Thursday, August 30, 2012

Living things, small and great.

Are these mouse droppings?... Hmm... “And the toilet is in the hall.” Yes, they definitely look like mouse droppings... “Take a futon and a blanket from the closet in the other room.” Oh, dear. There are more droppings over there... “Take your time. Lunch is at 12. If you want you can come and sit with us.” “Yes, thank you. When are you sitting?” “We are sitting soon. The next session is in 10 minutes.” “I'll come at the following session.” “Take your time.”
As soon as the monk left me, my little room shattered the idyllic image of a nine-day stay at a Zen monastery.
The gorgeous Japanese house that had welcomed me with its garbled gate, its luscious moss garden, its stone basin, on the inside was an old mouse trap with floors caving in under my feet (Oh my gosh, between the tatami floor and the outside there is... nothing, just some rotting pieces of wood). The room to which the monk had taken me was a 4-tatami room, with a dusty calligraphy scroll hanging in the tokonoma, uncountable mouse droppings, a happy colony of imperturbable bugs relaxing along the windowpane, and two old pieces furniture: a western style sideboard and what was left of an old Japanese shelf. The sideboard belonged more in a dining room than in the guesthouse of a Japanese monastery and the beaten up Japanese shelf hid behind its unhinged doors the washi that once wrapped the light-bulb in the ceiling. The panels of the outer walls of my cell had cracks from which I could see the outside garden, a clever and environment friendly ventilation system. 
Besides the 4-tatami room there were two larger rooms, one of which had an amazing and dusty veranda facing the mossy garden. I went scouting. The entire house was constituted of two buildings connected by a wooden passageway open on a more secluded corner of the garden. This passageway hosted the washing area and the toilet. The washing area was only a sink installed in the center of the passageway and had no privacy of sort (at least not of the kind a Westerner is accustomed to, a clear proof that in Japan barriers and walls are a thing of the mind). The sink was lined with white tiles now chipped and tarnished and it had two faucets wrapped in black masking tape, one for cold and one for frozen water. Its best feature, however, was the two dozen insects - flies, mosquitoes and huge spiders - lying dead on it. The toilet was a surprise and a disappointment. I was expecting a Japanese style toilet, as befitting such an old and run down building, instead it had an electronic seat, one of those devices with multiple buttons and knobs that clean you, warm your cheeks in the cold of winter and, if you find the right button, sing you a lullaby. 
I ventured inside the other building. It looked abandoned and, if possible, even more ran down than the one I was to lodge in. With a sigh of relief I realized it was empty. No sign of a shower in neither one of the two building. Weird place, I thought. I’m not making any bed; I’m not unpacking. I’ll go for the next sitting session and then leave after lunch. Forget nine days of peace of mind…
I walked back to the monastery in haste.
The monk and the other guest were already sitting on their zabuton lined along the veranda outside the Butsuden, facing the dry garden. He quickly stood up and showed me mine and told me I was to sit there for all of my stay at the monastery, next to a lovely American college student at the end of her year abroad. He went back to his spot at the head of the row.

The first of the two bell rings signaling the start of the zazen session came faster than I wished. I still needed to adjust to my sitting position for meditation. Too bad. Another delicate tinkle fluttered in the air. Now it was really late, from now I couldn’t move without disturbing my fellow meditators. Since I was thinking to leave after these 20 minutes (which in reality were 40) I hadn’t bothered changing into the loose clothes I had brought with me and now my jeans were too tight. Almost immediately I felt the discomfort of my legs; quickly every limb started aching; a sudden need to scratch my ear; a fly on my neck. Why are the birds chirping so loudly? How can you sit here quietly while mice are already going through all your stuff in your backpack? How many frogs are in the pond? Does my belly button sweat always this way or is it just today? Then a thought surfaced in my mind, a memory from other meditation sessions: acknowledge these thoughts and let them go.
A voice in my head said my back was in real pain, it wasn’t just a thought. Cramps do not exist, are just a feeling. Straighten your spine! But it aches… Breathe gently! Do you mean a yogic breathing or there is a different way of breathing? Stop thinking about all these external things! OK, I’ll move my toes just once, the monk won’t see me. How about the girl? She’s sitting with her eyes half closed – Why did you turn your head, idiot? - and even if she sees me move she won’t say anything.
And then suddenly a chirp among the branches of the maple across our dry garden; a frog jumped in the pond next to the small shrine; a voice from one of the houses of the hamlet. No, I’m not going anywhere.
No matter how weird, uncomfortable or unpleasant things will be, I’m not going anywhere.