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Archive for August 8th, 2017

The Woman at the Inn

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Painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The radiance serenely illuminates the whole vast universe…

–Zen Master Zhangzhou Xiucai

A woman ran the inn at a station on the pilgrimage route at Hara, a village under Mount Fuji. No one remembers her name, but she had a great awakening in her own kitchen. Her eyes looked directly at you, and she made up her own mind about things. Both men and women felt at ease in her company. Her turn of thought was practical and she liked to cook, clean, sew, and do. Every year she salted plums. She made vinegar out of persimmons from her old trees. She cut up radishes and cucumbers and put them in pickle jars, adding vinegar, spices, and seaweed that she gathered. She enjoyed the smell of rice cooking and the vigor of steam. In autumn there were pears; in late autumn, chestnuts.

Light seeped through the paper windows, the old brown wood wrapped around her like the fabric of a well-worn kimono, and she was happy. This was the point of being human, she thought—to have her hands inside the world, moving its colors and shapes. Her children grew and her life unfolded, placid, then shocking, then placid again. A son died of tuberculosis, a daughter sang beautifully. When travelers tied on their sandals in the mornings, they departed into the stories they had come from, and sometimes she longed to step into a story herself. Her thoughts went out to Edo, as Tokyo was then called, and even to Holland, home of the foreigners who were allowed only onto an island in the harbor of Nagasaki to trade.

One year there was a cold spell and the life she had known began passing from her like autumn leaves. She didn’t know why—perhaps her older children growing up and leaving home left a void, perhaps there was no reason. In any case, the plum blossoms stepped back behind an invisible barrier so that they didn’t pierce her heart that year. Slights enraged her; she woke fuming in the small hours. When a guest asked for a small service she told her, “Get it yourself.” Her husband worried about soldiers breaking down the doors, and about a killing at another station up the road, but she was inclined to laugh. Sometimes she felt so much that she could hardly breathe. Her husband thought it might be grief over the loss of their son. But it wasn’t grief. If she had known a spell to undo her pains, she wouldn’t have said it.

What she felt was not an accident. She had always known that sooner or later she would have to face such a moment. She knew about the poet Basho, a wanderer who walked the Tokaido Road fifty years before. When she opened one of his books, the first thing she read was a poignant account. Basho had come upon a two-year-old running along the highway in distress, crying and hungry. The child’s family couldn’t feed another mouth and had turned him loose until his life should vanish like the dew. Basho wrote, “I threw him some food from my sleeve as I passed,” and he wrote this poem too—as a gravestone:

You’ve heard a monkey shriek—
for this abandoned child,
what is the autumn wind like?

The poem released something in the innkeeper. She hugged her breast and felt the cry in her own body. She thought that although she didn’t want to go down the road her guests took, a journey was definitely called for. As she went about her work she listened for a voice, a direction.

The inn had one treasure, a piece of calligraphy with the character for long life, given to someone by the local Zen teacher, an eccentric named Hakuin. The writing was beautiful though amazingly rough, and she felt alive when she looked at it. “The person who understands that roughness,” she thought, “might know what is happening to me.” When she went to hear the old man the hall was packed, and he made her laugh. It turned out that he was famous, though not, apparently, pious. She began meditating a bit, sitting and breathing, or concentrating on washing the endless dishes that made up an innkeeper’s life. This meditation didn’t seem to be a new direction but perhaps it was a condition for a new direction. She found a little more space between her thoughts, the trees began to step near again, and she calmed down for a while. But she knew that it was a temporary lull and that her journey, not yet begun, waited inside her.

Hakuin’s talks were a mixed bag. They confused her, she went to sleep, she grew sullen and argumentative. Her skin itched. Hakuin gave advice to great ladies and local lords, to samurai, fishermen, and rice planters. But it didn’t sound like advice. He said things like, “Straightaway, the rhinoceros of doubt fell down dead, and I could hardly bear my joy.” He had a lot of experiences like that. Sometimes he talked as roughly as a soldier and ranted about something that annoyed him—a rival teacher, say. He had a high-flying mode too, and one thing he said went straight to her heart. “They say there’s a pure land where everything is only mind, and that there’s a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees, and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then what should you be looking out for? When you are looking for something that is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? When you are looking for the Buddha of infinite light in your own body, how would you recognize it?”

The Buddha of light wasn’t interesting to Hakuin’s funding sources, but he was someone the poor country people prayed to for a good rice harvest, for freedom from bandits, for children and grandchildren, and for lower taxes. For the innkeeper, the words were spoken just to her. She said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.” She had finally discovered a wish that had been secret even from herself. She wasn’t confused any longer, and she didn’t try to think through what Hakuin meant; she just wanted to spend time with the koan.

She told her family, “I feel that happiness is as near as my skin,” and she brought Hakuin’s words to mind when she was awake and even during sleep. “Inside your own heart. Trees shine with a great light.” The words accompanied her everywhere. Her husband asked if she had become a fanatic, but she wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “This isn’t about you,” she muttered, and he knew that she was right. After that, he tried not to get in the way and to help unobtrusively. He hoped that she would find what she was looking for.

Meanwhile, if the trees emanated a light she certainly couldn’t see it. But gradually she began to feel a connection with the things around her—a wooden rice bucket quivered with life, the doorway made a perfect doorway. At birth she had been given a doll, made just for her and, as a child, she believed that her doll danced at night. She could never catch it dancing, but in the morning it was more alive. The rice bucket was like that; whenever she looked, it had just stopped dancing. This connection wasn’t really a light, but wasn’t not a light either.

One day as she was washing a pot, she had a breakthrough. Breaking through into what, into where? She had washed thousands of pots, but her life was in this one. She was just scrubbing, actually, when she completely forgot herself, forgot her chapped hands and her wet clothes and what kind of thoughts she was having. There are dreams so deep that on waking the dreamer can’t at first remember her name or where she is. Or even what she is. It was like that for her: the walls, the bowls, and her own hands were utterly strange and new. The moment had no end, and she didn’t know which of her worlds was the dream.

She saw daylight coming out of the bottom of the pot and reasoned carefully to herself that this couldn’t be true. The sunlight wasn’t just in the pot; when she looked around, everything was bright: the paper screens, the tatami mat floor, the sound of a harness jingling outside, the smell of daylight. That was the particular feature of her change of heart—she saw things glowing with light. It was as if they had a song of their own, and that song was light. She began to laugh and couldn’t hold it back. Her youngest child came in to stare at her enthusiastically, wondering if she had gone mad. But the woman’s laughter set her moving out of the kitchen at a run. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She couldn’t wait to tell someone who understood. By the time she got to his place she had settled into a jog. Hakuin happened to be sitting on the steps outside his room, looking at nothing in particular. As soon as she saw him, she began waving her arms. As if words would bridge the gap that was still to be covered, she shouted, “Hey!” and started babbling.

“I’ve met Buddha in my own body—everything is shining with a great light! It’s fabulous!” It occurred to her then, as she ran, that she could test each thing she saw against her happiness. She could test digging the ground on a cold morning and the happiness was there. She could test her sorrow over her lost child, and when she did, she felt the warmth of her love for him, and then his life seemed complete. Brightness fell about her. She tested an angry soldier. Fine. She tested a dark, bent cypress. Each thing she saw had become perfect, and without flaw. She looked at Hakuin’s face, and saw the creases of age along with the amusement that often seemed close to the surface with him. The light was in him too. She danced with joy.

Hakuin had the general attitude, “If you’ve seen one enlightenment, you’ve seen them all,” but he liked what was irrepressible, including this woman. He stopped looking at nothing in particular. She felt him open to her and meet her delight with his. He came straight at her, “Is that so? But what about a pit of shit—does it also shine with a great light?”

She jumped up and down like a child. A test! A test! It was the test she had just given herself. “Of course, of course,” she thought, “even shit gives off light, there is nothing that doesn’t And he pretends that he doesn’t see.” She enjoyed Hakuin’s mind so much that she went up to him and slapped him and said, “You still don’t get it, you old fart.” Her thoughts were not really thoughts; they just appeared without her intending them. They formed themselves a little like this: “I see you, I see you. So, does my slap give off light?”

Hakuin roared with laughter.

***

Do you notice whether you can see the light in the most ordinary of places. Can you find the light in your own kitchen? Can you find it in your own body? Where is the light in your own face? At what point in your life are you certain that there is no light? Is it painful to hold that belief?

Hakuin’s question about the pile of shit is just a version of, “Can you bear to be this happy?” And, “Can you find this beauty in all circumstances? Or, is there instead some part of your life that you think of as a pit of shit, a place where you never expect to meet happiness?”

— John Tarrant

Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2017 at 9:22 pm