Today marks the first day of spring, as well as the start of the Easter Week. And while it is the end of Spring Break for some schools in North America, it’s still spring break for others…and it was, in fact, around this time of year back in 1996 that the seeds of “The Four Teeth of the Apocrypha” were planted. Like teeth.
That remark alone should let you know that this is not a typical story (if the title hadn’t already tipped you off by now). Continue Reading
From first to last: the final story in the collection, “Training the Mountain Warrior,” is based on two specific events that happened to me shortly after moving to Japan in 1999. The date thus places the story barely in the Nineties; the paired-poem (“Asian Dreams”) was written hastily—scrawled, really—in an old yellow lined notepad the night before I left the US (permanently, as it turned out). I still have the notepad, well used and abused.
The short story describes my attempted nighttime climb of Mt. Fuji (which ended short of the summit due to high winds) and my trek through the ancient mountains of the Kinai peninsula, whose hiking trails later became a World Heritage Site. There were a lot of details that I deliberately left out, and of course the dialogue is completely fictional. But I did, actually, dangle my friend over a cliff.
This past Sunday, my fellow Shorinji Kempo kenshi and I held our dojo’s “New Spring Law Meeting” (terrible translation of shinshunhokai; basically, “New Year’s Ceremony”). We usually hold it on the second Sunday of January, but delayed it this year due to everyone’s busy work schedules. The ceremony took place after a special three-hour intensive practice for higher level practitioners (we use the term “kenshi,” similar to those who do judo, who use the term “judoka,” or karate, “karate-ka”). No central heat in Japan, below zero temperatures…no problem. Body heat was more than enough.
As with most new year ceremonies in Japan, our ceremony includes one person (this year, the woman in the picture above) reading out a carefully prepared speech on a long horizontal paper folded many times, the contents of which summarize the events of the previous year and then end with a promise to work hard for the upcoming year. This is followed by an exhortation from the shisho (master) for us to do our best and work together to achieve our goals. The ceremony was longer this year because it was the 50th anniversary of the dojo foundation. Only top-level kenshi attend, which is a little disappointing; out of 80 members, only a handful can attend. Continue Reading
Kyoto, where I work, is chock full of temples and shrines. Every day I walk to campus, I walk through a Rinzai Zen temple along the way. While the temple itself is not as famous or as old as others nearby, it is popular among tourists for its gardens, open public lectures, and guest houses. There’s a nursery school within the temple grounds, and TV crews occasionally can be seen filming for various end-of-year specials. Because it’s located in a residential neighborhood near several high schools, students and office workers alike travel through it daily. After a long, crowded train ride during the morning rush hour, walking through a zen temple is an incredibly relaxing experience. I’ve walked through the temple grounds every day for three years now; I have to remind myself how lucky I am.
Last week, after a typhoon crossed over Japan just south of us, I was heading home through the temple when I saw an older man squatting down in front of a small pine tree. He had taken off his hat, with a small white towel draped over his shoulders to prevent sunburn, and was silently contemplating the tree. I watched as he took a drink from a water bottle, then poured the rest of the bottle around the base of the tree.
I don’t know what he was thinking, of course, but I like to imagine: how long would it take for the sapling to equal the other pine trees in the temple precinct in size? He might no longer be alive then. How long ago had the older trees been planted, as saplings? Perhaps he had not even been born yet.
Pine trees (matsu) have long been associated with zen Buddhism and zen temples. Zazen (sitting meditation) is practiced by Rinzai Zen monks, and visitors to this temple are encouraged to join the morning zazen when they stay at the guest house. But really all you need is a tree, and your imagination, to understand how short life is. How mysterious. How tenacious. How precious.