Saturday, July 11, 2015

Straw brooms

Gio-Ji, Kyoto

I just completed a three-day trip to Kyoto, during which we visited several important Zen temples. This is not my first trip to Japan, but it is the first one wholly for recreational purposes; and it did not disappoint.

One thing that becomes more and more noticable to me, visiting various religious sites, is how domesticated forms make a practice. Practice ought to be more like a wild animal, unattached to a single place and time, able to penetrate the nooks and crannies of life in all its manifestations and varieties; yet form limits and tames it. As soon as there is a place to practice—no matter how beautiful or appropriate it is—practice somehow gets glued down, groomed and turned out so that it looks its best. It’s true at Chartres; it’s true at Tenryu-ji and Ginkaku-ji.

We can love and marvel at these places as we visit them; and they can instruct—yes, they can. Yet they are shadowed by the perpetual danger of becoming spiritual versions of Disneyland. They are tamed places; and as we domesticate our practices, they may give milk, but they loose their teeth. The wild hairs of life can’t be clipped off and stuffed in ornate jars; they have to be allowed to let the wind blow through them.

The Zen temples I visited were a little too perfect, too manicured, too ordered; it was only when I got to the relatively remote, quiet, and somewhat ramshackle temple of Gio-ji, where the moss grows bullfrog-green in profusion, that I began to sense some of that unfathomable contemplative wildness that every temple ought, I think, to cultivate. The trees gave up deep shadows here; the building was tiny, even humble, its low-slung thatched roof a thing of subtle inner witchery. You could taste the mystery; and this was precisely what was missing from the polished perfections of its greater and more famous cousins.

That mystery is preserved and accentuated by the demand; a healthy hike up hillsides and through deep bamboo forest, which imparts antcipation if one gets there early in the morning, before the crowds do (rest assured, they’re there for the bamboo, not these unassuming little temples.) One enters through a narrow, darkened set of small steps; and nothing here smacks of grooming, even when one encounters two acerbic, briskly practical old ladies crouched over the moss, straw brooms crisply whisking off the errant leaf or two.

They’re part of the landscape, the life of the place; and one senses an eternal nature to their presence. I’ve never thought of sweeping off moss; yet here, what could be more entirely natural? It’s this soft ground floor of life itself that creates the magic here; the building, the women, we ourselves- perhaps unnecessary. Interlopers, like the random thoughts that so persistently distract me from my own inherent presence.

Domesticated in ten thousand ways, I still want my inner life untamed; and something in me years for that outwardly as well, in a place just one—perhaps two—steps past all these forms I have no choice but to submit to.


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