems. They never failed me. When a friend having a hard time would call, I’d say, “Hold on a minute,” and grab Crow with No Mouth. “Listen to this,” and I’d read them Ikkyu. People were horrified by Ikkyu’s unconventional life—he al- ternated between practicing hard, then frequenting brothels and bars with prostitutes and hoboes. But when he was eighty-two, he was asked to be head of Daitokuji. It was a great honor. He did not refuse. With his tremendous energy, he rebuilt the temple. The intensity of having Ikkyu nearby was overwhelming. I was afraid I disappointed this great practitioner. He would have leaped over the barrier. He was waiting for me. I think he is still waiting. I LEFT MICHELE IN KYOTO to travel north by train to Buk- kokuji, one of the few Japanese monasteries that were willing to take Westerners and women. I thought, if I was going to be in this country, I had to experience their monasteries, even if for a short time. Michele and I went over my route many times in the hotel before I departed. The train moved fast and I was alert to hear the Obama stop announced, even though I knew it wouldn’t be for quite a while. To my right out the window was a great gray lake, reflecting the overcast sky. I heard, “Biwa.” “Biwa?” I poked the man next to me. This was very un- Japanese, but the train moved so quickly I had to act fast. He nodded briskly, not glancing my way. “Hai.” At twenty-seven, Ikkyu, meditating alone at midnight out in a rowboat on this very lake, heard the caw caw caw of a crow overhead and was turned inside out, becoming totally realized. He was a poet. It made sense that awakening would enter his body through sound. For a cook the ax might fall while tasting a particularly pungent lemon: She would drop to the ground, savoring bitter lemon in all things. My stop was finally called and I jumped off, clutching my knapsack. I followed a path through weeds and empty lots into the monastery cemetery. Often at night monks sat at the grave- stones and meditated. It was mid-afternoon. I was nervous. I kept repeating, You’ll be okay. You’ve sat six three-month dif- ficult practice periods and this time it’s just a few days. The small building complex was a hundred yards away, built right up against a hill. I stepped into the courtyard. No one was there. A beefily built monk appeared and spoke to me in Japanese. I shook my head. I understood not a word. He continued to talk and motion with his hands. At this I did three prostrations and sat in front of Tangen Roshi. He tilted his head to peer at me. I was hopeless. I knew it. He said three English words: Not long enough.