six deeply worn wooden steps
led to the temple where I learned
to tolerate stillness
beyond what, I try to remember
as I watch my mother’s shallow breaths,
an ebbing tide of the miniature
Gaia that gave me
I washed those smooth curves of wood
after every sitting in quiet stillness
I washed on my knees
like she washed my
decades after those silent suffering sits
I know that something of what I sought,
that something beyond,
from the simple
looking at my mother’s skin, old like temple wood,
I think of all the times she washed me
gently without any expectation
maybe I am just a complicated set of steps
washed smooth by her younger self.
and like the stairs I have nothing
to offer her, only that which she
gave me, my
I am not a religious person.
Nevertheless, the one religion that I have spent the most time with and feel most comfortable with is Buddhism. I lived in Japan for three years in my twenties, and while I was there I studied meditation in a Zen Buddhist temple. I didn’t go to Japan to learn meditation. I went to study Japanese language and arts.
The opportunity to study meditation popped up unexpectedly, and I honestly don’t remember much about how it came about. Mostly I remember riding my three-speed bike through the city before dawn to get to the temple and then struggling to clear my mind of all thoughts for an hour and a half while sitting in seiza, a torturous position to sit in for extended times even for Japanese.
Ryuunji, the Temple of the Cloud Dragon where I studied, is not a particularly special temple. Nobody has written any books about it. It isn’t one of the famous temples people travel to from around the world to learn meditation. Ryuunji is just a simple temple in a smallish city on the rural side of Japan, but it has all the things that we think of when we hear the word Zen – a stone garden, a massive bronze bell, and most importantly a meditation hall.
I don’t remember the name of the monk who taught me how to meditate. He wasn’t like the famous Zen teachers you read about in the writings of Americans who have learned Buddhism in Japan. He was a quiet man, and he rarely offered any advice to help us in our struggles.
Most days there were only three of us sitting on the wood floor in the dim light of a single bulb before the sun rose. The quiet monk would walk back and forth, rarely offering anything. I think he didn’t really know what to make of me, one of only a handful of westerners in that rural city, so he smiled and treated me like he did the others. Which is to say he let me figure it out on my own.
The one time I remember the monk offering any kind of concrete advice was when he suggested counting to ourselves.
“Start with one and count up. If you find a thought intruding into your mind, go back to one and start again.”
Then he walked to the end of the hall and appeared ready to leave us for the hour when he turned back and added, “It took me many years to get past one.”
I wasn’t looking at him when he said it, but I don’t think he even smiled. He was just reflecting on his past to try and help.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this type of Zen meditation where you try to completely clear your mind while sitting in such an uncomfortable position is one of the hardest ways to meditate. All I knew then was that it was always an extreme struggle. When the monk said that it took him years to get past one… that pretty much threw a towel over any thoughts I had about ever achieving enlightenment.
After our silent battles with unwanted thoughts, we had a task to perform. Each day, at the end of meditation we hobbled out of the hall to the long porch that ran the length of the building. The entire temple was built from wood that was at least a century old, probably more. It was old enough to be greying around the edges like hair grays around our temples when we age. Isn’t it funny how we use the word temple for the part of our head that houses our frontal lobe, the our seat of consciousness?
The wood planks of the porch were long and smooth as warm butter – oiled by the passage of so many feet over so many decades. The few steps that connected the meditation hall to the courtyard were cut from single logs, their tops worn into shallow, graceful curves.
In most of my memories it was still dark when we finished and stepped out of the hall – my legs were aching and the air was chilly. Our task after meditation was to wash the porch and the steps leading up to it. The monk would bring out a pail of warm water and a cloth for each of us, and I remember how luscious the warm water felt as I dipped the rag into it.
Washing is too strong a word for what we were asked to do. The wood was never dirty, because visitors removed their shoes before placing a foot upon it. What we did was more like wiping, or caressing. While so many of my memories have gone blurry, I still have vivid memories of pushing that cloth across the silken ancient wood of that porch. I can still see the gleam of water beading on the wood as I pushed a cloth down the length of a plank. It was mesmerizing.
For all the hours of meditating I did in the meditation hall, it was only while washing the porch and stairs that I fell into that much sought after space of clarity that I had come to the temple in search of – that space when your mind opens and perceives only what is coming in the windows of your senses without burdening it with anything from within.
It was brief – or at least I think it was. I’m not sure. It was like a small bird that flashes into view, captures your attention and then is gone. A wren, and it vanished when the monk hit the massive bronze bell to signal an end to the task.
I don’t know if washing the temple was supposed to be part of the training. I never asked and the monk never said anything.
All this leads up to this winter when my mother walked up the final steps on Christmas morning. I was able to spend three weeks with her before she left, and we were fortunate that she had a relatively gentle passing. Over the time I was there she lost her interest in food and started sleeping more and more of the day.
I spent many hours just sitting by her side as she slept in a recliner or wheelchair. I often held her hand, which was covered in age spots and creased in wrinkles. If you’ve ever held the hand of a very elderly person you realize that their skin is not rough like tree bark but soft and delicate as a baby bird. Spending all that time with my mother gave me a lot of time to think, and my mind wandered back to Ryuunji, the curiously quiet monk, the wren of enlightenment that landed briefly in my mind, and the bronze bell that ended our time there every morning.
I wrote the first poem, ‘steps’ with six stanzas of six lines for the Buddhist idea of six perfections – generosity, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. After that I wanted to rewrite the poem to have 108 words, a particularly important number in Zen Buddhism that represents the 108 temptations everyone must pass through before reaching nirvana. Though the experience was the same, the rewrite ended differently. So now they are two poems, two meditations on fleeting experiences. The second poem, ‘the wren and the bell’ is below.
– Nelson Guda