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The Great Spring, Page 2

Natalie Goldberg

  “Does this sound familiar?” I asked, and then belted out the first line of the early-morning chant. At this moment in the zendo, our hands would be clasped in front of us. I saw the whole scene unfold as I chanted Dai sai ge da pu ku in the coffee shop.

  Kenji and Tomoko shook their heads. “Never heard of it.” They must have learned that head shake in England. When I shook my head no here, everyone looked at me blankly.

  “You’re kidding,” I said.

  “What does it mean?” Tomoko asked.

  I was too disappointed to be embarrassed. “Great robe of liberation.”

  They both stared at me.

  “This coffee is delicious,” Michèle said and downed her cup.

  Tomoko and Kenji explained where they were going to take us. All I caught was “famous temples.” But I was templed out. At every temple Michèle and I had visited so far, no one was meditating. Just beautiful buildings; ornate altars; and waxed, fine wood floors. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d come for sixteenth-century Japan. I was looking for the descendants of Linji and Hakuin. Where were the kick-ass practitioners, like the wild Americans back in the States who were imitating monks we thought were over here? We woke at 4:00 A.M., meditated all day, sewed robes, ate in formal style with three enamel bowls, and had miso soup for breakfast.

  I sat looking out the car window, in the backseat next to Tomoko. Michèle shifted the conversation from the dot-com explosion to a list of Japanese authors we’d been reading since we arrived. I perked up. “Yeah, we’re reading these prize-winning novels, and it’s a surprise 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 went on in monasteries?

  They drove us from one ancient shrine to another, all with indiscernible names. I was young again, dragged from one art museum to another. The afternoon was a blur. My eyes teared. I wanted to lie down and take a deep nap.

  “I’m sorry,” Kenji said. “We have only 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. Michèle and I politely stood with our hands shading our eyes. We didn’t understand a word.

  Then one word registered. Hold everything! Did that ingenue on the left say a familiar name?

  “Excuse me, Tomoko,” I whispered. “Who lived here in ancient 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 Tomoko. “What’s the name of this temple?”

  Tomoko slowly pronounced, “Daitokuji.”

  “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,” they said in unison, nodding.

  “Oh, my God.”

  The thinner girl pointed to a square white building beyond a high stuccoed wall. This time Kenji translated. “She says Ikkyu is in there.”

  My eyes widened. Here were the remains of the eccentric Zen monk with a wild spirit whose poetry I loved? I imagined him preserved in zazen position in his ragged brown monk’s robe, the one he wore when hanging out with drunks under a bridge.

  My hands curled into fists. I wanted to leap the wall, burst into the tomb room, bow at his feet, and tell him how I’d spent a cold winter and dark spring reading his poems. Those poems had sustained me.

  And not just 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,” I’d say, and I’d read Ikkyu to my friend.

  During his life, people were horrified by Ikkyu’s unconventional life—he alternated 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 that I’d disappointed this great practitioner. He would have leaped over the barrier. He was waiting for me. I think he is still waiting.


  I left Michèle in Kyoto to travel north by train to Bukkokuji, one of the few Japanese monasteries that were willing to take Westerners and women. If I was going to be in this country, I had to experience a monastery, even if only for a short time.

  Michèle and I went over my route many times in the hotel before I departed. The train moved fast, and I was alert to hear Obama (the town in Japan) 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 name sparked something, and the train moved so quickly that I had to act fast.

  He nodded briskly, not glancing my way. “Hai.”

  At the age of 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.

  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. 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 gravestones and meditated. It was midafternoon. I was nervous. I kept repeating, You’ll be okay. You’ve sat six difficult three-month practice periods, and this time it’s just a few days.

  The small complex was a hundred yards away, built right up against a hill. I stepped into the courtyard. No one was there.

  Then a beefy 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 point Tangen Roshi—I recognized his face from a photo—glided into the courtyard. He was the Zen master of the monastery. He was in his seventies and had rarely left it in the last thirty-five years. He and the head monk (by now I had figured out who the beefy man was) grunted at each other. The head monk grabbed my pack, and I followed him.

  Near twin sinks he stopped and pointed to where I was supposed to go while holding out my sack. I took it, walked alone through a set of doors.

  Ten thin mattresses were on the floor. Five Japanese nuns with shaved heads lay on some of them. Near the entrance was a small, spare woman—the only other Western female at the monastery—who introduced herself and pointed to a rolled bed. I nervously set out my few things, unrolled the mattress, and lay down. I didn’t know what the routine would be, but I knew it would be in silence.

  I tried to rest. How did the saying go? Rest when you rest, sleep when you sleep, cry when you cry. Et cetera, et cetera. I could have made the list go on: be nervous when you’re nervous, feel your tight chest when you feel your tight chest, want to go home when you want to go home.

  I noticed how hot and humid it was. My straight hair was curling. No one else around me had any hair, including the Westerner. I remembered what my friend who’d been to Japan had said: There is nothing like the humidity. For emphasis he repeated himself: Trust me, Natalie, in all the world, your clothes will not get wetter than in Japan. Obama was on the sea. I was in for it.

  Bells rang. All seven of us sprang up. They put on their robes; I put on my b
lack long-sleeved T-shirt and black long pants. Together we sat through two periods of zazen in the upstairs zendo across the court. I had no idea how long each sitting was. It could have been twenty-five minutes or forty. I was just happy to know how to do something and proud at the end to recognize the chanting of the Heart Sutra as it was shot through at a speed no American could follow.

  At dinner we ate cross-legged in the dining room in a ritualized style, with three oryoki bowls, chopsticks, napkin, and drying cloth. The actual meal was a mush of colors. What hadn’t been eaten from breakfast and lunch was consumed at night. What hadn’t been eaten from the meals of the days before was also in there. If mold was forming from a week ago, a high boil took care of it all.

  At the end of the meal, we fingered thin slices of pickles to clean our bowls, ate the pickle slices and drank the bowlwashing water. The bowls were then wrapped in the lap cloths with a formal knot. I could do all of this, and the Japanese nuns clucked in surprise.

  We sat zazen again and went to bed.

  I hadn’t spoken a word to anyone. I did not know what time we would wake the next morning, but I could rely on the tight structure. Don’t think, I told myself. Take care of your life—connected to all life—moment by moment.

  I did not sleep one moment the entire night. I was drenched in sweat.

  I think it was 3:00 A.M. when the bells rang and everyone popped out of bed. I ran the brush one time over my teeth. We were in the zendo fifteen minutes later.

  The zendo was a comfort, but not for long. The bell quickly rang again, and people ran down the stairs. Where were they going? I turned around, and everyone was gone. I bolted after them and saw the monks running out the gate. I put on my shoes and dashed after them.

  The streets of Obama were quiet. I heard only the swish of my rubber soles. Thank God I hadn’t worn flip-flops. I chugged along, but way behind. They turned a corner and I lost them.

  We were the Japanese Marx brothers. I headed east on one block; I saw them passing west on another; I darted north at the lamppost. I caught sight of them sprinting south at the turn. I was panting hard. I hadn’t run like this in ten years. The sea was to my right as I galloped up an incline. Just as they neared the gate, I caught up. My lungs were burning. My breath was heaving. I was soaked, hair dripping, pants and shirt stuck to my body.

  I followed the monks into an empty room, where less than twenty-four hours ago the head monk had grunted at me. Another monk called out a command, and everyone hit the ground flat-out; another shout and we were on our feet. Then we were slammed on the floor again, doing push-ups. I was already one command behind. They were down; I was up. They were up; I was down.

  Finally, the exercise stopped. I was a dishrag.

  Sunlight crept across the gravestones. I sidled over to the Western woman and whispered so softly—the sound could have fit under a saltine cracker—“Can we take showers now?”

  “There are no showers here.”

  I nodded. I’d heard a rumor years ago back in the comfort of the Minneapolis zendo that baths in Japanese monasteries were taken once a week at public bathhouses.

  I sat on a stone step and waited for the next activity. Exhaustion allowed surrender.

  The bell rang. We piled into the zendo and sat for one period. Another bell rang and off everyone dashed down the stairs again. This time I walked. I didn’t care if the fires of hell leaped at me.

  I found the monks in the Buddha hall in seiza, kneeling with their legs tucked under them on the hard wooden floor in a single row. A bell rang in another room, and the first person in line jumped up and disappeared. The row of people on their knees slid up to the next place.

  I knelt at the end, the last person, the longest wait. My knees felt as though they were about to snap, but I didn’t change positions. I crawled behind everyone else each time the first person left. I knew what was happening.

  This was our chance to talk to the roshi face-to-face in his small dokusan room. I had heard he was clear, that just to watch him walk across a room was inspiring, that he took joy in the smallest things.

  What was I doing here with this resounding pain? No one said I had to stay in this position, but everyone else was doing it, and I was stubborn. Dedication no longer mattered, only animal will. What could I say to this man from another world? I had already had my true teacher. He’d died eight years earlier.

  My turn came. I got up, entered the dokusan room, did the 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.

  I thought, Thank God. I was fifty years old. Too old. Too tired. Too dirty.

  The gesture was made for me to leave. The meeting was over. I had the urge to put my hand on his knee, to assure him I would be okay. After all, here was a man who was dedicated to waking us up. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but right then I wanted to go to sleep.

  That afternoon, after a work period where we beat mattresses and rolled blankets and towels, we had tea and doughnuts, wrapped in cellophane, bought at a local store. I could tell this was a real treat, and I abstained so the monks could have more.

  Each day was long. I had no illusions that something big or deep would happen. I just wanted to make it through each day—running, walking, sitting, eating in that single pair of black pants and shirt.

  Young monks ran in the halls and pounded big bells that hung from eaves. Even the army knows to take boys early. Only me, only I don’t know I’m not young. That is what these days taught me: I was no longer young. How easy it was for me at twenty-six, at thirty-one—but even then I complained. Now I had only a few days left in a Japanese monastery, and I was thankful I would get to leave.

  That day did come and there was no formality. No one said, “Oh, Natalie, we loved having you.” I rolled up my mattress, deposited my towel and bedding in the laundry room, and slung my pack on my back.

  I was thinking how I couldn’t wait to return to Kyoto and take a shower when I passed the altar room. I noticed a big Buddha statue and a small, inconspicuous donation box. Though it wasn’t necessary to pay anything for your stay, I thought, C’mon, Nat, you can give a little something, even though these days were no fun.

  I counted out yen. I was not good at figuring out the equivalent in dollars, a hundred and ten to one, too many zeros. I left what I thought was twenty-five dollars.

  I followed the path through weeds back to the railroad station. I was a bit early for the next train. I wandered over to the concession stand and eyed the bags of M&M’s. A great compulsion overcame me. I bought two. I ripped one open; they were already melted. I shoved the colored chocolates into my mouth, and they smeared over my right hand and around my lips. I had nothing to wipe them with but my dirty black sleeve.

  I looked up: one of the monks from the monastery had just entered the station, recognized me, and was walking over. He was dressed immaculately in formal traveling attire. I tried to hide my chocolate-covered hand. He stood in front of me in his platform sandals. He noticed my hand and flashed a warm smile. I felt the color come to my face. He reached into the front of his robe. He pulled out some kind of bar and held it up. My eyes focused. Almond Joy. We both burst out laughing.

  My train pulled up. I threw myself into a seat near the window and waved. The scenery zoomed by.

  All at once yen popped into my head. I hadn’t left 2,750—I’d left 27,500. Two hundred and fifty American dollars. I gasped and my stomach tightened. Then let go. It was fine, just fine. I was glad I’d contributed that much.


  Michèle was out when I got to the hotel, but she was back within half an hour. “I had a terrible dream last night,” was the first thing she said.

  “Let’s go to a nearby café,” I suggested.

  We settled into a booth at a small lunch place six blocks from the hotel. I strained to see what was on the display shelves across the counter. “Come on, help me.�

  Michèle almost whined, tugging at my sleeve. If I didn’t know her, I would have thought this bad dream was her way of saying she’d been lonesome and needed attention. But she was not like that. The dream honestly perplexed her. She was one of those lucky ones: basically happy.

  It was hard for me to close the distance from the monastery to a human dream. “Tell it to me.”

  She told me a convoluted tale about her mother working in a self-service laundry.

  I listened carefully. The waitress placed tea on the table.

  I made a stab at what the laundry might mean. “You’re getting washed clean of old habits. Even your mother’s willing to help?”

  “But then why did she have on her nightgown?”

  I tried again. “You always love nightgowns. Isn’t your mom you?”

  Her eyes focused. A light went on. “Yeah.” Something settled in her body. She smiled, took a sip from her cup. “So how was your trip?”

  Words ground to a stop in my mouth.

  “How was the food?”

  “Oh, delicious.” We both laughed.

  The next morning she showed me an English-language bookstore she’d discovered on a street across from the train station. We had our suitcases with us and were heading out into the country in two hours.

  I ran my finger along the book spines, then stopped at a thick yellow one: Musashi in bold black letters. He was the great sword fighter of Japan. I yanked the hefty book off the shelf. This was his living story in novel form. Even though it meant lugging the 970 pages along on our travels, I had to read it. I carried it over to the cashier.

  Japanese trains are exact. Only one headed toward Kyushu, at 11:21. We hopped on. I looked at the countryside as it breezed by, fingering Musashi on my lap. I hesitated and then opened the book.

  As the train clicked through stops, I traveled deeper into the book. Musashi studied with Zen teachers rather than sword masters. He walked a hundred miles to find this one particular monk hidden in the mountains.