Temple Chronicle: winter austerities

Kobo Daishi

The morning air is fresh, the severe coldness has receded for a few days.  But it will return. The edifice of the temple reposes as the sun rises. I want to write about my daily life here living in the Shingon temple precinct: devotions and insights, spiritual signs and moving towards emptiness and beyond.

She has gone, thinking she had not woken me, but I felt the duty and devotion rising in our rooms, borrowed rooms like our breath. I heard the sluicing of water, and the whispered chants deep in the shower room. Cold water poured over head and alternate shoulders, a chant for each small bucket full. Kneeling on salt. Shivering and moving without control in a jagged way. Rising. Sitting again. Rising.  Her mind breaking the imaginary ice on the barrel the way the Master actually did.

What is it that wakes you?  She says it is ‘Gohozenshin Sama,’ that she just asks them before she sleeps to wake her.  They are the fierce and brave Guardians of the Law in their towers outside the temple inner sanctum.  The Guardians of the Heavens and the Earth that make it possible for us humans to walk the pathway, to seek the way.

She walks before dawn through the centre of the white 5 story apartment buildings arranged like cakes on a beach. The sky is heavy and ice-clad.  She walks quickly wearing temple shoes, decent, soundless, repeating mantras, and holding her fluorescent orange dustpan and brush both with long handles. She rustles as she walks, the white plastic bag shivering. She is going to brush the temple precincts in preparation for the Buddhas to walk there.

She has told me about her ancestors indicated in meditation training.  They were mountain ascetics living wild in the forests of Wakayama, pacing up and down narrow pathways made by raccoons and red deer, ridding themselves of their ego minds.  They sheltered from nothing and no-one, taking refuge only in their spirits connected to the universal source.  Standing in pouring rain and blazing sun with oblivious stomachs, slowly unlearning, de-culturing, de-conditioning. Solitary, in human terms, in caves, climbing trees to pick seeds and nuts, and confronting gongens, evil emanations,  then driving them away with sheer determination in a stare. No human distraction for 20 or 30 years. But some of them were so lonely they committed suicide.

She industriously brushes the leaves into piles, stuffing them into her bag using a torch in her mouth. It is still dark in front of the main temple gate; the guard-house quiet, young men in suits snoozing and taking 15 minute shifts throughout the night, then changing into their white ablution robes, and chanting at breakneck speed to squeeze the sharp pain of ice out.

Yesterday, Baba, her guiding parent, came for tea.  Talk of the schedule and the spiritual goals this year.  She lives 5 minutes away on the south side of the temple where she carefully watches her charges, advising them on their daily life, on how to wake up to the spiritual aspects of existence. Her eyes see the bald truth and she’s not afraid to relay it even though it may hurt. Fearless, but thought of as insensitive and un-Japanese by many.

She has devoted most of her life to these teachings, the teachings of Nirvana. The wide world is encapsulated inside her temple precincts, so there is no need to go very far outside. Sharp questions are asked about the regularity of visiting the temple whilst on holiday, and how many hundreds of certain mantras were said on certain dates.

Today we will go to the city temple to meditate on the tenth floor on an office block. This period of austerities is softened because the masters did all the severe training. We will ride in a comfortable car and an elevator thanks to them paving the way. Gratitude must fill our very nostrils especially during this 2-week period.




The sky was the sky


That morning I drove through a dawn sky so glorious I thought the world had come to a spectacular end.

I drove as a vehicular robot while tears forced their way out on a bore tide.

My route is a weekly occurrence, same time, same speed, same stops and starts, but today I was certain I would die before I arrived.

The massive sun pulses like an orange human, pulling me further out on my own river with each beat. I am molten, formless, in a silence shroud.  A synapse pops and I suddenly feel exactly why I learned to drive: to flow out I need automated speed at this moment.   But am I really moving?  The gold leaf samovar of sky is running and we are part of it.

I pass a few vehicles and look across to search for other tears and glory on drivers, but they chew gum, drink from hot tins of coffee, talk illegally on their phones. No-one seems moved, so this dawn must be for me. It must be my turn to die today.

Flowing forward on my tears I notice another hidden orb reflecting through silver and bronze clouds. Can it be the moon? My river turns to silver now, cool, wise. How privileged to be served up with wisdom and passion in one splash. This sky silence has spoiled me forever I smile, and the close-guarded secret of the illusions of time and space are out of the bag.

Now I know the sky is not too high, the earth is not too still, and our edges are not real at all. I am inside-out, wielding an acetylene torch to cut through the thunderous blue between the two orbs to reveal a vertical scratch of white light. Aboriginal desert dwellers call this the Djang, the final moment when the human spirit climbs out of its human chrysalis to travel on.  They long for it from the moment the oxygen is connected to them.

That morning my robot delivered me to my usual destination. I sat on the temple boards, palms together in gassho, serious on the first day of winter austerities.  The Djang dawn was my robe and hood drawing all the Buddhas in close. And then I opened my physical eyes on an etching of my Djang sky in gold. The sky was the sky.


Runaway Team

runaway team

Why do I hold up a vast array of masks to my sticky face one after the other? While I’m showing someone else’s face to the world, behind my fear erupts like a team of runaway horses. It shifts my carriage at terrifying speed across dark moorland to an unknown destination! 

This fear gallops off whenever a scent of love or hope reaches my nostrils: One whiff and the stallions tug their reins out of my hands, ebony manes streaming, so I cannot drive them. It has happened many times before, but this time the fragrance of someone who has universal courage to show himself, with no single mask, incites them to tear away like scalded devils. This is unprecedented. I rear up before they do!

Such a wild reaction is in the name of protection, of keeping myself in the good books, of being fully approved of by all beings.  I blindly cherish my reputation and status – my black and white treasures.  Their ‘permanence’ distracts me from the rapid stamping of the masks I hold up in succession into the flesh of my face.

Meanwhile, the hoofs of my equestrian team gouge and kick, repetitive, relentless, but the jolting and jostling is the worst thing.  Then, my mind is shaken clean away from my true nature on a matchstick bridge, which collapses behind us. It wants to annihilate the now-sour stench of you, paragon man.

So, I spit out my dislike and rejection of you like a mad witch. I trash you outright! Although there is no truth in my barbs, your fragrance remains to point out my madness, staying close to my spirit despite the racket of slow moors as the gallop accelerates.

To balance the fear and guilt of not living up to people’s expectations of us, most of us so quickly judge others instead of honestly reflecting on and evaluating ourselves. We react viciously, needing always to have the last word, the upper hand, insisting on full control.  Our thoughts have become caustic soda, stinging and purging away all dangerous feelings.  We burn and sting with it behind the masks. Oh, my darling, you are so very dangerous! These acid feelings are, I’m afraid, more important than you are.

Impulsive destruction and rejection of your flesh and blood is plain fear that I am not attractive enough to you. That you may pass me by, reject my flesh and blood as un-beautiful on a whim. But I want you to feel it too, so I lash out at you. Then a tiny flag waves close to my heart, and makes me notice that I am putting all my energy into rejecting mere figments of my imagination. Is it you waving it?

An insight somehow breaks through the rough beneath hooves. The visible aspect of the invisible is random, obscure, a rapid grey sketch which I grab at greedily and add to my collections.  And I suddenly see it. I catch myself classifying – hate – love; fragrant -odious; adoring – despising; you – not you. All or Nothing.  Black or white you see.

Then I am desperate to erase these files, to uninstall. I panic, but I can’t! And I sink down in the shaking and swerving, and give up all hope.  The evacuation away from you is unstoppable now.

Oh, how I misjudged you and folded you away in my ‘redundant’ files like a Spring wind! I struck out at you in a fury and almost lost my chance. But now, there, thanks to your clarity, I notice you are striding steadily towards me, with neither horses nor carriage, to bring your full fragrance to meet mine. You have always known that we will blend together again, waiting patiently for me behind my masks.

Your uninhibited tall striding turfs me out and away from my carriage so I can stand finally still, damp-footed and trembling in the dawn. The furious steeds have vanished forever, and with them ‘I’ and ‘my,’ and the paraphernalia of masks.

We are one silence, one perfume of stillness, which has no need of racing on to the future, or of pelting back to the past.

runaway 2