Tears

“It is indeed a conundrum,” Master Tokuyazamo said in his soft, almost inaudible voice. His was as a whisper; one strained to hear the words, and in the very act of straining, the dichotomy between the word and the sound of the word was often split in half, as the two wings of a butterfly rise to become one, then to part with a fluidity of colors, and as when one’s imagination of what was said, what one thought was said, and what must have been said, often becomes a mystery. His pupils, gathered in a semi-circle, all cross-legged in meditative posture, leaning ever so slightly, wide-eyed and ranging from ages 6 to 15, with an eagerness that made him smile with youthful glee. For, who was the child, the Master or the pupil, the withered hands of an old man or the fumbling feet of a gangly boy? Was it the mind which determined the age, or the weathered hands, leathery and sunburned, of he who planted the rice fields carved in the sculptured steps of the Totoyama district? On a linear spectrum, his life was arriving at the entrance of the exit; he did not view the convergence of being, time and the soulful call of his yearning mind in such an unbending fashion. And, perhaps that was the paradigmatic problem when the Jesuit gai-jin had visited his sanctuary, the Monastery which had been his home, his garden, his peaceful center of solitude which he tended as a gardener cares for the exotic in that moment of bursting revelatory fragrances when the flower opens the fullness of its beauty, only to reach its pinnacle of being, and then to wilt, wither and die; but for that mysteriously delightful, brief moment, and that is how he viewed his monastic temple, where he swept the rock gardens with such care and precision, where each pebble was a droplet in an ocean of singularity, but at the hands of the Zen Master, pebble upon pebble became a work of art. Ah, but what incisiveness, and that sharp mind, and to have reached such heights of knowledge only to be a lowly sweeper of pebbles? Was the servant not the God of the gai-jin? Would it that he was happier as the carpenter’s son, than a sweeper of pebbles in a Zen garden?

But the Jesuit gai-jin had insisted upon doctrine; he pointed to his sacred Book, and translated for him the wise words of his master, who was God and Man all at once. He could not deny the truth, for the words fit beautifully; the logic of God was irrefutable; the parables were insightful and profoundly moving; but in the end, it was the insistence in his voice which marked the rudeness of his teaching. And, moreover, the cross was too rigid, and did not flow as life must. A river winds through the soil and finds the bend of the rocks, smooths the hardness of creation, and whittles away at the rough edges. So must the words of persuasion, and while he could sense the softness of the voice of that God of Palestine, the harsh tone of the gai-jin grated upon him, and the manner in which he grasped at the wooden cross hanging from his neck on a leather chain, his stubby fingers clasped and somehow unable to encircle the horizontal piece of wood which seemed to jut out discordantly in an abrasive, offending manner; it was unlike the waving bends of the ink of Sumi-e, where life flows as a stream of quietude, curving and dancing and adapting to nature’s winding pathways. Was it so personal? Was the dislike of the gai-jin the basis of his refutation? But that enlightenment would defy such pedantic reasons, but being human, oh so human, meant otherwise.

His pupils wanted answers.

“A story!” Saburo, the abandoned boy left at the stone steps leading to the temple gates at the age of 4, shouted with gleeful abandonment.

“Yes, a story!” joined in the chorus of other boys.

Roshi Tokuyazamo played his best to put on a look of censure and reproof; eyebrows furrowed, his right arm cocked stiffly against the flow of art, elbow up with palm against his thigh, he grunted with disapprobation. “Have you all … lost your sense of decorum?” he roared, narrowing his eyes with exaggerated fierceness, jaw jutting outward, his lips pursed. Nevertheless, his voice still was barely audible.

Silence befell the youthful sea of eager looks. Furtive glances askance; quiet, and deathly silence; then, from the depths of the youngest, a giggle, uncontrollable, squeaking upward until it could not be contained; and the single burst of air restrained, broke forth, and then another, and another, and soon the sea of youthful semi-circle roared into a singularity of unrestrained giggling, until some of the older boys who were still unsure of their position as young elders before the Master, as examples to behold in their position as students before the learned and wise one, smiled hesitantly, until the giggles turned to open laughter, the laughter into guffaws of boisterous untidiness in a temple of Zen. The Master cleared his throat, himself unable to contain the wrinkle of his lips. “Well, then,” he said. “Since decorum cannot be attained, perhaps a story must be told!”

Immediate silence befell the youthful pandemonium, as an axe falls, so laughter is shattered, and silence overwhelms. For to hear a story from Master Tokuyazamo was to learn a lifetime of lessons, one which went beyond decorum, beyond laughter, and beyond self.

The Master spoke: In the rocky pathways of the countryside, deep in the valleys of the Koishi Mountains, where the tributary of the Saitomo, Shinshiro and Kotaichi rivers converge, a stranger ventured unknowingly into the valley of the ronin, where bandits roamed the countryside. The stranger was attacked, robbed, stripped of his earthly possessions, then thrown down into a deep pit, the barren bowels of the earth, where he was left to die. For days he cried out, calling for help. It rained. He cupped his hands and, crippled and unable to stand, he whimpered like a dying mongrel, sipping upon the scarce handfuls of rainwater to extend the life that was no longer his to determine.

Master Tokuyazamo looked slowly around the semi-circle of young faces. Each of the faces revealed a stern serenity, a mask of serious concern; of them, he had a heart for Saburo, of that youth who, though never to be learned or wise, would have the heart of a man to feel the pain, and pain of others was often the pathway to enlightenment. This, few would understand.

He continued: From whence the Saitomo River flowed, a religious figure walked. The holy man of the Saitomo Province heard the mongrel’s whimpering, and at the mouth of the pit, he looked down and saw the dog of a man, half alive, famine-stricken with sunken eyes — and their eyes met. But it happened to be upon a day when God had set such a day apart, where human exertion was not allowed, the sacred laws of doctrine prevented the holy man from helping and…

“But, how could that be, Master!” came an interrupting shout from the semi-circle of youth. A loud chorus of “Shhh!” and “Shush!” and “Quiet!” and such reprimands quickly encircled the semi circle.

The holy man walked around and started away, saying to the dying figure below, “I will pray for you.”

Then, almost immediately upon the fading footsteps of the first holy man, from whence the Shinshiro River flowed, another religious figure walked. The holy man of the Shinshiro Province also heard the mongrel’s whimpering …

“But what about the first holy man – he cannot have been that holy to begin with!” blurted out a voice of youthful exuberance with an undisguised harrumph, only to be again shushed and reprimanded.

This holy man from Shinshiro Province viewed the world as merely the dream of a butterfly, and had achieved a state of cognitive and physical presence, or non-presence, as you might say, that only a Master of such Arts could achieve…

Silence. For, in the youthful semi-circle, even the exuberance of impatience inherent, wanting to burst forth, and helplessly unrestrained in the fertile minds of those lacking in years, could nevertheless recognize that this second holy man was a reflection of the temple pond. No chastisement was required, because the self-reflecting pool of thoughts and recognition, and the anticipation of hearing the story lead to a triumphant declaration of the feats and legendary discoveries and conquests at the hand and mind of the Master from Shinshiro Province, awaited with eager and hungry eyes. The Roshi surveyed the faces of inexperience and naivete, and smiled ever so slightly, as appearance paralleled the inaudible, and with wan acceptance, continued:

This second holy man was considered by many to be wise, though wisdom was always of a fleeting nature, as the soft film left behind when a man holds the wings of a butterfly in his hands. Ever the fragile being, the soft fluttering, yet when the predator snatches upon its wings and destroys a large portion, nevertheless the strength of the butterfly can tear itself away, partially destroyed and torn; yet, even then, the butterfly can continue to navigate skillfully for the remainder of its days with the aid of its antennas and adapt to its malformed and crippled essence; for neither the essence nor the being of the butterfly is defined by its wings, but rather the inner strength which propels its beauty, its dominance, and the dreams of those who fathom a world and universe apart from pain and pleasure. And, as the butterfly denotes the essence of this universe, so the Master from Shinshiro Province contained nothing more than the dream of the butterfly; for in the chasm where the suffering of such a man, gaunt with hunger, crying out with pleas for help, for pity, for…love. But if the nothingness is of no greater value than the mongrel, if pain is no more of reality than the one who feels the pain; if dreams converge in a world where that which appears is of no greater substance than that which is, then love cannot be of much consequence. The Master from Shinshiro Province looked down upon the blackness of the pit, and into the eyes of this pitiful, pitiable human mass of insignificance, and despite his wisdom, his age, his enlightened state of being, he could offer no help, because he could not feel the love of pain which the man below experienced. And so he turned his back and walked away…

“Good for him!” came a shout of triumph. The Roshi had his head bent downward, but his head tilted ever so slightly to spy upon the source of the statement. It was not Saburo, and for this he was glad. It was instead the fat boy, Kitaro, who sat with his arms crossed, fists beneath each opposing armpit, head tilted backward with an air of arrogance and triumph. “The man deserves to die for being so stupid! In any event, it will teach him to meditate and accept his fate with grace and dignity!”

Now, with silent footsteps came another holy man – from the flowing Kotaichi River, where is it said that the soft breath of the gods push the warm waters of the river, in such purity of rushing sounds that the animals from all of the surrounding provinces make their way up the extra mile to drink from its banks. Now, this holy man was somewhat peculiar; he wore a cross which hung from his neck –

Without looking, the Roshi could sense the faces of disdain sweep about the semi-circle – but for one.

He was what we call a Krish-chan, a gai-jin. Now, this holy man, upon hearing the whimpers of the dying man, immediately ran to cut some vines off of the trees, weaving the thickest of the wild vines into a triple-weave, and created a rudimentary but sturdy rope, fashioning a loop at the end, and lowered it down to help the man. After patiently prodding, directing, and with a gentle voice of encouragement, he was able to coax the weak and dying man to place the loop around and under each arm, and with that, the holy man pulled him ever so delicately up to the mouth of the pit. As he pulled, however, what he and the dying man were unaware of suddenly turned the circumstances of impending triumph into an unexpected tragedy. But of course, all of you boys know of this, do you not? For to think of life as mere pleasure and joy is to leave the other half undone; and to view the world of circumstances as a trifle of misery and hardships is the ignore the first half as unfinished; and so it is that life must always be a completed circle; and just as the wings of a butterfly do not constitute the essence of its being, so to expect life only as a vision of triumphs is to live only a half-life. In the deep crevice of the black pit was a nest of poisonous snakes, and as the half-man of a mongrel reached to steady his ascent to life, the fangs of fate struck, vipers of deadly venom, shooting death into the veins of the mongrel. He screamed. He jerked back in excruciating pain, pulling the rope-vine away from the grasp of the Krish-chan, and falling with a dull thud back into the blackness of the death-pit, whimpering as only a weakling could muster from the depths of a depraved and ravaged soul. The desperate, resigned and desolate sobbing of the poor, pitiful mongrel echoed from below, from the depths of darkness, with a despair of submission and surrender so profound, that the Krish-chan at first thought that it must, indeed, be another creature – a dog in pain, perhaps, downriver. He quickly realized, however, that the vine he held in his hands had burned and sliced his palms open, and he felt the sting of bleeding, and the momentary disparity and interlude between seeing the blood forming in clotting pools in his cupped hands, facing upwards toward the blazing sun, and the rush of pain which came thereafter to merge and coalesce into the knowledge that he had lost the one he was attempting to save. The sun was slowly fading into the unknown of the other world, that world between twilight and the ethereal red dusk of the mountain provinces. It is said that the tributary deep in the Koishi Mountains was where the goddess of beauty wept because, in a moment of anger, she looked down into the depths of the still waters and saw the darkness of her own heart, and realized that beauty is indeed but a fleeting figment; and in that instance the essence of beauty became shattered, man became revealed, and the knowledge that man was merely mortal became an undeniable truth. Ah, but that the pool of blood forming in the gai-jin’s hands could bring such clarity as the brightness of the red mountain dust in the dusk of the Koishi Mountains! Are we such saps that we believe that Zen is the only way to truth? Bah!

There was, indeed, curiosity in the faces of youth – even in the titled head of Kitaro. He stole a glance towards Saburo – were they eyes of tears? He could not tell. Whether of tears or merely of lost thoughts, or whether he merely wished that the boy would feel such pathos revealing wisdom in such tender years, he could not discern. He continued:

And so the gai-jin was lost.

Harrumph! came the huffiness from the direction of Kitaro. The Roshi pretended not to notice. In the blackness of the pit below, as the sun was setting and the gods of shadows appeared in a realm of mirroring Kabuki movements, where figures danced in the periphery of one’s imagination simultaneously as fear and foreboding clash in a war of the real, the dreaded, and the trickling sweat of fear, the gai-jin could smell the sweat of his body, mixed with the blood on his hands, and as he peered downward, he could barely make out the figure of the whimpering man. And, indeed, the man was crouched in a grotesque curl of fetal hugging, but whether on his back with his legs up, or on his knees tucked beneath, he could not tell, but the shadows of darkness playing tricks of skeletal outlines, blurring the boundaries between form and substance, as a cross might bear a crucified man but lost in the starkness of the wooden pillars. The sobbing heaves of the dying man bounced within the echo chamber of the rocky pit, and as the venom coursed through the veins of this mongrel, the Krish-chan looked down. Without a sound, he crouched close to the mouth of the pit, and slid down the deep throat of the seemingly bottomless chasm of darkness. He was lithe and skillful enough to land away from the crippled body, now rasping for life. He could smell the stench of impending death. He knelt beside the dying man, and cradled the limp body in his arms. “Holy man,” the dying mongrel rasped, “what are you doing? There is no rope, no way for you to return…”

I am here to comfort you, said the holy gai-jin.

What kind of a man are you? rasped the dying mongrel.

I am merely an ordinary man, who has an extraordinary Lord. As my Lord washed the feet of sinners, so I am here to give you comfort during your last moments of life in this world. For the comfort I may give to you this moment does not begin to compare with the suffering and sacrifice of my Lord, who died because of the abundance of His Love.

Silence. It is always the unspoken word which reveals the essence of being. For, it is words which create a conceptual, parallel universe, that which serves as the skin of the lizard; but for the elegance of a butterfly, whose silent folding wings leave but a residue of the warm breath of gods, Saburo was silently sobbing; but on the other side, to the triumph of the Roshi, it was Kitaro who had turned aside to wipe a single tear which had found the tributary of pores, as the rushing waters of the Kotaichi River grew louder and the soft flutter of a butterfly’s dream faded into the distant echoes of man’s soul, deep in thought, in prayer, and in silence.

Kentaiji Winds, the Lizard, and the Ontological Preemption of Storytelling

In the fourth year of the Kagemusha Shogunate, six years since the Tatamorii massacre when the Kazekuo Clan and the Daizoku family committed seppuku upon the death of their Master, a single man arose as the undisputed Master of the Kofuku clan of samurai. His name was whispered with awe and fear. Children in the countryside would play out the legends which swept and changed, like the kentaiji winds from the north that brought the sweet fragrances from the volcanic pits, mixing the bitter taste of ashes, hot spring waters, deep chasms of the heated underworlds, mixed with the cherry blossoms along the Zen Monastery of Kyozuku – as each roll of the winds picked up new mixtures of fragrances and changed in its essence, so the stories of the brave feats of Sazuro – the master swordsman – grew with each breath of the gods.

Legend has it that Sazuro, on a morning filled with the ashen fragrances of the kentaiji winds, in the dew mist of sunrise when the lizard pauses with its mouth parted to allow the rising sun to warm its blood, its transparent eyelids half shading its dilated pupils, sat before his garden, tended with care and patience, swept where each rock and stone rested upon the previous one, and the one before, combed meticulously to form a whole, as only a zen master could embrace; for zen is not to try, but to do, and yet in the act of doing, to understand, and embrace the void of his surroundings. Cross-legged, eyes closed, Sazuro breathed the air of winds; his mind embraced nothingness; his ears heard darkness; his eyes saw silence. Suddenly, from a hundred yards above, along the ridge of the surrounding mountains, the arrow came with the swiftness of the volcanic winds of gods, aiming with lightening precision at the heart of Sazuro. His teacup in hand, his eyes closed, his head slightly tilted, in the silence of darkness, with the sun rising with the pink tint and the dew of morning evaporating as the lizard began to limber under the rising heat, Sazuro flicked his wrist and caught the arrow just inches from his heart. The lizard opened its eyes. Sazuro began running; with such effortless strides, he ran barefoot up the side of the mountain, eyeing the ridge from whence the arrow had come, his sword in one hand, the arrow in the other. Some say that the kentaiji winds stopped blowing because the speed of Sazuro’s rush to meet his attacker created a counterwind; still others claimed that the lizard and man were one, that as Sazuro ran up the rocky mountain, the lizard had disappeared. As he reached the top, the archer suddenly realized that the volcanic fragrances of the kentaiji winds were now replaced with the throbbing of his own heart, the smell of his own sweat, and the mixture of one who had tried but failed; fear enveloped the archer’s mind. But the trap had been set, and the corners of the archer’s lips curled slightly with mischief; the second, hidden archer in the treetop; the two ronin samurai behind the large boulder to his left; and the archer himself with an arrow ready to shoot upon the figure of Sazuro over the ridge. But the kentaiji winds shifted, and Sazuro smelled the sweat from the archer, the garlic enjoyed the night before by the hidden archer in the treetop; the unwashed scent of the ronin samurai – the winds warned Sazuro of each, and the dangers hidden; from whence the dangers came; and how many. Or, perhaps, as some have said, the lizard knew the countryside, and each fly and insect which moved within its boundaries. For the lizard, too, was nowhere to be seen near the rock garden.

For the Zen Master, the encounter with Being is more than stepping upon a thorn in a half-sleep. Though the yell of pain, the trickle of blood, the wakefulness of sudden encounter, crashes us headlong into the realization that the world around us harms, titillates, roughs up and soothes, it is so with each of us; and not merely for the Zen Master. The ronin samurai, masterless by definition, and thus ronin, without identity, would surely die. Legend has it that Sazuro, with one swift movement, decapitated both of their heads, and the body of one took two steps before the second head landed in the cradling arms of the first. Whether consciousness was lost before the body separated from spirit, or spirit recognized the horror of being headless and thus soulless, we shall never fathom to know. The tail of the lizard left a streak of wetness upon the sun-baked, whitewashed boulder which, for a time, had hidden their presence from Sazuro, and the lizard, or both, or one. Nothingness was left for the two ronin; without an identity, without their heads, they evaporated, as the morning dew that morning, as the kentaiji winds began to shift again.

Umberto Eco, in his work, Kant and the Platypus, notes that in the primordial state of man, whether in the deep meditative abyss of a zen master, or that hypothetical time of man pre-language, “being is not a philosophical problem, any more than water is a philosophical problem for fish.” But can such an encounter ever occur? For man is by nature, inherent in his very rationality, wrapped within the definitional essence of Aristotle’s ascription of rationality as his very essence – a storyteller. A storyteller is a purveyor of words, put together to form ideas, for creations of conceptual models, in order to compose and describe a symphony of the human condition. Whether man was or was not ever in that primordial state, the essence of the storyteller impedes any such naked encounter with Being. Yes, self-awareness is an attribute of man; yes, the differentiation between I and thou, the consciousness of self, the awareness of one’s self apart from the other; the non-verbal realization of being; but, always and foremost, we bring with us the need to tell the story. Wrapped into the essence of man is a swirling precondition of historicity; that man comes not from a vacuum, but with a story. The baby who comes into the world possesses a name before she is named; she is the daughter of two who came together in love. And the history of that story is an infinite history of being.

The best trial attorneys are the best storytellers. Trial attorneys do not merely convey or portray “facts” to jurors; they tell stories – stories of crimes and misdemeanors, of passionate advocacy; of injuries so horrific as to make dull minds in a jury box impassioned and outraged, to lengths of irrationality such that the awarding of monetary compensation somehow makes up for the storied outrage. Suspend the fact that money is an insufficient substitute for loss of limb or life; the storyteller convinces us all that compensatory damages sufficiently provide a viable alternative to mental anguish. Go figure. Yet, the narrative told, the human drama described, the conflict relived, and the encounter between I and thou, until a community of empathy is solidified, where the jurors begin – through the story – to see it as we against the defendant. “We the jury find for the plaintiff, and award damages in the amount of ____”

And, as legends grow, Sazuro’s feats of courage and bravery never strayed far from believability. There are legends, and then myths and self-perpetuated, vain-conceited portrayals of bravado. Sazuro’s reputation needed no exaggeration. The hidden archer in the tree was able to shoot an arrow in the general direction of Sazuro; the very branches which he had hoped would shade him from revelation and retain him within the void of darkness, was that very obstacle which prevented him from attacking. The master samurai disappeared behind the boulders; the lizard slithered unnoticed between crevices and followed the paths of nature; and suddenly the sword of Sazuro, the one which whispered death when unsheathed, twirled effortlessly end over end and struck the hidden archer through his neck. With gurgling sounds like a river about to drain with a whirlpool of suctions, the lizard paused, waited, and when the lifeless thump of the body fell into the tall grass below, Sazuro retrieved his sword, and wiped the blood, the saliva, and the waste of human soil, upon the robe of the dead villain.

For, consider the master storyteller, Anton Chekhov, in his short story, Grief (translator’s subtitle: “To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief,”), where the cab-driver, Iona Potapov, within a span of 6 pages, tells the story of human need; of a son’s death; a tale of tragedy, and of human indifference. And in the end, he turns to his horse, and speaks the mournful song of every human desire: “That’s how it is, my old horse. There’s no more Kuzma Ionitch. He has left us to live, and he went off pop. Now let’s say, you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?” Sadder still if Iona was left incapable of telling his story. For the very ontological encounter that he and all of us have, is one which tells a story. To be human is to tell a story of one’s humanness; for we are neither inanimate objects, indifferent to the weathering storms of our surroundings, anymore than we are Pavlov’s experimental subjects exhibiting conditional reflexes or revealing transmarginal inhibitions, reacting or shutting down in response to our surroundings. For, Nothingness is not just the absence of Being; it is, more profoundly, the existence of Silence. And so the Zen Master attempts to reveal to his novices the path to enlightenment, to shed one from the confusion of one’s self; to dive into the abyss of Nothingness, a cauldron within a maze of conundrums, only to know that in the art of trying, one may lose forever the soul of his being. But the true zen master knows – lives – the essence of man as the storyteller.

Sazuro was a warrior. His zen training was a means to escape the natural fear of death; being a warrior defined the essence of Sazuro. For a warrior, it was the penultimate act to return the weapon meant for his death, to the one who so attempted to kill him. Sazuro, with arrow still in hand, stood before the archer. The eyes stared; it is a frightening sight to watch a man’s eyes, when those eyes show more than mere fear; for fear may be an uplifting emotion, one which allows for survival, and to be able to fight for another day; but fear mixed with the certainty of oblivion, when the mind knows that the body cannot respond to the adversary who stands before him – such fear results in the loss of soul of a man. A warrior’s first duty is to protect his lord; the second, to protect himself; and for the warrior samurai, if he fails the former, he must affirmatively fail the latter, and commit seppuku. Today, Sazuro stood before his enemy because the enemy desired to kill his lord; to kill his lord, he needed to kill Sazuro. Both Sazuro and the archer knew this. Legend has it that as Sazuro raised the hand which held the arrow which, but for the swiftness of the lizard in the misty dew of morning, aimed but an inch from his heart, and the hand which beheld the abyss of death beyond the valley of life, reached and grasped, stopped and froze, the pointed arrow; Sazuro raised the hand, and before he could act, to return the arrow to its rightful owner, the archer trembled, oozed blood from his pores, and convulsed in a weighty heap of quivering death. The legend of Sazuro – of death in silence, of vanquished enemies without raising a sword, would spread throughout the Kagemusha Province. And the children, playing in the dusty streets in towns and cities, would act out the legend; and the only true fights which would erupt noisily, would be the shrill protestations of the child who was chosen to be the archer.

Heidegger, in Being in Time, wrote: “When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn.” Yes, but what Heidegger did not understand – or fully comprehend – is that the blocking of such access was not a negative event to be corrected; it is, after all, the very being of our human-ness.

For, just as the lizard was seen the next morning raising its shiny white underbelly to the rising sun, so Sazuro meditated in silence before the crystal white stones of his rock garden. The kentaiji winds blew warmly that morning, bringing forth the soft fragrances of volcanic ashes, cherry blossoms, and the silent encounter with Being. But whether Sazuro was aware of the presence of the lizard, or the lizard felt the fearsome reputation of Sazuro, we shall never know. Only the storyteller can shed light upon that.

Time and Age

Two old people on a park bench; and, of course, the image is one of time passing, of coiffed cauliflower clouds lazily drifting above, bringing passing intermittent shadows on a windblown fall day. A man and a woman; as the jogger passes by, seeing these two elderly figures sitting near, but not intimately so, to one another; the identifying passing thought: an old couple; grandparents; old people from another time. Such thoughts are often fleetingly dismissive; for some reason, each generation believes that theirs is “the one”; that those who are old are irrelevant; that grey hair and wrinkled foreheads; that deeply etched lines showing decades of smiling; of accordion-shriveled upper lips; of canes revealing painful arches and arthritic knees somehow diminishes one’s being.

The young are too busy with projects, plans and purposeful pursuits; Heidegger recognized the profound lobotomized bifurcation of our lives: old age and death are the penultimate ontological end; how we divert our focus upon that telos is the singular key for the young; for to ruminate upon our death is to become overwhelmed with existential angst; of the Prozac generation that we have become; for it is indeed our projects and hobbies which provide the diversion from such ruminations; and so the old have endured and survived, only to come ever so closer to that end which they spent their lives attempting to avoid; for death comes “like a thief in the night”, and all that we can do is hope that our projects and diversions will keep us occupied until the time of eternal slumber.

But it is still a puzzle, is it not, why the young view the old as irrelevant? The old are a source of wisdom, or should be; as Confucius once stated, By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third by experience, which is the bitterest. But to imitate would be to remind one of impending death; to experience would take us away from our diversions; and to reflect would mean we would have to face ourselves. And so the old are passed by; as joggers see the world peripherally, in a whisk of blurred images, of trees and rectangles of sidewalks; of pets being walked and automobiles passing; and two old people on a park bench. Lovely couple. Old. What’s my schedule for this afternoon?

Time passes; the daily engagement of diversions must be attended to. Otherwise, we may be forced to reflect upon the very worth of our being, and the worthiness of those very diversions which are meant to occupy our thoughts.

For, who among us can freeze time at any given moment of our lives, and honestly declare that we are acting as worthy stewards of such a precious commodity?

Third Parable: Kitaro and the Blind Beggar Boy

Kitaro was a Monk of the Fifth Order; he was ranked by the Society of Elders to be “other-worldly”.  He had lived through the Purge of the Daiku Shogunate; he had survived through the Winter of Three Famines.  He was known throughout the Kinshu Province as The Wise One.  Wisdom was spoken without words; strength was displayed through a stare; Kitaro was visited by princes and royalties from the world over; he owned nothing – but a teapot and two teacups.

On this beautiful morning, with the sparrows chirping in the blossom of the radiant rock garden of Koishu Gardens, where the gravel had been carefully swept in symmetrical flowing waters around the moss-covered boulders, Kitaro was about to sit down for his morning tea.

The morning had seen many beggars wandering about, asking the Monastery for some rice.  One such beggar had been a child of ten who was blind from birth.  What irritated Kitaro – well, perhaps ‘irritated’ was too strong a word, for he had shown no such emotion – was that the boy was, in his opinion, slovenly as well as being blind.  A man can shut out the world with total darkness, Kitaro had thought to himself; but the world still sees such a man.

He prepared to sit down for a cup of tea; he could smell the sweet aroma of the boiling tea in the teapot; he stood just a foot away from the table upon which he sat each morning; and as he customarily did, he turned to the Koishu Gardens to survey the meditative serenity, so that when he would sit, he need not turn to the garden for further refreshment; his mind’s eye would already hold the butterfly’s dream, to enjoy along with the taste of his morning tea.

As he surveyed the beauty of the garden’s lack, he marveled at how beauty is not in the abundance, but in the un-ness; that life was not to be discovered in possessions, but rather in the joy of less-ness; and these life-lessons he had learned well, for he owned nothing – but for the teapot and the two cups, of course – and his joy was not found in material wealth, but rather the simple chirp of a sparrow landing upon the twig of a decaying tree, unbeknownst to the world, as decay is merely the lifespring of age, both of the soul, as well as of the body.

The material world had no hold upon Kitaro, and Kitaro had long ago renounced the materiality of the world around him.  By owning nothing – except for the teapot and the two cups – matter could not matter to him.  As he surveyed the vast desolation of the beauty of the Koishu Gardens, the right side of his lips curled ever so slightly, as if to scoff at the world around him; for the butterfly’s dream was the world he embraced; the material world had no hold upon him; the serenity of un-ness was the world he sat on top of; the rampant greed, and world of capitalism, the vulgarity of consumerism, and the unhappiness of the surrounding universe – he had conquered it all.

Kitaro embraced the serenity of the moment; the moment was as a grain of sand, its quiet beauty as uncomplicated as his own soul; the smallness as significant, as relevant, as existential importance, as man himself.  Kitaro felt no emotion; felt only oneness with the grain of sand, with the peace of the Koishu Gardens.

Suddenly, the serenity of the Koishu Gardens was shattered by a loud crash.  Kitaro turned.  Before him, just a foot away, was the stupid blind beggar boy.  Beside the stupid blind beggar boy were the remnants of what used to be Kitaro’s teapot and two cups, the sole possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order.  “Bakka!” Kitaro shouted, his face turning a crimson radiance.  “Bakka!”  The Koishu Gardens, with their serenity of un-ness, remained unmoved.  The upheaval of the world around never witnessed this episode.  The sudden heaving; the blind fury directed at the beggar boy who was blind from birth, but who committed the unforgivable sin of being stupid, and showing that stupidity by shattering the sole material possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order, revealing how such a small matter, indeed, mattered to Kitaro.

Silence

In the West, and especially in the United States, silence is an uncomfortable state. At a party; at a gathering; with a chance but brief encounter; silence cannot be sustained; it must be expunged, invaded, violated, shattered and engulfed. The concept itself is rarely spoken of in its singular modality; instead, it is often hyphenated and combined: “uncomfortable silence” or “embarrassing-silence”. Thus, the very concept itself has come to be understood as that which is unpleasant or undesirable. It is a void which must be filled; music, conversation, laughter, banter, platitudes, politeness, complimentary dialectics, rhetorical flourishes, conjugated dialogues – each has a place, in its rightful time, in its proper context. But so does silence.

Often, at gatherings, in medium to larger crowds, I find myself silent; listening to others speak; being polite but watchful; I enjoy listening to others. Some find that I am aloof, or sometimes even unfriendly; yet, I find that silence is a state of comfort for me. In the early morning hours, when I pray or meditate, it is important sometimes to listen; the prattle of our thoughts are neither profound nor informative to God; the utter self-contradiction between our stated belief and our actions: If indeed we know God to be omniscient, then do we not also know that He knows our thoughts even before we speak them? Thus, our conversations with God must sometimes take a different road – that of silence, and listening to the quiet voice of God. In the meditative silence of the early morning sunrise, when the robin speaks, the radiance of God pervades with a subtle but persistent explosion of Being – of revealing the being-ness of the world; and our human apparatus to perceive the Being-being-revealed; only in silence can we experience that moment of dawn, when God whispers to us through the revelation of his Being, as the robin knows each day.