Thursday, March 18, 2010

Flavor in Space: Ch 36

In the thicket of bamboo, light filters in, scattering blotches of shade on the slow running waters and soppy river banks. There are warrens of old houses, narrow paths, dirt lanes. Butcher shops are on every corner. I sit in the dewy shadow of the old thicket, watching the river plants blossom.

The poor, the outcasts, all kinds find a home on the slippery mud shores. The great central market sprawls close by. Creatures are busily being separated into meat and guts. Some men race about pulling big carts loaded with boxes of fish and hunks of meat. Many more fly back and forth in their sleek green-blue "cat-trucks," picking up big boxes of fruit or anything else.

At the edge of the market was once the huge public toilets. A cesspool of steaming crud. The children avoided this place as much as possible, perhaps because of the smell, perhaps because of the danger of falling in, or perhaps because of the men who frequented the place.

Across the toilets stands the back entrance to the flower city. From this perspective, surely the flower city is a dangerous and foul place, where women crawl about like spiders waiting for their pray to flutter in. A raucous quarter of night-walkers, half lit noodle shops, and rusty fences.

Deep in the bamboo grove not too far to the East, men and women are drinking tea. Their ancient practice at bending space speaks the language of plants and flowers; and it expands little corners in the thicket into drinking halls and philosophical clubs. For many, their studies take them to the hut of the Arrow Maker, a small woman with black clothes and a sly smile. She is of unknown age, she appears young, she is polite, and she pays for my education here. She teaches how to communicate with color and shape, how to carry on the ancient meetings in the groves, and how to tell time by watching living beings.

Rising beyond the thicket of huts and bamboo is the great Western Truth in Hope Monastery. The front gates open onto the ancient artery of the city, a canal lined with stone and crisscrossed with bridges. Today, the canal is a formality, although big space cruisers and cargo vehicles still buzz by in a constant stream. There are many tall buildings and towers in this area of the city today, although the Western Truth in Hope Temple is still a giant among them. Its pillars are massive tree trunks. Its halls scrape the sky. Huge gold prism lanterns line its balconies. In the center of its courtyard is an ancient ginko tree, fat limbs the width of hogs hang down to the ground. In fall, as pilgrims idle about, basking in the size and grandeur of the court, the broad branches of the great ginko shower gold leaves on the eager crowd.

The temple was built about a thousand years ago on the mausoleum of a fellow, Shinran, who started a new way of thinking about passing between worlds, a new way of thinking about human suffering. This fellow was once a monk in a high mountain monastery, seeking to climb beyond human suffering by way of effort and airy height. But spending each day at such heights, climbing closer and closer to the triumph of the heavenly void, he felt it was just an egotistical game. There were other teachers; Honen had descended the mountain and was teaching a different way for people to travel to the other world: not by triumph, but by trust. Shinran joined him. This new style was persecuted and the new teachers were exiled to far off places. There, in a cold far off world on the "shadow side," Shinran considered himself neither monk or layman and began to raise a family. He gave himself a new name: the Bare Headed Fool. He traveled through the fields and swamps, along the riverbeds and roadsides, teaching his doctrines of trust to everyday folk, and translating the ancient glyphs into normal understandings.

So today, the pilgrims come visit the grand court of the Western Truth in Hope Temple. They seek pure land. Some say it's in the West somewhere.

Ironically, just to the west of the Truth in Hope monastery, lies Shimabara, the flower city. A garden of pleasure for all fools, monk or layman.

In the flower city, trust allows the passions themselves to become a vessel, like an empty gourd floating in a stream. Trust turned ukiyo- "the suffering world" into ukiyo- the "the floating world." Here in the world of river beds and bamboo thickets, it makes no sense to crawl up a remote mountainside. Asai Ryoi, a visitor to the city 400 years ago, wrote: "If you live in this world, some things heard and seen are called good or bad, everyone is interesting, and you don't know what will happen beyond the space of time one inch wide. Your stomach sickens to think of something as firm as the thin flexible skin sliced from a fresh gourd. At this moment, to view the moon, or snow, or flowers, or crimson leaves, to sing songs, drink, and float along, now, small personal worries and foibles are not troublesome. Don't sink; be like a dry, empty gourd in flowing water. This is what is called the floating world. Listen to this, and truly, you can feel it."(Asai Ryoi Ukiyomonogatari trans. Waxman).

Here, within the willow guarded gate of Shimabara, many have found a home when they could find no other. Among the thickets and overgrown berry bushes, mud and fallen leaves, here ghostly spiders spin invisible webs that once caught brilliant butterflies of all shapes and sizes. Here, the women were once the greatest lords and they "brought castles of men crumbling down." They were the "boats" floating along on platform shoes a foot high. They floated through the "water trade," dancing in "fry houses" where men competed for a glimpse of their beauty. They could pull their partner to the farthest reaches of the void, to bob and dance on the river like the empty gourd.

Here, today, in the old mansion, I drink green froth with the monks of the Truth in Hope, learn to listen to the changes of flowers, and "linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."

Flavor in Space: Ch 35

On the mountain the rain carried on, softly. Bright grey clouds were a white roof for the vast gardens of the Monastery of the Wondrous Heart. I stayed there for a long time, sitting on the wide balconies built of ancient wooden boards worn smooth and black. I looked out over the mountains, swimming in a sea of impermeable whites and greys. Each crag hovered like islands.

Some say the mountains were really the fins and spines on the back of a giant submerged dragon. There is one room in the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, a room often closed and dark and cool. It is said that the dragon is frozen there, steaming among boiling clouds, caged. It is also said that there is another dragon, a huge beast, white with long tendrils and mammoth, wise, beady eyes. One man, the famous Looks-for-Seclusion Field-Hunter, was called upon to summon the dragon to the main hall of the monastery. For 7 years he waited, baiting the dragon. Finally, when he saw it, he captured the dragon and bound it to the main hall. I saw it looking down at me from the heights of the hall.

The monastery is a world of white, grey, tan, and black. Long paths of grey granite weave between sand colored walls. Short, stunted pines are dwarfed by massive black halls. Each temple is a monochromatic concentration, broken occasionally by a rainbow of blossoms. When each arrives, it is greeted with awe and joy, a conversation piece between early morning prayers.

For days and nights I breathed the warm air of the mountain- scents of blooming hydrangea, rain, incense.

Many climb the mountain of the monastery of the Wondrous Heart. Many stay at the Great Heart temple like I did. Many sit and sit, stripping down their mind, searching for nothing, or perhaps clarity.

At the very top of the mountain is The Hut of the Eastern Ocean. There, I once passed the highest monk of the mountain. He was dressed in purple robes and he had a bloated bulbous alcoholic's nose. He was on his way home and I was on my way out. I had entered to see the gardens, of which there are three.

One is empty. The garden of the mind. Standing on the balcony of the hut, looking out at this garden, all I saw was whiteness, waves and waves of grey and white. Perhaps it was clouds, perhaps it was sand, perhaps it walls.

A single rounded stone pool sits at the edge of the balcony. a few scraggly pines and electrical lines can be seen far below on the mountainside. Beyond this, there is nothing, just emptiness. The white void reaches out until it becomes the sky and the sky reaches out until it becomes empty space.

One is a lush. The garden of the body. I picked my way among huge stones wet with dew, dense forests, blooming hedges and overgrown fields. I passed fat stone lanterns and broad bulging stone washbasins.

The last, the garden that links the first and the second, sits in a courtyard of elegant wooden walls. It is the garden of the spirit.

At first, it appears to be a familiar scene: a view of distant mountains rising to the surface above clouds. Yet, looking longer and longer, the clouds look more and more like waves, waves rippling from each stone, each island, each mountain. Below the surface, surely, each stone is linked, like mountains rooted in one earth.

But in appearance, each floats in space, sending messages to one another with waves. I have seen this garden a thousand times, mandala become physical reality: drifting space bubbles, space ships, trees in the mist, friends scattered across the galaxy, communication by telephone, energy rippling through the universe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Flavor in Space: Ch 34

I slide open the window.

Along the little path by the house, an old, hunch-backed lady sits on the cinderblock wall. She looks down at her wrinkled hands. She wears a gold ring. She straightens her gnarled fingers, adjusting the ring, still holding fast amid waves of sinew and bone.

Close to my face, a tiny mayfly climbs the windowpane.

To be transformed into ephemeroptera, the mayfly; to shimmer and glow like the last light of dusk lingering in distant mountain haze; to forget the long day passed, and the long night ahead.

These are some ways to describe the word they call here "kagirohi." I saw the word, scrawled across an old book. Photographs of the Great Lord amid shadows and flickering candle light, or half hidden by thick black locks, facing herself in the salon mirror. Photographs of winter scenes on the black, wet streets, snow quickly becoming slush in the dark city while still pristine and bright on the distant mountains. Photographs of groves of weeping cherry trees, swaying full bloom in mists of grey dawn.

As I poured over the old pictures, the Great Lord told me stories of her youth, stories of the tangled web of time and encounter that make up this world. Stories of which many certainly lead down dark, secret paths. Paths that I did not have the linguistic skill, or nerve, to venture down uninvited.

In the sacred book from this world, the Tale of the Shining Prince, the prince describes the telling of tales: "the gap between enlightenment and the passions is, after all, no wider than the gap that in tales sets off the good from the bad"(Genji Monogatari, trans. Tyler, p.461).

Perhaps this spider-web-thin line is what inspired Asai Ryoi to enter and write about this neighborhood, Shimabara, when he, 400 years ago, changed the "sorrowful world of the passions" into the "floating world." In Shimabara, and the numerous "flower cities" that developed in its image, passions themselves become a vessel, like an empty gourd, floating on a flowing stream: "If you live in this world, some things heard and seen are called good or bad, everyone is interesting, and you don't know what will happen beyond the space of time one inch wide. Your stomach sickens to think of something as firm as the thin flexible skin sliced from a fresh gourd. At this moment, to view the moon, or snow, or flowers, or crimson leaves, to sing songs, drink, and float along, now, small personal worries and foibles are not troublesome. Don't sink; be like a dry, empty gourd in flowing water. This is what is called the floating world. Listen to this, and truly, you can feel it."(Asai Ryoi Ukiyomonogatari trans. Waxman)

The spirit: the lively butterfly, or the momentary mayfly, takes flight.

And what if you commanded an army of butterflies? What if, with your arts, your make up, and your silks, you could turn another dirty, leaf eating worm into a fluttering, dew drinking, pollinating beauty?

Those who managed to conduct the transformation, and reap the profits, grew wealthy and powerful. In a world of black, grey, white, and brown; flashes of color, and flutter of wings can make even a fallen blossom appear to return to the branch:

The fallen flower, to the branch,
Rakkwa eda ni
If I saw it return- oh!?
Kaeru to mireba—
It was only a butterfly
Kocho kana!

(recorded by Hearn, Kwaidan, trans. Waxman)

Now, nearly everyone floats, orbiting distant worlds, communicating along tubes of light and sound, mind to mind, the body a flimsy image.

But here, in the old empire of ephemeroptera, only the "Queen Bee" still flies with gossamer wings. Yesterday, she was transplanting her flowers. One little plant went from one small pot to another small pot, now in the company of two other little colorful blooms.

Despite the bright, reflective, glamour of her ancient wings; amid a vast forest of floating trees, the Great Lord appears small, and still.