Japan Stories - ART'S STORY
Written right after it happened (in 1990) as a letter and rewritten and edited over the next four years.--------tiny bit edited and put on site 6/27/04
March 28, 1990
Elin and I were peddling along on our way home from Japanese class one warm, early spring day when she heard someone yelling my name. She got my attention and we stopped to check. Fifty yards in front of us a tall, lanky Westerner was standing by the open door to a taxi that was waiting in the middle of the busy street. He was waving his arms and still calling my name. We rode up to him and stopped. It was Art. I didn't know he was coming. I also didn't know he was Art even after he walked up to me. It had been eight years.
"Hello David," he said.
"Hi," I said back.
"Do you remember me?"
"Maybe," I answered, "Who are you?"
"Oh, Art! Of course! I didn't recognize you with your beard. Uh, Elin, this is Art, an old friend who's grown a beard."
They greeted each other while I gave instructions to the taxi driver who had pulled over and was patiently waiting.
Elin and I rode like dervishes on our bikes, trying to beat him home. When we got there, his bag was at our door but he was not. We went right to him though. I had a hunch where he'd be. He'd already found the wonderful mellow garden next door behind the temple and was sitting cross-legged under an enormous weeping cherry tree which would soon be in bloom.
He spent a couple of days talking, eating and going places with us when we weren't busy teaching English. Art is, appropriately, an artist who had been around Zen Center for years but who was now living in the countryside somewhere in Connecticut that was not too far from New York City. He had just done an installation of one of his pin screens with lights and computer controls in Fukuoka. He showed us examples of lots of other pin screen art, sculpture, photographs, pottery, and paintings. He sat two mornings and two evenings with the monks and students at the temple next door. He fit in well with their gung-ho spirit.
We had a great time with Watanabe on the day before Art left. Hojo-san was funny and charming as he usually is with guests and he showed interest in Art's portfolio. He made all of us thick matcha tea and served up a prized local bean cake while Art told him of his life and practice of doing his projects, sitting three hours a day and attending Vipassana meditation retreats which lasted up to three months. Hojo-san was impressed and somewhat surprised that Art could mix the New York art scene and zazen so well. He invited Art to come back anytime and join in the temple's practice for as long as he could. He gave Art one of his works of calligraphy which he did on the spot. The character on it meant "to penetrate." Art thanked Hojo-san for sharing his temple with outsiders so thoughtfully and gave him a photograph of one of his sculptures.
Art and I stayed up late on the night before he left. We reminisced about the past, about experimental music, performance art and far out comrades from San Francisco. We talked about Japan and our experiences there. He told one memorable story. It all started in a lovely garden in the back of a Kyoto temple.
Art loves to go to Buddhist temples and when he does he usually meditates in their gardens - like he did when at our house. To him temples are houses of meditation. That is an historically justified point of view as well as being occasionally true in the present but it's mainly something an idealistic foreigner would think. Art had been in Kyoto for a few days earlier in the week and had spent most of his time visiting temples. He'd go to a temple, walk around taking it in and soon he'd look for a peaceful place and he'd sit there for a spell. Then he'd go to another temple and repeat the procedure. He is a meditating fiend. It never has once occurred to me to do zazen for the heck of it at a temple I was visiting. Usually I look at the scrolls, the architecture, the gardens, walk around and maybe sit on a deck swinging my legs. But it occurs to Art. He was at a large temple complex, checking out various subtemples. He went to one with a lovely garden that he walked around in for a while until he came to rest at the edge of a deck.
He pulled himself up, crossed his legs and started doing zazen. People came through now and then but they didn't disturb him, nor he them. They probably thought, Oh, there's another weird foreigner. He sat there for over an hour, his eyes slightly open and his gaze fixed ahead but not focused. At some point, a bird flew down to the ground at the base of the garden wall and started pecking. That caught Art's attention. He started to look around and noticed that there was an open gate in this wall. He further saw that there was a monk standing near that gate. The monk was looking at him. Art sat there and looked back.
Then the monk lifted his hand and beckoned Art to come. Slowly Art rose from his meditation posture and slipped his feet into his sandals which were below him on a rock at the edge of the deck. The monk waited as Art weaved his way around the moss, rocks and trees on the path to the other side. Approaching the monk, he saw that his face was kind. He looked to be in his late fifties and was stocky. His head was freshly shaved. They bowed together in the shade by the wall at the edge of the garden. Then the mysterious stranger motioned for Art to go before him through the gate and closed it softly behind them. They were now on the rear grounds of another temple. It was less tended and more natural. Leaves had not been raked in a while. There was a fallen branch and some white underwear, kimono and socks hanging over a bamboo pole in a sunny spot.
Art followed the silent monk through the trees and past a round rusted upside down bathtub. They walked around a smoking metal drum that smelled of burning leaves and plastic bags. At the back of an old dark wood temple, they ascended steps on the side that led to a long deck, took off their shoes and entered through sliding shoji screens running the length of the outer walkway. The boards creaked like a nightingale's singing, an old built-in ploy from less secure times to warn of intruders. Inside it was darker, only lit by daylight filtering through the shoji and the high latticework. The two stood on a wooden floor that surrounded a large central area covered with tatami. The tatami was bordered by raised dark boards. There was the subtle otherworldly smell of incense and the earthly odor of tatami straw. No one else was there.
The monk walked onto the tatami - Art followed. They stood before the altar and looked at the Buddha figure, surrounded by ornamentation and the forms of two bearded ancestors. The monk then walked around to the back of the altar. It was darkest there. He signaled for Art to wait. He walked off and came back soon with zabuton and zafu. He spread the two wide zabuton out and put two round zafu on top of them. They sat on the cushions and crossed their legs. He reached over and checked Art's spine and pushed his back forward an inch. He rocked back and forth in ever decreasing swings until he was perfectly upright. Art did the same. The monk put his hands together at his chest and made a pulling motion down to his lower abdomen and patted it firmly, grunting as he did so and thus indicating where the strength of one's zazen, breath and concentration must reside. Art put his attention on this area and relaxed, breathing deeply and slowly, yet naturally.
The monk uncinched his waist cord and indicated to Art to follow suit. Art undid his belt and loosened the top button of his pants, something he didn't feel was necessary because he wore fairly loose clothes. The monk shook his head and showed Art how loose his own clothes were at the waist. Art zipped his pants down put his hands back together, left hand on right and thumbs almost touching and forming an oval. They sat together and breathed together in the dark of the temple behind the statue of Buddha sitting but not noticeably breathing with them. It was quiet, very quiet. The loudest noise was the sound of pigeons outside on the temple grounds.
Yet the monk didn't just sit there. It would have been quite sufficient to do so as far as Art was concerned. The older man reached over, gently grabbed one of Art's hands, put it on his lower abdomen and let it rest there. Art continued to do zazen but now with the example of this veteran meditator's strength of hara. He thought this monk's technique of teaching was unusually direct. The monk continued his teaching style, putting his hand on Art's abdomen, apparently to check his breathing out. Then they put their hands back in the customary mudra and sank into sitting.
While the streets of Kyoto bustled with traffic and the people of Japan's ancient capitol hurried about, Art felt the calm in this temple amidst temples on the edge of the old metropolis. As pigeons cooed in the afternoon, Art felt the depth of his breath and could hear the breathing of his dharma friend. He felt the presence and wisdom of the surrounding architecture and gardens. He felt the supporting tradition of centuries speaking to him through the very building that enclosed them. He felt his breath moving in and out. And then, as he was sitting there feeling calm and good, Art felt a hand slide down and close around his penis.
Art's a big guy with a thirst for truth and a passion for the paths of wisdom. He goes for art with a small "a," movies, good wine and song, caring friends, the company of men and women on the path and off. But in all his innocence and openness, he did not like to have this monk's hand on his penis. It seemed inappropriate to him. It made him uncomfortable.
Many followers of the way have shared their bodies with each other, enjoying society's sanction or not, sometimes in confusion and sometimes in delight. It has been the subject of much debate. But Art had no second thoughts. He wasn't about to do any sexual sharing with this fellow, and he had a truly yogic way of communicating. He just sat there, followed his breath and let the guy fondle him in vain - for Art remained unmoved and flaccid in spite of this tempter's low intentions.
Finally the monk gave up. Probably disappointed, maybe embarrassed, he withdrew his hand from Art's pants and stood up. Art continued to ignore him and kept on sitting with his eyes cast down. The rejected monk walked off.
I would have bolted out of that place and into the crowded streets, but not Art. He just went on sitting.
It started getting dark. He heard a scurrying about of feet on tatami and hushed male Japanese voices speaking in short spurts. Outside, a bell was being hit at intervals of about once a minute and its ring was soft and penetrating. Low intensity lights were on but it was still dark where he sat. He uncrossed his legs and, after a moment of massaging them, arose, kneeled back down and fluffed his cushion into shape and then walked carefully to the edge of the shadows where he could see two young monks preparing the altar. It was time for evening service.
As the bell continued to sound, more monks arrived and stood on either side of the altar. After another five minutes there were about a dozen of them standing with their hands held together at their chests in shashu. From another room came the high pitched ring of a small bell. Art peered toward the opening across the room and saw a procession of three approaching. One monk held incense and one held the bell, while the third was clad in a purple outer robe. Surely he was the abbot. Art wondered if the boss knew what was going on in his own temple, but then he thought that he shouldn't judge the whole place by one experience with one monk.
The priest in the purple robe standing between his attendants bowed deeply bending at the altar as a bell began a roll down. The two attendants turned and walked to the rear as the priest backed up slowly. He prepared to make his three bows to the floor on the zagu, which he was unfolding. He stood now unobscured in the center of the room. Art looked at him and then looked again more closely and was transfixed. For what he saw was not only the obvious spiritual leader of this temple but also the very monk who had slid his hand into my unsuspecting friend's loosened pants.
Art watched the service and listened to the drones and overtones of the chanting monks. Before they were done, he stepped out unnoticed though the deck chirped with each step. He quickly jumped off and made his way in the twilight down the clean stone walk by an immaculately tended and austere garden to the front gatehouse. All was carefully raked and meticulously pruned to impress the public which would visit on the morrow. Art quietly unlatched the gate and slipped outside.
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