The Taiko drum starts. Thump thump thump. The chanting begins, a breakneck liturgy in an insistent monotone. The timpani accentuates. Clang clang clang. It’s 5:30 in the too-early morning as I roll out of my warm futon, grabbing a blanket to wrap around me as I stumble to the prayer room for meditation. Jiho the monk, resplendent in his dark-blue Rinzai robe, is seated to the right of the altar, eyes closed, chin tucked. Words like waves crashing and receding, tumbling and caressing. Sutras for the morning devotion: listen to me as I have this to tell you oh Buddha oh world.
I add a small prayer: please bring me warmth, please bring me peace of mind, please bring me clarity. I’m not sure who I’m praying to. I do know I’ve traveled 15,296 miles to find answers to questions that were unanswerable at home.
I’m staying at a 600-year-old Zen Buddhist temple on Saganoseki peninsula on the island of Kyushu, Japan. From March through December, the temple opens to those who want to experience a monk’s life. The rambling wooden structure offers four guest rooms, each with a futon and a cushion on the tatami-covered floor. A shared bathhouse offers a shower and a large onsen tub with heated water. The back part consists of Jiho the monk’s private quarters. In front is a large country kitchen.
For exactly thirty minutes, Jiho thumps, clangs, and chants, barely taking a breath. He stops abruptly after an especially fervent intonation. The silence is profound. He rises and comes to the front of the altar, lights an incense stick and jabs it into an urn filled with sand and the ashes of countless incense already burnt. He bows to the altar with hands clasped, swivels on his heels, and takes his seat facing us. He claps two wooden kaishaku sticks together three times. He rings a brass inkin bell three times, pauses, and rings again.
The hour of silent meditation has begun. I settle and breathe, try to find the space between the in and out.
At exactly 7:00, the clappers clack twice and the bell rings. The monk stands and bows. He smiles and gives samu instructions—mindful chores for the morning. Dazed and quiet, I plod to the large kitchen. The weary wall unit struggles to blow out warmth as I huddle over steaming cups of tea, thankful not to see my breath anymore. No food. Jiho practices the Nishi Health System, which requires sixteen hours of fasting a day.
The kitchen offers warmth and togetherness. My second night in, Jiho made a large batch of dough and asked Lucinda from Los Angeles if she wanted to do the honors of flattening it. He placed newspapers on the wooden floor, covered them with parchment paper, and plopped down the dough covered with more parchment paper. Lucinda started stomping, waving her arms like a flamenco dancer, red toenails glinting from the setting sun slanting through the window. After several minutes, her forehead was gleaming. She stopped and glanced at Jiho, who was squinting at the dough. He shook his head and the dance continued. Finally, he nodded. Soon we were slurping up perfect udon noodles.
With bellies full and the kitchen steamy and warm, Lucinda shared her story: a man she loves cheats on her. Always, she takes him back. Always, he begs. He can’t live without her, he says. But he also can’t be faithful. She came here for strength.
At least she knows what she must do. I’m here to figure things out.
Call it a late-life crisis. I had married at thirty-seven, had my first child at thirty-eight and began a business at forty-five. The business was now successful and ready for a buyer, the child was an adult, and my marriage had settled into dull familiarity. Several trips to Germany to visit family had kindled a desire in me to move back to the country I left as a child, to begin what was sure to be the last phase of my life. But was I also sure that I was ready to give up what had been a fulfilling life for twenty-five years to start a new one? I needed to be alone to get at the answer.
In a land far away and a day in the future.
I head to the garden to pull weeds. They are thick around the fence line and I’ve been plucking away, determined to clear the tangle that no one else thought important. They consist mostly of grasses encroaching from outside the chicken-wire fence, with a clear determination to get into the space where they are not welcome. They stop about a foot inside, barely brushing the walking path. Today I realize that my attempts here are as futile as so many others in my life: the weeds at the fence line are insignificant to the true function and harmony of the garden with its tidy rows of vegetables lined up in the clumpy reddish-brown soil. In striving for perfection—my perception of what I want—I’m missing what’s important.
I hear voices and look up to see Jiho and a tall, blonde-haired woman heading my way. Her name is Marieke from the Netherlands; she has been traveling for three months. She is dressed in a heavy wool coat and a pair of shearling snow boots. I remark on the wisdom of her outfit and she laughs and says she needs desperately to wash clothes. But yes, she was glad to have her warm clothes when her trip started in December, in a yurt on a Mongolian prairie. Later, as she is hanging her washed clothes on the outside line, we chat.
Like Lucinda, she is putting distance between herself and a boyfriend. The relationship is going nowhere and needs to end, but she can’t seem to just do it. She took an extended leave from her job, packed her rucksack and left the apartment they share, looking for a natural resolution. The mind and heart are at odds with each other. Love isn’t enough. She wants marriage and children; he doesn’t. She hopes this trip will give her the strength to walk away without regrets.
On the other hand, I have those very things she wants and feel like I need more. Fairy tales end with the princess being swept off her feet by the prince…and they live happily ever after. The stories never continue, because, after the flush of adoration, the magical becomes commonplace. A story not worthy of a fairy tale. But it can be a story worth telling: the giddiness can turn into comfort and the swooning can turn into companionship. Love has many forms. All we need is the right perspective.
During meditation on the fourth morning I am deeply sad and can’t stop shaking. Jiho’s chanting rises and falls as I settle on my cushions and throw a blanket over my head. Tears begin to leak out of my scrunched eyes. I’m helpless to stop them, and keep my head bowed as waves of anguish wash over me again and again. Time has stopped. Gravity has quadrupled. I’m heavy and floating at the same time, stripped of all thought. The Me that I know so well has been replaced by a form that is cold and empty. It’s stripped of all vanity, leaving a bare face, uncombed hair, mismatched clothes. The confident woman who wanted to be alone is now profoundly lonely. The eyes that were always looking ahead into what could be, now see only emptiness.
Home. On the fifth day of my two-week stay, I want nothing more than to go home, to my husband and son and the life we have made together. And I know this with absolute clarity. I call Delta and change my return flight, leaving in three days. Jiho nods wisely when I tell him. He arranges a train ride back to Fukuoka, where I will fly out of. The flight is early morning, so I book a hotel room for the day before.
I spend that day touring this venerable city which is in its annual Sakura celebration: Maizuru Park, home to the ruins of Fukuoka Castle, and Nishi Park, are resplendent in pink cherry blossoms. The parks are humming with festivities. Families stake out a spot on the lawns to eat and play. Food vendors are lined from end to end; young people dressed in anime costumes fill the walkways flirting and laughing. The sun is out and temperatures are up.
A cherry tree in full bloom is one of the most glorious examples of impermanence. Lasting at best two weeks, its beauty is breathtaking. But soon the blossoms begin to fall in great drifts. It is a reminder that life’s moments are fleeting. I stand under a deep pink crown, dappled sunlight tapping on my face, neck and arms, and text my husband to let him know I am cutting my retreat short. He answers: just come home.
BIO: Maddie Lock is a retired business partner turned writer. She has been published in numerous journals and is currently finishing up a memoir. A longer version of this essay was published in Gravel Mag on 1/19/2018.
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